For more than 30 years, Abita Brewing Company has been the face of Louisiana’s craft beer scene, creating traditional and innovative efforts – many of which highlight the area’s roots. Whether it’s Big Easy IPA, Mardi Gras Bock or even Abita Root Beer, which is made with pure Louisiana sugar cane, Abita often incorporates the region’s look, and flavors, into its beer and while shelves might be jammed-packed with pumpkin and marzen beers this time of year, the brewery turns to a popular local food to brew something much different than anything else.
That unique seasonal beer is Pecan Ale, a 5.2 percent ABV, toasty, copper-looking seasonal beer brewed with Willamette hops, along with Pale, Munich, Biscuit and Caramel malts, that continues to evolve into a staple of fall drinking. If you’ve never visited Louisiana, or the majority of the south in general, pecans are plentiful in the region and incorporated into many dishes and desserts, including pecan pie. And now, thanks in part to Abita’s brewmaster Mark Wilson, pecans aren’t just for desserts anymore.
“Pecans are a southern item,” Wilson explained. “Most of our sales are in the south, but it sells well outside of the state. I don’t know the exact breakdown of how much is sold out of state and how much is sold in but it’s popular pretty much everywhere. Everybody was making a pumpkin beer and an Oktoberfest beer, well we’re making a pecan beer – locally sourced.”
Wilson, 49, started as a brewing trainee in 1995, thanks to a passion for homebrewing, and worked his way up in part because of obtaining a Fermentation Science and Brewing Technology degree from the World Brewing Academy. At the time of his arrival, Abita produced 40,000 barrels of beer annually – a far cry from the 130,000-barrel output that now makes Abita the 24th largest brewery, based on sales volume, in the U.S.
It’s been a little over a decade since Wilson and the team at the brewery introduced Pecan Ale, which actually started as part of the Abita Harvest Series, incorporating local produce into its recipes. As the demand for fall beers gained steam, first with all sorts of pumpkin efforts and now with the emergence of Oktoberfest releases, Pecan Ale was ultimately thrown into seasonal rotation, with production on this year’s batch beginning in July. It’s brewed in 200-barrel batches and along the same lines as the majority of Abita’s beers.
“We brew this just like any other beer, there’s no real difference in the brewing process except that we’ll add pecans to the mash,” Wilson added. “So, we’ll get roasted pecan pieces – we’ve had the same person process them for us almost since the beginning – and they roast them to our specification and they break them into pieces that easily go into the mash.”
The process behind adding the locally-sourced Central Louisiana pecans, Wilson admits, is the same as adding malted barley with the hot water, and it allows for the nut’s oils to be extracted to create much of the beer’s roasted flavor. After the extraction, the creation is lautered and boiled, at which point the malts need to be selected.
“The malts used are ones that are going to be, you know, like nutty in aroma and flavor and that will complement that. We use Willamette hops and they’re very earthy and pleasant and they complement the malts and the nutty flavor and aroma.”
All the waste produced then goes out to local farms, providing a source of animal feed. The recipe from beginning to end is one Wilson and his crew have down pat, so there’s no need for pilot tests or anything else, except to circle the date on the calendar.
Pecan Ale has seen it’s release date move up significantly over the years, from originally mid-to-late September to the beginning of August this year. Wilson admits that it gets earlier and earlier as breweries race to have their effort on the shelf first but he’s not too worried about that, instead focusing his attention to making the best beer possible.
“I’m not worried as much about the sales, obviously I want [Abita] to grow, but I just worry about making a quality product and a consistent product – everything else will take care of itself,” Wilson said.