Since the Legislature legalized high-gravity beer in 2012, craft breweries have sprung up around the state. Mississippi should embrace their development rather than reverting to its old objections.

Mississippi ranks 50th in many things. It would surprise exactly no one that “breweries per capita” is among them.

According to the Brewers Association, only three breweries operated in Mississippi in 2012, amounting to only one brewery per 1 million Mississippians — compared to one per 500,000 Alabamians, one per 200,000 Tennesseans, and, remarkably, one per 25,000 Vermonters, the country’s sudsiest citizens.

But thanks to a policy shift and a handful entrepreneurial brewmasters, 2013 has turned into a banner year for Mississippi’s fledgling beermaking industry. Since January the Magnolia State has welcomed at least five new craft breweries, the small, independent producers that generally favor bolder flavors and higher alcohol content.

Mississippi’s craft brewing movement joins a national trend, albeit fashionably late. Craft brewers represent the fastest-growing segment of the national beer market. Despite stagnant national beer sales, craft beer revenues have grown 15% and 17% in the past two years, respectively. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, the duopoly of American beer (now foreign-owned), still dominate the market — collectively, craft sales account for only 10.2% of beer consumed in the U.S. — though the upward trajectory shows no signs of abating. Over 400 new breweries opened in 2012, bringing the national total to 2,400 independent beer makers. They are creating jobs and driving new tastes in a country that has historically only consumed ice-cold, water-down lagers.

Without the proper support, however, Mississippi could still snuff out its nascent craft beer industry. Alcohol remains a touchy political issue in many parts of the state, including those areas that need vibrant locally-owned businesses the most. Merely standing aside will not be enough; breweries have to be seen as valuable community assets. State and local leaders should not be timid in their support — though, if history is any guide, it may not be so simple.

Baptists and Bootleggers: Strange Bedfellows

If when you say ‘whiskey’ you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty… then certainly I am against it. But if when you say ‘whiskey’ you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes… then certainly I am for it

Such were the immortal words of former Mississippi legislator Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, who etched his gloriously alliterative name into the annals of American rhetorical history with this satirical “Whiskey Speech” in 1952. At the time, Mississippi was hotly divided between the “wets” and the “drys” — factions that didn’t pit drinkers against teetotalers as much as those who benefitted from prohibition laws against those who did not. The so-called “Baptist and bootlegger” coalition, the perverse bedfellows of moral conviction and profit motive, have conspired to maintain various forms of alcohol restriction to the present.

Mississippi’s long, contorted history over the issue is epitomized by the onetime duties of the state tax collector, a highly-sought elected office until its abolition in 1963.* Even though Mississippi’s leaders espoused strict prohibition, the tax collector’s primary duty was to enforce a 10% Black Market Tax on illegal liquor. The tax was levied independent of criminal charges (though paying the tax did not ensure immunity from prosecution). After all, nearly everybody found something to like about the perverse arrangement. The Baptists kept the temperance laws, while the state got its tax revenue. The bootleggers could charge their customers huge markups. And the Louisiana suppliers gladly complied in order to maintain their monopoly over the Mississippi market.

But the person who benefitted the most was probably the tax collector himself. The office paid 10% of whatever was collected. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, total levies could run up to $1.3 million a year. The tax collector’s staff and expenses came out of his cut, but in a good year, he could clear more than $80,000 — easily one of the highest salaries in the state, regardless of profession. It also made the Mississippi state tax collector the second-highest paid elected official in the country. Only the President of the United States earned more.

Mississippi’s Establishment publicly supported prohibition as long as they were not forced to abide by it privately. They beat back every attempt at repeal until, as its commonly told, the Hinds County Sheriff raided the liquor stock at the Jackson Country Club’s Mardi Gras party attended by Mississippi’s besotted political and business elite. The outraged revelers changed their tune and petitioned Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr., to push for repeal. The Legislature passed a local option bill that year.

Nevertheless, the governing coalition of moralizers and profiteers propagated a patchwork of alcohol laws that remain in place today. Nearly half of Mississippi’s counties remain dry. Even wet counties can feature a byzantine barleyfield of regulations.

In Oxford, for instance, alcohol cannot be sold in bars or restaurants on Sundays — except on certain holidays and football weekends. Bars in Oxford must close at 1 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and midnight the rest of the week — unless, again, it’s a home football weekend. Then they can stay open until 1 a.m. Saturday night. Until recently, beer had to be purchased warm outside of bars and restaurants. Now convenience stores can sell it cold, and on Sundays. Liquor can only be purchased at state-regulated package stores, but never on Sundays. If you want to drink at a restaurant that doesn’t have a liquor license, you can brown bag your bottle, as long as you keep it on the floor under your table. Open containers are illegal in public. Solo cups, however, are tacitly encouraged, especially on gamedays. If you leave the city limits of Oxford, you can only drink liquor. Beer is illegal in the rest of Lafayette County.** That applies to the majority of the University of Mississippi campus, including the Grove. The baseball stadium, on the other hand, is on city property, and therefore anything goes.

