Two LSU grads have guided Abita Brewing Co. from its humble roots to a national force
By Jeremy HarperPosted Apr 24, 2013
Soon after the Abita Brewing Company was founded in 1986, a teenage brewing enthusiast started hanging around the small facility just east of Covington. The young man would help the founders of the tiny brewery unload trucks, occasionally scoring some quality yeast for his own home brews that he was still perfecting.
Some 27 years later, that once-green home brewer is now Abita Brewing Company President David Blossman — and nobody paying attention would dare mistake Abita for a tiny beer operation. Over the years, the company has grown into the undisputed king of Louisiana beer brewers and one of the largest craft brewers in the nation, shipping its fleur-de-lis-stamped bottles from coast to coast.
Inside the company’s growing operation off La. 36 in quaint Abita Springs, rows of shiny stainless steel brewing tanks reach to the warehouse ceiling and a vague smell of fermentation fills the air. This is where more than 150,000 barrels, or 4.6 million gallons, of beer is brewed annually using the local spring water. Abita makes another 10,000 barrels of its popular root beer each year. It employs 85 people full-time and another 15 part-time.
Further back into the facility, sprawled out in a brightly lit warehouse, a new state-of-the-art filling and packaging plant hums along, filling rows of dark brown bottles with beer before precisely dropping them in six-packs and carefully tucking them together on pallets for shipping. Only a handful of workers monitor the custom German-built machines, installed in 2011, which are covered in plexiglass and capable of filling and packaging both bottles and cans.
Clearly, much has happened since 1986, when a young Blossman joined the company as one of the original investors, buying 1 percent of the company from original founders Rush Cumming and the late Jim Patton.
“I liked the idea of Abita because I was a home brewer and passionate about the brewing industry,” Blossman said during an interview at the brewery.
In 1987, Blossman and his five brothers decided to purchase a controlling stake in Abita, which went on to produce a modest 1,500 barrels of beer in its first 12 months in business. But Blossman still believed that the business could be a greater success.
“I thought it could work here,” Blossman said. “We had good brewing equipment, we had fantastic water and we were near a great major metropolitan area with Baton Rouge and New Orleans.”
First, Blossman headed to LSU, where he majored in accounting and spent a considerable amount of time (the state’s drinking age was 18 at the time) honing his beer-making abilities with a 20-gallon home brew system that he welded together with stainless steel parts.
“I joked that I was the third-largest brewer in Louisiana,” he said.
Blossman graduated, earned his CPA license and went to work for the accounting firm Ernest and Young, but he never lost his passion for making beer. He returned in 1996 to run the company and has remained at the helm of Abita ever since.
Abita began at a time when craft brews were just starting to take off in the United States — largely as a counter to the homogenization of a beer industry that had shrunk to a few dozen companies by the end of the ‘70s, with most of them making similarly bland light beers.
“Up until the early 1980s, the popular image of beer in America was simply that of a mass-produced commodity with little or no character, tradition or culture worth mentioning,” the Brewers Association, which represents craft brews, says on its website.
According to the Brewers Association, the home brewing phenomenon started to take off in the early ‘80s because it was one of the few ways for curious beer drinkers to experience different styles of European brews. Eventually, some of those home brewers grew into small commercial craft beer operations. One of those was Abita in tiny Abita Springs.
The company began with the now-iconic Amber and a continental lager called Golden, the latter of which they expected to be the best seller because it was easy drinking and a smaller leap from the familiar mass-produced beers.
“People can drink that kind of beer and they know what it is,” Blossman said of Golden. “But Amber was so different that it just took off.”
At the time, Blossman said, Amber was somewhat of an extreme brew, noting that beer drinkers of the day were lucky to see something as exotic as a Heineken for sale at a bar. Customers didn’t know they were drinking a craft beer because the term didn’t even exist yet in the popular consciousness.
“We were the local beer; we were the better beer,” he said.
Abita’s third beer was Turbodog, which was concocted when a vacationing English brewer teamed up with the company’s brewers to make a robust, “old dog” dark brown ale. The name was coined after a few drinking sessions with the new dark brew when an employee said it was more like a “turbo dog” than an old dog.
Today, Abita produces seven flagship brews and five seasonal beers, including the new Spring IPA and Lemon Wheat varieties. It also makes a wide range of specialty beers, from the popular Strawberry and Pecan brews to the powerful large-bottled Andygator.
“It’s nice to really exercise our artistic abilities by making different beers,” Blossman said. “We could be a much easier-to-run and probably more profitable brewery if we used the whole import model, which is make one or two beers and that’s it,” he said. “It’s a lot easier, but it’s not as much fun.”
Abita was self-distributed in those early days, which meant the company delivered its beers to stores and bars with its own trucks and drivers. That also meant the company spent a considerable amount of time and resources convincing retailers to buy the beer. Nailing down a wholesale distributor was a major turning point that freed up valuable resources and led to more growth.
“We could concentrate our capital and our intellectual resources on our bread and butter, which is making beer,” Blossman said.
Abita first expanded further across Louisiana and into out-of-state college markets like Athens and Birmingham, where educated consumers seemed more willing to try non-traditional beers. It continued to grow steadily through the mid-1990s.
