Brewhouse of the Rising Sun — Tom Benson Reconstructs a Monument in the Age of Craft Iconoclasts

illustration by Cooper Foszcz, design by Mike Duesenberg

illustration by Cooper Foszcz, design by Mike Duesenberg

Twelve years ago, Hurricane Katrina whipped through the Tulane/Gravier neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana and ravaged the old red-brick building in which Dixie Brewing Company had been making beer for nearly 100 years. And so, it wasn’t merely business news when, this past July, Tom Benson, the richest man in the state and owner of both the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, bought a majority stake in the storied beer company from longtime owners Joseph and Kendra Bruno. No, given the billionaire’s promise to revive the brand, a ghost of its former self since Katrina, and build a new brewery in city limits after years of outsourcing production, this was a story of the city’s continued perseverance in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Or so the story goes. The South has a long, proud tradition of spinning yarns, after all.

As Kendra Bruno, who still holds a minority interest in the company with her husband, said at the time of the announcement: “It was not just our beer. We were caretakers.”

Despite that, not everyone has greeted the comeback with enthusiasm. Instead, since re-emerging on shelves and on draft this summer, many brewers in the state have been quietly side-eyeing the new Dixie. They’re suspicious of the way the company has gone about promoting the resurrected brand, suggesting its tactics needlessly embellish history. Furthermore, because of Benson’s political power as both the wealthiest man in the Bayou State and owner of two professional sports organizations that generate millions in economic impact for the surrounding area, brewers worry Dixie may be able to operate by a more lenient set of marketplace rules.

“On the surface, the premise of it is pretty cool,” Andrew Nations, of Great Raft Brewing in Shreveport, tells GBH. “But peeling back some of the layers, how they’re going about the whole thing…it’s kind of disheartening.”

Louisiana boasts strong “tied house” laws prohibiting brewers from inducing retailers, directly or indirectly, to purchase any of their products at the exclusion of others. Because of this, some brewers are wary of Benson as both a brewery owner and as a professional sports franchise owner. More specifically, they’re concerned that by virtue of his myriad business interests, he may have unfair pull to get his beers stocked, at the illicit expense of other products, in his two teams’ home stadiums.

“Like, duh, right?” says one high-level Louisiana beer industry executive speaking on condition of anonymity. “You know, really there’s a lot of smoke there that would be an issue."

Adds Scott Wood, owner of The Courtyard Brewery, “There’s been a lot of concerns raised around the ownership of the Saints [and Pelicans] and them making money off alcohol.”

At the foundation of their suspicions brewers point to the fact that soon after the sale, Dixie beer quickly found hard-to-earn placement in both arenas, providing massive exposure for the brand and gaining sales that other local breweries only dream of. Furthermore, the arrival of Dixie also coincided with what one source close to the matter suggests was a significant exodus of Abita Brewing products from the two stadiums. (Anecdotally speaking, this wasn’t lost on consumers either, as many took to social media to comment on the apparent swap.)

“It seems to me it just happened because Tom Benson owned the Saints,” adds Nations at Great Raft. “I'm not sure they earned that placement.”

Ultimately, though, concerned brewers have been short on evidence of any wrongdoing beyond their own marketplace observations of tap rotations, a mostly unremarkable and all-too-common phenomenon in today’s industry. And uncovering evidence of pay-to-play or favoritism is notoriously difficult because so many people benefit from the activity and don’t want to be penalized in the market as we saw in Boston this year.

Either way, Dixie emphatically refutes the notion. And reached by GBH, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) similarly says there exists “no evidence” of any tied house violations relating to Dixie in the two stadiums. Rather, both Dixie and the ATC say the large-scale hospitality provider Centerplate independently chooses what beer is sold at the arenas.

“The fact of the matter is the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans have zero say in any alcoholic beverage that is served within any of those buildings,” says Ben Hales, senior vice president of both the Saints and Pelicans. Hales also helps develop and launch Benson’s side businesses, including Dixie, from their startup stages. “We’re well aware of what the laws are.”

Kernell Jupiter, Centerplate’s GM at both arenas, tells GBH in a statement that the addition of Dixie is part of its own “consistent strategy to always be adding new options that reflect the local food and beverage scene.” The Saints and Pelicans, meanwhile, say they receive a percentage of gross revenues from concession sales with or without Dixie, so the pressure they put on the concessionaire isn’t for any individual product, but rather simply to “maximize revenue.”

