Brew Orleans: Don’t think you like beers? Eric Jensen, Parleaux Beer Lab want to change that
"Beers can taste so different than we were trained to think they have to. That’s why when someone says 'I don’t like beer,' I’m inclined to think they just haven’t found the right ones yet."
The craft beer scene is blowing up in the Crescent City, so every other week Brew Orleans takes a look at a local brewer to see how what they’re doing is, both, unique from — as well as indicative of — the city’s larger craft beer movement. This week, Parleaux Beer Lab owner Eric Jensen tells us how mixed cultures and a neighborhood feel make his brewery something special.
You opened up Parleaux in 2017, but you’ve been brewing a lot longer than that, right? Can you tell us a little bit about how your interest in beer developed?
“Sure, sure. Well, I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan — which is definitely a beer town — so I’ve been exposed to good beer my entire life. The craft beer scene really arrived in that part of Michigan by the 1990s, which is way earlier than most other places. Bell’s, and then Founders, were my local beers — and those aren’t bad beers to start with!”
No, not at all. I was stuck drinking Coors, and during college parties we might splurge and get Yuengling. Was Bell’s actually your very first beer, or did you start a little more modestly?
“Ha, my first-ever beer was a Colt 45, and I was at an age that was way too young to be drinking it. I think most people’s reactions to having a beer like that isn’t super positive.”
No, I want to spit it out right now and there’s nothing in my mouth.
“Exactly, but I was like, ‘Geez — what is this? It’s delicious!’ And I finished the entire 40.”
Young Eric Jensen was a hero. But when did your tastes evolve?
“Well, I think the cool thing about eating and drinking is that our palettes are evolving all the time. If you’re asking me when I started to enjoy craft beers, then it happened before I was 21, for sure.
“But I think the really interesting thing is how our palettes are always changing. Even now, I find certain beers that inspire me to go in a different direction with what I’m brewing. Today, I’m really into saisons and I owe that in large part to Saison DuPont (a Belgian Saison-style beer), which really changed my mind on what a beer could taste like.
“About six or seven months ago I tried a traditional English mild beer from Machine House, a Seattle brewery. It’s a style that doesn’t get a ton of publicity, but they made it so well and it was so drinkable. It made me remember — not just that the style exists — but that it can be done really, really well. I love that. You can’t predict what inspires you the most, and it’s often what I’m not anticipating. But I can still taste that beer while I’m talking to you about it — it’s had that much of an impact on me.
At Parleaux, we’ve been focused on saisons, IPAs, sours and lagers, but that traditional style ale made me want to try to create something like it here.”
That brings up another interesting point. Every time I come to Parleaux, I’m amazed at the number and variety of beers I feel like I’ve never seen in a brewery before. How do you decide what beers you’re going to make?
“That’s been one of the most fun parts of owning a brewery: balancing the beers I want to make (‘Eric beers’) with the ones that are really popular with the public right now. I can’t just sit here and make a bunch of dry Irish stouts and English milds. I can make them, but I can’t have my menu full of them. I’ve got to balance it with what people are craving.”
And what’s popular with the public right now?
“I think the taste of the American public has been tending toward juicy and sweet. The juicy, New England IPAs, the sours, and the wine hybrids. Stouts don’t sell as well here because it’s so hot, but a fruited sour always will.”
It makes sense you mention “sweet” considering the White Claw Hard Seltzer phenomenon that’s hit this summer.
“Oh, man, it’s crazy. I understood that hard seltzer had become a craze, but I went to see a concert at Red Rocks [in Colorado] a few weeks ago and it was so wild to come face-to-face with it. You walk through the parking lot and it feels like everyone is drinking White Claw!”
Why?! How did this happen? Is there something wrong with us??
“I mean — I think it — listen, I don’t like it, but I think it’s predictable. It’s a combination of it being a low-in-calorie thing, as well as it being light and fruity, which — again — is just where the American palette is drifting right now.”
So how do you deal with that when you’re making beers?
“Well, we don’t have hard seltzer, but we have plenty of beers that appeal to a sweet, juicy, fruity palette. We don’t keep any particular beers on tap all the time, but there are certain styles we usually have on. And two of our three most popular styles — juicy IPAs and sours — definitely fit into that juicy/fruity/sweet category.
