Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery by the weaterfront in New Orleans

I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.

You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.

That was a low point, after I got on the wrong streetcar (none of which go to Desire any more) and had to cross roads flooded up to nine inches deep to try to get to where the jazz festival was taking place. Or wasn’t: lightning had knocked out the electricity supply, and that day, it opened hours late.

Street band, Jackson Square, New Orleans

Still, there were plenty enough highs: multiple opportunities to hear superb street jazz from young musicians clearly hugely in love with the traditions they are helping to keep alive; stuffing my face with oysters in the Chimes, a restaurant and tap on the Bogue Falaya river at Covington, on what New Orleaners call the “North Shore”, the other side of Lake Ponchartrain, which lies to the immediate north of New Orleans itself; watching roseate spoonbills, pink from all the shrimp they eat, and big, ugly alligators hunting prey, and egrets, and owls, and turtles, from a flat-bottomed pirogue on Lake Martin (and wondering, when we ran onto a submerged stump and became stuck, if the alligators might soon be hunting us – fortunately another boat pulled us off); eating jambalaya and crawfish pie at the jazz festival, and trying not to embarrass myself by singing Hank Williams; learning how the flooded rice fields of the Louisiana prairie are used to grow two crops of rice and then a third “crop” of crawfish, which today brings in more money than the rice does; seeing, and rocking to, the fabulous Rebirth Brass Band at a bar in Frenchmen Street; and a barbecue and barn dance at the farm of the zydeco band leader and accordion player Geno Delafose; admiring the cooking skills of the solemn, dignified, elderly Cajun gentlemen, their long-sleeved shirts carefully buttoned despite the heat (New Orleans is further south than Cairo), running the open-air crawfish boil at the countryside home of Mark and Ann Savoy near Eunice, in the centre of south-west Louisiana, lowering baskets of live crawfish into steaming vessels the size and shape of a domestic hot water tank and then pouring in pounds of paprika and other spices, from mace to cinnamon to cloves, before swooshing the cooked crawfish out onto long tables, to be urgently deshelled by the hungry and eaten with boiled potatoes and corn on the cob; and dancing two-steps and waltzes (badly, on my part: “don’t look at your feet,” they said, but if I didn’t look at my feet I had no idea at all what I was doing) under a Louisiana moon and the influence of beautiful beer and excellent food  while the Savoy family and their friend Michael Doucet, fiddle player fantastique, performed for their own enjoyment as well as for us.

Grey heron in flight, Lake Martin, Louisiana

The best of the brewery visits was undoubtedly Abita Brewing, though most of this was down to Abita’s brewing director, Jaime Jurado. Jaime is North America’s Derek Prentice – indeed he actually worked with Derek at Truman’s in Brick Lane, part of a peripatetic career in brewing that has included stints at Smithwick’s in Kilkenny, a brewery in Bavaria, and one in Rajasthan, India, as well as brewing sites across the US. Jaime and I have been “internet pals” for years, but we had never actually met, until I discovered I could book a brewery tour that included a visit the Old Rail pub brewery and then to Abita, which requires a trip over the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge in the world.

Jaime Jurado, left, and Chris Todd, server in the Abita taproom

When I emailed him to say: “I’m coming out to your brewery!”, Jaime immediately offered to take me to dinner. Better than that, he also gave me my own private tour of the brewery, now Louisiana’s oldest (having been founded as a brewpub in 1986) and the 23rd largest in the US, introduced me to brewery president, David Blossman, and took me to see the original Abita brewhouse, and also the nearby (and considerably smaller) Covington brewery, and returned me back to my hotel in the French Quarter with a full goodie bag. I’ve never had a conversation with a brewer that I haven’t enjoyed enormously, and Jaime is a great companion for a night out, and a fine raconteur. Abita’s home town is called Abita Springs, and the brewery uses the local spring water for all its beers, completely unaltered. The “springiness” can cause problems: when the brewery decided to extend its warehouse, it put down a new concrete floor and then couldn’t work out what was causing the concrete to break up. An expert was called in, who declared that a spring had opened up underneath the concrete, and the water pressure was causing the floor to fracture. A pipe had to be put in to carry the spring water away to what is now the brewery turtle pond.

