Things were looking bad for Keith Hurtt, an attorney and New Orleans native whose favorite beer is Dixie. After Hurricane Katrina knocked the fabled old New Orleans brewery out of action, Hurtt methodically drank through the lingering inventory of Dixie longneck bottles at all his favorite bars that had reopened, ceremoniously downing the last Dixie at Molly's on Toulouse Street, Vaughan's Lounge in Bywater and Tujague's Restaurant near the French Market.
Then there were none left and no sign that any might be coming in the future from the flood ravaged Dixie brewery a dozen blocks down the street from his Mid-City home. But one day in January, salvation arrived in the hands of an eager waiter at one of his local haunts.
"I was sitting at the outside table at Napoleon House and he came tripping across the room to bring me a Dixie," Hurtt says. "That was a good day."
Dixie beer is back, resurrected from an uncertain future after Katrina just in time for the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the brand. There was no press conference about it, no product re-launch or public event to mark the milestone. Rather, word spread quickly via phone calls and e-mails among fans of the last beer to be commercially bottled in New Orleans. Across town, bartenders and waiters surprised their regulars by coolly producing bottles of the beer that had been missing in action and missed by local beer drinkers since Hurricane Katrina struck 16 months earlier.
Yet, as with so much else in post-diluvian New Orleans, the road to restoration for this local product has been long, convoluted and is still nowhere near complete. Along with its sister brew, Dixie's Blackened Voodoo, the famous New Orleans beer is now being produced at Heiner Brau, a tiny brewery in Covington under the supervision of veteran German brewmaster Henryk "Heiner" Orlik.
It is being made only in very small quantities and is available at a short list of local retailers, restaurants and bars. Plans are underway, however, to produce Dixie on a much larger scale at the historic Huber Brewery in Monroe, Wis., and distribute it nationally. Meanwhile, Dixie's 100-year-old brick brewery on Tulane Avenue stands idle -- flood-wracked and stripped by looters. While its owners hope to repair and modernize the facility and once again brew their beer there, they can't yet guess when that might be possible and questions remain about financing what would be a huge project of repairing the two-block property.
"The good news is Dixie will exist," says Kendra Bruno, who owns Dixie Brewing Co. along with her husband Joe.
"We had offers from different brewers around the country to make our beer after the storm, but we wanted to make sure at least some of our beer was made in Louisiana," she says.
The Brunos also wanted to get their beer back to the New Orleans market in time for the brewery's 100th birthday. Dixie first opened in its then-newly-built brewery in 1907 when New Orleans had a competitive field of local brewers. The company struggled through Prohibition by making nonalcoholic beverages until beer was made legal again with the law's repeal in 1933. It cruised along during the decades that followed as other local brands fell away, with its last local contemporary, Falstaff, shutting down its nearby brewery in 1978. Dixie was facing bankruptcy, however, when local real estate broker Joe Bruno bought the operation in 1985. The company declared bankruptcy in 1989 but was reorganized and emerged from Chapter 11 protection in 1992.
"Dixie was like a woolly mammoth," says Kendra Bruno. "It was this incredible, old brewery but it practically cost us more money to put beer out from it than we made selling the stuff. But still, we had this urge to do it."
Hurricane Katrina, of course, has brought the company its most grave challenges. The devastation of the old brewery was severe and did not end when the floodwaters finally receded from its neighborhood two weeks after the levees failed. Dixie was later the target of an elaborate looting operation that saw thieves building ramps and bringing in blowtorches to haul out the brewery's industrial innards -- valuable material in the scrap metal market. The looting continued for many months after the storm, Bruno said, and only stopped when caretakers for the building set up travel trailers within the structure and began living on premises.
The formulas for the beer survived, however, along with the institutional knowledge of Kevin Stuart, who has been Dixie's brewer since 1986. Stuart worked with Orlik to reproduce Dixie at Heiner Brau. Bruno says the recipes for the Dixie beer and Blackened Voodoo now being produced are exactly the same as that used at Tulane Avenue.
Heiner Brau, however, is a much different place from the old New Orleans brewery. Housed in a 100-year-old warehouse that had previously been a downtown Covington hardware store, the company has just four employees, including Orlik and his wife Angela. It puts out a trickle of Dixie compared to the volume the old brewery produced before the storm, making very small batches of the beer every few days to ship exclusively to local customers. Orlik, who first tasted a Dixie beer more than 20 years ago at an international food convention in Germany, says he still can't quite believe he is now the brewer of New Orleans' last brand of beer.
Born in Nuremberg, Orlik spent seven years studying and apprenticing in the German beer industry to earn the title of brewmaster, a professional designation awarded in that country only after candidates pass rigorous government exams. Orlik, Angela and their four children moved to the United States in 1994 so that he could join the burgeoning American craft beer and microbrew movement that was then hitting its stride. After years with little choice for beers apart from a few mega-brewers in America, new, small breweries were popping up everywhere and Orlik found that the demand was hot for experienced, formally trained brewers.
"For a German brewer, it was a dream come true because you could do so many things, nothing was written in stone here," says Orlik. "In Germany, everything is set. You take over because the last brewer retired. You have no influence. They use family recipes that have been set for 75 or 100 years."
