It's not often you can say you got to drink beer directly from where it originated, but I recently had the opportunity to do just that with some of the freshest suds you can find on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by visiting South Mississippi's four breweries: Lazy Magnolia, Crooked Letter, Chandeluer and Mississippi Brewing Company.
Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company, 7030 Roscoe-Turner Road, Kiln
My first visit was to the Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company, Mississippi's oldest packaging brewery. For the past decade, it has been offering tasty locally brewed beer to Mississippians and has grown to be distributed in bars, restaurants and retailers now in 17 states.
Lazy Magnolia is the first legal brewery in Mississippi since prohibition was enacted in 1907, and is the creation of Mark and Leslie Henderson, who met while studying engineering at Mississippi State University. It all began one Christmas when Leslie gave Mark a homebrew kit and has since snowballed from a hobby into a thriving business that sells over a dozen varieties of beer, including their award-winning flagship Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.
My visit to the Lazy Magnolia began by meeting Michelle Robinson, a Biloxi native, who majored in business at the University of South Alabama and is now marketing and PR coordinator for Lazy Magnolia. Robinson got her foot in the door at Lazy Magnolia when she took a tour guide position during college, and was promoted to event coordinator, which led to the position she now holds.
"It's such a fun job. I don't know how I got so lucky," Robinson said. "I think about that often. Not many people get their dream job right out of college."
Eager to start exploring the two large buildings that comprise the over 26,000-square-foot brewery, I asked Robinson to show me around, hoping to get an up-close-and-personal look at how beer is made from start to finish.
We started off in the malt storage area, where there are about a dozen varieties of malted barley, wheat and rye used to make the different flavored beers. That is where I was introduced to Will Brown, a Jackson native who has been a brewmaster with Lazy Magnolia for four years.
Following Brown up a set of stairs brought us above a series of large steel mash tuns, which he explained are used in the mashing process of mixing coarsely grounded grains with warm water to produce a sticky and sweet liquid called "wort." The wort is then transferred into large brew kettles, where it boils for one to two hours, and various types of hops are added depending on what type of beer is being brewed.
Wanting to be able to say I lent a hand while I was there, Brown let me pour a large bag of sugar into one of the boiling kettles, which was brewing a seasonal beer called Backwoods Belgian.
"It's an outlet for me to express myself through the art of making beer," Brown said of why he became a brewmaster and his love for the job. "It's no different than the art of cuisine."
I learned the next step in the operation is that the wort is separated from the hops and then pumped into fermentation tanks, where it's combined with yeast. At this point, the brewing is complete and fermentation begins. This is where the beer's flavor is fully developed, requiring at least 17 days for ales and much longer for lagers. Once that's done, it goes through a filtration, carbon dioxide is added for carbonation and then it's off to be bottled and enjoyed.
Crooked Letter Brewing Company, 1805 Government St., Ocean Springs
Next on my tour was Crooked Letter Brewing Company. While similar in operation to Lazy Magnolia, brewing is done on a much smaller scale.
Housed in a 5,000-square-foot building that over the years was home to both a medical supply, and a farm grain and feed company, Crooked Letter opened its doors as a microbrewery in November 2012, giving its first tour in January 2013.
General manger Paul Blacksmith and wife, Wanda, who is CEO and the creative force behind Crooked Letter, met their senior year in high school. They went on to spend over a decade traveling the country as musicians in bands.
"That's where we discovered craft beer, traveling the roads," Paul Blacksmith told me of how their love for craft beer started.
"About 15 years ago is when I had my first real good beer," Blacksmith said. "A friend of mine said, 'Hey, try this beer,' and I literally remember the details and the color of the table I was sitting at. It was that kind of experience."
Hooked on their newfound love of quality beer, they learned the basics from 10 years of homebrewing, entering their wares in competitions and festivals. Getting a good reception, they decided to try to turn their homebrewing hobby into an occupation.
They have now grown their brand to 11 different beers, including their best-seller called Mystery Romp, a mocha-colored ale infused with chocolate and coffee. While still a relatively small operation, they know what's needed in order for Crooked Letter to continue to grow.