“The juicy IPA we currently have on tap is the “It’s Almost Jazz Fest” (cloudy and a little sweet; New England-style IPAs have converted non-IPA drinkers and become popular around the country); and the sour we have at the moment is the “Infinite Splendor” barrel aged sour (vibrant, high acid sour blended with freshly harvested and squeezed grapefruit from Plaquemines Parish).”
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✨𝐒𝐚𝐭𝐮𝐫𝐝𝐚𝐲 𝐑𝐞𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐞✨𝐈𝐧𝐟𝐢𝐧𝐢𝐭𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐥𝐞𝐧𝐝𝐨𝐫 𝐁𝐚𝐫𝐫𝐞𝐥 𝐀𝐠𝐞𝐝 𝐒𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐆𝐫𝐚𝐩𝐞𝐟𝐫𝐮𝐢𝐭, 𝟓.𝟏% —————— Last year our friends from @tinroofbeer came downriver to brew up a barrel aged sour we were willing to be patient with. Infinite Splendor was brewed with about a 50/50 mix of floor malted pilsner and raw wheat, and then fermented and aged 100% in barrels with two different mixed cultures containing saccharomyces, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. The barrels were then blended on top of freshly harvested and squeezed grapefruits from the Sasnak Farm in Plaquemines Parish and left to referment in stainless. We packaged the beer in 750ml cans and kegs and then let rest in our cellar for 3 months to allow for it to naturally carbonate. The result is a crazy vibrant, high acid sour that is shining with bright citrus in every direction. The team at Tin Roof is super talented and knowledgable and we are so thankful we could share a space and collaborate with them on a beer we hope brings Infinite Splendor to everyone who drinks it. ———————— A huge shout out to local artist @timcavnar (www.timcavnar.com) for his label design and illuminating the beauty of a flowing grapefruit tree. #friends #collaborate #grapefruit #barrelaged #sourbeer #upriver #downriver #milkthefunk #nola #bywater
Okay, so those are the popular beers. What makes an “Eric beer”?
“Those are the beers that come out when I’m feeling inspired. We care a lot about every beer we make, but these are the one I’m super-passionate to work on.
“And that’s part of what got me into brewing. Everyone needs a creative outlet, and — for me — I remember the first time I homebrewed. That was it. There was instant gratification in it for me. As someone who has never been an artist in the traditional sense of the word, brewing felt like, ‘Oh, hey, I can be an artist while making beer.’”
What’s the “Eric beer” you’re currently working on?
“So, we’re currently making a beer with spruce tips! It’s pretty cool — you order them on Monday from this forest in Colorado, and then they go out into the forest, harvest them and overnight them to us.
“It’ll be a Norwegian-style farmhouse beer that I think will be really fun and different. It’s going to be a dry beer, and there’ll be a bright pineyness to it.”
Do you like gin?
“I do like gin!”
And any beers currently on tap you’d classify as an “Eric beer” for those adventure-seekers reading this?
“We’ve got an aged mixed-culture saison, called ‘Free as a Breeze.’ The title’s an ode to the Allen Toussaint tune, ‘Southern Nights.’ And, because nights in NOLA are still hot, the beer is light, bubbly, thirst-quenching and full of yeast-driven character.”
OK, I’m totally with you on light, bubbly and thirst-quenching. But what does it mean for a beer to be “full of yeast-driven character” or to be an aged mixed-culture saison? This is beyond my knowledge.
“It’s actually one of the most unique things about the beers we make, and why I think we can offer something to people who might intuitively think, ‘Oh, I just don’t like beer.’
“So you need yeast to make any beer. But just about everyone uses traditional beer yeast. That’s a big reason why someone who doesn’t like beer thinks it all kind of tastes the same, and it’s a flavor they’re not into.
“But, at Parleaux, we have a half-dozen ‘mixed cultures,’ which are different blends we’ve created of traditional beer yeast, wild yeast and bacteria. We have about 40 wine and spirit barrels we brew our beer in, and 36 of them have mixed cultures. That means only four of them are ‘clean,’ or use only beer yeast.