Orlik worked in a brewery in Cleveland, Ohio, before heading south in 1997 to become production manager for Abita Brewing Co. in Abita Springs. He stayed with Abita for five years, a time he credits as the most fulfilling of his career up to that point, and left in 2002 to take a new job at Red Oak Brewing in Greensboro, N.C. His family stayed in Covington, however, while some of his children finished high school. Eventually the strain of working several states away during the week proved too much for Orlik. He quit his job, mortgaged the family's Covington house and used the money to finance his own brewery close to home.
"My whole lifetime I've been brewing beer," says Orlik, who is 52. "I want to stay in Louisiana, so I decided to start my own brewery. Maybe I'm a late bloomer."
The timing of this new facility joining the regional market, however, could hardly have been more fortuitous. Orlik is now producing beers not only for his own Heiner Brau label and Dixie, but also for two other local breweries that were idled by Katrina.
The first client to come knocking was Zea Rotisserie, the locally based restaurant chain that, before the storm, had made its own beer at its one brewpub location in Metairie's Clearview Mall. The restaurant's brewing equipment was damaged and its brewer left town after the storm. But by shifting the work to Heiner Brau late in 2005, Zea freed itself from state brewpub regulations that forbade it from selling its beer outside the Clearview restaurant. With Heiner Brau doing the brewing, the beer is now sold at all of Zea's locations and is bottled for retail sale in the area. Heiner Brau now makes four different beers under the Zea label: Category 5 American Pale Ale, Clearview Light, Zea Amber Lager and Pontchartrain Porter.
A small Marrero brewery called Big Easy Brewing, owned by local businessman Frank Ballero, also lost its brewmaster after Katrina and last spring turned to Heiner Brau to keep its brand going. Orlik changed the company's flagship brew, called Big Easy Beer, from a light golden beer to a deeper flavored amber style. He now makes it and Big Easy's lighter beer, Tiger Town Championship Brew, at the Covington brewery.
Orlik makes two year-round brews for the Heiner Brau label and has five more seasonal Heiner Brau beers that will appear throughout the year.
The brewery has also begun making small, customized batches of beer for private customers. Heiner Brau has filled orders for as little as 110 cases of beer at a time for wedding parties and even a faculty group from a local university who wanted their own brew.
The Dixie beers now being sold in the New Orleans area are the product of very small brewing batches. Orlik says the capacity of Heiner Brau is about 2,500 barrels of beer per year, but that the brewery is now producing about half that much with all of its own beers and licensed brands combined. Two workers operate bottling equipment, which fills and caps six bottles at a time, completing a case of beer every few minutes. The workers then carry each off to be labeled and packaged in another corner of the large, open warehouse space. Orlik says he can bottle 150 cases of beer in about four hours. Before the storm, Dixie brewery was turning out about 3,000 cases of beer each day, says Bruno.
While Heiner Brau will continue to make the Dixie beer consumed locally, Bruno says other markets around the country should soon be getting Dixie brewed in the Mid West. Within the next two months, the Brunos expect their beers to begin rolling out of the Huber Brewery, which traces its own history back to 1845. Stuart, Dixie's brewer, will supervise replicating the formula at Huber, as he did at Heiner Brau last year.
Huber itself was purchased last fall by Minhas Brewery, a new beverage company from 25-year-old Canadian entrepreneur Ravinder Minhas. That acquisition added another layer of complexity to Dixie's road to revival, but the Brunos are confident that the licensing agreement they recently completed with Minhas will mean a much larger supply of their beer becoming available for the national market.
The Brunos signed a new deal for distribution of Dixie outside Louisiana with Distinguished Brands International, a Colorado firm that handles mostly foreign beers. In Louisiana, Dixie is distributed by the New Orleans company Crescent Crown Distributing.
If gripping a Dixie longneck at a crawfish boil or po-boy shop presses sentimental buttons for local beer drinkers, the brand's New Orleans identity is also very much in the minds of the Brunos as they try to devise a plan to return to their devastated Tulane Avenue brewery. Before the storm, the Brunos were preparing for a major overhaul and modernization of the Dixie facility.
"We would keep it unique but put in brand new equipment that would use less space and let us be more efficient," says Bruno.
Dixie's fabled cypress brewing tanks, a unique anachronism in the age of streamlined modern brewing equipment, survived the rampage of Katrina and remain part of future plans for the brewery, Bruno says.
"That's part of Dixie, part of its charm, part of its mystique," she says.
Tapping the Market
Heiner Brau is currently making its flagship Kolsch and its potent Mardi Gras Festbier. Next up in the seasonal variety is a hearty Marzen, or "March beer," and other seasonal beers will follow. The brewery plans to host a May Day party on the first weekend of May and unveil its Maibock, while an Oktoberfest Bier is scheduled for the fall. Here's a rundown on the different beers produced or planned for production.
Heiner Brau year-round beers
Heiner Brau seasonal beers
Mardi Gras Festbier
Zea Amber Lager
Category 5 American Pale Ale
Big Easy Brewing
Big Easy Beer
Tiger Town Championship Brew
- Ian McNulty
- Henryk Orlik outside his busy Covington brewery.
- Ian McNulty
- Orlik brews beers for his own label and others.