Peaks and valleys
From about 1995-2001, the microbrew industry hit a serious lull as the market became oversaturated with new breweries, some of which were turning out less-than-stellar products.
“A lot of people got into the industry and probably got into it for the wrong reasons — didn’t have the knowhow or the capital investments or the passion for the industry,” Blossman said. “At best, the craft beer movement over that time was pretty much sideways.”
Abita during that time experienced very little growth and chose to concentrate on making more consistent products and becoming more efficient through a combination of better equipment and deeper knowledge about the brewing process, Blossman said.
The craft beer industry regained its footing around 2001, and Abita has grown steadily since.
“Really since that time, we’ve had probably sustained close to 20 percent growth,” said Chief Financial Officer Troy Ashley, who came on in 2004.
Ashley — a former All-American swimmer at LSU and, like Blossman, an accounting graduate — has worked on improving Abita’s existing distribution and exploring new markets. He’s also helped guide a major overhaul and expansion of the Abita facilities, including the installation of the tasting room, where each tour of the brewery ends.
“Our success wouldn’t have happened without Troy,” Blossman said.
The Brewers Association — a nonprofit trade group that keeps production statistics for U.S. breweries —ranks Abita as No. 17 on its list of largest craft breweries. Nationwide, the group says 2,347 craft breweries operated for some or all of 2012, a number that includes 1,132 brewpubs, 1,118 microbreweries and 97 regional craft breweries like Abita. Craft brewers sold an estimated 13,235,917 barrels of beer in 2012, up from 11,467,337 in 2011.
The next step for Abita is to expand the brew house, which Blossman said is pushed to the limits during peak times. Plans are in the works to double the facility’s production capacity and dramatically reduce its energy footprint.
“I know it’s too big for us right now, but we’ll have patience and we’ll grow into it,” Blossman said. “We’ve been in business 27 years and we want to make sure we have the facilities well in advance of when we have the demand.”
Abita will be honored at the LSU 100 banquet this week honoring the 100 fastest-growing businesses owned or led by LSU graduates. Asked, what his advice would be for the present-day class of Tiger graduates, Blossman said he believes it’s important to choose something that you are passionate about.
“If you love what you’re doing, you’re going to be better at it,” he said. “It’s going to drive you to do things that you wouldn’t do if you were just clocking in and clocking out.
“Everything that we do is about the beer. Through all the years of growth and success, we don’t forget what we are, and we don’t forget what’s important to us. We truly have a passion for what we do.”
Abita Brewing Company is part of the LSU 100, a program run by LSU’s Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute that identifies, recognizes and celebrates the 100 fastest-growing LSU-owned or LSU-led businesses in the world. For more information, visit lsu100.com.
The LSU 100
The LSU 100: Fastest Growing Tiger Businesses recognizes the 100 fastest growing businesses owned or led by LSU alumni. Created and hosted by The LSU Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute, it not only celebrates the honorees successes, but also offers encouragement, education and guidance to future entrepreneurs. Here are a few of the 100 businesses that join Abita Brewing Company on the list. A complete list is available at lsu100.com.
Petro TV Petro TV brings news, weather, entertainment and advertisements to people patiently pouring gas into their cars through LCD screens mounted above the pump. With local and national partners, Petro TV has a network of more than 1,000 screens at more than 200 gas stations throughout the United States. CEO Ethan J. Cheramie graduated from LSU with a BS in International Trade and Finance and founded Petro TV in 2005. President and COO David J. Plaisance joined the company in 2007 and has overseen the network double and shift to new technology.
Interior Web Design
Interior Web Design is a web design firm that helps businesses with web development and Internet marketing. Founded by LSU alumnus William McFerrin, IWD has designed websites for the likes of restaurants, car dealers, fashion designers and more, including Piccadilly and Storyville.
Remie Keys started his business while still attending the College of Design at LSU in 1989. Then called Keys Cottons, his first project was painting a batch of t-shirts for his sister’s sorority. He continued providing services for LSU groups and local businesses throughout his college career. Keys Graphics now offers screen printing, silk screening and embroidery services for a variety of industries, including athletics, clubs, churches and more. They can accommodate up to 15 colors for embroidery and eight colors for screen prints. The company prides itself on the personal service that bigger companies and online stores can’t offer.
Last In Concepts
LSU basketball walk-ons Jack Warner and Brandon Landry have brought fresh concepts to the typical restaurant. Warner and Landry pitched their idea for Last In Concepts as friends and teammates at the ages of 20 and 21. Last in Concepts has grown to 10 restaurants since it first began in 2003, which include Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, The Roux House, Happy’s Irish Pub and Schlittz & Giggles locations from Lafayette to New Orleans. Despite humble beginnings, winning awards like No. 1 Sports Bar in North America has put this business on the map.
Excalibur Exhibits is a full-service trade show and event marketing firm. The Houston-based company specializes in creating displays for trade shows, corporate interiors and corporate events. The name likely stemmed as a play on the last name of company president Peggy Swords, a 1971 LSU graduate. First impressions are everything, and Excalibur Exhibits works to catch the attention of their clients’ potential clients. They also recently designed and built a traveling exhibit honoring Texans who served in the Vietnam War.