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Why Mississippi Wasn't a Craft Beer State, Until Now

Mississippi's relaxed brewing regulations are fostering craft brew growth in the state and beer sales elsewhere around the country.

Lucky Town

In 2012, Mississippi was home to one craft brewery. Today, the state counts 10, with several more forthcoming. Compared to the overwhelming number of craft breweries proliferating across the country, the "hospitality state" of Mississippi has, until recently, been stifled by archaic laws that have prevented residents from partaking in the domestic craft beer revolution. But, the money to be made in craft beer is causing states to reconsider how brews affect their bottom line.

According to a recent Bloomberg report:

U.S. production at craft breweries, or those that make no more than 6 million barrels annually, rose by almost 18 percent last year (2014), accounting for $19.6 billion in sales, according to the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association. By contrast, national production grew by only half a percent. In 2010, craft breweries collectively produced about 10 million barrels; by 2014, production had more than doubled to 22 million barrels.

And based on country-wide strides toward a warmer beer attitude, those numbers appear poised to grow. For example, in Illinois, a bill sent to Governor Bruce Rauner in June would enable breweries to sell directly to consumers; Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law in May that lets customers fill 64-ounce growlers at taps; and in New York, just last month a tax credit pushed through by Governor Andrew Cuomo is giving cash back to small brewers to boost growth. Now, Mississippi is next.

The historically religious state enacted its own version of Prohibition 13 years before the 18th Amendment and was the last to repeal in 1966. To this day, nearly half of the counties are dry and prior to 2012 only three people felt compelled to possess active permits to brew beer in the state (a result of the restrictive laws that offered few, if any, incentives). However, thanks to people like Troy Coll (who is a member of the craft beer advocacy group Raise Your Pints), new local breweries and the chefs and bars who support these breweries, Mississippi’s craft beer culture is finally changing.

Raise Your Pints, a grassroots, all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to modernizing Mississippi's beer laws and growing its beer culture, was founded in 2008 by a bunch of self-described beer geeks who were displeased with Mississippi's outdated alcohol regulations.

"In addition to preventing Mississippians from enjoying about 80 percent of the world's beers, these lawswhich included an ABV [alcohol by volume] cap of 6.25 percent, prevented breweries from distributing samples or selling beer direct to consumers, and made homebrewing illegalwere also severe hindrances to economic and cultural growth in our state," Coll says. "In 2012 we worked with the state legislature and the governor to pass a law increasing the allowable alcohol content in beer to 10 percent ABV, and in 2013, we convinced them to pass a law to legalize homebrewing."

According to Coll, opening a brewery anywhere, under any set of laws, is never easy, but compared to pre-2012 Mississippi, building a business in Mississippi is now a breeze.

Mississippi craft beer from Lucky Town. Photo courtesy of Lucky Town.

Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company was the only pre-2012 brewery in the state, launching in 2003, the first since Prohibition was enacted in 1907. After repeatedly hearing that opening a brewery wasn't legal, owner Mark Henderson came across the loophole that beer is not technically considered an alcoholic beverage in the state of Mississippi, and that its sale is run by the state tax commission. So, Henderson called the Sales and Use Tax Bureau and convinced them to let him brew beer. However, back then, the antiquated ABV cap was still in place.

With the change in Mississippi law and the subsequent growing appreciation for craft beer, the climate is perfect for new breweries to thrive.

He specifically remembers trying to serve a cloudy wheat beer in 2005. "I was selling beer the old fashioned way, one glass at a time, poured from a party ball. They looked at me, pointed at the glass, and said, ‘Son, I don’t know what you are selling, but we know around here that when beer looks like this, it has been in the back of your pickup too long,’" Henderson says. "Now cloudy beer is par for the course, and no one even bats an eye. People are becoming educated about flavor, about variety and about choice. A decade ago, we would have been ridden out of town on a rail for making a sour beer, now people love them."

With the change in Mississippi law and the subsequent growing appreciation for craft beer, the climate is perfect for new breweries to thrive. Lucky Town Brewery was the second brewery to hit Mississippi in 2011, putting out their first product in 2012. That year Lucky Town brewed the first Belgian style blonde ale Ballistic Blondewhich was widely distributed in Mississippi and is now available in surrounding states.

"We decided to open a brewery here because we love Jackson and Mississippi and see the potential here. It was a high-risk, high-reward scenario being the first to open here in Jackson, and one of the first few in the state, but we were willing to take that chance to get in on the forefront of a movement that we thought was destined to keep growing," says Lucky Town founder Lucas Simmons.

Above: Inside Saltine. Below: Chef Jesse Houston behind Saltine's bar. Photos courtesy of Saltine.

As one of Mississippi’s craft beer pioneers, Simmons has also been able to make meaningful partnerships with restaurateurs and chefs who are fellow beer lovers, like Jesse Houston of the notable Jackson restaurant, Saltine.

Houston has loved good beer since his Le Cordon Bleu days in Austin, Texas, which is why moving to Mississippi in 2010 with its limiting beer laws was initially disheartening.
"When I got to Mississippi, I was pumped to see a ton of beers I hadn't had before, but after sampling my way through them, was quickly disappointed," Houston says. "With the exception of a few starsI drank the heck out of Lazy Magnolia Indian Summer when I first moved hereI was overall let down, and I switched my attention away from beer and onto craft cocktails."

However, after the ABV increase, Houston was able to get creative with the beers he offers at Saltine, including a "Saltine Stout"a proprietary imperial oyster stout for the restaurant made by Lucky Town using gulf oysters and saltine crackers.

Perhaps one of the most obvious beneficiaries of Mississippi’s evolving craft beer culture is the rise of beer venues like Mahogany Bar, a whiskey, beer and cocktail bar in Hattiesburg. Once the law relaxed, the business went from being a six-tap macro bar to one of Draft magazine's  100 best beer bars for two years in a row. General manager Dusty Frierson says that while the bar had a rather large beer list even ten years ago, most of their selection was pedestrianthe craziest they got was Heinekenwith a big chunk made up of bottled brews.

"I was always wanting to boost the beer up a bit, but frankly the stuff wasn't there with the ABV cap," Frierson says. "When the law changed, we had all been carrying import and it was a total game changerbiggest game changer in this space in 28 years." Now Mahogany Bar has an expansive, multi-page beer list with a wide selection of imported, domestic, regional and now local drafts.

Craft beer advocates in Mississippi say the state could make additional improvements to be more competitive with neighboring states. Though there are tasting rooms at breweries for tours, laws still prohibit brewers from selling direct to consumer, even onsite. So while the ABV cap has loosened to allow breweries and imbibers more freedom, craft beer fans would like to do away with it altogether.

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