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Big Easy Brews

Rustico turns to Louisiana’s Abita Brewery for its Mardi Gras Party.

Since 1986, David Blossman’s livelihood has been tied to a town on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, an hour from New Orleans. Since the beginning of collective memory, the town and the settlements that preceded it have been tied to their water — not of the lake or the Gulf, but from naturally pressurized springs known as artesian wells.

The Choctaw Indians named the area Abita, “living water.” But the water that is flowing today into the tanks of the Abita Brewing Company may be older than the region’s first settlers. It was born in the clouds, Blossman explained, and fell on the Appalachian Mountains, hundreds of miles away. The water’s purifying journey through the intervening earth took 2,000 years.

“It’s just very fine water,” said Blossman, the president of the Abita Brewing Company. “Water is the largest ingredient in beer.”

Abita takes its water from deep underground and makes no alterations to it before beginning adding malted barley, hops and yeast in the brewing process. After beginning with a modest microbrewery, producing 1,500 barrels of beer in 1986, it is now making over 60,000 and shipping its popular brands like Purple Haze and Turbodog all over the country. But Blossman says Abita is shipping more than Louisiana’s water. “It’s exporting good will. Some people want to have a unique but authentic experience. We’re part of that. Part of doing our best to help Louisiana out as much as possible”

IN ALEXANDRIA, Chris Schaller and his colleagues just wanted to throw a party. The general manager of Rustico on Slaters Lane said his restaurant and bar plans to throw house parties about four times a year. Last fall they threw an Octoberfest alternative. This spring, they decided to highlight a slightly less-celebrated holiday: Fat Tuesday.

“It’s sort of a natural for us,” Schaller said. “It’s a little less celebrated than the Saint Patrick’s Day thing and it’s an opportunity for people to come out and have a good time.”

To import New Orleans to Northern Virginia, it made sense for the bar to turn to the region’s living waters. On Fat Tuesday, Feb. 20, Rustico will be featuring several different Abita Brews. And every time a customer orders a pint, he or she will get to keep the Abita glassware it’s served in.

Of course, it’s not the water that has made New Orleans nearly synonymous in America with one of the great partying holidays. “I think everybody likes to have a good time regardless,” said Blossman. “That’s not unique to Louisiana people.”

“Maybe we do it more often than others,” he conceded.

Schaller said Rustico always has Purple Haze raspberry wheat beer on tap. Other beers available for Fat Tuesday could include Amber or Golden lagers, Turbodog dark ale or Abita’s newest offering Restoration pale ale.

“We have flavor,” said Blossman. “In the world of flavorless beers, or commodity beers as I call them, it’s like Wonder Bread versus Bunny Bread… those are the two big selling white breads down here.”

SCHALLER SAID RUSTICO is devoted to celebrating beer in all its flavors. The bar has 30 draft beers on tap and another 300 in bottles. “We enjoy beer, the culture around beer and how it goes with food.” Rustico’s investors already own three restaurants with a focus on wine; this is their attempt to give beer the credit it is due, which means serving it with a meal that brings out all its potential.

“It’s not just hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza and beer,” Schaller said. “We do serve pizza, but its really good pizza, and really good beer.”

Rustico has carved itself a niche among the new homes off Slaters Lane. When it opened a year ago it was only the second business on the area’s small commercial strip. Schaller said it has earned the loyalty of its neighbors. “A lot of them tried us out of necessity alone, but I think we’ve won them over with what we’ve tried to do.”

Louis Smith said he had a few beers in Rustico shortly after it opened and he’s been dropping in about once a week ever since. “They have a great beer menu,” he said. “It rivals the best beer bars in D.C.”

Smith also praised the meal he had from Rustico’s new chef, who arrived a few weeks ago. “If that’s foreshadowing what’s to come. I’m going to come probably more than once a week.”

Abita Brewing has also tried to meld a strong local connection with a broader appeal. “We like being a good ambassador of this area and we also like to be good stewards,” Blossman said.

Hurricane Katrina did not damage the brewery, but Blossman said the damage it did to the area (“it was like bowling with trees”) knocked out power for weeks and forced them to dump 1,000 barrels (31,000 gallons) of beer they’d been brewing.

In the days after the hurricane, Blossman said, the company managers had the feeling that “'We gotta do something.’ And we said, ‘What do we do best?’ We make beer, you know.” Blossman praised Abita’s suppliers and federal government regulators for allowing them to rush a brand new brew into production. Four dollars from every case of Restoration Ale Abita sells goes to New Orleans Hurricane Relief.

“It’s spreading the news that New Orleans needs help. The cameras were all over the place during the storm, but a year and a half later we’re still out there promoting that there’s still work to be done… It’s a different way of advertising it.”