Mississippi Rising: Long Limited by Restrictive Laws, Magnolia State Breweries Finally See Promise

Feature by | Dec 2018 | Issue #133
Lisa Miller, pictured, and her husband Patrick founded Natchez Brewing Company on the banks of the Mississippi River in 2015. The brewery’s three year-round offerings include a Blonde, an Altbier, and an IPA, but with a series of kettle sours and farmhouse ales, brewer Patrick shows his creativity.

It takes about an hour to drive from New Orleans to Kiln, Miss. From Mid-City, the trip follows Interstate 10 over Lake Pontchartrain, past the strip malls and shopping centers of Slidell, La., and through the low-lying meadows on the Gulf Coast. The most notable scenery is the enormous, 138-foot-long Apollo 19 rocket booster displayed outside of the Infinity Science Center just over the state line. Most people driving I-10 probably don’t stop in Kiln, a small, working class community that gained notoriety in the early 20th century as the “Moonshine Capital of the World.” We had a good reason to stop, though. We were paying a visit to Mississippi’s first craft brewery.

“A lot of people see our billboard and stop in,” says Anna Claire Giles, who handles marketing and manages the taproom at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company, a quick 5-minute detour off the highway. “But they don’t really know what they’re getting.”

What they’re getting, at least since July 1, 2017, is the chance to drink beer at the source. With the passage of House Bill 1322, Mississippi became the 49th state to allow on premise sales at breweries. A hard fought win, the legislative victory was the result of years of work by the Mississippi Brewers Guild, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and the Mississippi Beer Distributors Association. It could also represent a massive opportunity for the very young brewing industry in a state where homebrewing only became legal in 2013.

“For a long time it was Lazy Magnolia and a handful of us, and we could sort of be dismissed as the lunatic fringe,” says Matthew McLaughlin, executive director of the five-year-old Mississippi Brewers Guild. “We’re very much a macro state, and that’s the biggest challenge we’ve always faced: getting more Mississippians drinking Mississippi beer. If we had 1 percent of the market that would be amazing.”

In 2011 there was just one craft brewery in Mississippi. The state’s 16 currently operating craft breweries only produced 30,254 barrels of beer last year, and McLaughlin estimates that roughly 0.4 per- cent of the beer sold in the state is also made there. According to the Brewers Association, Mississippi ranks 51st in number of breweries per capita. It’s also last in economic impact per capita. Of the 82 counties, from Hancock in the south where Kiln is located, to Desoto in the north (part of the Memphis, Tenn., metro area), 26 are dry but include wet cities, while six remain completely dry, forbidding the production and sale of alcohol within their borders. Until 2018, when the governor approved House Bill 192, it was unlawful to simply transport unopened alcoholic beverages through a dry county.

“This is Mississippi, we do things slower than anywhere else,” explains Lucas Simmons, president of the brewers guild and co-founder of Lucky Town Brewing Company in Jackson, the state capital. “But we usually get them right.”

Curious to learn about the beer scene in a state that gets no national media attention, and eager to see for ourselves how Mississippi brewers were, as Simmons would later assure us, getting it right, we set out on a road trip that would take us to 12 breweries in four days.

Starting at Lazy Magnolia, the state’s largest and oldest craft brewery, we would cover 1,014 miles from the coast, to the Pine Belt, to the Tennessee foothills, and finally the Mississippi River delta. For hours on end we’d listen to songs by Jimmie Rodgers, a native son considered the father of country music and the first artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Compared to the shiny gloss of contemporary pop radio, the tinny production and Rodgers’ plaintive yodeling seemed like a more fitting soundtrack as we sped past casinos, churches, and cotton fields.

“We’re kind of at the dawn of craft beer for Mississippi,” says David Reese, brewmaster at Chandeleur Island Brewing Company in Gulfport, some 30 miles east of Kiln. Founded by brothers Cam and Cain Roberds in December 2013, the brewery started selling beer the following year and is currently on track to produce 5,000 barrels in 2018. The long, single-story building that contains the brewhouse and taproom gets lots of natural light, and, partially due to its proximity to the water—helped along by nautical decor—feels like the kind of place to go after a fishing trip or a day at the beach. Freemason Golden Ale is the top seller here, but Reese, who relocated to Gulfport from Wisconsin three years ago, also makes a hazy IPA, a Coconut Porter, a Belgian Wit with key lime peel, and a tangerine kettle sour called Lil’ Miss Sour.

“The most surprising thing has been how trusting everyone has been,” he says of the kettle sour. “It was supposed to be a one-time beer. I never expected it to catch on like it did.”

