Beer’s popularity in Louisiana is relatively new. Despite being the ubiquitous drink at football games and every hunting or fishing camp from here to Venice, brewing in this city has taken place for only a little over 100 years. It was not until a significant German population immigrated to Louisiana that large-scale beer brewing began. However, once brewing started, New Orleans soon boasted the largest number of breweries of any southern city. At the turn of the century, twelve breweries were operating in New Orleans at one time including Jax, Dixie, Union, Falstaff and Regal.
Prior to 1853 only five small breweries produced “city beer,” a beer made without preservatives, so it couldn’t be shipped out of town. In 1880 these breweries, manned by German brew masters, began producing lager, replacing the city beer. By 1900, ten breweries, almost entirely German run, were producing 236,000 barrels of lager and the numbers kept growing until Prohibition forced breweries to convert to making root beer, eggnog, ice cream and “near beer”, which had less than 1% alcohol. However to make this type of beer, breweries had to make the real stuff first, and then remove the alcohol. The temptation proved too much for some, according to author Christine Richard, and in June 1921, six breweries were raided, with federal agents confiscating illegal beer valued at $35,000.
This appreciation for a cold one can be seen in both the beer workers and civilians of New Orleans. Union policy of Jax Brewery entitled each employee to five beers a shift. Beer was also available to employees in less mandated ways. Former Jax employee William Lyncker recalls that his job on the assembly line was to remove any bottles not filled to capacity (called “shorts”) and place them in a case in a cooler downstairs. The cases were later brought around and served to brewery employees, most of whom were working without air-conditioning. Only in New Orleans is free beer not enough. Larry Fabacher, whose family owned Jax Brewery and who worked there while growing up, remembers that “a lot of guys were loaded all the time…some abused it and their wives would come on payday to pick up check because the guys would stay there and work and drink.”
Locals also had a weakness for brew. For a long time, one could not buy beer in the grocery. Instead, New Orleanians had to go to a bar to buy it, which usually led to drinking one’s purchase and socializing with friends. Even later when groceries sold beer, Schwegmann’s grocery store fostered this tradition of socializing by serving draft beers at bars in their stores. One local fondly recalls all the husbands hanging out in the bar drinking beers, while their wives “made groceries.”
New Orleaneans were not the only ones who enjoyed a cold beer. Residents outside the city were adept at making their own home brew, mixing sugar, water and yeast in bottles and leaving the mixture to ferment. Food historians, Carl and Ryan Brasseaux, note that “pressure created during the fermentation process often caused bottles to explode in un-air-conditioned Cajun homes.” For those unwilling to chance the effects of south Louisiana’s subtropical climate on home brew, they could purchase a cold draft beer at a local tavern. On September 1,1877, the Opelousas Courier ran the ad stating “The only place in town to get genuine Milwaukee Beer on draught is at Billy Cochran’s.” Local breweries opened by the end of the 19th century, including the Attakapas Steam Brewery of New Iberia. A local newspaper asserted “the beer manufactured at this brewery is of a superior quality and is becoming quite a favorite among beer drinkers in this section.”
Sadly, the power of larger national brands overpowered the smaller local breweries. The Fabacher family sold Jax in the 1970s and the brewery quit manufacturing beer soon after. Regal soon followed suit. However, there is hope for local brew of the metro area. Just across Lake Pontchatrain, Abita continues the tradition of quality local brew and as Regal and Jax did, they also sponsor baseball and softball teams. They serve their beer in a brewpub that is known for tasty dishes and keep beer in the forefront of sharing and visiting.