Monday, January 16, 2012

New Orleans, Better Beer Than You'd Think

Audrey drinking a beer at Green Goddess.There are a handful of American cities that are regarded as hubs for good beer: I'd put Portland, San Diego, and Philadelphia all in that first tier. These days there are plenty of other places that have a few cool breweries, or a bunch of good bars, but there are still a lot of cities that are not known for their beer scene at all. New Orleans was one of those cities in my mind, sure they have Abita (brewers of a number of most mediocre beers) nearby, but I think of it as a town whose drinking scene is centered around college students slamming florescent colored hurricanes and hand grenades. I was expecting great food, so if I wasn't able to get a decent beer I'd survive (see our trip to Spain).

Before Audrey and I flew down for the extra-long weekend over New Years, I did a bit of research. There were a few more places than I expected in the BeerAdvocate database, and got some good suggestions from replies on Facebook and Twitter. However it is always hard to tell just how good places are when there isn't a huge amount of competition.

A row of beer at Stein's Market and Deli.We stayed near the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street at a small-cool-eclectic-odd bed and breakfast. The first day we walked around to get a feel for the neighborhood. The next day we took the St. Charles St. streetcar through the Garden District to Casamento's (delicious oyster loaf and stew, but painfully inattentive service).

After lunch we walked to NOLA Brewing, a smallish production brewery that opened a few years ago. We arrived in time for the weekly Friday tour. It turned out the tour consisted of drinking free beer and standing around the brewery. We only stuck around long enough to try one beer each before the line stretched out the door and around the corner, and we decided to move on. However, over our six days in town I got to try most of their beers with the Irish Channel Stout (more bitter and roasted than expected) being the winner.

From NOLA we headed to what I had been told was the best bottle shop in town, Stein's Market and Deli. Not a big place, but it was funny to see Cantillon and Fantôme in abundance, breweries that have become rare on the East Coast (and at prices I don't remember seeing in a couple years - $12.50 for Fantôme Saison?!). Other then a few local beers, they didn't carry much I can't find in DC besides a few Southern breweries like Sweetwater, St. Arnold, and Lazy Magnolia. Before we left we also grabbed a couple knishes and a pickle to snack on as we continued our walk.

Glass of at The Avenue Pub.With a few bottles in tow we continued east to The Avenue Pub, where we sat in their back courtyard. Another relatively new operation, it has a beer list that could stand up against many of the great beer bars in beer-cities. I had a glass of 3 Fonteinen (a funky porter) and Audrey had a glass of BFM Bon Chien (both were in good shape, although I was hoping for more sourness in the 3F). They had a number of local beers as well, but we figured we could find those at other bars or restaurants.

In general I was impressed that most places we went into had at least a couple local beers from places like Bayou Teche, Tin Roof, NOLA, and Abita. In particular we enjoyed d.b.a (live music and 30 taps), Green Goddess (brûléed, apple stuffed, French toast, and a smoked beer from Bayou Teche), Boucherie (best corned beef sandwich of my life, and a glass of Du Ciel Route Des Épices), and Cochon (braised pork cheeks, house cured meats and a Tin Roof Voodoo Bengal S.P.A). I think the single best thing we had to eat on the trip were the barbecued shrimp at Mr. B's Bistro, particularly the sauce which tasted like reduced shrimp stock, butter, and spices (the Abita Winter I had with it was the best beer I've had from them). I can't remember a single bad thing we ate on the entire trip, even the beignets at Cafe du Monde were excellent despite it being a tourist trap.

Old New Orleans Rum, a reminder of Katrina.Taking a break from eating (not to mention museums, a swamp tour, and shopping) we headed to the Old New Orleans Rum distillery for a tour (luckily the $10 includes both a tour-guide and samples). The tour started out with a cocktail (a not-too-sweet tea with Cajun spiced rum), and then proceeded into the history of the distillery (founded in 1995) and of rum production in general. The molasses is mixed with water and then open-fermented in a large vat by a few pounds of yeast (the taste of the wash was a bit sour, but otherwise inoffensive - sanitation isn't that important when you are going to distill). Once fermentation is complete the distillation begins in a pot still and then proceeds to a column still (repossessed from a French perfume maker). The bulk of their rum is sold unaged, but some is aged in used bourbon barrels for three years (some of the barrels are subsequently sold to a brewery that uses them to age their smoked porter). At the end of the tour we got small samples of all four of their products (including the 10 year aged version, barrels of which survived hurricane Katrina up in the rafters, above the eight feet of flooding they experienced - see the color change in the wood above the fan?).

Open fermentation for the rum wash.On our last night we met up with Sal, a homebrewer from across lake Pontchartrain who had emailed me a couple of time for advice. He suggested El Gato Negro for some fresh squeezed margaritas, which were excellent (I went with the pineapple-cilantro, Audrey had the satsuma). We talked about the beer scene and the local culture in general and swapped a couple homebrews. Sadly, I haven't had a chance to open either of the beers he gave me yet since I have been fighting off a cold for the last week. For the flight back I grabbed a muffaletta sandwich at Central Grocery (we'd tried to go around lunch on a previous day, but baulked at the line). Best dinner on a plane I've ever had.

Good beer, great food, fun trip. Not sure where we'll be headed next, but I need a trip to Belgium at some point (maybe a reward once the book is finally done...).


Fides said...

