On-Tap Recap: Mardi Gras (“Show us your cans”)
Last week’s On-Tap Recap was postponed due to a family vacation. We took our eleven-month-old to our native New Orleans for his first Mardi Gras. You read that right: a baby at Mardi Gras. If that surprises you, if all you know of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is what you’ve seen on late-night television, be aware that the booze-soaked, boob-baring buffoonery is generally limited to a downtown district called the French Quarter and primarily attracts tourists. For the locals, Mardi Gras is all about the parades uptown: hours-long processions of colorful floats filled with masked revelers peppered with the best marching bands and the weirdest dance troupes from Louisiana and beyond. Families come in droves with kids, coolers and box after box of Popeyes fried chicken. Beads are thrown, but no one has to debase themselves for them. And while there is lots of drinking, it is as one local friend put it, “A family friendly drunkenness”. It’s no more improper than your average sporting event tailgate party.
Beer is the beverage of choice for most uptown parade-goers (unless you catch the “merry band of hipsters” called Box of Wine, who march carrying the eponymous boxes giving free pours to anyone with a cup) and New Orleans open container laws prohibit glass, so cans are the norm. This gave me an opportunity to catch up on the state of brewing in Louisiana (and beyond) by trying a few canned craft beers that I can’t easily get in Texas. In the interest of curbside refreshment between bouts of scrounging for plastic trinkets thrown from motor vehicles, I gravitated towards pale ales.
Louisiana doesn’t have as extensive a craft beer culture as Texas does, but it’s growing. I’m excited to watch it from afar, since the seeds of my love for craft beer were sown during my formative years in the Crescent City. Fittingly, the control for my taste test was an IPA I know well: Jockamo IPA from Abita Brewing in Abita Springs, Louisiana. This is the brewery that started it all for me; Abita Turbodog and Amber were the first craft brews I ever tasted in the mid-nineties. Today, Abita is the elder statesman of New Orleans craft brewing: ubiquitous and familiar. Extensive and experienced, they brew beer of consistently better quality than any other Louisiana brewery I’ve tried, but their beer isn’t very exciting. They play it safe in recipe creation, offering beers that can be summed up with simple descriptors like “dark” or “bitter” and skewing heavily towards fruit beers – all for the purpose (I believe) of not alienating a market that’s still bi-curious about craft beer. Someone has to do it, and I’m glad they’re taking one for the team by serving as the gateway to craft beer for an entire state. But I haven’t been wowed by them in some time. Jockamo IPA I find very sweet, a bit too raisiny from the interplay of IPA-level hops with too much dark crystal malt (a common flaw in American IPAs, so maybe it’s just me). It’s bitter but has little aroma. It’s not bad, and I can drink a couple at 6.5% ABV, so I’m always happy to find a six-pack of it at Rouses. But it’s not spectacular either.
My second tasting was another 6.5% ABV IPA from relative upstart NOLA Brewing. NOLA seems to be catching on better than any other brewery in the city limits, and that’s great news for anyone who loves New Orleans. The brewers at NOLA seem to have a passion for their craft, offering a varied assortment from a simple blonde ale that I haven’t tried but I’m told is the best in town, to more trendy advanced offerings like a saison and smoked ale. However, I happen to find their output rather inconsistent, and I think their hop-forward offerings skew too much toward inappropriately extreme IBUs in lieu of flavor and aroma. Hopitoulas IPA (named for the notoriously tongue-twisting Tchoupitoulas (“chop-it-TOOL-us”) Street in New Orleans where the brewery is situated) was no different. It was bitter, resiny, and unbalanced. It’s not hard to drink, exactly, but it has little to recommend it over even something as prosaic as Jockamo, unless you want to support smaller breweries. Okay, yeah, I do too. And I will. But I’d feel better if I could find a NOLA Brewing beer I actually love. I’ll keep looking.
The brightest light in my Mardi Gras pale ale flight came unexpectedly from outside the state, from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mississippi has until recently been a desert for craft beer, with no packaging brewery operating in the state from Prohibition to 2003 (Lazy Magnolia). But a handful of new breweries across the state and the legalization of homebrewing last year suggest hope is springing for Mississippians. Devil’s Harvest Pale Ale caught me by surprise, coming from a brewery I – shamefully – had never heard of before last week and being so astonishingly freaking good. Bright and light, crisp and clean, with a citrus-pine aroma and a ton of lemony flavor. It was fantastically easy to drink (good thing it’s only 5.8% ABV). Southern Prohibition boasts Munich in its recipe rather than crystal malt, and they have definitely struck gold. I would gladly order Devil’s Harvest in a bar, even over an old favorite like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Again, we gotta support the little guys. But in the case of Southern Prohibition, I have no reservations about doing so. They clearly know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait until I’m back in a place where they’re sold, so I can try their beer again.