Sunday, February 27, 2011

Beer: The Crawfish's Best Friend

Posted by Benson

Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Bob Skilnik, Chicago brewer and professional wet blanket, says this is a misquote .  Mr. Franklin, he points out, was talking about wine.  If Mr. Franklin had grown up eating crawfish in south Louisiana, I guarantee you he would have said beer.

Wine is all well and good and I'm even developing a keen appreciation for it thanks to the wine of the month club offerings that Doug has shipped to the office, but you won't see any wine at the crawfish boil.  Beer, however, will be flowing freely.

Beer is the crawfish's best friend.  It doesn't matter if he's boiled, fried, etouffee'd, or baked in a pie.  Nothing pairs better with a crawfish than a beer, at least not in New Orleans.  The Swedes like to take a shot of some sort of unreasonably alcoholic beverage after every crawfish they eat, but they also boil them in dill, eat them cold, and treat them like such a rare delicacy that they only consume a handful of them in a sitting and then only once per year.

Any self-respecting Cajun consumes at least as many beers at a crawfish boil as he does pounds of mudbugs. Not only is it the choicest beverage to pair with the rich flavor of a crawfish, but it's good fun too.  The DGA crawfish boil always features a wide selection of beers, but this year we will be paying particular attention to one of our favorite local microbreweries: The Abita Brewing Company.

I love Abita beer.  The Abita Brewing company is absolutely my favorite microbrewery.  The official story is that my decision to move to Abita was all about the large yard and small-town atmosphere, but it's no coincidence that I live six blocks from the Abita Brewpub.  The distribution of Abita beer is growing all of the time, but it's a good bet that many of you out of town folks aren't familiar with the brewery.  So today I thought I'd give you a quick run-down of the varieties of Abita beer that we'll have at the crawfish boil, as well as some personal pairing suggestions.

One thing that all Abita beers have in common, apart from excellent craftsmanship, is that they're all brewed with the beautiful, crystal clear artesian spring water that gives the town of Abita Springs its name.


Up first is Abita Amber.  Amber is the brewery's staple beer.  It was the first beer produced by the brewery and it is still quite popular today.  Amber is used for cooking as often as it is for drinking, and you can find Abita Amber in many dishes prepared by New Orleans chefs.

It is a Munich style lager brewed with crystal malt and Perle hops.  It has a smooth, malty, slightly caramel flavor and a rich amber color.  Amber has a 17 (of 120) on the International Bittering Units scale (IBU).

Amber is an enjoyable beer and it pairs well with rich, smoky foods like sausage.  It also goes well with crawfish and other rich Cajun foods.  It pairs especially well with red beans and rice.  I enjoy Amber, but it is not my first choice among the brewery's selection.  It goes better with a meal than it does on its own.


Ah...Abita Golden.  This is my favorite Abita beer and it is also one of my wife's favorites.   Golden is a crisp, clean continental lager.  It is an incredibly simple beer with only four ingredients: Abita spring water, American malt, Mt. Hood hops, and German lager yeast.  It has a brilliant golden color and an IBU of 11.

Abita Golden is beautifully simple.  I'm partial to continental lagers, but this one is just about perfect.  It is best served slightly chilled and it is wonderfully refreshing on a hot day.  Golden is delicious all by itself, but it pairs well with most creole dishes and fried food.  In my opinion, it is absolutely the best beer for fried green tomatoes.  It goes reasonably well with crawfish, but its light flavor can be a little overwhelmed when you're elbow deep in crawfish.  I suggest Golden for when you're taking a little break from the crawfish, or sitting on the balcony before food is served.

Cafe Maspero on Decatur in the French Quarter (across the street from Jax Brewery) has Golden on draft.  If you're in the city, I highly recommend stopping in for a Golden and a platter of fried oysters.

Jockamo I.P.A.

Jockamo is a traditional India Pale Ale made with pale and crystal malts.  It is hopped and dry hopped liberally with Willamette and Columbus hops from the Pacific Northwest.  The spicy aroma of the hops contrasts with the pleasant sweetness of the malts.  It has an enticing flavor and an IBU of 52.

I'm not terribly partial to IPAs, but I enjoy Jockamo on occasion.  It is a fragrant beer that stands well on its own and pairs nicely with spicy foods.  It has a rich, spicy flavor that compliments such dishes and doesn't become lost in a plate of hot boiled crawfish.


Restoration is a fine beer.  I highly recommend it.  Restoration was first produced in response to Hurricane Katrina.  The Abita Brewing Company donated 25 cents from the sale of every bottle to the restoration of the New Orleans area, but the beer was such a hit that it is still being produced today.

