This week the Mississippi Brewers Guild announced that within a few months, visitors to state breweries might actually be allowed to leave with a six-pack—or two—in tow.
Drinkers from other states might be surprised that on-premises beverage sales aren't already legal. (I, as a Kentucky "Bourbon Country" resident, am used to wall-to-wall liquor in local distillery gift shops.) But Mississippi has a historically complicated—read: antiquated—relationship with beer.
The traditionally religious state enacted its own version of Prohibition 13 years before the 18th Amendment and was the last to repeal in 1966. To this day, nearly half of the counties are dry and prior to 2012, only three people possessed active permits to brew beer in the state—a result of the restrictive laws that offered few, if any, incentives. Also prior to 2013, there was an ABV (alcohol by volume) cap of 6.25 percent and a ban against homebrewing.
Fast-forward a few years. Thanks to the work of brewers and grassroots organizations dedicated to modernizing Mississippi's beer laws, the state's outdated alcohol regulations finally began to catch up with the rest of the country. However, on-premises sales for brewers were still off the table.
That is, until September 20, when a release was sent out. It begins:
On June 22, 2016, the Mississippi Brewers Guild and the Mississippi Beer Distributors Association held a joint meeting to discuss the state of the craft beer industry in Mississippi and agree on an on-premises sales bill for the 2017 Mississippi Legislative Session. The final version of the bill will not be ready until later this fall, but the Mississippi Brewers Guild and the Mississippi Beer Distributors Association have reached an agreement in principle.
The release went on to outline the big point of the bill: It would allow in-state breweries that manufacture no more than 60,000 barrels of beer per year to sell their beer for on-premises consumption through taprooms, and to sell up to 576 ounces per day per consumer for off-premises consumption.
The agreement would also remove the food requirements from the existing brewpub qualification criteria, while providing "an annual cap for tap room sales and off-premises consumption sales of 10 percent of the annual production for the brewery or 1,500 barrels, whichever is less."
Mississippi brewers say one of the biggest benefits of this change is that it enables direct communication with customers.
Lucas Simmons is the brewmaster at Lucky Town Brewing Company, as well as a member of the Brewers Guild legislative board.
"You can get instant feedback on current and experimental beers," Simmons says. "People who are coming in to buy a pint will give you honest feedback, and you can learn what people like and don't like with a little more accuracy."
Matthew McLaughlin, an attorney who also works with the Guild, agrees.
"It gives the brewery that instantaneous customer feedback and allows them to get market validation or tweak things much faster, rather than going through the brand creation process—from coming up with the recipe, manufacturing a large batch to make it worth pushing through traditional wholesales," McLaughlin says. "This gives breweries the chance to do real-time research and development."
Some feel this development would hurt distributors. One commenter wrote beneath the release, "You are just taking money from one pocket (the distributor) and putting it in another (the brewer) while not actually helping grow the category in any meaningful way."
However, McLaughlin says this isn't the case.
"By allowing people to taste on-site, distributors will end up ultimately with a more refined product," he says.
People involved in Mississippi's craft beer scene also say the advent of on-site sales builds a consumer-brand connection not otherwise possible. Troy Coll is a member of Raise Your Pints, a craft beer advocacy group established in Mississippi in 2008.
"Without the ability to link brewers and drinkers directly through the beer they mutually enjoy, a brewery is just another industrial food factory," Coll says.
According to Coll, direct sales are a significant revenue stream for breweries. Tap room sales can account for around half of a brewery's revenue on just 20 percent of total volume of beer sold; but ultimately, this bill wouldn't just benefit current breweries or distributors. It also paves the way for the future of Mississippi craft brewing.
"This bill means growth—jobs and revenue for breweries, and desperately needed tax dollars for the state," Coll says. "It means brewers can reinvest in their businesses to increase capacity, buy a bottling or canning line, or expand into neighboring markets."
He continues: "We're also likely to see even further proliferation of small brewpubs, like Courtyard Brewery in New Orleans and Alabama's Fairhope Brewing, as direct sales lower the economic hurdles to entering the market."
While no decisions will be official until the next Mississippi legislative session in January, state brewers—like Lazy Magnolia Brewery founder Mark Henderson—are increasingly optimistic about the environment in which they work.
"If the proposed changes become law, Mississippi will no longer have the most restrictive regulatory environment for beer," Henderson says. "I am excited for what the future holds for craft beer in Mississippi."