Robert Bostick, co-founder, Brieux Carre

The next day I got to see Louisiana’s youngest brewery, at least at the time of visiting: another start-up was due within weeks. The brewery name, Brieux Carré, pronounced “broo carray”, is a pun on the name in French of the old core of New Orleans, Vieux Carré (literally “old square”), pronounced in Louisiana French “voo carray”. The brewery’s existence is possible only because of a change in the law in Louisiana. Until two years ago, any brewery had to get no more than ten per cent of its beer sales from its own tap, which for any start-up was a huge hurdle to try to vault. That restriction was removed in 2015, and local breweries can now have 100 per cent of sales through their own taproom. Of course, there were other hurdles to clamber over before Brieux Carré served its first pints, not the smallest being finance. Co-founder Robert Bostick, a home brewer for ten years before going professional, told me: “Nobody wants to give a 24-year-old half a million dollars just because he likes beer.” However, he and his business partner, Taylor Pellerin, managed to get $450,000 through a microfinance scheme, which bought them a seven-barrel brewing kit made by a local manufacturer, the Craft Kettle Co of New Orleans. They found premises zoned for a microbrewery just on the edge of the Vieux Carré, thus justifying the name they had already thought up, and the pair are now selling all the beer they brew from their  on-premises tap, to a customer base, Bostick says, that ranges from “21 to late 70s”.

Nola brewery, New Orleans

Brieux Carré doesn’t sell its beer anywhere else except at the tap, unlike New Orleans’s oldest craft brewery, NOLA Brewing (oldest, that is, if you don’t count the Crescent City Brewhouse on Decatur Street, which opened in 1991 as the first brewpub in Louisiana). The acronym NOLA usually stands for “New Orleans, Louisiana”, but here it’s short for New Orleans Lager and Ale, and the brewery takes pride in the fact that tourists can’t pronounce its address – Tchoupitoulas Street (named for a long-vanished tribe of local Indians). Its two-storey tap, down close to the Mississippi, must easily hold a couple of hundred people, including the rooftop patio area, though the view – a highway, a tall wall hiding the wharves on the other side – is industrial, at best. But the beers, such as Irish Channel stout (named for the nearby New Orleans district), are now available all around the south-east US, and all the ones I tried were well up to point. In particular, NOLA does an excellent line of sour ales.

Second Line’s taproom

However, I’ve begun to realise I like my craft brewery taps on the fundamentally basic side, which is why I preferred the hard-to-find Second Line Brewing’s set-up: basic tables and folding chairs in what is still a large concrete yard at the front of their industrial premises. Second Line, which is named for the jazz band parades of New Orleans, started in July 2015, and has a good line of stouts, including an Imperial Russian flavoured with toasted coconut called Cease to Love, after the theme song of the “King of Carnival” in New Orleans (the link, apparently, is that the song was supposedly played to  Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, fourth son of Tsar Alexander II, when he was a guest at the Mardi Gras festivities in 1872), and A Saison named Desire, flavoured with blood orange juice (not as good a name as NOLA’s Hurricane Saison, however). Incidentally, it’s significant that, like every other Louisiana brewerry I saw, even the tiny Old Rail, Second Line had casks filled with ageing beer: if you’re not wood-ageing in the US now, it appears, you can’t compete.

Stacks Records: jazz trio plays against a background of beercans at Urban South

Urban South Brewing opened last year further down Tchoupitoulas Street towards the centre of New Orleans than NOLA, in a huge warehouse space that leaves enough room for all the brewing equipment, a games area featuring the peculiarly American sport of cornhole (tossing beanbags at a board with a hole in it), a large bar, a performance area for a band and 20 or so garden tables for drinkers. This is definitely a place to visit in a group, when a food truck is parked outside. The beers fit into the “expertly made even if they don’t fry your socks” slot, and that’s an absolutely fine place to be: it means you won’t be disappointed.

The lable of Bayou Teche Brewing’s Saison d’Ecrevisses showing two characters (Boudreaux and Thiboudeaux?) shelling crawfish

New Orleans breweries like to reflect New Orleans heritage in their beer names: Bayou Teche Brewing, in Arnaudville, south-west Louisiana, very specifically reflects its Cajun heritage in its brewing, which has heavy French and Belgian influences. The beers include Saison D’Écrevisses, “Crawfish Saison”, a fine 6 per cent “rye saison” made with French Aramis hops for drinking at crawfish boils; an excellent 7.5 per cent oak-aged liquorice stout called Loup Garou, French for “werewolf” (Loup Garou, naughty Cajun children are told, haunts the nearby swamps and will come for them if they continue to be bad); and Strawberry Alarm Hop, a 7 per cent IPA made with added strawberries and jalapeno peppers, which sounds utterly vile and is actually very, very good good, the three contrasting flavours working really well together – but since strawberries and black pepper is already a thing, why not?

