Craft Beer in Mississippi (Finally)

December 29, 2015

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Prohibition didn’t end in the 1930s like many people believe. It’s true that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution (which ended the nationwide ban on alcohol) was ratified in 1933, but some states didn’t end Prohibition until as recently as the 1960s.

Molotov Cocktail has written about the deleterious effects of Prohibition on American drinking culture before. The country is only now rediscovering long-lost brewing and distilling traditions, benefitting American imbibers and garnering well-deserved accolades. The economic benefits, however, have gone largely unnoticed.

More and more states are starting to wise up to the economic opportunity offered by the brewing and distilling industries. Many of these former bastions of Prohibition are giving in to pressure to ease Prohibition-like restrictions, offering a chance to examine how the brewing and distilling industries are responding. Your author recently visited Mississippi, the last state to end Prohibition, in 1966, and discovered a burgeoning craft beer industry that has sprung up, seemingly overnight, as a result of the state’s recent easing of brewing laws.

Decades after Congress repealed nationwide Prohibition, Mississippi maintained a statewide ban. Voters in the state were sharply divided: On the one side, people saw Prohibition as a moral virtue; on the other, they saw it as a meddlesome hypocrisy. This was especially true because, of course, you could still get a drink in Mississippi. You just had to call the Dukes of Hazzard or whoever your local bootleggers were. Bootlegging and moonshining were ubiquitous in the mid-20th-century South. In fact, your author’s great grandpappy took a load of buckshot executing his duties as deputy sheriff confiscating a still. The reality was that alcohol was being produced, consumed, and sold throughout Mississippi despite the ban. And while moonshiners and bootleggers struck it rich, the state was losing out on the tax revenues.

Politicians frequently encountered voters who asked them what they thought about whiskey, trying to force their hands on the issue. One state representative from Alcorn County, Mississippi — Noah “Soggy” Sweat — decided to deliver a final answer to this question at the end of his first and only term in office in 1952. Delivered with a twinkling eye to an assembly of state representatives divided over the issue, Sweat’s speech captures the essence of confirmation bias: As Simon and Garfunkel would explain it, “Such are promises/All lies and jest/ Still, a man hears what he wants to hear/ And disregards the rest.” Soggy’s “If-by-Whiskey” speech has become a part of the lexicon of American political discourse. And Soggy himself later became a state judge, founder of the Mississippi Judicial College at Ole Miss, and professor to a young law student by the name of John Grisham. An excerpt from the short speech is worth reprinting here because it also helps define the legacy of Prohibition in Mississippi today.

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, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, 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; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

The Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s state newspaper, reported at the time that “the drys were as unhappy with the second part of the speech as the wets were with the first half.” In addition to being a perfect demonstration of confirmation bias in action, the If-by-Whiskey speech is also significant because it foreshadowed a shift in the debate over alcohol regulation from its moral virtue to its economic impact.

A decade and a half after Soggy left office, the Mississippi state legislature finally voted to repeal the statewide alcohol ban (Time magazine subscribers can read the 1966 coverage of the repeal online). But the new law left it up to Mississippi’s 82 counties to decide whether to remain dry or go wet. Thirty-four remain dry to this day.

Lest urban readers fall victim to confirmation bias of their own, it is important to note that dry counties in the United States are more common than many think — and not limited to Mississippi or the Bible Belt. Nationwide, one in nine counties are dry. These countywide alcohol bans may seem like moralistic anachronisms maintained by puritans seeking to impose teetotalism on their neighbors, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Now, Molotov Cocktail is the last place where you will find a spirited defense of blue laws. In fairness, there are legitimate reasons for local jurisdictions to regulate when and where alcohol is sold or consumed. It’s done all the time, in every jurisdiction across the country. Many zoning laws in big cities like Washington, DC, for example, pertain specifically to alcohol and are meant to protect the character of certain neighborhoods. Neighborhood associations frequently revoke or restrict liquor or occupancy licenses if they deem a bar is detrimental to the community. Very rarely do these restrictions have anything to do with teetotalism. Moral arguments against alcohol consumption rooted in conservative Christianity certainly play more of a role in Mississippi’s blue laws than in New York City’s zoning ordinances, but the same principle used to regulate alcohol in every other jurisdiction in the country applies to alcohol restrictions in small towns or counties in rural Mississippi.