Restoration is a Pale Ale made with Pale, Lager, Crystal, and Cara Pils malted barley.  It is liberally hopped and dry hopped with American Cascade and fermented with California Ale yeast.  This is a rich bodied ale with a complex, somewhat hoppy flavor with a splash of citrus.  It is eminently enjoyable with most anything or on its own.  With an IBU of 20 it can seem a little too bitter to those that aren't looking for it and a bit weak on the hops for someone expecting an IPA.  Restoration has many subtleties of flavor that keep you coming back time after time.  It is one of Doug's favorite Abita beers.

Abbey Ale

Abbey Ale is a trappist style "Dubbel" or double ale.  It is a malty brew, top-fermented and bottle aged.  It has a rich aroma of caramel and cloves with a hint of citrus.  It is creamy on the palate and pairs well with steak, barbecue, and dark chocolate.  It has an IBU of 32

I like Abbey Ale, although it isn't one of my favorites.  This has a bit to do with my personal taste in beer as well as the fact that Abbey Ale is a relatively new addition.  I believe it was only started two years ago.  It is a bit of a departure from what the brewery normally produces and it has stiff competition from other similar beers.  If I'm in the mood for a Belgian Dubbel I typically go elsewhere before I reach for an Abbey Ale, but it is beginning to grow on me.


Thinking of Andygator always makes me smile.  I like this beer.  Its a very fun, unique high-gravity brew made with pale malt, German lager yeast, and German Perle hops.  Unlike other high-gravity brews, Andygator is fermented to a dry finish with a slightly sweet flavor and a subtle fruit aroma.  Andygator has an IBU of 25 and a stiff ABV of 8.0%.

Andygator is like the rowdy cousin of the Abita beers.  It has a fresh, slightly sweet taste that grabs your attention from the first sip.  It pairs well with just about anything made with crawfish and with most fried foods.  I like it best with a drippy crawfish pie or a bag of Zapps Gator Tators, a local type of spicy dill pickle chips.  Andygator packs more of a punch than its snappy flavor suggests, so be careful not to go overboard.

Save Our Shore (SOS)

Like Restoration, SOS was produced in response to a disaster, only this time it was man-made.  The Abita Brewing Company generously donates 75 cents from the sale of every SOS to the rescue and restoration of the environment, industry, and individuals fighting to survive the BP oil spill.

SOS is an unfiltered Weizen Pils made with Pilsner and Wheat malts.  It is hopped and dry hopped with Sterling and Germal Perle hops.  It has a brilliant gold color, a sweet malty flavor, and a pleasant aroma.  SOS has an IBU of 35.

SOS is an interesting beer.  The brewery doesn't make many Weizen, but it has a unique character and some interesting subtleties.  I don't think SOS will catch on as strongly as Restoration, but it is a rather enjoyable beer that is great all by itself.  As SOS is relatively new, I haven't had much of it, but it pairs nicely with tangy or salty foods.  I enjoy it with something lighter and it goes well with fresh Mexican style dishes.  I especially like it with fish tacos.

Seasonal Beers

Abita produces a wide variety of seasonal beers including a red ale, a wheat, and an Oktoberfest.  The brewery also produces three beers made with local seasonally-available produce.  This is the best season to be in, and I wish these beers were available year-round.  Right now we have the Mardi Gras Bock and the Strawberry Harvest beers available.

Mardi Gras Bock

I absolutely love the Mardi Gras Bock and I wish it was around all of the time.  From January through March there's always a Mardi Gras Bock in my fridge.  It is brewed with Perle hops and pale and caramel malts.  It is similar to a German Maibock with a high malt content and full body.  The Bock has an IBU of 25.

This is a great beer.  It has a wonderfully rich, malty flavor without being too heavy.  It has a lingering finish that tends to stay on your palate.  It is great all by itself, but I enjoy it with salty meats like pork and sausage.  It goes very well with Boudin and it is excellent to cook with.  I put a bottle of it in the gumbo I made this weekend and it came out great.

Strawberry Harvest

Last, but not least, is the Strawberry Harvest.  A lot of people like this beer.  That sounds suspiciously like I don't like it, although this isn't the case.  My only problem with any of the Harvest beers is that they quite naturally fluctuate in taste and quality year to year and batch to batch throughout their respective seasons.  The Strawberry Harvest Lager is the most sensitive.  When the strawberries are tops, the beer is tops.  Fortunately, Ponchatoula strawberries are usually tops.

It is a crisp, light lager with just a hint of strawberry sweetness.  The Strawberry Harvest has an IBU of 13.  It is very light on the palate, a little delicate, and has a little bit of sweetness from the strawberries.  It is a little less aromatic than I like and sometimes the beer doesn't pop.  It also has to be paired delicately in order to appreciate its flavor.  The Strawberry Harvest is certainly a beer to try every year, and I haven't had any this year, but I suggest having a Strawberry Harvest before food is served as it won't pair well with the rich, spicy flavor of crawfish and jambalaya.

