The Rebirth of Dixie Beer

The Bensons tackle a new project and the New Orleans brew comes home.

Do you remember your first cold beer? Tom Benson does. It was a Dixie, but he’s hardly alone in that! Anyone who grew up in New Orleans during the 20th century has their own Dixie beer story to tell.

Dixie beer is much like the city itself — a survivor. New Orleans in the 1890s was considered the “Brewing Capital of the South.”

Thirty breweries produced sudsy, golden lagers for the thirsty populace. In the late 20th century, Budweiser, Miller and Coors, the industry giants, made it increasingly difficult for small breweries to survive until finally, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city’s last brewery, Dixie Beer.

As the city rebuilt after the storm, Tom and Gayle Benson participated in the revitalization through new projects like Benson Tower, the Hornets and Fox 8. Seeing the positive effect each brought to the city, they tasked their management team with finding businesses that perhaps were dwindling or already “ain’t there no more.” As they investigated possibilities, “and we talked with just about everyone you can think of!” says Ben Hales, Benson’s senior vice president of marketing and business development, “one name that kept coming up was Dixie.”

After the iconic Tulane Avenue brewery became a casualty of Hurricane Katrina, Dixie beer owners Joseph and Kendra Bruno resorted to contract brewing the product in Wisconsin. But to loyal beer drinkers, it seemed something was missing when it came to taste.

Despite flagging quality, brand loyalty remained strong – as strong as the Brunos’ commitment to Dixie. Kendra Bruno’s family was the original makers of Barq’s Root Beer, so she knew what it was like to see a local product lose its cultural identity, something she and her husband, Joseph, were determined would never happen to Dixie Beer. Over the past decade, the Brunos received over 80 buyout offers, but were not willing to sell.

All that changed once they saw the passion for the brand the Bensons brought to the table. It was clear they understood that to New Orleans, Dixie was so much more than just beer.

Once the deal was struck, the first priority was to restore the beer’s quality. Luckily, the original 1907 recipe for Dixie had been carefully preserved and Kevin Stuart, Dixie’s longtime brewmaster, was ready and willing to take on the project. He had been making Dixie on Tulane Avenue for 20 years before Katrina.

First the brewing operation was moved from Wisconsin downriver to Memphis, where Kevin meticulously recreated the original taste, but by 2018 the brewery will move home to New Orleans.

The first kegs were delivered to local establishments in late July and the reaction was unanimous. Dixie drinkers proclaimed, “This is the beer I fell in love with!” What a wonderful way for an iconic brand to celebrate its 110th anniversary!

Today, almost every New Orleans neighborhood has a brewery nearby. Instead of industrial sites, today’s breweries are cozy affairs, most with a tasting room to sample the wares. Outdoor seating areas welcome dogs and children with casual dining from food trucks or restaurant pop-ups.

But where will Dixie fit in the current brewery scene? For over a decade, Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts has been the dynamic force behind the burgeoning craft beer movement in New Orleans. Her carefully curated selection of local and international brews has made the pub a destination location for beer lovers, catering to the best educated of connoisseurs.

What’s Watts’ take on Dixie’s rebirth? Both she and her customers are thrilled.

“Once upon a time in America, every big city had a brewery making a local lager,”  Watts says. “The rebirth of Dixie brings us back to our post-Prohibition place.”

She adds that the “vast majority of Americans still prefer a beer with a clean, crisp taste that’s not alcohol packed. Dixie is our version of that. It’s the guilt-free beer to pop after cutting the lawn!”

Now is the time to pop the top on a Dixie and toast Tom Benson’s commitment to preserving the history of New Orleans.

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Categories: Food, History, In Other News