“I think other breweries in the city are experimenting with mixed cultures to varying degrees, but for us, it’s a huge part of our identity.”
And so how will that taste different to someone who doesn’t traditionally love beer, or to someone who just wants to try something a little more adventurous?
“It introduces people to a totally new spectrum of where beer can go. With our hazy IPA, for example, there are a few things I could do to make it more interesting with traditional beer yeast. But, with mixed-cultures, the permutations are exponentially expanded.
“Using mixed-cultures, I can make beers that are wine-like, where someone who enjoys wine might feel like this beer has more in common with a Sauvignon blanc than with a traditional English-style ale. I can use a different mixed-culture to make beers that are cider-like.
“And to get even more unique, we’ll also release mixed blends of several completely different barrels of mixed-culture beers. Maybe we think 25% of this sour golden beer will taste really good with 75% of this funky apricot beer. Let’s try it out!
“Beers can taste so different than we were trained to think they have to. That’s why when someone says ‘I don’t like beer,’ I’m inclined to think they just haven’t found the right ones yet.”
Why do you think more breweries don’t release mixed-culture beers?
“Well, I think they’re gaining popularity. Belgium is the most famous country for using mixed cultures. That’s what lambic beers and wild ales are. But I think part of the reason brewers are hesitant to use them is because — if you’re packaging for distribution — if something screws up with your mixed-cultures it could ruin your entire line of product. Understandably, that makes people nervous. You’d lose a lot of money.
“Parleaux doesn’t distribute outside the brewery, however, so that’s not something we have to worry about, and it allows us to be creative with less risk. [They are a beer lab, after all.] We also have two long-time employees with science backgrounds. The first person we hired was a physicist from Columbia (University), and our bar manager has a background in microbiology. That definitely helps us be better experimenters.
“At least 30% to 40% of our beers at Parleaux are mixed yeast, and that is far above what you see elsewhere in New Orleans. But I do think you’ll start to see more of that popping up around the city soon.”
I think another thing that makes you unique is how — maybe more than any other brewery in the city — New Orleanians seem to refer to you as a “neighborhood brewery.” Why do you think that is, and what does that mean to you?
“It’s one of my favorite parts of Parleaux! I think it helps that we’re integrated into an actual neighborhood and not part of an industrial stretch. We’re embedded right into the middle of the Bywater.
“Also, when you go to well-developed craft beer markets like Boston, Minneapolis or Denver, the tap room culture is a huge part of that scene. People hang out at their neighborhood brewery in the same way people would hang out at their local pub — exchanging stories and social capital.
“That’s exactly what we’re striving for at Parleaux. One of my favorite times of the week is Friday evening, because every week it’s when we get a large number of families from around the neighborhood coming to enjoy a relaxing evening with their loved ones and friends. It’s really special to me, because creating that kind of space for people to interact was a big part of why I wanted to create a brewery.”
And why do you think Parleaux’s space is so conducive to that?
“I think — just as much effort as we put into any drop of beer — we work to make sure we create an inviting space in which everyone feels welcome, no matter who they are. When you enter our backyard, it doesn’t feel like a well-manicured landscape in the middle of the CBD. It literally feels like you’re in someone’s backyard. There are benches, a giant swing, a big garden, and fruit and pecan trees. Our neighbors helped us build the whole thing when we were opening, which makes it extra special.
“And then we host trivia nights, comedy shows, family nights, yoga sessions, food trucks and plenty of other events so there’s something for everyone. Part of living in New Orleans is we’ve got some of the coolest, craziest, wildest, be-whoever-you-want-to-be people living here. And the Bywater is a microcosm of that. We want all those different people to be able to come here and enjoy a beer with us.”
Is there a time of day or week you’d recommend a first-timer come to Parleaux to get the full experience?
“Well, like I said, Friday evenings are pretty special. But, really, any evening around dusk is awesome. The sun’s going down and the pecan trees cast shade over the yard, so you’re getting a little relief from the NOLA heat. It’s a really nice time to be here.
“But, also, if it’s too hot, we have a nice indoor space, too!”
And what beer would you suggest a first-time start with?