The Abita Brewery produces a few other beers, but these are the best and the ones that we'll have at the crawfish boil.  Abita also makes a very nice root beer with more sassafras than sweetness and with minimal bite.  Its a characterful soda and if you like root beer you should give it a try while you're down here.

As for the winner of my personal crawfish boil recommendation, it will have to be Andygator!  I love Golden to death, but Andygator wins on its miraculous ability to pair with crawfish.  This is the beer to drink when you're peeling pounds of mudbugs and stuffing your face.

That's all I have for now.  The boil is coming up in less than two weeks!  If you're coming and you haven't sent us an RSVP you might miss out on some cool New Orleans swag.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Get Ready for the Crawfish Boil!

Posted by Benson

Alright ya’ll!  The crawfish boil is just around the corner with only four weeks to go from this Saturday.

As a reminder, the DGA crawfish boil is Saturday, March 12th from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The crawfish boil is being held at Friends Coastal Restaurant in historic Madisonville, LA.

If you are planning to attend, we would also like you RSVP when you can.  The amount of crawfish to buy can vary wildly depending on how many people we expect to have at the boil.  Doug is also collecting a secret stash of door prizes and special gifts in his office, but I think those are supposed to be a surprise. 

New Orleans gets a little popular around Mardi Gras, so if you’re planning on coming down early to experience the carnival season, you should start thinking about booking your hotel rooms soon.

Madisonville is on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain which is just a short hop across the Causeway from New Orleans.  We recommend that our out of town guests look for accommodations in New Orleans.  There’s tons of things to do in New Orleans and the city has a much better selection of hotels than the Northshore. 

If you want to be right in the middle of the French Quarter, I recommend the Royal Sonesta Hotel.  It’s right on Bourbon Street, but if that’s a little too intimidating, Jamie recommends the W New Orleans French Quarter.  It’s in the Quarter, but in a quieter location on Chartres, and the restaurant Bacco is also rather good.  The Omni Royal Orleans is a more luxurious option on St. Charles and Royal, near the St. Louis Cathedral.

Westin also has a W Hotel on Poydras.  It’s within walking distance of the French Quarter, but removed from the buzzing night life.  The JW Marriott on Canal Street also isn’t too far from the French Quarter, and Matt says that it’s a nice place to stay.  The Courtyard Marriott is closer to the river near the Convention Center, and is very close to the river walk. 

The weeks surrounding Mardi Gras tend to dominate the festival schedule, but there’s still a few interesting festivals and events the same weekend as the crawfish boil.

The Great Gator Race is a fun event on March 5th involving 5,000 alligators and supports the Southern Mutual Help Association.  If you’re into indy rock, the Foburg Music Festival is March 11-13 in New Orleans.  Frisco Fest; a craft, art, and food show at the San Francisco Plantation; is on March 12-13.  The Lagniappe Dulcimer FĂȘte is in nearby Baton Rouge from March 10th to 13th.  On the Northshore, the monthly Saturday Evening Art Walk in historic Old Covington is the same evening of the crawfish boil.  Galleries hold opening receptions and many of the boutiques keep their doors open late.  Finally, the Bayou Jam concert in Slidell’s Heritage Park is featuring the Topcats from 5:30-7:30 on Sunday evening after the crawfish boil.

The Abita Brewery also offers free tours every week, which I heartily recommend.  A tour is run on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday every week.  The Abita Mystery Museum is also worth a look, trust me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Crawfish 101

Posted by Benson

As fun as a crawfish boil is, I imagine that the prospect can seem a little intimidating from the outside.  It’s a whirl people, conversation, music, beer, and all kinds of food that you might not have much experience with.  So today I thought I’d walk you through one of the basic things you need to know in order to start navigating a crawfish boil: how to eat crawfish.

First of all, let’s talk about what happens to the crawfish before it shows up on your plate.  Since we’re in Louisiana, you’re going to be eating Red Swamp Crawfish.  There may be a few White River Crawfish mixed in with the bunch, but you probably won’t be able to tell the difference; they all turn bright red when boiled.  The majority of these crawfish will likely be from local aquaculture, but judging by the sheer amount of crawfish we’ll be eating; there will definitely be a fair amount of wild caught crawfish in the bunch.

The crawfish will be boiled live, and it’s likely that they won’t have traveled far to reach the pot.  Depending on the specific method of preparation at Friends (everybody has their crawfish secrets) the crawfish will be rinsed from once to as many as four or five times before they go into the boil.  The boil will be spiced with a mixture of salt, lemons, red pepper, onions, garlic, and a variety of other spices to vary the flavor, possibly allspice, bay leaves, cayenne, and maybe even a little bit of honey or sugar. 

