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Message in a Bottle

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Abita Brewing Company helps “Save Our Shore” with its new brew

In beer aisles across the country there’s a distress signal coming through loud and clear: The Gulf Coast needs immediate help to recover from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Abita Brewing Company launched its charitable pilsner, called S.O.S., to raise money and awareness about the economic and environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill. The beer’s name is short for Save Our Shore. Abita will donate 75 cents for every bottle sold to a charitable fund dedicated to helping the environment, industry and individuals affected by the disaster.

“We saw a need and we saw our neighbors hurting,” says David Blossman, the president of Abita Brewing Company. “We wanted to do what we do best, which is make beer and [at the same time] help out the cause.”

This isn’t the first time the North Shore company has created a beer to help out the community. After Hurricane Katrina, Abita launched Restoration Ale to aid residents along the Gulf Coast. The company raised more than $550,000 for storm victims. Last year, Abita launched Abbey Ale, with designated proceeds benefiting the St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington.

This new cause is much more urgent, Blossman says. No one knows how long the cleanup will last. The potential environmental damage threatens not only our fragile wetlands, but also one of the nation’s most vibrant and productive fishing industries. Entire generations have fished Louisiana coastlines and their future livelihoods are in doubt.

“There is a lot of anxiety about this. If we lose our fishing industry, oyster industry, shrimping industry—just the fisheries themselves and the wetlands—that’s a horrible thing. That’s a big part of what Louisiana is all about,” Blossman says. “I fear that this is going to have an impact on our way of life and our culture.”

Abita enlisted the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board to help administer the S.O.S. fund so that some of the money could go directly into the fishing community.

“What is important in the donation process is clarity, speed and purpose,” says Ewell Smith, the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. “Needs will change and priorities will shift as time goes on. We are very proud to be a partner with Abita in making sure that money raised is spent wisely and effectively.”

While Abita also plans to sell hats, T-shirts, pins and other S.O.S. merchandise to raise money, the 22-ounce S.O.S. brew is the centerpiece of the campaign. What does it taste like? “It’s got a nice golden color with a sweet malt flavor that’s really well balanced with the hops that we used. And Czech pilsners tend to have some nice pleasant bitterness come through so we have that too.”

The brew is 7 percent alcohol by volume. “We needed a big pilsner for a big cause,” Blossman says. “We wanted something that was full flavor but approachable by most beer drinkers.”

Full flavor is a signature that’s helped Abita grow from a local supplier into the country’s 17th-largest craft brewery. The company is on track to sell more than 100,000 barrels of beer this year, up from under 90,000 in 2009. To get an idea of just how much that is, a barrel is about 31 gallons, so the company will produce more than 3.1 million gallons of beer this year.

Abita first started brewing in 1986, producing 1,500 barrels. By 1998, it had grown to 31,000 barrels, with production growing by more than 10 percent annually ever since. Abita has 60 full-time employees and reported $21 million in revenue last year. Its beer is now available in 43 states and Puerto Rico, but the majority of business is still in-state. Blossman estimates that Louisiana accounts for 60 percent of sales.

“The state is very important to us. Not only is it where we do most of our business, but it’s where we live and where all of our workers live,” he says. “We’re part of the culture here.”

Because of its local focus, the oil spill also has the potential to affect the company’s bottom line. Tourism and oil and gas are important aspects of the state’s economy that have taken a hit since the spill. Summer beach travel along the Gulf Coast is also down. “If it affects the economy, it’s going to affect us. No doubt about it,” he says. “We can see it right now. Certainly the Gulf Coast sales have fallen off a cliff.”

Even without the spill, these are trying times for the beer industry. Overall sales are down this year because of the recession. People who normally drink premium brands or stalwarts like Budweiser or Miller have traded down to budget brands to save money. Surprisingly, the economy hasn’t soured sales of craft brews. “The only category with any growth at all are the craft beers, and I think that has to do with the flavor revolution that is going on right now,” Blossman explains.

The flavor revolution is part of the changing American palate. Just as Starbucks educated the market about premium coffee and espresso, craft brewers have surprised and expanded Americans’ expectations for what a good beer should taste like. And many are still hooked. “It’s affordable luxury. Think about it. Depending on where you are, it’s $7.99 to $9.99 a six-pack, and you can have the finest beer in the world,” Blossman says. “And I will put American craft beer against any beer in the world. I’ve been to all these places, and we have a lot more ingenuity and a lot more depth of flavor.”

There’s no shortage of options in Abita’s arsenal of flavors. The brewery produces seven year-round flagships (Amber, Light, Golden, Purple Haze, Turbodog, Jockamo IPA and Restoration Ale) and five seasonal brews (Bock, Red Ale, Wheat, Fall Fest and Christmas Ale). The company also has Louisiana-grown harvest brews like Strawberry, Pecan and Satsuma and three high-alcohol “big beers” such as Andy Gator, Abbey Ale and S.O.S. It also produces a series of “Select” draft lines that rotate, depending on the brew master’s tastes. These feature a new style every few months, including Pale Ale, Nut Brown Ale, Abbey Dubbel, Alt, Bohemian Pilsner, English Bitter, Kolsch, Kristall Weizen, Rauchbier and Wit Beer.
Blossman and his brewers like the creative freedom the Select series offers. They get to play around with different styles and ingredients to create new flavors and experiments. “Like a chef, we can take it from inception and just run with it. We really like our Select program because that is exactly what we do,” he says. “Brewing is a science, but it’s also art.”

It’s an art 42-year-old Blossman has always had a passion for. As a youngster, he convinced his older brother to drive him out to Florida to buy his first home-brewing kit. The first couple of batches weren’t very good, but he stuck with it. “Some people call it hardheadedness and others call it persistence, but I was driven to try to make good beer.”

He ditched the home kit for a larger system and used better ingredients to come up with a winning formula. A year later, he won second and third place nationally in brewing competitions. He joined two home brewers who had started Abita and cashed in a money market fund to buy a share of the business. Later, his brothers bought out the largest shareholder and it became part of the family business. Blossman signed on as an executive vice president in 1996 and quickly rose to his current rank of president within six months. He has focused on building the company and its brands ever since.

As for the future, he is gearing up for an expansion as Abita tries to keep up with demand. While its in-state beer sales are growing 8 percent, most of its growth is projected to be beyond Louisiana. Out-of-state sales are expected to grow between 20 percent and 30 percent annually. While they haven’t gotten to a point where they have run out of supply for distributors, Blossman admits that at times inventory hasn’t been as high as he’d like to see. “It’s been uncomfortable,” he says.

Abita plans to add additional fermentation vessels to increase capacity by 50,000 barrels to a total of 165,000 barrels. The company is also looking to expand its bottling capacity.

Despite all the growth, Blossman still has the same excitement and passion for brewing he had when he first started. “I feel blessed to be in a position to work at such a great company with a great team and to work at and be successful at what your hobby and your passion is,” he says. “Coming to work is a very enjoyable experience for me. I really love it, and I’m very lucky.”