By William Brand
Wednesday, November 7th, 2007 at 8:07 pm in Uncategorized.
Just got back from New Orleans. I was blown away by the devastation still very visible – in the physical buildings and in the faces and I guess the souls of the many folks from New Orleans I met.
Must have been like that here at the 1906 earthquake. Anyway, I devoted my weekly column to New Orleans and the 100th anniversary of Dixie Beer (which is why I made the trip). Here it is:
WILLIAM BRAND: WHAT’S ON TAP
Even Katrina can’t wash away Dixie spirit
Want to help New Orleans rebuild? One tiny way might be to hoist a glass of Dixie beer tonight or sometime soon and toast the Big Easy.
Let me explain: In 2005, as everyone knows, Hurricane Katrina, the flooding and the rampant looting that followed brought this historic, raucous city to its knees. There were many losses: Nearly 2,000 people died; whole sections of the city were leveled; businesses destroyed. One of the casualties was Dixie Brewing.
Full disclosure here: I got a free trip to New Orleans last week along with a number of other journalists to take part in the 100th anniversary of Dixie Brewing on Halloween. It was a party marked by irony. Colored lights and bunting and outrageous costumes masked the rubble and destruction underfoot.
There hasn’t been a Dixie beer made here since the day before the hurricane. After two years of trauma, the owners cut a deal with Minhas Craft Brewery, the former Joseph Huber Brewing, Monroe, Wis., to make Dixie under contract, while plans are made to rebuild in New Orleans. The first new Dixie beers are just arriving in New Orleans and at key places around the Untied States, including the Bay Area.
Another positive sign: Distinguished Brands International, the importer of Fuller’s from England, has signed on to market Dixie outside New Orleans.
But the rebuilding in New Orleans, at this point, looks iffy indeed.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The story of Dixie Brewing’s a sweet saga — a kind of New Orleans, “in-your-face, brudda” tale in a city that’s seen its share of heartache from the Civil War onward. Dixie, founded in 1907, was famous for its picture-book solid-copper brew kettle and an unusual, impressive row of fermenters made from solid cypress, harvested from the swamps and bayous outside New Orleans. But Dixie, faced with ferocious competition, was stumbling into un-gentle decline and the future looked grim.
Then, in 1985, Joe Bruno, a Brooklyn-born hotel developer, and his New Orleans-born wife, Kendra, bought the brewery with its landmark grain silos painted like Dixie Beer cans on the top of the five-story brewery. They set out to save it.
Caption: Kendra Bruno and Kevin Stuart on the roof of Dixie Brewing last week.
The Brunos struggled and invested and refurbished. They brought in a talented brewer, Kevin Stuart, a graduate of the UC Davis brewery science program. Even Jazz (**), the light beer they introduced, had a tiny bit of malty kick, thanks to the unusual addition of caramel barley malt.
And their new beer, Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager (***), was an honest, tasty, all barley malt, American version of a beer in the Marzen-Oktoberfest style. There was also Voodoo Crimson Ale (**), actually a dark lager, brewed at a warm temperature like an ale. They also made a bock fermented in those old cypress tanks. It was, well, it was interesting, Dixie fans said.
When Katrina struck, the Brunos evacuated and Stuart raced to his gulfside home in nearby Mississippi, where he found his house devastated by a wall of water.
Hurricanes happen on the gulf, and usually New Orleans doesn’t even blink. As we all know, this time was different.
Kendra Bruno said she had no idea what had happened to the brewery until her granddaughter called her into the living room. Look, she said, the brewery’s on TV. “We saw a boat floating down Tulane Avenue in front of the brewery,” Kendra, a diminutive, lively lady, said.
“There was 8 to 10 feet of water in the building,” Joe said. When they finally made it to the brewery a few days later, the first floor was filled with brackish, stinking water. Above the waterline, everything was intact, but covered with green slime. And the flooding was the good news.
As most of us watched on CNN, New Orleans, the majority of its police force gone, descended into chaos. Looters descended on Dixie Brewing. The Brunos and Stuart gave us a tour on Halloween. It looks like one of those World War II photos of bombed-out buildings. The entire building, floor after floor, was gutted.
Kendra showed us how looters cut that big copper brew kettle — the one that was so beautiful that Disney copied it for its brewpub at Disney World — into foot-square pieces and tossed them through smashed-out windows to looter salvagers waiting below.
Copper pipes, electrical conduits, brewery equipment, was chopped up, taken out and sold somewhere for scrap. The operation was so organized, Kevin said, that they used graffiti-like symbols scrawled on the walls to direct looters onward to more treasure.
Now, there’s nothing left; the building’s a hollow, rubble-strewn hell. We had to wear hard hats and coveralls to crawl through the ruins.
The last to go were those tall cypress fermenters. Antique, aged cypress is extremely valuable for everything from furniture to wall facing. Joe said he got to the brewery in time to save two; he has them hidden away. They found another at a salvage yard. But looters came back the next day and stole it again.
After the tour, the Brunos faced us and said with great determination that they will brew Dixie again in New Orleans. Joe estimated the cost at as much as $12 million.
His vision is a much smaller, compact, modern brewery on the first floor, with the rest of the very large building converted to condos and offices. He said he’s been approached by developers. Tulane Avenue looks bleak these days, but Banks Street at the rear of the brewery looks like a pleasant residential neighborhood well on its way to recovery from the flood.
The nearby Falstaff brewery, closed in the 1970s, is on its way to condo development. The old Jax brewery is now condos.
The rub for the Brunos is the brewery; prospective developers don’t want it, Joe Bruno said. But they’re determined to bring a brewery back, he said.
Still, things are shaky and nervous in this city known for its cheeky aplomb. People are still in shock, fighting off depression. Kendra Bruno, after cutting a large birthday cake baked to look like Dixie Brewing in its prime, shook her head in consternation. “I know I forgot to invite a lot of people,” she said. “We had been planning this party for a long time; but everything was here at the brewery. We lost the invitations. There’s no memorabilia, no history. All gone.”
But many guests, die-hard Dixie fans all, were uncertain about the brewery’s future. Typical were Louis Temento of New Orleans and his friend, Leslie Couvillion of Baton Rouge, each holding a bottle of Dixie and posing under a big Dixie beer sign pasted on a peeling brick wall, a wash of pink and violet theater lighting hiding the ruins.
Temento said he was a big Dixie fan. But asked to access the chances of a new brewery here, he was blunt: “I don’t think they have a prayer,” he said.
But the band played on, and Kendra Bruno, who said she was drawn to the brewery for its now-vanished signature copper kettle and those vanished Dixie Beer silos on the roof, offered a toast and an invitation. “Cheers,” she said. “And you’re all invited to the 200th birthday party.”
Was it a promise from the deck of the Titanic? Or will it happen? Only the future knows. In the meantime, let’s toast this tough, gallant city; hoist a Dixie, fingers crossed.
Reach William Brand at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 510-915-1180 and ask for his 2007 Retail Beer Store List or Good Pub List. Read more by Brand at http://www.beernewsletterRatings
***** World classic.
**** A real star; don’t miss it.
*** Very good; worth a try.
** Good beer; no defects.
* Don’t toss it; demand a refund.