In addition to the crawfish, Friends likes to include sides into the boil such as red potatoes and corn on the cob.  Because crawfish boil in about ten minutes depending on the specifics of the preparation, the potatoes will be boiled first and the corn thrown in towards the end.  This is important because it means that the potatoes will be extra spicy, so watch out!

At a typical crawfish boil, a row of folding tables is covered in newspaper and the crawfish are dumped out right across the tables for everyone to eat.  Friends prefers to bring the crawfish up in batches and serve them in a large, trough-like dish.  Diners will be equipped with small trays to transport their current serving of mud bugs and hold the empty shells for disposal.  The total amount of crawfish to boil is typically figured at about five pounds per adult, so there should be plenty of crawfish for everyone and more where those came from.

Before you start peeling, remember that crawfish boiled live typically have curled tails.  Those that were dead when they went in the boil (there’s always a few) have flat tails and mushy meat.

You might have heard of the twist, pinch, and suck method of peeling crawfish.  This refers to twisting off the head, pinching the tail, and sucking the head.  This is the basic method we’re going to learn, although sucking the head is entirely optional.  Most crotchety Cajuns suck the heads to put newcomers off their crawfish, but there’s also a culinary reason to do it and I’ll explain that at the end.

Although these colloquial terms are wildly inaccurate in terms of a crawfish’s anatomy, the two basic parts you need to know about are the “head,” the main body of the crawfish, and the “tail,” the segmented abdomen of the crawfish.

To start peeling, grasp the head in one hand and the tail in the other.

Next, twist the head and pull it away from the tail.

At this point, you can pinch the tail and pull out the meat with your teeth, but that takes some crawfish experience.  Being new to peeling crawfish, you will have more success if you peel the first segment of the shell off of the tail.

You can then flip the tail over, use your thumb to pinch the tail at the base, and then pull out the meat.

Last, but not least, you can suck the head.  The reason to do this is that most of the fat is in this part of the crawfish and it doesn’t always come out with the tail meat.  Like crabs, crawfish fat is extremely tasty and it holds a remarkable amount of flavor.

This is all great, but there's little point in eating crawfish unless you've got a beer.  Next week I'll give you a run down of the local microbrews we'll have at the crawfish boil along with some personal suggestions about the best crawfish pairing.

What is a Crawfish Boil?

Posted by Benson

What is a crawfish boil?  I got asked this question a lot when I was living in the Midwest.  It seems that many people find the idea of a crawfish boil to be sort of strange, exotic, exciting, and alluring all rolled up together.  The truth is I’ve never been able to give a satisfying answer.  Growing up in south Louisiana, crawfish boils were a part of everyday life and they seem pretty normal to me.  The best answer I’ve been able to give is that it’s kind of like a barbeque but you eat crawfish instead. 

It turns out that Professor Jay Hunter, author of Red Swamp Crawfish: Biology and Exploitation, agrees with me. “Crawfish boils,” he says, “are important social gatherings…comparable in every way to New England clam bakes and southwest barbecues.”  There you go: it’s kind of like a barbeque but you eat crawfish instead.  While that description is generally accurate, it’s just never satisfied me and I think that’s because it doesn’t capture the lagniappe; that little something extra that makes a crawfish boil special. 

As much as it resembles a clam bake or a barbeque, a crawfish boil is a unique outgrowth of the cultural amalgam of the Atchafalaya basin, and New Orleans in particular.  It has deep roots in Cajun culture, going back to a time when Cajuns were thought of as low class and crawfish as the food of hungry hillbillies and swamp-dwellers.  But as crawfish consumption became more mainstream and Cajun culture became a celebrated part of Louisiana’s cultural landscape, the crawfish boil has grown into a tradition that not only reinforces community bonds, but also celebrates Louisiana life. 

Like any clam bake or barbeque, the crawfish boil is a time to enjoy good company and good food, as well as to reconnect with family and friends.  But the crawfish boil is also a time for Louisianans to experience and recreate what we love about our home.  It celebrates the friendship, relaxation, and generosity that we value and the local food that identifies our special place in the world.  It is a time to Laissez les bons temps rouler, or let the good times roll, as we say in New Orleans. 

This is really what makes a crawfish boil a special event, and I think it’s a description that I’m finally satisfied with.  It’s steeped in the mysterious brew of history, environment, and culture that makes Louisiana so alluring and such a rewarding place to call home.  It’s an event that not only allows us to celebrate Louisiana life, but also to share that experience with our friends.