When Shakespeare wrote about “small beer,” it was an insult. It meant something pointless or unimportant—we would say “small potatoes” today.
But for the brewers at Southern Craft Brewing Company in Baton Rouge, small beer is the goal.
Joe Picou and Wes Hedges, two former engineers, opened Southern Craft in April, noting a hole in the local beer market.
When the brewery was in its planning stages, Picou said, Louisiana ranked among the lowest states in the nation for the number of craft breweries per person. At the same time, Louisianans usually ranked near the top of the nation’s most prolific drinkers. For Picou and Hedges, this disconnect spelled opportunity.
“Everyone in Louisiana is looking for really good, local beer,” Hedges said.
With Abita, the state’s largest craft brewery, focusing more on expanding its national distribution, and only Tin Roof Brewing Company representing the capital city in the craft beer stakes, there was space for another small, locally-oriented brewery in the market, Picou said.
It doesn’t get much smaller or more locally-oriented than Southern Craft.
Out of two lots of a modest office and warehouse park on Airline Highway that hosts the brewhouse and taproom, Picou, Hedges and their staff brew one batch of 15 barrels each week, or 780 barrels per year. To compare, Tin Roof recently expanded its production to 7,500 barrels annually, while Abita brews up 400,000 barrels each year, according to the breweries’ websites.
Southern Craft produces only three beers for distribution, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any on tap outside the Baton Rouge city limits. But for now, Picou and Hedges are happy to keep things local.
Each of the owners learned their trade in the Baton Rouge homebrewing scene—Picou with the homebrew club Brasseurs a la Maison, Hedges with the Redstick Brewmasters—and they haven’t forgotten their roots. Each of their beers is made with ingredients harvested either from Louisiana or elsewhere in the South.
Pompous Pelican, arguably the flagship beer, is a formidable, amber-colored double IPA. Aside from its symbolic namesake, the beer is brewed with raw sugar from M. A. Patout and Son in Jeanerette, the oldest family-owned raw sugar plantation in the nation. The brewery’s summer seasonal brew, Swamp Sting, is a honey ale brewed with 100 percent Louisiana wildflower honey.
These local connections define the brewery’s role in the community. While the brewmasters will venture out of the Baton Rouge area this month for the Bayou Beer Festival in Houma, a growing community of young, locally-minded brewers, cooks and restaurateurs in Baton Rouge have been instrumental in helping Southern Craft grow.
“There’s really been a growth in people making these craft, local products, and we try to work with them as much as we can,” Picou said.
They’ve brewed small batches with products from Baton Rouge companies like Cafeciteaux Coffee, and their beers are paired with meals at local craft beer nights, such as those at Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar. The leftover grains from their brews go to feed pigs at Iverstine Family Farms, who provide meat for many local restaurants.
“I know at Table [Kitchen and Bar on Perkins Road], they have the Red Stick Rye, and they carry pork from Iverstine, too,” Picou said. “So you can be drinking a Red Stick Rye, and the grains that fed the pork you’re eating made another batch of Red Stick Rye.”
Hedges and Picou plan to start bottling their beers for retail in the future, but for now Southern Craft is focusing on getting its name out there and staying involved in the community. Hedges said it’s important for small craft companies to support each other and help grow a consumer base that’s invested in locally-sourced, high quality products.
Anything else is just small beer.
Photos by Greta Jines.