While that may be the case, it does create a situation whereby Benson benefits from both the initial wholesale and subsequent retail sale of his product, even if he has no explicit control over what gets sold in the end. During games, he makes money off a Bud Light the same way he does off a Dixie.

No less, a number of brewers frankly don’t believe the ATC, Dixie, or Centerplate, and assume a degree of backroom dealing in which Benson has had influence over Centerplate’s buying habits since the deal. And even among those willing to give the stakeholders involved the benefit of the doubt, some still see something askance about it all.

“I would say it’s just a picture,” says Kirk Coco, founder of NOLA Brewing and president of the Louisiana Brewers Guild. “That even though there may not be anything wrong, it makes it look like something is going on, and that can be bad enough for our industry. If they’re carrying Dixie, which is a Memphis-made beer that has ties to New Orleans, you’d think they’d be carrying other New Orleans beers…. It’s definitely a little off putting.”

But that’s not the only “off putting” aspect of it all, according to brewers. In a time when the state’s smaller beer businesses find themselves fighting the regulatory bodies that enforce the rules, they also see an uncomfortable relationship between those same bodies and Dixie.

For instance, back in 2009, the state agreed to furnish Benson with $85 million to pay for stadium improvements. In exchange, Benson vowed to keep the Saints in town through 2025. As part of the agreement, as detailed in a 2014 lease analysis, Benson also agreed to buy the then-vacant Dominion Tower that neighbors the Superdome and lease office space there back to the state. Now called Benson Tower, the city’s own ATC offices can be found there. As a result, Benson is a tenant of the state in the two stadiums, and so too is the state a tenant of Benson’s interests in Benson Tower.

“There’s this political pressure there,” says one brewer, speaking anonymously, on the perceived challenges regulators might have in enforcing the rules evenly. “And I feel for [regulators] because they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Asked to address the concerns, the ATC says Dixie has been “subjected to the same standards” everyone else is since being revived. “No preferential treatment was requested or given,” the agency says of the company’s permitting process. “There is no connection between a lease negotiation and release of an alcohol permit.”

Meanwhile, Dixie was issued a cease and desist letter earlier this year by the ATC, following complaints the agency had received about the company running afoul of strict social media marketing rules. The company was warned and provided marketing guidance, the agency says. Dixie says the misstep was part of the new team’s learning process, but has since righted course.

In the wake of Katrina, Dixie, its facility destroyed and looted, fled New Orleans to Monroe, Wisconsin, began contract brewing what little product it could at the Minhas Brewery, and all but disappeared from the marketplace. Meaning, Katrina didn’t put an official end to Dixie, but the devastating storm has long been assumed responsible for ultimately killing the brand.

As NPR reported in 2006, “...until Hurricane Katrina hit, the Bruno’s mom-and-pop operation was still churning out up to 50,000 barrels of beer each year.” And under Benson today, that narrative is a key part of marketing the brewery’s comeback. In a 60-second spot released this August, a disembodied voice speaking over an aerial view of flooded homes announces, “It took the unimaginable to push Dixie out of town.”

This narrative, however, has been contested, because even before the storm hit in August of 2005, the company was struggling. As The Times-Picayune in New Orleans reported in April of that same year, four months before the city was wracked by Katrina, “Dixie hangs on, its facility sorely in need of renovation, and with nowhere near the presence or production it once enjoyed.”

A former Dixie employee alludes to these past struggles today in even starker terms, telling GBH that the brewing staff was let go, bills were going unpaid, and employee payments were delayed in the months leading up to the hurricane, not after.

“That was pretty much what happened—we all got laid off,” says Peter Caddoo, Dixie’s brewmaster in the months leading up to Katrina. “The director of brewing, the chief engineer, then the bottle shop department was still there because they still had beer to bottle. But, I was trying to tell them, ‘Guys, we got laid off. We’re not making no beer. You guys are next.’”

Similar accounts were parroted independently by a pair of industry veterans speaking on background, by Jeremy Labadie and Argyle Wolf-Knapp, the co-authors of New Orleans Beer: A Hoppy History of Big Easy Brewing, and by New Orleans beer writer Nora McGunnigle. Says Wolf-Knapp: “Dixie was dying as a business just before Katrina.” Adds McGunnigle: “It’s kind of apocryphal that the storm had closed Dixie. They may have had to close their doors just before.”

