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Coming of Age

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David Blossman's high school hobby could have landed him in hot water with his parents or even the law. Instead, it eventually put him behind the desk in the president's office at Abita Brewing Co., the Louisiana success story that celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer.

Blossman, a Northshore native, became Abita's president in 1996 when he was 28, but his involvement with the company goes back almost to its founding in 1986. He was still too young to legally drive when he began experimenting with home brewing, making small batches of beer in jugs on the sly. By the time his parents discovered his clandestine hobby, Blossman says now, they were impressed by the rigor he had put into it and encouraged him to continue. When he later won regional home-brewing competitions, he was still below the 21-year-old threshold to attend the awards receptions and had to send one of his older brothers to accept the medals in his place.

Those medals still hang on the wall of his office at Abita, a company that Blossman says owes its growth and success in part to the same passion for beer making that inspires home brewers. Coupled with local consumers' fondness for variety and homegrown products and the Abita Springs artesian waters the brewery uses to make all of its brews, Abita has grown from a pipe dream into one of the nation's top 40 beer makers by volume. The company has beat industry averages by posting double-digit growth for the past few years, has revenues of approximately $11 million and is poised for significant growth with an expansion in production capacity and marketing in new regional markets.

Abita is part of the craft brewing movement, which came to prominence beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to the consolidation of the U.S. beer industry into just a handful of massive breweries. In 2005, Abita ranked No. 39 for volume out of more than 1,400 breweries now in business in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association, an industry group based in Boulder, Colo. At 20 years old, Abita is also among the oldest of the craft brewers.

"It wasn't until 1983 or 1984 that you saw craft breweries anywhere east of Boulder, so Abita was certainly on the forefront, especially in their region," says Brewers Association president Paul Gatza.

The craft-brewing trend saw a rapid increase in the 1990s in the number of microbreweries and brewpubs -- as well as the introduction of many new brands by the beer giants. By 1996, the craze had reached its high-tide mark and a shake-out began, Gatza says.

"Craft brewing came to be seen as a big business opportunity when it was posting these real gaudy growth numbers in the 1990s, and that prompted people who didn't have a beer background to hop in," says Gatza. "I can't tell you why, but the players who tend to make it come from a background as brewers, not people looking for the investment opportunity, and that seems to be the case with Abita."

The harvest of craft brewers that survived the shake-out has injected tremendous new choice into the nation's beer market, even if they still represent only a very small burp compared to the roar of mainstream beer makers. Anheuser Busch, for instance, the maker of Budweiser, Busch and many other brands, supplies 49 percent of the beer consumed in this country on its own. Operations classified in the industry as regional craft brewers, such as Abita, and the much smaller microbreweries make up about 3 percent of the national market combined.

ABITA WAS FORMED BY JIM PATTON and Rush Cummings, two home brewers who wanted to turn their hobby into a vocation. They set up shop in downtown Abita Springs -- in the location that is now the Abita Brew Pub -- introduced their first commercial beer on July 4, 1986, and in their first year made 1,500 barrels that were sold in kegs to New Orleans-area bars. Blossman got involved about six months after the company formed, helping brew those first small batches of Abita Amber. Abita began bottling the beer in 1989, which greatly expanded the outlets at which the nascent company could sell its product. A move in 1994 to a much larger industrial facility about a mile away from its original location allowed far greater production growth.

Patton and Cummings left the company separately in the 1990s, with Patton later making beer at the Zea Brewpub in Metairie before heading to the West Coast for a wine-industry job.

The legacy of Abita's home-brewing origins persevere, Blossman says. Many of the brewers who make up Abita's 36-person workforce also started out as hobbyists fascinated by the art and science of turning water and piles of raw ingredients into an uplifting libation.

"It's always been about the beer first," Blossman says. "That's why you see so many varieties. We like to make them, we like to try different things and make great beer. People tell us it's bad business, and it would be more profitable for us to just be an Amber factory, but we would get bored."

Abita Amber is by far the company's most popular brand, but the brewery makes 23 different products throughout the year, including six that are offered at all times. Abita's "Flagship" brews include Amber, Light, Golden, Turbo Dog, Purple Haze and, the newest, Fleur-de-lis Restoration Ale. This latest beer was created at a stunningly fast clip after Hurricane Katrina hit and was rushed to the market in October with the promise that the company would donate $4 of each case sold to hurricane recovery efforts.

"We wanted to do something meaningful and we knew that meant it would hurt, but this is our home. We don't make $4 on a case of beer, believe me, I wish we did," says Blossman.

Many of Abita's other brews are produced in very small batches for its "Select" program, available only in kegs. A few have proved so successful that they are brewed every few months, like the deep, dark and very potent Andygator beer, while others have joined the Flagship line.

One such example is Purple Haze, Abita's raspberry beer. There is a centuries-old heritage of fruit-flavored ales in Europe, especially Belgium, though Abita's version -- a wheat beer -- is a departure from those traditions. It was introduced in the mid-1990s when many other small breweries were testing the market's waters for fruit-flavored beers. Most of these passed by the wayside, but Purple Haze has continued as a highly successful product for Abita. Blossman credits that to using a seedless raspberry puree from Oregon, rather than artificial flavors or concentrates used by others.

"That's why the other ones taste like a cough drop and that's why they're not around anymore," he says.

Even Abita's nonalcoholic root beer bears the stamp of a craft brewer. The drink is made with herbs, vanilla and yucca -- which gives it foam -- and it is sweetened with Louisiana sugar cane rather than the corn syrups that are the standard of the large soft-drink makers.

TO GET A TANGIBLE SAMPLE OF WHAT Abita's brewers say is a key reason their beers taste the way they do, a visitor to the brewery needs only take a sip of water. The water fountains dispense water drawn directly from one of two artesian wells on the brewery's property. These same wells supply the main ingredient in the beers, and, Blossman says, it is the indispensable component of all their brews.

"We're one of the only breweries in the world that doesn't need to treat their water. That means there's no chemicals, no interference with the water, and that's why it has the right PH balance and minerals," says Blossman. "I'd put it up against any water in the world."

It is a soft water, with a gentle mineral taste, and the brewery uses between 35,000 and 50,000 gallons of it per day. The town of Abita Springs made headlines earlier this spring when it began treating its water for the first time, but that was in response to problems with the town's water lines -- not the water source -- and has no effect on water drawn straight from wells, such as at Abita Brewing.

Abita is now distributed in 32 states, with the recent addition of Washington and Oregon expanding its reach far across the nation. Abita has considered opening expansion breweries in other states to reduce shipping costs, but Blossman says the issue always comes back to one factor they can't get around: the water.

"We want to control quality, that's the most important part of the process. But what would I do about the water? I can't duplicate that," he says.

Abita President David Blossman has been brewing beer - since he was in high school. - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • Abita President David Blossman has been brewing beer since he was in high school.

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