At Biloxi Brewing Company in Biloxi, co-founder and head brewer Mark Cowley tells a similar story. When his company opened its own facility in January 2017 out of a former pharmaceutical warehouse, it had already been contract brewing at Lazy Magnolia for several years. It had an audience. And yet the first 60-barrel batch of Biloxi Blonde, its Kölsch-style ale, sold out in two weeks. An Extra Special Bitter and an Export Stout soon followed, but drop into the unfussy taproom today and you might find as many as five of the eight light- house-shaped taps dedicated to sour beer. And the one that’s really caught on? A tart Gose called Salty Dog.

“It’s always the first beer we run out of,” Cowley says, noting that about 80 percent of his customers are tourists from the nearby casinos and Keesler Air Force Base. “And everybody is like, ‘Where do we buy this beer?’”

Craft breweries to visit in MississippiBottom left: Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons, pictured, stops by the taproom at Mighty Miss Brewing Company, which was opened in 2017 by a group of investors hoping to stimulate the economy of the city in the Mississippi Delta.

Right: With a 3-barrel system from Natchez, Scott Hixson, pictured, opened Hops & Growlers with his wife Theresa as a one-stop-shop for beer enthusiasts and homebrewers on the Gulf Coast.

After a quick visit to Scott and Theresa Hixson’s 3-barrel brewery, bottle shop, and homebrew supply store Hops & Growlers for samples of a handful of the 20 beers on tap and a round of 3-D tic tac toe, we ended up at Crooked Letter Brewing Company in Ocean Springs. When Paul Blacksmith initially launched his beer business behind Broome’s Grocery and Deli with his wife Wanda in 2013, it became the state’s second operational craft brewery. Beers like Crooked Heffy, a Bavarian-style Hefeweizen, and Mystery Romp, a robust Porter with coffee and chocolate, brought the brewery early acclaim, but a divorce and a move to a new location in Ocean Springs set the company back. Reflecting on his experiences in the brewing industry thus far, Paul Blacksmith stressed the importance of consumer education, but also pointed out that his beers were more expensive than the macro brands available by the case in convenience and grocery stores.

“I think that it is a price point problem,” he remarks. “[But] watching this grow, even in baby steps, has been very exciting.” Blacksmith might be right about consumer price sensitivity in Mississippi and the challenge that poses to the potential growth of the state’s craft breweries. According to the US Census, the state’s median household income in 2016 dollars was $40,528, the lowest in the country. The per capita income in 2016 dollars was $21,651, and more than one-fifth of Mississippians—20.8 percent—live in poverty. Compare that to Vermont, the state with the highest number of breweries per capita and a per capita income of $30,663. Tellingly, both Reese at Chandeleur and Cowley at Biloxi revealed the importance of tourists to the bottom line of their respective breweries. So, if the sales of an affordable luxury like beer depend on disposable income, we wondered, what are the future prospects for a state where so many people are struggling?

“Mississippi is so poor, people just give up,” explains Patrick Miller, a native of Natchez and co-founder, with his wife Lisa, of Natchez Brewing Company. “Most of the extra money here just goes to school.”

This was the reality the Millers faced when they started as a 3-barrel brewery in 2015. The local response to early beers like Bluff City Blonde and Altered State, a German-style Altbier, encouraged them to expand the following year, and today the Natchez Brewing taproom is open five days a week, but the population of the city, the first state capital, is shrinking. The couple also says they’re dependent on riverboat tourism and benefit from their proximity to the small city’s single coffee roaster.

The last stop on our trip due to its location on the border of Louisiana and Mississippi, we arrived at Natchez’s rustic tap- room when it opened at noon on a Saturday after a 3-hour trip from Mighty Miss Brewing Company in Greenville. Natchez is two hours west of Jackson and an hour and a half north of Baton Rouge, La. Driving south on highway 61, or the “Blues Highway,” we traveled under dark rainclouds while lonely white crosses stood sentinel over flooded fields and dilapidated barns on either side of the road. It wasn’t hard to imagine musicians like B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters finding inspiration in this landscape.

“We’re a weekend town, that’s what we are,” Patrick Miller says. “If people are in town, we’re doing good, and if they’re not, we’re not. Our big problem is getting people to travel two hours for us,” he adds. “They’re not making that journey. Not yet.”

