Great Raft Brewing: Bringing Local Beer to Northwest Louisiana

From the Source by | Dec 2016 | Issue #119
Great Raft’s brewery and tasting room is in Shreveport’s Fairfield Historic District. | Photo by Jennifer Robison

In 2012, Andrew and Lindsay Nations moved back to their hometown of Shreveport, La. Their purpose? To create and foster a beer culture in the state’s northwest corner, which is closer to Dallas, Texas, than New Orleans. Living and drinking in Washington DC had awakened their love for beer, and a visit home for Christmas convinced them that Northwest Louisiana needed a brewery closer than Dallas, 180 miles away.

Great Raft Brewing opened in October 2013 with three flagship beers in cans: Southern Drawl Pale Lager, Reasonably Corrupt Black Lager, and Commotion Pale Ale. The three styles were chosen to appeal easily to the local market, which was then flooded with macro-produced lagers.

Leading the Way
The community’s reaction to an infusion of flavorful beer was “huge and instantaneous,” says Grant Nuckolls, owner of the Shreveport and Bossier locations of Twisted Root Burger Co., a Texas-based restaurant chain.

After hosting one of the brewery’s first launch parties at the Shreveport location, “I knew right away I needed to have all their beers,” Nuckolls says. In the three years since Great Raft has been on the market, his number of draft lines has almost doubled, from 16 to 28. Nuckolls credits that change to the brewery kick-starting the local beer scene. “[Their beers] started driving the overall craft beer market. All of a sudden, people were coming in looking for local and seasonal beer, asking what was new.”

As the first craft brewery in the area, educating the market on beer styles and production methods has been key to its success. “That’s been a huge factor,” says Great Raft co-founder and president Andrew Nations. The brewery’s large taproom and free tours have helped it to forge face-to-face connections with the community. “No one tells your story as well as you do,” he adds.

At the forefront of those personal connections are the Nations themselves, who are known for their creative, enterprising approach. “[Andrew and Lindsay] do things to promote craft beer that are so obvious in hindsight, but that no one else was doing,” Nuckolls says, like inviting his Twisted Root managers and staff to the brewery for training.

Great Raft has done more than educate the local beer market. It’s also helped Shreveport become a beer destination. According to Chris Jay of the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, tourists travel long distances for one of Great Raft’s events or just to hang out at the taproom.

“If you visit the tasting room on the weekend, you’ll see a lot of out-of-towners loading up their trunks with cases of beer and growlers,” Jay says. “It’s such a trip to see that a Shreveport product has struck such a chord in the wider beer community.” Laughing, he adds, “I’m really, really grateful for this gift from the tourism gods.”

Getting Dirty
Despite building Great Raft’s reputation on clean and crisp lagers, the Nations’ took education and experimentation a step further by adding a Belgian-inspired program, producing sour and funky beers with yeast and bacteria like Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus.

A collaboration with Indiana’s Upland Brewing in 2015 jump-started the brewery’s “dirty” program out of necessity. Caleb Staton, Upland’s director of sour operations and a former UC Davis classmate of Great Raft’s head brewer Harvey Kenney, traveled to Shreveport to brew what would eventually become Come What Mayhaw, a sour beer aged on mayhaws, a fruit unique to Louisiana.

“We brewed the beer, fermented it clean, and put it in Pinot Noir barrels with some of Upland’s house culture of various bacteria and Brettanomyces from their foeder,” explains Andrew Nations. “We were so eager to work with and learn from Caleb and Upland, that we didn’t have time to build out a dedicated ‘dirty’ cellar first.” So the Nations quarantined the barrels to the back corner of the brewery while they built out their Belgian cellar, including dedicated tanks and packaging equipment. By then, the beer was ready to move into a 30-barrel foeder with the mayhaws. “The timing worked out perfectly,” says Andrew Nations.

While Come What Mayhaw aged, Great Raft released the first beer in its Belgian program, Mixed Feelings, a mixed fermentation Saison brewed with Washington DC brewery Bluejacket. The beer used Great Raft’s house Saison yeast with Brett. “It’s not that we have mixed feelings about how the beer turned out, but it represents our ‘Mixed Feelings’ about loving ‘clean’ beer and [also] loving wild and sour things,” explains Great Raft vice president and co-founder Lindsay Nations.

Bringing sour, tart, and funky flavors to a local beer market that is still very young was a challenge that the Nations were determined to overcome.

“Educating the South in craft beer is one thing, but this is beyond that,” Andrew Nations says. “I think we’ll be successful, just like we were with the lagers, because it’s not that complicated. It’s still just locally produced beer. Many people visiting our tasting room were not necessarily drinking craft beer two years ago, and now they’re asking us when our sour [beers] are coming out. Getting to watch this evolution reminds us what this tasting room has always been about. […] A lot of education is [still] needed, though.”

So the Nations have prioritized educating their staff, Lindsay Nations says, to be helpful to their full range of customers. “Many people here are new to sour and funky beers, and may not understand when things should be sour and when they shouldn’t. We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page, and that starts with consistent education at the brewery.”

Great Raft’s Oceans Between Us, a rotating dry-hopped Brett IPA, brought funky to the forefront this spring. The first batch was dry-hopped with Citra, while the second relied on Galaxy. Meanwhile, their second mixed-fermentation experiment, Farmhouse Slang, received national acclaim as the bronze medal winner at the 2016 US Open Beer Championship in the French/Belgian Saison category.

By embracing education, Great Raft has embarked on a journey that shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, the Nations have put their hometown on the better beer map. “People in New Orleans are talking about what’s going on in Shreveport,” Andrew Nations says. “I mean, that never happened before.”

20-barrel brewhouse
1 3-barrel yeast propagator
1 20-barrel fermentor
2 40-barrel fermentors
11 60-barrel fermentors
2 60-barrel bright tanks
1 centrifuge

“Dirty” Belgian Program:
1 3-barrel yeast propagator
1 20-barrel stainless fermentor
1 40-barrel stainless fermentor
1 30-barrel foeder

Southern Drawl: Great Raft’s flagship pale lager was part of its opening lineup and uses German Tettnanger and Perle hops with a house German yeast strain. 5.2% ABV

At Arm’s Length: This India Pale Lager, a rotating-hop release packaged in bombers, brings American hops to Great Raft’s meticulous lager brewing process. 6.0% ABV

Farmhouse Slang: A mixed fermentation Saison that uses a Belgian Saccharomyces strain with a blend of Brett strains. Dry hopped with New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops. 6.5% ABV

Oceans Between Us: This 100 percent Brett-fermented IPA features rotating hops in each batch, including Citra, Galaxy, Mosaic, Nelson Sauvin, and Azacca. 7.0% ABV

You, Me and Everyone We Know: Great Raft’s neutral Blonde sour serves as a base for various barrel, fruit, and foeder treatments, including additions of mayhaws and Louisiana peaches. 7.0% ABV

Barrel Aged Old Mad Joy: Part of the brewery’s clean barrel-aging program, this Baltic Porter base is aged in bourbon barrels to achieve a boozy but restrained sweetness and slight fruitiness. 10.0% ABV