“I’m most proud of the European pilsners we make, like the Czuck Pils — named after our employee, Chuck, but in the style of a Czech-style beer. They’re good at being something simple, and refreshing enough for the beginner drinker; but also interesting enough for someone who’s been into beer for awhile. So that’s a good place to start.
“But if you’re looking to go out on a limb, or if you’re one of those wine drinkers we talked about who don’t think they like beer, then look for the mixed cultures labeled on our menu. They’re a great bridge from wine to beer. We even have the Prosecceaux di Pesca on tap right now. It’s a tart peach ale that’s meant to mimic a peach Bellini.
Plus we offer all our beers in several different-sized pours, so you can try a few on a single visit!”
OK, rapid-fire round. If Parleaux Beer Lab was a song, what would it be?
“Hmmmm, ‘No Parking on the Dance Floor,’ by Midnight Star. You’ve got to keep moving on the brew deck. Hopefully to a sick beat like this one!”
Ha, this song is going to be in my head every time I go to Parleaux now.
“Then you’re a lucky guy!”
If you guys were a movie, what movie?
“Gotta be ‘The Goonies.’ Our team is on an epic journey full of twists and turns, just like theirs! Plus, some of us are convinced Chester Copperpot hid a secret beer recipe for us to find that is pure gold.”
And how about TV show?
“Definitely ‘MacGyver.’ Spend a day in a brewery, and you’ll get it. Plus, we love epic (hair) flow here, and MacGyver’s got some of the best.”
Outside of beer, what inspires you?
“I draw a lot of inspiration from the culinary and wine worlds. Even though I’m a brewer and I like to drink beer, I’m moved by great chefs who can manipulate flavors and I’m impressed by great winemakers who produce beautiful terroir inside of their wines.”
There’s a lot of culinary greatness to be inspired by in New Orleans. Anyone in particular you’re really keyed into at the moment?
“Absolutely. One of my favorites at the moment is Brent Tranchina, the sous chef at Bywater American Bistro. He lives right down the street, so he’s a combination of a familiar neighborhood face and a guy who’s not only making incredible food — but who’s always trying to improve his craft.
“His background is Trinidanian and I’ve learned from talking to him how much that plays a part in his cooking — whether it’s fermenting hot sauces or creating beautiful food.”
And how do you think his journey has inspired you?
“Yeah, I think it’s two things. First, I never want to be someone who is chasing trends. I want the beers I make to reflect me, my 38 years on the planet, and the interests I’ve developed. My mother was born in Germany and my dad’s family has a Scandinavian background. I honor those parts of me by brewing Bohemian and Bavarian pilsners, or Scandinavian-inspired farmhouse beers.
“One of my favorite memories brewing beer was visiting my younger brother up in Minnesota, and we decided to homebrew in negative 20-degree temperatures. To cool the beer down, we just stuck it in the snow.
“Bonding with my brother while homebrewing is such a treasured, invaluable memory I have that Parleaux created a barrel-aged Bearded Brothers Norwegian Farmhouse beer. My brother and I both have beards, we have Scandinavian heritage, and this beer is born directly from the times we spent together doing something we both enjoy.
“The second thing I take from someone like Brent is how important it is to always be learning. I never want to be content and I never want to stop pushing myself. It’s why we collaborate with brewers like Tin Roof from Baton Rouge and Brieux Carre in the French Quarter, and it’s why Parleaux is always evolving.
“It’s an exciting time for the craft beer scene in New Orleans, and my dream is that as I continue to evolve and grow as a brewer and business owner, Parleaux Beer Lab will grow with me. We’ll continue to perfect our craft and we’ll continue to be a better neighborhood business.”
Well, we’re all looking forward to it! Sitting in the brewery, it doesn’t take long to see how happy the neighborhood is to have you here. Anything else you’d like to add?
“Yeah, just that Parleaux would be nothing without my wife, Leah. I remember turning to her — working my 15th year in education — and saying, ‘Hey, I want to stop doing this and start a brewery. Can we do that?’ And she said, ‘Hell yeah!’
She’s an integral part of what we do, and there’s no way the wheels turn without her. And now, with the birth of our son, Arlo, we’re truly a mom-and-pop family business. We’re really happy to be raising our son in such a fun, funky, supportive environment.”