Natchez Brewing has forged ahead, though, and in spite of its geographic challenges, is carving a niche for itself with Wild Ales and farmhouse beers. Citing breweries like Allagash, Almanac, The Bruery, and Rare Barrel as sources of inspiration, Miller tells us he’s excited to put energy into a series of kettle sours and has even thought about discontinuing Old Capital IPA. He says he wishes they started bigger with more of a focus, and admits they didn’t know what kind of brewery they wanted to be at first. Now wise to both the larger industry and the local market, the Millers see more consumer education and a recent rebrand as two of the keys to growing their young business. Progress might be slower than elsewhere in the US, but across the state, breweries are in fact beginning to grow, perhaps none as quickly as Southern Prohibition Brewing Company in Hattiesburg.

“It’s the poorest state in the nation but it’s been good for us,” acknowledges vice president Emily Curry. “We’ve got a lot of friends we didn’t think we’d have. People who are like, ‘Yes, give me that $17 beer.’”

Southern Prohibition, or SoPro as the company is better known, has found success by doing things differently. After launching with a Blonde Ale and an IPA five years ago in this college town of 46,000, Curry, head brewer Benjamin Green, and owner Quinby Chunn threw caution to the wind and began developing a range of beers that leans heavily toward dark, hoppy, and sour styles. It was a bold approach in a state where tradition looms large and change has come slowly. Lazy Magnolia, by comparison, introduced itself with Southern Pecan, a malt-forward Nut Brown Ale brewed with whole roasted pecans.

Slowboat Brewing Co and Southern Prohibition Mississippi craft breweries to visitLeft: Despite the challenges of operating in a dry county, Slowboat Brewing Company has found a loyal following in Laurel from people who flock to the rustic taproom for beers like a hibiscus Wit and a stream of touring bands booked by husband-and-wife owners Kenny and Carrie Mann.

Bottom right: Southern Prohibition’s Emily Curry and Benjamin Greene say the emerging taproom culture has been “awesome” for the 5-year-old Hattiesburg brewery, helping them to test new creations with an engaged audience and adapt with the state’s rapidly changing beer culture.

“A barrel-aged Barleywine was the fourth beer we ever made,” Curry tells us. “We couldn’t even sell it in Mississippi [where a 10.1 percent ABV cap remains on the books].”

We met Curry and Green before SoPro’s spacious taproom opened for the day, and chatted over samples of a Gose with lemon zest called Ice Box and an oak-aged Saison called Clandestine Cuvee. The pair, who admitted to sharing a “nothing’s ever good enough” mentality, expressed enthusiasm about the promise of on premise sales and the opportunity it affords Green to continue to flex his creativity as a brewer with limited releases and pilot batches. But for all of their optimism about the future, Curry and Green still see room for improvement, from nudging the ABV cap upwards to allowing breweries to sell guest beers from other companies on draft.

“We’re trying to grow this taproom culture,” says Green. “If people are going to be diverse in their drinking, we might as well offer them different things.”

To varying degrees, every brewer we visited talked about the significance of taproom sales to the very existence of their company. Until HB 1322 took effect, they explained, a future for small, independent breweries in Mississippi was hardly guaranteed. Before 2017, state law specified that visitors could receive no more than six 6-ounce servings of beer. Most breweries would also include a tour for a few bucks, but they couldn’t charge for the samples. Even if you throw in the occasional T-shirt purchase, this wasn’t a great way to stimulate small business. Distribution, meanwhile, requires scale, and scale requires resources many new breweries lack. Self-distribution is prohibited.

“I was really disenfranchised with the three-tier system,” admits Andy O’Bryan, owner of Water Valley’s Yalobusha Brewing Company. “In the five years I was distributing, I saw no investments in capital spending. I was going to jump off a bridge.”

Instead of taking that hyperbolic leap, last year O’Bryan turned the Hendricks Foundry and Machine Shop, the 19th century brick building on Main Street that he chose for his production brewery, into a brewpub. He says he doesn’t have faith that the system will change, but still believes there’s “an intense passion” for craft breweries in Mississippi. According to O’Bryan, a talkative entrepreneur who has founded 15 other businesses, one distributor even went so far as to tell him why Yalobusha wasn’t a priority. “Why would I ever pay for a craft beer brand rep when he’s just going to sit around and drink beer with you guys?”

McLaughlin at the state brewers guild isn’t done fighting for his members, but in true Mississippi fashion, takes the long view of things. He’s confident that the situation will continue to improve, but he isn’t expecting results overnight. So he reaches out to other guilds for advice, works with trade associations to help them understand the beer industry, talks to brewers about ways to promote beer from the Magnolia State, and keeps pushing for reforms in the legislature. Because at the end of the day, his goal is something everyone should be able to get behind: a level playing field.

“It has been a long, long, long road to this point,” he says. “Can’t we just let the market prove out what the best products are?”