Nevertheless, proponents of these restrictions are starting to lose out to economic arguments against them both in Mississippi and across the country. A nationwide trend is emerging in which local jurisdictions are loosening alcohol restriction as a way to raise revenue. This seems particularly attractive to Republican-controlled jurisdictions that like the idea of increasing revenue without raising taxes. There is a lot of money in the booze business. Beer alone is a $102-billion industry.

That’s part of the reason that the Mississippi legislature has been taking a hard look at its alcohol regulation and is starting to ease some of the restrictions on alcohol sales. In 2012, it amended a law to allow certain municipal jurisdictions in the state’s 34 dry counties to decide for themselves how to regulate alcohol. The change in the law reignited debate about Prohibition, with proponents concerned about drunk driving, alcoholism, and the character of their communities, and opponents looking to bring in new business, population growth, and tax revenue.

On top of that the state is loosening restrictions on the alcohol content of beer that can be sold in the state. Prior to 2012, beer could only be sold in Mississippi if it was under 6.25-percent ABV. According to local grassroots beer advocacy organization Raise Your Pints, the 6.25-percent cap prevented Mississippians “from enjoying about 80 percent of the world’s beers.” As craft beer fans know, there are a lot of really great beers that clock in above 6 percent. The new law raised the cap to 10.1 percent, allowing some Belgian styles, IPAs, and beers with “imperial” designations to be sold in the state.

The number of beers available at local restaurants and watering holes exploded as a result. One executive chef, Jesse Houston, said that when he moved to Mississippi from Austin in 2010 to work at the Jackson restaurant, Saltine, he was let down by the availability of craft beer. “I switched my attention away from beer and onto craft cocktails,” he said. Now that the law has changed, the restaurant has more freedom with its drink menu. It didn’t take long for them to partner with a local brewery. Saltine and Lucky Town Brewing Co. now produce Saltine Stout, an imperial oyster stout made with gulf oysters and saltine crackers. In nearby Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a new beer-centric bar made it on to Draft Magazine’s list of America’s 100 Best Beer Bars.

The number of breweries in the state has gone up as well. In 2012, there was one craft brewery in all of Mississippi. Three years later, Mississippi boasts 13 breweries, and they’re producing some pretty awesome-sounding beer. The Craft Beer Guide to Mississippi notes Southern Prohibition Brewing Co. in Hattiesburg makes a black IPA that won a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Championship. Crooked Letter Brewing Co. in Ocean Springs uses a 108-year-old roaster for the coffee beans it uses in its Mystery Romp coffee porter.

The state could still do more to ease restriction. Craft beer advocates note that while tasting rooms can give samples of the beer, they can’t sell it directly to customers. Breweries would also like to do away with the cap altogether because, as beer fans will know, there are actually a lot more beers that exceed 10-percent ABV than one might think. As Mississippi looks to ease more restrictions, it will have to balance the tremendous growth opportunity for these businesses with its vision for its future. It’s unlikely that Mississippi’s brewing industry will rival Colorado’s any time soon, but the industry’s response to recent changes gives hope for the future.

 

Frank Swigonski is a recovering bartender. He is originally from Arizona but currently lives in Washington, DC where he works on energy policy.

 

Image credit: Boston Public Library

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One thought on “Craft Beer in Mississippi (Finally)

  1. “These countywide alcohol bans may seem like moralistic anachronisms maintained by puritans seeking to impose teetotalism on their neighbors, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

    I respect any county or state’s right to pass laws completely banning alcohol production/sales. But I don’t understand why Sunday bans (24-hour or partial) haven’t been ruled unconstitutional. Are these laws really kept on the books to prevent coopers, chandlers, sawyers and ice-delivery boys from being too hung over to work on Monday morning? Or is it similar to a Shariah or fiqh decree, but emanating from a pre-Islamic Middle Eastern religion more commonly practiced in the United States?