The original Bayou Teche Brewery premises – a converted shipping container

The brewery called after the nearby Bayou Teche waterway, was started by the three Knott brothers, Karlos, Dorsey and Byron, in 2009 in a disused 20-ft shipping container, moving eventually to a purpose-built brewery in 2013. If you visit the brewery, it’s likely you’ll be shown around by Floyd, the Knott brothers’ father. Should he start to tell you the joke about how Thibodeaux was working at the brewery when he fell in the fermenting vessel and drowned, and his friend Boudreaux had to ring up Thiboudeaux’s wife and tell her the sad news (ALL Cajun jokes feature characters called Boudreaux and Thiboudeaux, it’s the law), do laugh heartily at the punchline, even though you’ve heard the joke before: Floyd’s 81, please, he deserves your respect.

I didn’t get around many New Orleans bars, but here’s a swift trot through five I liked:

Black Penny Bar, North Rampart Street Many will hate this place, but its pretentious unpretentiousness, something only hipsters could pull off, made it strangely attractive. Drink Dat, a good but not, unfortunately, comprehensive guide to New Orleans drinking places says the Black Penny was previously a dive called the Ninth Circle, where “your mother would not be happy”. I don’t think Ma would be thrilled to be taken to the Black Penny, either, unless she was a big fan of craft beer in cans, or cocktails. It’s dark, the walls are bare brick and rough wood, and it doesn’t have draught beer at all, but its range of more than 100 different bottled and canned brews should satisfy the fussiest, and if it doesn’t there’s the usual New Orleans bar big line-up of spirits and liqueurs to make any cocktail you can think of, while the staff are pally and, despite being on the borders of the French Quarter, customers seem to be mostly locals rather than tourists.

dba, Frenchmen Street A cracking music venue with a top-notch craft beer selection: 20 taps and a wide range of bottles. If there’s a good band on, you’ll be charged to get in, but this is New Orleans, it will be worth the money. The interior is reminiscent of a London “island bar” pub, with two long rooms either side of the servery, and the stage where the musicians play is at the end of the left-hand room.

Aveneue Bar, St Charles Avenue, New Orleans

Avenue Bar, St Charles Avenue Touted as the best craft beer bar in New Orleans, this is a 15-minute streetcar ride down St Charles Avenue from the city centre. Strangely, when I was there, it seemed to be attracting numbers of young drinkers who only wanted Miller: why, when there were getting on for 40 different draught craft brews available, seems unfathomable. Certainly the wide range is a good reason for visiting, and it’s an attractive place, but I found it hard to see why commentators are quite so enthusiastic about the place: maybe I wasn’t on the right frequency that day to pick up the vibe.

Evangeline, 329 Decatur Street, New Orleans: note the huge number of bottles of spirits and so forth for cocktail making

Evangeline, Decatur Street I like a bar where I walk in for a second time four days after my first visit and the barman not only remembers me, but what beer I drank previously. Evangeline edges more towards being a restaurant than a bar, but it sells eight or so craft beers, including several I didn’t see elsewhere, such as the Mississippi Fire Ant Imperial Red Ale from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi that the bartender clocked me for. The long, narrow room is done in typical mahogany-and-mirrors New Orleans style, with high ceilings and plenty of lights. Evangeline (named, I’m guessing, for the tragic Longfellow poem about the Acadian maid who lost her lover and only found him again in old age) is also an excellent destination if you’re after Cajun cuisine in New Orleans: try the gumbo, it’s yumbo.

Industry Bar and Kitchen, Decatur Street Almost diagonally across the street from Evangeline, the Industry Bar is different in every way, apart from a good selection of local craft beers: it’s meant to be a place for late-night workers in the hospitality trade to come after work, apparently, and my experience was that it’s one of the rare places where you can find speedy, filling late-night food in New Orleans. (Yes there are lots of restaurants, but it will be an hour’s wait to be seated, at least, normally.) The decor is, um, industrial, but that’s an invigorating change from the neighbours.

(I went to Louisiana with Nancy Covey’s Festival Tours, and had a couple of brewery trips while I was there with NOLA Brew Bus: hat-tips to both for their excellent organisation.)

PICTURE GALLERY (click to embiggen)

Why the clear glass bottle question means I’m not bothered Marston’s is buying Charles Wells

Estrella believes in the power of the brown bottle: it’s a pity a few more British breweries don’t

Yesterday’s announcement that Marston’s is acquiring the Charles Wells Brewing and Beer Business for £55 million and loose change (or “working capital adjustments”), at a pretty conservative 5.5 times ebitda, adds another five historic old brewery names, Courage, McEwans, Young’s, William Younger’s and Wells, to a portfolio that already reads like the line-up at a quite good small beer festival circa 1990: Marston’s itself, Banks’s, Jennings, Thwaites, Ringwood, Wychwood, Brakspear, Mansfield, Mitchells (with Lancaster Bomber) and, if you include beers Marston’s brews under licence, Bass and Tetley.

