The gourmet beer business in South Mississippi is growing by leaps and bounds,
or rather by hops and barley.
A Coast beer distributor said he's seeing sales increase every year, a second microbrewery has opened and a one-day craft beer festival continues to draw record crowds.
Nationally, the number of craft brewers has gone from eight in 1980 to 537 in 1994 to 2,336 in 2012, said Spencer Powlison, marketing coordinator for the Brewers Association, an organization whose purpose is to promote and protect small and independent American brewers.
Consumer appetite continues to push sales of the specialized beers.
"We're growing double digits every year," said Ryland Bertucci, director of sales for F.E.B. Distributing.
F.E.B. represents 18 to 20 breweries, among them Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. in Hancock County.
That brewery, opened in Kiln in 2003 by Mark and Leslie Henderson, was the first microbrewery in the state.
Now another husband-and-wife team, Paul and Wanda Blacksmith, have opened Crooked Letter Brewing Co. in Ocean Springs and already they're upgrading from 15-gallon to 500-gallon brewing tanks.
A third microbrewery operates near Jackson and a fourth and fifth will open soon in Hattiesburg.
Southern Prohibition Brewery is remodeling a former furniture warehouse to house a 20-barrel brewing system capable of producing up to 3,000 barrels of beer a year. It should begin brewing by spring.
Gordon Creek Brewery, four blocks from Southern Prohibition, is expected to begin brewing on a smaller scale by February.
Bertucci thinks they'll have company soon.
"I think the possibilities could be endless to have more breweries in Mississippi," he said.
The passage last year of the gourmet beer bill in the state played a huge role in the growing popularity of craft beer.
The bill, which went into effect at midnight June 31, changed the regulations on beer sales in Mississippi so it is possible to buy beer at up to 8 percent alcohol by weight.
It also allows breweries to manufacture and sell beer with more than 8 percent alcohol by weight to states that allow the sales of stronger beer, and allows samples of beer to be served to brewery visitors.
Craft beers, with names like Lazy Magnolia's Southern Hops'pitality or Crooked Letter's Mystery Romp, are to be savored and enjoyed.
"Most people look at it as quality over quantity," Bertucci said. "They are getting a quality product that's more flavorful and it's American made."
Both breweries were among about 60 represented at the third annual Top of the Hops Beer Fest in Biloxi on Saturday. The festival, which showcases craft beers from around the country, offered samples of more than 150 craft beers on tap as well as seminars for cooking with beer, food pairings and brewing techniques and requirements.
Jason Porter and Shawn Lane, two 37-year-old friends from Biloxi, were found drinking 2-ounce samples of craft brew from plastic mugs. They've attended all three years.
"We're not going to miss it," Porter said.
This is all good news for fans of craft beer.
"There's been an explosion of that product out there," said Butch Bailey, past president of Raise Your Pints, a grass-roots, nonprofit organization founded in 2007 to help bring high-quality beers to Mississippi.
"We're now able to brew a wide variety of beers that we were not able to before, offering our consumers more choices," Lazy Magnolia Sales and Marketing Director Brandi Burge said. "We're about to begin an expansion that will almost triple the size of our brewery. Our growth plan is right on target. Craft in Mississippi can only get better and better."
Thought the Blacksmiths weren't approved by Jackson County Supervisors to open a brewery in Vancleave, 10 cities in the state made inquiries to them to set up shop in their municipalities.
The couple chose Ocean Springs and recently opened in an outbuilding behind Broome's Grocery.
They can produce about 3,000 barrels a year, compared with Lazy Magnolia's 15,000.
They would have opened even if the gourmet beer bill hadn't passed, but Paul Blacksmith said the new law will help sales.
"We can add more grains, which adds more flavor," he said.
They currently brew four beers but plan to create seasonal beers as well as a yearly single-release batch for their anniversary.
In December, Wanda Blacksmith founded the Mississippi Brewers Guild, which will help other potential brewery businesses open.
"We're very supportive of other breweries opening," Paul Blacksmith said.
Craft brew is popular with customers at The Beer House on Government Street in Ocean Springs.
The establishment, owned by businessman Arturo Barajas, offers more than 40 taps of rotating stock.
"The popularity for craft beer is not going away, and we hope to facilitate it," bartender Daniel Losey said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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