A Short History of Louisiana's Beer

From Jennie Merrill

My job gives me the opportunity to do a lot of fun things: seeing kids become more confident and take taste risks successfully, roadtripping to pick up artifacts, and especially learning pieces of the foodways puzzle myself and going out into the world and sharing it with others. Well, all roads converged last week when I was invited to go up to Sainte Terre near Shreveport, LA to emcee the first of their “Terre Talks” series, this one featuring an interview with Andrew and Lindsay Nations of Great Raft Brewery.

Now, if you and I have ever gone out for drinks together, you’ll know beer is my main jam. I love talking about beer, documenting my beers on Untappd, and obviously drinking beer. Naturally, my love of food history extends to beer but this gave me the chance to delve more into the history of beer outside of New Orleans. It also corrected some of my own assumptions, which was as refreshing as a shandy on a summer day.

Like many beer stories, ours begins with German immigration. New Orleans was founded in 1718, and the first major German immigration wave came in the 1720s. The majority of these Germans didn’t stay in the developing swamp town of Nouvelle Orleans, but instead took to setting up farms stretching from the River Parishes (Des Allemands anyone?) and heading all the way up through Cajun Country to modern day Shreveport. That’s right, for all the talking we do about the French and Spanish and Caribbean influences, we often overlook the influence of some of the earliest settlers who not only impacted Creole, but Cajun cuisine and drink as well.

Brewing in Louisiana, as it was everywhere in America, was mainly created in personal homes and city taverns. The first beers were “city beers”, beer that had such a short shelf life it couldn’t be sold outside the city. Lagers were too difficult to produce in our climate and lack of ingredient access, so city beers were created and sweetened with local molasses. With the second wave of German immigrants to the South in the mid 1800's, you start to see attempts at larger scale brewing operations in the 1850's and 1860's, which was helped along by lager yeast imported on the same ships bringing immigrants. Most of these seasonal breweries were waylaid by the Civil War, but quickly reemerged after 1864. The biggest reason? Artificial refrigeration. 1869 saw the first implementation of artificial refrigeration in New Orleans by George Merz. This is where we take another look at Shreveport.

Shreveport’s Germans were developing breweries that also doubled as icehouses. Not only a major employer of the region, by 1904 Shreveport tourist pamphlets laid claim that they were the “Milwaukee of the South”. This booming industry had one major contender though: the Temperance Movement. While they were cities, Shreveport and Bossier City were surrounded in rural landscape and the temperance movement was spreading across the nation. Many supporters of the movement were chaffed at the fact that they were so dependent on breweries to purchase ice, and Shreveport voluntarily went dry in 1908, twelve years before Prohibition federally went into effect.

Speed up 105 years later and Great Raft Brewery is born, the first brewery to open in Shreveport since they went on the water wagon.  Talking with Andrew and Lindsay Nations, Shreveport natives that found their brewing education in Washington D.C., was an absolute pleasure. They are passionate about their community and friends, and most of all the quality of their product.  The dinner at Sainte Terre was an opportunity to showcase their re-release of Southern Drawl, Great Raft’s flagship pale lager, with changed ingredients incorporating more elements to make it exactly that: Southern. Holly Schrieber, co-founder of Sainte Terre and a marvelous chef at that, created an entire menu based off the tasty Great Raft brews, including a sample and snack round before the talk. If you have an opportunity to go up, or are already in the area, for any of the continuing Terre Talks I can’t recommend it enough, and you can go alone because you will easily meet friends there.