It will give the company six working breweries, and more than 50 “ale” brands, from Bank’s mild to McEwan’s Champion. That’s around twice as many as its closest rival, Greene King, which runs just two breweries, its own original home in Suffolk and Belhaven in Scotland, and continues brewing under the names of just five vanished brewers: Morlands, Ruddles, Ridleys, Hardy’s & Hansons and Tolly Cobbold. On the retail side, however, Greene King owns around 3,100 pubs and bars, making it the third biggest operator in the country, Marston’s “just” 1,750 or so, meaning it vies with Mitchells & Butlers for fourth place.

So what’s with Marston’s policy of adding ever more seemingly pretty similar “twiggy brown bitters” to its line-up? I interviewed the company’s chief executive, Ralph Findlay, two years ago, right after Marston’s had acquired Thwaites’s beer portfolio and made those beers available to all its pubs, and he was pretty specific about the desire to increase further his already considerable ale offer: “Choice is where the market is at,” Findlay said. “Range is something you simply have to have, both for licensees and their customers.” Even after the Thwaites acquisition, he said. Marston’s would continue to look for “opportunistic” purchases if they came up: “We look at potential acquisitions that are consistent with our strategy and which can contribute to our return on capital. We have had a strategy over the past five years that’s not been reliant on acquisitions, though we’ve made them when it’s been opportunistic to do so, such as the acquisition of the Thwaites brewing business. I think we’re in the fortunate position of having an incredibly strong beer range from the various breweries that we’ve got. It’s a strategy that is undoubtedly working.”

Why not, like others, just buy in beers, rather than buy breweries? Because, as Findlay says, it’s a strategy that is working. Marston’s also revealed its half-year figures yesterday. Own-brewed beer volumes were up two per cent, in a declining market. Sales were up three per cent, to £440.8m. Average profit per pub was up three per cent. Like-for-like sales were up between 1.6 and 1.7 per cent. More City analysts than not continue to have the company as a “buy”.

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve: Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Hall & Woodhouse, all sell some or several of their beers in clear bottles, and even Charles Wells has at least one several of its brands, includingWaggle Dance (originally, history fans, made by Wards of Sheffield Vaux of Sunderland, then Vaux, then Young’s, and thus about to be on its fourth fifth owner) and the Burning Gold iteration of Bombardier (as the Beer Nut reminded me) in flint glass. The commitment by Marston’s to beer quality ahead of spurious marketing arguments about how consumers are supposedly encouraged to buy beers that they can see the colour of makes me more confident that Wells’s brand are in relatively safe hands under the boys from Wolverhampton.

Ironically, or at least I think it’s ironic, one of the brands Marston’s is acquiring distribution rights to via the Wells purchase, the Spanish lager Estrella, has just been running an ad campaign un the UK under the slogan “Darker bottle, better beer”, explaining to consumers that “research has shown that exposure to light damages beer and affects its flavour”, and for that reason it was darkening its bottles by 30 per cent.

I’m slightly puzzled that Charles Wells has said that, while it will now be concentrating on its pub estate, it will also be building a new small brewery in Bedford to brew the Charlie Wells “craft beers” and John Bull range, which it is not selling to Marston’s. Is this continued toehold in the brewing world a way of appeasing the family shareholders (many of them formidable elderly females who, Paul Wells once told me, all had his phone number and would ring him up when they felt the company’s figures weren’t good enough) who might try to vote down the sale of the main brewing operation if they felt the company was cutting off its roots after 141 years of supplying beer to the people of Bedford?

Charles Wells currently brews several beers I’m very fond of, including Courage Imperial Russian Stout, Young’s Winter Warmer and McEwan’s Champion, that will now be brewed under Marston’s control. For probably the only time ever, I’m going to let Tim Page, chief executive of Camra, speak for me: giving a cautious one thumb up to the takeover, he said yesterday: “Marston’s has a positive track record of keeping the breweries it acquires open, in situ, and in many cases investing in the sites to increase capacity, and we urge them to continue that policy. We’d also encourage them to protect the brands that they have acquired and increase the range available to beer drinkers, by continuing to supply them alongside the existing beers produced by Marston’s owned breweries.”