Despite this timeline of events and subsequent marketing angle rubbing some the wrong way, Dixie says such concerns cherry pick and miss the overall point of its campaign. For starters, Katrina did, in fact, devastate the facility and render it uninhabitable. Which, in turn, led to the facility being turned over to the state against the Brunos’ wishes. And because of this, Hales says Katrina is no doubt an intractable part of the Dixie story. Furthermore, he says the company is trying to highlight not just one, but the myriad challenges it’s faced and overcome throughout the years, from Prohibition, both world wars, and even an infamous “bad batch” of beer from 1975 that hammered the company’s reputation.

“This brand has been a survivor,” Hales tells GBH. “To argue that we’re trying to profit off of the fact that the original brewery built in 1907 was flooded, looted, and then taken over by the government is not being factual and would be an impediment to a brand’s survival. I think it’s a little bit callous.”

That Katrina was Dixie’s death knell isn’t the only claim being made in the company’s push to make a new name for itself with which brewers take issue, however. In the years since being displaced, Dixie reportedly strayed from its original recipe, a pivot said to have hurt the brand. To correct that now, Dixie says it has returned its flagship Pale Lager to the day-one 1907 recipe that endeared the beer to generations of New Orleans drinkers: “lightly roasted two-row barley, rice and Cascade hops.”

Considering Cascade is the most popular hop variety in the country today, this bill lends Dixie a remarkable level of anachronistic credibility. This recipe is also impossible following the historic timeline of lupulin evolution. According to a 2013 hop varietal guide published by the University of Vermont in conjunction with YCH Hops, a prominent hops grower and supplier in Washington, the in-demand aroma variety was “bred in 1956 and released for cultivation in 1972,” a full 65 years after Dixie introduced its “original” recipe.

Addressing this, Dixie says its recipe is proprietary, but today’s drinkers know this is “the beer they fell in love with growing up as a New Orleanian.”

Other brewers have been less forgiving.

“How can something that was developed in the 1970s be an original recipe of something that was produced in the early 1900s?” says one brewer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I mean, as a brewer, that’s the first thing I noticed. No way in hell.”

All this combined has led brewers to view Dixie skeptically, but in fairness, others have welcomed the brand back with open arms. Polly Watts, owner of the reputable Avenue Pub, says she and others are “thrilled to see it come back,” adding that, at her place, Dixie has taken dollars away not from local brands, but from the so-called big guys. Others seem to agree, as the New Orleans Advocate reported last week that Dixie’s third batch, now in production, is larger than its first two combined.

“I see great long term potential for Dixie to take market share away from the large macros,” Watts elaborates. “Once the brewery has opened here, that could have a nice, positive impact in our local economy.”

As for that promised brewery, Hales says the company is very close, having decided where it plans to go and is currently in the process of conducting engineering surveys. And that’s great news to even the angriest of brewers with whom GBH spoke, who see Dixie as having the potential to create local jobs and become a good neighbor. So, too, does Dixie wish to be a powerful local advocate for the industry.  Says Hales: “We’d like everybody to be drinking local the way they’re eating local. Certainly that’s important to us.”

Others still, though, have voiced concern that the racial implications of the brand’s name alone—the word “Dixie” most famously refers to the racist Confederate States of America—actually could work to damage the industry’s reputation. This is especially so, they say, at a time when the country grapples with tearing down confederate monuments. This is something Benson is no doubt acutely aware of, as national anthem protests over systemic violence against black Americans have underlined this NFL season. Indeed, these protests played out under his personal view of the field every Sunday. The stadium, now dressed in Dixie trademarketing, feels out of sync with some who view the name and implications negatively, even as its nostalgic qualities are positive for others. It’s difficult to curate historical associations when it’s also your unique selling point.

But in the end, given Dixie’s stated desire to be a good neighbor (and, as the company tells GBH, with an open invite for any concerned brewers to talk with them), those worried just aren’t sure what to make of it all. In one of the new Dixie spots, for instance, the same abovementioned disembodied voice intones, “This city doesn’t need another beer, but it does need Dixie Beer.” Wood, at Courtyard, says that line in particular “infuriated a lot of people.”

“Like, what do you mean?” he says. “No, we need more, we need jobs. New Orleans especially needs jobs and help and more industry. That really rubbed us the wrong way.”

— Dave Eisenberg