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Benson buys Dixie Brewing Co., hopes to revive struggling brand

New brewery to be built in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- Once on the verge of joining K&B, Maison Blanche and a host of other local institutions on the “ain’t dere no more” list, Dixie Beer could be poised for a comeback.

The local brew, once popular with New Orleanians of a certain generation before a notorious “bad batch” in 1975 and other missteps sent its fortunes south, will see a noticeable return to barrooms and stores after Tom and Gayle Benson announced Thursday they have purchased a majority share in the struggling brewery. Plans also call for it to be sold in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center.

“Gayle and I could not be more excited,” Tom Benson said in a prepared statement. “Dixie Beer was lost to time, storms and even economic changes, but it is part of the social fabric of our city, and needs to be back home.”

Hurricane Katrina swamped Dixie’s former Tulane Avenue home, a crumbling century-old red brick building with a signature silver cupola, which was later expropriated as part of the new VA Hospital.

Despite that, Joseph and Kendra Bruno, who bought the brewery in 1985 and will continue with the company as minority owners, fought to keep the brand alive, brewing it out of state. But that will soon change.

Benson said he is looking to build a new brewery for Dixie in a part of the city that is still recovering from Katrina. Company officials said they hope to have a location picked within a month.

Until a new local site is built, the beer will continued to be brewed in Memphis. It had been brewed in Wisconsin after Katrina. The beer is once again being made with the original recipe used when Dixie opened in 1907, Benson said.

Rob Haswell, who worked in Baton Rouge in the 1970s, returned to south Louisiana Thursday from his home in South Africa to grab a pint.

"Pretty much exactly as I remember it," he said with a smile after taking his first sip in decades while he sat on a barstool at Parkway Bakery and Tavern. "For the first three or four anyway. After that I'm not sure."

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Before the storm, Dixie made a number of beers in addition to its regular brew. Dixie Jazz Light, Crimson Voodoo Ale, Blackened Voodoo Ale, and White Moose, a dessert beer, were among the choices offered.

Benson said the company will once again sell Dixie Light and Blackened Voodoo, at least to start.

Dixie, which opened in 1907 and once enjoyed a market share of more than 30 percent, is the lone survivor of a once-thriving brewing scene with competitors that included Jax, Falstaff, Regal and Union. It was aged in small batches in oak and cypress casks that were damaged by Katrina.

Dixie will enter a crowded, competitive brewing scene in city that has seen the number of breweries swell as the craft beer fad takes hold.

Dixie was able to survive Prohibition, World Wars and the growth of major national brands. It survived Prohibition by making ice cream and soft drinks. But the infamous “bad batch” marketed during the July 4th weekend in 1975 nearly killed the business.

The batch was brewed with water apparently infused with chemical fumes from new flooring.

"People who bought a bottle or a six-pack of that batch remember where they were and what they were doing when they tasted it the way you remember where you were and what you were doing on the day John Kennedy was shot," then-brewmaster Robert Oertling told The Associated Press in a 1979 interview.

Sales dropped from around 200,000 barrels annually to around 60,000, the AP reported. Then came changes in ownership, bankruptcy court filings and battles for tax exemptions.

Neal Kaye Jr. bought the financially-struggling Dixie in 1983 and vowed to get in the black and put it on footing that would allow it to compete with the biggest names in brewing.

“You're standing across the plate from a guy in the little leagues who wants very much to be in the big leagues,” Kaye told United Press International in a 1984 interview. “I want to go up against Augie Busch. I want to show him how to sell beer. I want to show him how it's done.”

Those words turned out to be nothing but high hopes, paving the way for the Brunos to take over three decades ago. Even their good intentions weren't enough to shore up the business the way they would've liked.

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"They (the business) had problems with money. It was speculated by some of the guys who used to work there they were on the way to bankruptcy when Katrina hit. Of course that put the kibosh on it anyway," said Argyle Wolf-Knapp, a co-author of "New Orleans Beer: A Hoppy History of Big Easy Brewing."

Kendra Bruno said she and her husband received “countless” offers over the years to buy Dixie. But none ever felt right.

The Bensons plan to return Dixie to New Orleans was key, she said.

“We know they will ... make great beer and give the community another New Orleans business to be proud of (and) to be part of. We so look forward to being part of Dixie’s rebirth.”

The new brew returned to neighborhood bars in New Orleans and Metairie on Thursday with locations in metro-area parishes getting taps in the coming weeks and months. The beer will hit store shelves next month.

Dixie plans to eventually sell its beer along the Interstate 10 corridor from Lake Charles to Florida.

In the meantime, longtime locals are glad the new operators have infused new life into the beleaguered brand.

"All of us have a place in our hearts for Dixie because it is a local institution," said Benjamin Haswell, who sampled the beer at Parkway.

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