The Baptist-and-bootlegger restrictions are to blame for Mississippi’s slow entry in the craft brewing market. Prior to 2012, Mississippi capped the limit on alcohol by weight at 5%, which effectively outlawed most of the higher-gravity beers that craft brewers specialize in. Of the 100 top-selling beers in America, only 9 met Mississippi’s standard. Politicians publicly couched their opposition to raising the limit in moral terms. Behind the scenes, America’s major beer producers and their local distributors lobbied the Legislature to maintain the cap and, as a result, their market share. This new iteration of the old coalition defeated five bills that would have raised the cap and supported Mississippi’s nascent brewing industry.

The resistance cracked in 2012, though, when the major beer producers made a strategic decision to invest in higher-gravity brands. They joined forces with local craft brewers and homebrewers, represented by Mississippi’s Raise Your Pints association, to advocate a higher alcohol cap. The Legislature dutifully complied, raising the limit on alcohol by weight from 5% to 8% (and 10% by volume). Many of the previously-banned beers are now available in Mississippi, and the past 18 months has featured a rush of development in bars and retail stores that specialize in craft brands.

A Golden-Brown Economic Opportunity

The expansion of Mississippi’s brewing industry will benefit more than just those who prefer an IPA over Bud Light. Craft breweries, whether microbreweries that distribute or brewpubs that serve on-site, have been an important ingredient in the revitalization of many neighborhoods from coast to coast.

The specific needs of breweries — large amounts of cheap space — make them ideal tenants to fill the old warehouses and downtown storefronts that have been abandoned from white flight, big box competition, and deindustrialization. Where breweries open, other businesses often follow.

Case in point: Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company opened in an old industrial laundry facility in 1989. The brewery now attracts about 50,000 people annually and helped catalyze a broader revitalization of the city’s downtown area. Similar turnarounds have taken place around the Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland and Harpoon Brewery in South Boston. Brooklyn Brewery was one of the earliest new tenants in New York’s now-trendy Williamsburg neighborhood.

In Birmingham, the Avondale Brewing Company pioneered the redevelopment of the vacant South Avondale district in 2011. Along with Birmingham’s public-private development authority, the brewery has helped entice businesses to fill the surrounding buildings. The local government also committed millions in federal stimulus money to refurbish an adjacent park. In just two years the neighborhood has attracted, amongst other things, a locally-sourced grocery store, an art gallery, a barbecue restaurant, and two pubs.

A similar process is in early stages in several Mississippi cities. The Crooked Letter Brewing Co. bought and renovated an empty warehouse in downtown Ocean Springs. Lucky Town recently purchased an old warehouse in Jackson’s rebounding Midtown neighborhood. Two new breweries, Southern Prohibition and Gordon Creek, have filled vacant buildings in downtown Hattiesburg. The Yalobusha Brewing Company now anchors an old storefront on Water Valley’s Main Street. The newly-formed Mississippi Brewers Guild will promote and support the development of new breweries around the state.

Many craft beer consumers have a “drink local” mentality, and nearby bars, restaurants, and stores often stock locally-produced beers. Regional identity is inherent to the marketing of most craft beers. Whether its Sam Adams from Boston or Sierra Nevada from Northern California, breweries often reflect the culture and tastes of the area where they’re from. The godfather of Mississippi breweries, Kiln’s Lazy Magnolia, first splashed onto the scene in 2003 with its Southern Pecan nut brown ale, which claims to be world’s first pecan-based beer. The Mississippi Brewing Company in Gulfport leaves no doubt about where it’s from. Even Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company seeks to honor its founders’ Mississippi roots.

Craft beer can be a source of local pride and economic development for Mississippi, but only if our leaders move past historical hangups and support breweries as valuable community assets. I’d say that’s something we could all drink to.

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*The last man to hold the job of state tax collector was William Winter, the future governor and namesake of Rethink Mississippi’s sponsor, the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation. Despite the lucrative salary, Winter successfully campaigned for its abolition while he held the office.

** After counties were given the option to legalize beer in 1934, Lafayette County voted to ban it. After they were given the option to legalize liquor in 1966, Lafayette County voted to allow it. The referenda results still stand today. Lafayette County’s most notorious drinker, William Faulkner, offered some choice thoughts about local prohibitionists.

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