BY JORDAN DRIGGERS
Oxford’s inaugural beer festival is a direct indication of the alcohol reformation taking place in Mississippi. Most of the beers provided at the festival this year were illegal in the state less than a year ago. The state had and still has some strict and odd regulations when it comes to alcohol. Yet, since being elected into office in 2011, Gov. Phil Bryant has signed two Senate bills that have dramatically loosened regulations. This legislation has earned Bryant the nickname “Budweiser Bryant” from the grateful Mississippi beer enthusiasts.
The credit does not lay solely with Bryant, though. A majority of the change in state regulation is due to the advocacy promoted by the grassroots, nonprofit organization Raise Your Pints. Formed In Jackson in 2007, this organization focused on bringing the highest quality beers in the world to Mississippi. In order to accomplish its mission, two decisive bills needed to be passed.
The first bill was Senate Bill 2878, a bill that would increase the amount of alcohol in beer so that it may contain up to 8 percent by weight. This bill was passed and became effective July 1, 2012. It allowed beer drinkers in Mississippi to access a much greater array of beers, like craft beers and high-gravity beers. Craft beers are beers that are distributed by small, independent breweries, while high-gravity beers are beers that contain a high percentage of alcohol. According to beeradvocate.com, the 5 percent alcohol by weight cap eliminated 80 percent of the top-rated beers in the world and about 33 percent of the world’s beer styles, like barley wine, doppelbock, imperial stout and many more. Before its passing in July, Mississippi was the only state to have a ban on high-gravity beer.
The second bill the Raise Your Pints collective sought to pass was S.B. 2183, which would legalize the act of home brewing. The bill was passed on March 18, 2013, though the illegality of home brewing in the state was not really preventing Mississippians from enjoying the hobby. The entire issue was more of a gray area of legal interpretation. This law change resulted in clarifying the legislation, to the delight of home brewers. The passage of S.B. 2183 left no question that home brewing is a legal hobby in Mississippi. Mississippi was the second to last state to legalize this act officially, leaving Alabama as the only state that has yet to do so.
Raise Your Pints President Craig Hendry said that the passage of S.B. 2878 was more difficult to accomplish than that of the homebrewing bill
“It was our top priority and we spent a lot more time educating and promoting it. Our efforts with that bill also made it easier to follow it with the home brew bill the next year.”
The hard work of accomplishing that task paid off for Hendry and beer enthusiasts in the state.
“After that law passed, we have seen a big influx of new beers and new breweries distributing to Mississippi,” Hendry said. “Also, less than 12 months later, we are on the verge of having five breweries open in Mississippi, compared to only one a year ago. So, the results are there for everyone to see.”
It is shocking to think that up until a year ago Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company was the only brewery in the state. The brewery was founded in 2003 and is based out of Kiln, Miss. Up until the craft beer bill was passed, Lazy Magnolia was limited to brewing beer with a alcohol content that did not exceed 5 percent. This meant having to turn down a lot of business for the company. If Lazy Magnolia was offered a contract brewing deal and the beer they were to produce exceeded the 5 percent mark, they had to reject the offer. Thanks to Hendry and his team’s efforts, Lazy Magnolia is now open to much more business and can significantly increase its own production.
Another breakthrough tied to Hendry and the collective is the fact that Mississippi now has four official brewing sites. On the coast is Crooked Letter Brewing Company located in Ocean Springs, while Gluckstadt is home to Lucky Town Brewing Company. Recently, Yalobusha Brewing Company brewery has chosen Water Valley as its home.
Yalobusha Brewing had once looked at Oxford as a possible choice for its brewing facility but opted to invest nearly a million dollars into the historic Hendricks building in downtown Water Valley. Not only will these breweries promote the production and sale of Mississippi-made products, these breweries will produce a substantial number of jobs and potentially ignite other small businesses at their locations.
The communities will also benefit from the addition of local attraction, since tourism is proving to be strongly associated with breweries. Guests enjoy the sensory experience of the venue and have a great appreciation for the highly scientific process that goes into brewing.
There might only be four set breweries right now, but there are plenty in various stages of the creation process, one of which is the Oxford Brewing Company. It has yet to determine a location in Oxford for its brew facility, but starting this summer it will begin producing its first two signature beers Sorority Blonde and MPA no.8 with help from a brewery in Gadsen, AL.
“The help we are receiving in Alabama is only temporary. It’s Oxford Brewing Company, and we have no intention of changing that,” said Jeff Haggard, member of the young Oxford brewing team. “We hope to have a place to call home in Oxford producing our five beer labels by early 2014.”
Everything is still in very early stages at this point. Even though it has not even been a full year since the craft beer bill was passed, noticeable progress is being made. Along with breweries kick-starting, the state has seen many inaugural beer festivals taking place since the bill has been in effect.
Changes have also come to beer festivals that existed before the passage of the bill. During the first two years of Top of the Hops in Jackson, event-goers were provided with some good beers but not nearly the amount or variety they would find at a similar festival in a different state.
“Out of the top 100-ranked beers in America, 90 of them weren’t here,” said Jay Wilson, event promoter for Top of the Hops.
The passage of the new legislation sparked Darryl Parker and others with the visionary idea of organizing the inaugural beer festival for Oxford. Parker, the head organizer of the event, spoke to volunteers prior to the start of the festival about his expectations.
“It’s our first one so it might not be as organized as others people have attended, but that’s okay,” Parker said. “We will learn what works and what doesn’t. The main thing is exposing people to good craft beer.”
Exposure to craft beer was definitely achieved at the festival, which boasted more than 140 craft beers and unlimited sampling. People were able to unearth numerous beers that were considered illegal in the state less than a year ago.
The festival also provided these up-and-coming brewing companies like Oxford Brewing, Crooked Letter Brewing and Lucky Town Brewing a platform on which to promote their beer. All three companies had a booth set up where they would pour samples and enlighten consumers on their products and future plans.
No other brewing companies at the festival were represented in the same way. Instead, they were poured by a volunteer who had little to no knowledge about the beer they were giving to you to sample. It was encouraging to see the mutualism between the young state breweries and Oxford festival organizers, and it looks as though both are taking steps in the right direction.
The breweries need festivals like Oxford’s event this year so they can promote and give people a chance to sample their product, even though it is not yet available for purchase. The Oxford Beer Festival also benefits from the participation of these local state breweries by giving the festival its own identity. Of course, all these beer festivals want to promote the many types of beers they have to try from all over the world. Yet, what is the significance of having 3,000 different beers to sample, and none of them are even from the state where the festival is being held?
“We hope to see more state-brewed beers in the coming years and (are) really hoping for a handful of Oxford’s very own brewed beers,” Parker said, which could be a strong possibility now that home brewing is officially legal.
Every Mississippi-operated brewery, including those in the planning state, was started by home brewers. The Oxford Beer Festival incorporated a Brew University area for VIP ticket holders where local home brewers actually taught seminars on how to home brew. The more familiarity with home brewing that Mississippians experience, the better the chances are of increased craft breweries in the state. It is not surprising that this is the next goal of the organization that has brought the alcohol reformation to where it stands in the state.
“There is no immediate 2014 legislative agenda at the moment,” Hendry said. “Mississippi still has a ways to go to catch up to other states whose laws are more craft beer- and brewery-friendly, but for now we’re focused on craft beer and home brew education and events.”