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Abita Brewing

October, 2001

By Bobby Bush

While good beer may be hard to find in New Orleans (see Crescent City Brewhouse, Acadian Brewing and Zea Rotisserie & Brewery in "New Orleans"
), there’s plenty of great beer across the causeway. Lake Ponchatrain looms large just north of New Orleans, transcended only by a low-lying 30 mile long bridge. Once land has again been acquired, it’s only a short hop to Abita Brewpub. Founded in the small town of Abita Springs, this house-like structure features friendly waitstaff, outside front-door dining and a beer selection that won’t quit.

We settled beneath an umbrella table and promptly ordered our sampler tray. Watching hordes of bicyclers cruise by, we began with Abita Golden. A continental lager, this clean, crisp and light beer was made with “pure Abita spring water,” as they all are. A Munich style lager, Amber was silky smooth with caramel and brown sugar flavoring hidden in its malty embrace. It’s Abita’s biggest seller. Seasonal Fall Fest was a lagery, tangy, understated malty beer, while Purple Haze worked well for a fruit-enhanced beer. An American wheat beer with raspberry puree added after fermentation, it offered sour berry sensation with a sweet finish.

Somewhat bitter, Abita Pale Ale was slightly over-carbonated, though its deep gold hue and sour hop end atoned for any excessive bubbleness. Pilsner was a very traditional rendition with proper hop bite. Turbodog, one of my favorites, was deep, dark brown. Highlights within this devilish drink included tastes of chocolate and toffee and a sweet finish topped by dry aftertaste. Other Abita beers on tap included Light, Stout and Andygator, a barleywine which I’d tasted near Bourbon Street just days before. Besides the Fall Fest, Abita also offers Bock, Red, Wheat and Christmas Ale (with a different recipe each year) as seasonal beers. As we would soon learn, only one of the beers we tasted was brewed at the Abita Springs brewpub.

Having grown in leaps and bounds since its 1986 opening, the 15-barrel brewery began bottling in 1989. As happens with all growing families, Abita outgrew its facilities. The company opened a microbrewery in nearby Covington in 1994, essentially usurping brewing activities at the original facility, but also allowing it to become the user-friendly brewpub that it is today.

With brewer Gary Fritze - former Rocky River (Sevierville, TN) assistant-brewer - as our guide, we started at Abita Brewing Company’s outdoor grain mill, where whole barley grain is crushed. The 30 barrel brewery works round the clock from Sunday through Friday nights. Gary’s real interest in joining the Abita team was a 100 barrel system, set to be installed early 2002. We watched as construction crews assembled a new 80-foot square building, designated as the new brewery, on adjacent land. Abita Brewing is presently the nation’s 24th largest brewery. 2000 production was 36,000 barrel. A slight increase was expected for 2001. Abita Root Beer did 3000 barrels last year. The new brewery’s capacity, a $1.5 million expenditure, will provide tremendous capacity.

Abita employs between 25 and 30 people. Gary is one of seven brewers reporting to brewmaster /production manager Henryk Orlik. He works a revolving shift. As luck had it, we caught him on graveyard duty. Lunch-time was early for his tired body, but on went our private tour as the public waited in the tasting room.

Brewing water comes from two wells on the property. A huge waste water treatment plants pumps processed brewery waste water into the town’s sewer system. Beer bottles are flash pasteurized, increasing shelf life and insuring quality. The shiny bottling line was idle as we walked by, as was the new 45 kegs/hour automatic kegging machine. Fermenters stood ominously, bubbling furiously through their trembling blow-off hoses. Abita announced new plastic bottles - perfect for sports arenas and bowling alleys - just days after our visit. They’d been working with the layered PET container’s inventors for several months prior, Gary explained.

Our tour ended in the tasting room, where free beer was just a tap handle away. Thanks to Gary Fritze for keeping sleep at bay. We enjoyed the tour as much as we did the beer.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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