SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - Craft beer is quickly catching-on in Mississippi. Actually, the Magnolia State is catching-up to the rest of the country, thanks to a change in beer laws.
Craft beer in Mississippi began to really take off two years ago. That's when state lawmakers agreed to raise the Alcohol by Volume limits on beer to 10.2 percent. That opened to door to new breweries, creative new beers hitting store shelves and an excitement about the future of craft beers.
The large ballroom at Golden Nugget casino was heaven for craft beer drinkers on a recent fall evening. As the polka band played, "In Heaven There Ain't No Beer," beer fans tried and tasted new brews. The event offered a taste of 32 different brews for the beer connoisseur.
"It's going to have three different kinds of hops in it. So, it's going to have some citrus and floral," said one beer vendor, as he poured a sample of craft beer goodness.
In the world of craft beer, there's something to please most every palate.
"This one, it's a little darker in color, but it's light tasting," said Michelle Robinson from Lazy Magnolia Brewery, as she poured a customer a taste.
And for beer-makers, the only limit is imagination.
"One of the greatest things is that there's no boundaries. You can just brew whatever you want to brew. Basically, if it has malt, water, yeast and hops in it, throw some other stuff in it and see what you get, you know," said Paul Blacksmith.
Blacksmith and his wife Wanda operate Crooked Letter Brewery in Ocean Springs. He's pleased to see such explosive growth in the craft beer scene.
"Every beer is worth a sip. Maybe not every beer is worth a finish. But try everything. That's the great thing about craft beers," said a vendor from FEB Distributing.
Aaron Lafrance is a self-described "beer nerd" who happens to be the "craft beer guy" for FEB distributing.
"Let me just give you a little taste of this. I just want you to try it," he excitedly told a customer, "I want to see your reaction. That all comes from the cherries."
"It is booming right now. We got some laws changed that allowed some other breweries to come into the state. And people's palates are developing, people are changing and they're starting to want some more adventurous styles of beer," LaFrance explained.
"This one's a coffee flavor," said the young man behind one of the counters at Lazy Magnolia.
A good introduction to craft beer can be found at the First Friday gatherings at Lazy Magnolia Brewery in the Kiln. This is the beer business that started it all: Mississippi's first brewery.
"We've been in business 10 years and today in one day we do as much beer as we did in one month in our first year. So, that gives you some idea of the growth," said Leslie Henderson, who co-owns the brewery with husband, Mark. "We're now about number 117, in terms of size, in the nation. That's out of 3,000 breweries."
"The smell, smell it. It's awesome," said one of the craft beer fans.
"That's pretty good," his friend agreed, after a sniff and a sip.
"I just love the different flavors, the different concoctions people can put together. You just never know what you're going to get. And people can put together some weird stuff, and you just never know. It's awesome," said craft beer fan Terry Canzoneri.
"The world is your oyster when it comes to craft beer," says Emily Curry.
She's the sales manager for Southern Prohibition Brewery in Hattiesburg. The locals call it "So-Pro."
"The thing about craft breweries, they're all grass roots and it is very personal. It's getting hands on with the customers and hands on with the bars and hands on with the people who are drinking it every day. And that's how we sell beer," said Curry.
"It is so satisfying to finally have other breweries in the state. This just really validates everything we've been doing and it makes it a lot more fun," said Henderson.
Craft beer lovers appreciate the sometimes subtle nuances in the body, taste and aroma of a smaller batch beer. As more than one beer lover described the trend: Craft beer is like the new wine.
"It's more palatable to me than your general lagers that you see you know, ice brewed by the millions of gallons. It's got more of a personal touch. For instance, Lazy Mag's flagship beer, their Southern Pecan, is out of this world. And you can't find that in a big brewery," said craft beer lover Evan Stewart.
Lazy Magnolia Brewery's First Friday events feature live music, friendly crowds and craft beer samples from a variety of breweries.
"We've been doing these for just over two years. It became legal for breweries to offer samples in July of 2012. We have a lot of repeat customers and they seem to always bring new friends. And we get people from all over the state and out of state. It's loads of fun," said Leslie Henderson, a co owner of the brewery.
Fans of craft beer are happy to see the changes in beer laws that are allowing this industry to flourish.
"I'll tell you, I think the future of craft beer down here is looking bright. With the law changes that have come into effect the past couple of years, I gotta tell you, you guys are going to see more and more stuff down here. And it's going to be a good time," said Stewart.
Raise Your Pints is the fast-growing grass roots group which helped lobby to loosen the state's beer laws. And the organization is still facing yet another challenge for breweries.
"We are working to get some tap rooms open in the state. So that you could come here to Lazy Magnolia and you could buy a six pack or a twelve pack to take home with you, or you could come and just sit at a tasting room and drink pints, if you wanted to buy it here. Currently you can't purchase beer on site here at Lazy Magnolia or any other brewery in Mississippi," said Jennifer Moak, with Raise Your Pints.
"I think 2015 is our year. I think all of these breweries are going to see amazing things. There's some amazing breweries on the docket, there's some amazing breweries out right now. We're catching up with the rest of the country and I think we're on the cusp of something a lot of people thought they would never see. It's going to be bigger and better and come a lot faster than anybody believes," said Emily Curry, with Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg.
As the number of breweries in Mississippi continues to grow, fans of craft beer will reap the benefits of creative recipes and friendly competition between brewers.
"By having this out here and getting people out here and introducing these other breweries, it's great for Mississippi. We're kind of behind, but we're picking up. And I'll be really interested to see how the next few years go. All these craft brews," said Canzoneri.
"We haven't even touched the surface. There's so much more fun stuff to do and you'll see a lot of new brews coming out of Lazy Magnolia and the rest of the Mississippi breweries as well," said Henderson.
Paul and Wanda Blacksmith, who own Crooked Letter Brewing in Ocean Springs, say all their hard work is beginning to pay off. Though it hasn't always been easy, the future holds promise.
"Things have really improved and continue to improve and we're working with other breweries in Mississippi to basically just continue these steps into beer culture. You know, full blown beer culture in Mississippi," said Paul Blacksmith.
"To stand out, you're having to expand the horizons, you're having to push the boundaries and come up with new and creative, innovative things. That's what craft beer is. It is all about exploring creativity," said Randy Bressner with Rex Distributing.
And creativity is something that's certainly abundant among craft beer brewers.