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New Orleans Brewery Hopes Beer Keeps Flowing

Dixie Beer maker fighting to help microbrew regain popularity after Hurricane Katrina, looters hit its old facility.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) β€” The old, brick building where Dixie Beer was brewed for the past century is vacant now. What Hurricane Katrina and 10 feet (3 meters) of flood water did not destroy, looters stole.
But almost 100 years to the day after it was founded, Joe and Kendra Bruno β€” who have struggled to keep the brewery going since 1986 β€” say the beer and the brewery will be back.
''We've worked too hard to give up now,'' Joe Bruno said. ''Dixie is fine; a lot of people want it back on the shelves, and so do we.''
Pundits in the beer industry may scoff at the idea β€” after all, Dixie Beer was struggling before the storm β€” but the Brunos, a couple who could easily be enjoying retirement and their grandchildren, have kept the beer flowing through tough times before.
The hurricane was just another in a long list of disasters that have befallen the brewery since the first bottles of the pale, amber brew rolled down the assembly line on Oct. 31, 1907.
Once the most popular of the 13 beers brewed in New Orleans, demand fell in 1975 when fumes from a chemical being used to clean the floors tainted the beer's flavor. That was the first slip on its steep slide.
By the time the Brunos bought Dixie Beer in 1986, the brewery was almost $14 million in debt. The previous owner had bankruptcy papers drawn up and was ready to file if the sale fell through.
The Brunos refuse to say what they paid for the ailing brewery.
''We only paid our lives, our blood, our sweat and tears,'' Kendra Bruno said. ''We love this place. We love the place Dixie has always had in this city.''
The Brunos came up with and won awards for Blackened Voodoo Lager, a dark beer, and Jazz Amber Light. They also produced a dessert beer, White Moose, with a taste of white chocolate.
By the time Katrina hit in 2005, Dixie was producing 50,000 barrels of beer a year.
The flood waters that followed Katrina took almost three weeks to recede. When they did, the bottling and packaging equipment was ruined, the carefully collected memorabilia was destroyed and the building was left with gaping holes in it.
Looters used that access to haul out everything from the wiring and the giant copper vat in which the beer was brewed to the 100-year old cypress barrels where it was stored.
''They had an assembly line in here taking things out,'' Kendra Bruno said.
The Brunos tried brewing at a small brewery near New Orleans but found it was too small to turn out beer in the quantities they anticipate needing. So a deal was worked out with the Huber Brewery in Monroe, Wis., to produce Dixie.
Brewmaster Kevin Stuart travels to Wisconsin to oversee the production, and several truckloads of beer already have hit stores and bars, Kendra Bruno said.
But after two years off the shelves, finding space again is going to be difficult, according to Steve Hindy, founder of Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
''Dixie had a pretty good niche pre-Katrina, especially for its specialty beer,'' Hindy said. ''Blackened Voodoo was in a lot of restaurants in New York and specialty bars, but things have changed a lot since Dixie disappeared. The beer business is much more competitive now.''
Microbreweries are now major factors in markets, Hindy said.
''They are the fastest growing product these days,'' Hindy said. ''They are growing faster than wine or liquor.''
And the major brewers are aggressively getting into the craft beer category as well.
The Brunos have secured Distinguished Brands of Littleton, Colo., as a distributor, but Hindy said even that won't offer a quick rebirth.
''Distributors will take your beer, the hard part is at retail,'' he said. ''There is limited shelf space, and it's hard to get.''
Still, the Brunos are plowing ahead.
They planned a Wednesday night Halloween party at the abandoned brewery to celebrate its 100th anniversary. After that, they plan to begin rebuilding the building.
''We want to put in a smaller, state-of-the-art brewery in the building,'' Joe Bruno said.
They also plan to add an Old World Bier Garten on the rooftop and specialty shops.
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