Last week, Gayle Benson, wife of the late New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, announced that Dixie Beerwould spend $30 million to build a new 80,000 square foot brewery and taproom in New Orleans East. The facility is expected to take a year and a half to two years to build. Last year, before Tom passed away, the Bensons purchased a controlling interest in Dixie Beer with the hopes of relaunching the brand. Dixie Beer represents a crucial piece of the history of beer production in New Orleans. Dixie, founded in 1907, was once one of the leading breweries in New Orleans. The company fell on hard times and nearly closed following Hurricane Katrina. After barely surviving the storm, Dixie practically disappeared from the market until the Bensons’ stepped in.
Beer production has long been a staple of New Orleans history. The city’s German immigrants brought their knowledge of brewing with them when they settled in Louisiana. The first immigrants arrived in the 1720s, but beer production did not really take off until the 1850s. In 1848, a wave of revolutions aimed at overthrowing Europe’s remaining monarchies and replacing them with democratic forms of government rocked the continent. This uncoordinated wave of democratic rebellion made major advances for representative government in some parts of Europe. In the German states, however, these revolutions failed to overthrow the monarchies causing many Germans to flee to the United States out of fear of political retribution. These Germans settled across the whole United States, including in New Orleans.
Louis and Samuel Fasnacht, a pair of brothers, opened the first commercial brewery in New Orleans in 1852. Their brewery, however, did not last long and they sold the business in 1869. In 1869, George Merz, another German, opened his own brewery, beginning the golden age of New Orleans beer production. By the end of the 1880s, New Orleans was the biggest beer producer in the South. Merz, Pioneer Merz, Southern Brewing Company, Crescent City Brewing, Weckerling Brewery, Pelican Brewery, Lafayette Brewery, and Louisiana Brewery all competed with one another across the South. Using New Orleans’ location as port of commerce, brewers shipped their beers along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
|The old Dixie Brewery|
New Orleans beer production continued to expand at the turn of the century. In 1891, Jackson Brewing Company opened up across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter. Named after Andrew Jackson, “JAX”, as it became known, became one of New Orleans’ biggest breweries. In 1907, George Merz’s son Valentine built a brewery at 2401 Tulane Avenue and named it Dixie Beer. The city’s various breweries began to consolidate in order to stave off competition. They bought restaurants and bars where they exclusively sold their own brews. Prohibition, however, proved the death knell for many of the city’s smaller breweries. In 1936, Falstaff, a St. Louis based brewer, purchased National Brewing and muscled its way into the city’s market. By the 1950s, only four brands remained: Falstaff, Regal, Dixie, and JAX.
The 1950s saw the construction of the Interstate Highway System, connecting the major cities of the United States. These highways significantly reduced the cost of shipping beer nationally. As a result, national breweries flooded the New Orleans market, drowning out the locals. Regal closed down in 1962. JAX shut its doors in 1974, although the brewery is now a shopping center that still bears the company name. The Falstaff brewery closed in 1979. Only Dixie managed to survive, albeit in a much weakened form. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded the Mid-City brewery. Looters stole much of the company’s equipment and left the factory in total disarray. The business survived by paying other brewers to produce Dixie.
|The New Dixie Brewery|
According to the plans announced by Gayle Benson, Dixie’s new brewery will begin producing 1,000 barrels per month. They plan to ramp up production to 5,000 to 6,000 barrels per month or about 72,000 barrels per year. They plan to hire about 60 employees and hope to grow their workforce to about a hundred people. Benson and New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell believe that the brewery will revitalize the economically moribund New Orleans East. New Orleans East—long home of the bulk of the city’s African-American residents—suffered horribly in Katrina. Floods drove many residents from their homes and many middle and upper-class African-Americans moved elsewhere rather than rebuild.
Yet Dixie’s path to success is not clear. Dixie’s staple beer is a light lager similar to Miller Lite and Bud-Light. Additionally, in the past 30 years, New Orleans, like the rest of the United States, has seen an explosive in craft breweries. Abita, the first of the New Orleans craft breweries, opened in 1986, produces 150,000 barrels per year, and receives 40,000 visitors to its taproom. Royal Brewing, a newly opened craft brewery in New Orleans East makes only 1,500 barrels per year. NOLA Brewing pushes out 10,500 barrels per year. While old and faded Dixie Beer signs dot the sides of buildings across New Orleans, the resurgent brewery will have to find a way to stand out in a crowded field.
For a brief history of New Orleans brewing, see this article.