Interesting that you liked d.b.a. I was just down there but passed on it due to the less-than-flattering reviews on the aforementioned BeerAdvocate. Don't believe everything you read I suppose. The (positive) reviews of the other places were spot on though.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

d.b.a certainly wasn't a must-go, but if you want a decent beer and some music it is worth a stop.

Anonymous said...

In reference to your Cantillon and Fantome spotting, it's funny how the perception of value for something can vary so widely by geography. Here in Tokyo, where there is a significant interest in Belgian beer, Cantillon and Fantome still aren't that hard to find. Seems to be far less hording behavior here among beer afficionados.

I can get Cantillon Gueze, Framboise and Kriek very easily at a local gourmet grocer for ¥800-1000 for a small bottle. That's cheaper than a pint of an American west coast IPA at Craftheads in Shibuya. While I don't see the Fantome saison frequently at the stores, I can order it online and have it delivered to my house by tomorrow for about about ¥1750/750 ml bottle. And my regular source, is claiming 13 bottles in stock this minute. Apparently they also have 6 bottles of 2007 Cantillon Iris in stock for ¥2300 each. Is that worth picking up?

Your post reminds me I have been to NOLA since before Katrina. I should remedy that.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It wasn't too long ago that those beers were easy to come by on the East Coast, but it seems like their popularity has really shot up in the last year or two. Saw a bottle of Cantillon Mamouche as the store yesterday, $70 (if I hadn't had it before I would have been tempted).

Iris is certainly worth trying if you haven't, the only non-lambic Cantillon brews regularly. It is dry hopped, but still ages really well.

Always nice to know I can get a good beer if I make it to Japan. Haven't tried many of the Japanese brewers except Hitachino.

Anonymous said...

Both Belmont Station and John's Market in Portland OR have been out for some time. Anyone know why?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, out of Cantillon.

Mike said...

Abita's offerings that are everywhere aren't that great, but they do have lots of cask conditioned beers that I liked.

Thanks for sharing some of the places you found. I visited their last year and found a few good craft beer bars (or at least ones that had a few taps) and since I'm moving their later this year, I need more places to check out.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It seems like a combination of not as much coming in, and that creating more demand for what does make it. I have heard that Cantillon has increased production slightly, but maybe we have just work through the backlog of beer at distributors and warehouses from when sour beers weren't as popular.

Murray McCain said...

I live about 3.5 hours north of NOLA and have a love/hate relationship with the place. I hate how dirty it is... it really is perhaps the dirtiest city in America. However I love the feel of the city from the mansions along St. Charles to the quarter, and the surrounding districts. A fav. thing for people in my area (central MS) is to hop the Amtrak down and back for 3 day weekends. The food is amazing, period. There just isn't a better city to eat in in the US unless it's NYC (maybe San Fran challenges). Love my southern roots and NOLA is southern, creole, cajun, and more all wrapped up together. As for beer. One good thing about much of the spicy fair is a decent pale ale/IPA or even a good lager such as Andygator pairs quite well with most cajun/creole dishes.

Perhaps I'm a little ambivalent toward the NOLA beer scene being from the land of little craft beer and NO high gravity beer... aka beer-hell-Mississippi. FWIW I really dig Andygator and absolutely love Jackamo which is an earthy different kind of well bittered Am. IPA. Hope you tried the Jackamo while down there. Also the Bayou Teche smoked wheat beer is very nice and a new favorite of mine. However it's brewed at Lazy Magnolia in MS. I must also say Lazy Mag is a fine brewery, but is really hamstrung by the lack of beer culture in this state/region along with our antiquated laws. About 5 years back they streamlined their offerings and chopped about half their brews including some truly wonderful beer. They do however still produce a few nice brews and make some interesting contract brews for other breweries.

Glad you and your better half enjoyed your time in our neck of the woods. The only thing missing from my most recent jaunt to NOLA this past summer was a visit to John Besh's restaurant August for the gnochi & blue crab appetizer with black truffle. I will eat that dish before I die... I WILL!!!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Thanks for chiming in. It was odd walking through the French Quarter early in the morning with the guys spraying sanitizer on the streets and sidewalks. Always hard to figure out the which comes first, the brewery or the beer culture. I think a great brewery can play a role in developing local tastes and attitudes towards "good" beer. Seems like the area is just taking its time, give it another 10 years and I bet it will be where some other areas are today, I mean there is no lack of drinking culture

I had a couple bottles of Jackamo at Coop's Place, I thought it was solid (although not as hoppy as I tend to crave). Although that may have just been that I was drinking it cold and out of the bottle.

Ovidsmuse said...

Great post, glad you had a good time! Just want to point out that Cafe du Monde is not a "tourist trap". Yes, it is popular with tourist, but plenty of locals frequent the place for a reason. Next time your in town check out La Place D'armes as a place to stay and drink as many porters as you can find while eating oysters. Also, and maybe this is me, though there is good beer it is really a whiskey and wine town! BBQ Shrimp with a good Rhone is supreme.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Thanks for the tips, I’ll keep them in mind for next time. “Tourist trap” probably was too harsh a term for Du Monde, more a reaction to the fact that they have their own shop across the street for cans of coffee and beignet mix (I’d certainly go there occasionally if I lived in town).

Audrey certainly had her share of Sazeracs while we were there, but I’ve never appreciated mixed drink (most of the time there are either too sweet or too boozy for me). With wine I tend to enjoy two $5 pint of beer a lot more than a $40 bottle of wine.