"What we have to do to introduce people to craft beer is to get them to try that first one," Paul said of getting people away from the typical brand name beers. "A lot of people think craft beers are too strong or too bitter, but they are all not that way. Craft beer is just anything brewed on a small scale, crafted by hand. It can be just as smooth and palatable as a lot of the bigger beers out there. So you just have to experiment. Find the one that you like and just go from there."
Mississippi Brewing Company, 13247 Seaway Road, Gulfport
Besides brewing their own, Crooked Letter is a contract brewer for other craft beers, including those of the Mississippi Brewing Company. Started by cousins Alex and Sam Vasquez, who got hooked on beermaking from a homebrewing kit two years ago, their hobby quickly grew to starting their own brew pub at The Dock Bar & Grill in Gulfport six months later.
The cousins chose two beers to start with, their flavorsome Courage Pale Ale, which is a 7.5 percent alcohol beer, and their refreshing Southern Light Blonde Ale.
After realizing the beers were gaining a following at the brew pub, they recently decided to bring them to a wider audience.
Being that Mississippi law states you can only either sell beer directly to the consumer via a pub or to a distributor, this past May they closed the pub and switched to packaging through Crooked Letter for distribution.
"It's going phenomenal," Alex said when asked of how the reception has been so far. "Our beer is sold out in many places. We can't even keep up right now, which is a good thing."
The cousins hope for continued success, with plans for rolling out additional beers and to open their own Gulfport brewery in the future.
Biloxi Brewing Company, 296 Beauvoir Road, Suite 100-158, Biloxi
Also new to commercial brewing on the Gulf Coast is Biloxi Brewing Company.
Mark Cowley, Mark Murray, Donald Richards and Carlon Broome started Biloxi Brewing in September.
"Everything just seemed to align at the right time," Cowley told the Sun Herald for a story published earlier this year. "I was thinking, 'How many times have I been at a beer tasting or brew festival and had someone compliment one of my beers?'"
The next step was finding a contract brewer. Biloxi Brewing doesn't have a brick-and-mortar home yet, so the men contacted Lazy Magnolia in Kiln for help with brewing and packaging.
"Lazy Magnolia has always given us full control of the process when making our beer," Cowley said. "We were there to oversee the entire process on our first brew day, from the grain mixture all the way to packaging. They made the whole process very easy."
With a couple of brew days behind them, Biloxi Brewing's first three beers -- Biloxi Beach Blonde, Back Bay Extra Special Bitter and Black Gold, a "foreign export" stout -- are coming to stores across the Coast.
There are no plans for a permanent brewery just yet, but the brewers are working on two more beers. "We're currently tweaking a recipe for a fourth year-round brand beer, and we're also building a recipe for a summer seasonal," Cowley said.
Biloxi Brewing has signed distribution contracts with F.E.B. Distributing along the Coast, Capital City Distributing in Jackson and Stokes Distributing in Hattiesburg, Cowley said at the time. That means its beers will be available throughout South Mississippi all the way up to Jackson.
While the Biloxi Brewing founders have their eyes on the future, they're also keeping in mind how they started. "We will continue to support our roots in the homebrew community," Cowley said. "We truly believe homebrewers are the 'incubator' and will continue to drive innovation into the craft beer industry."
Chandeleur Brewing Company, 2711 14th St., Gulfport
I concluded my tour of Gulf Coast breweries with a visit to Chandeleur Brewing Company, which officially started distributing in January.
Started by brothers Cammack and Cain Roberds, who were born and raised on the Gulf Coast, they chose the name "Chandeleur" in honor of one of their favorite fishing spots, the Chandeleur Islands.
They bought a historic downtown building in December 2013. It once housed a dry-cleaning company. It also was a Nash car dealership in the 1930s.
Now, the 8,000-square-foot building is home to a nautical-themed microbrewery that offers tours and distributes four beer staples to bars and restaurants: Free Mason Golden Ale, Curlew's Toasted Coconut Porter, Surfside Pineapple Wheat and Lil' Smack IPA.
When I arrived at the brewery, I was met by general manager Brandon Lewis, who grew up in Bay St. Louis and met the Roberds when they were all fraternity brothers at the University of Southern Mississippi. After working at an insurance company for six years, Lewis recalled a phone call that brought him into the beer business.
"Cain and Cam called me with this idea and offer, and I just saw the writing on the wall, all the potential," Lewis said. "I said I want to be a part of this."
Showing me around the facility, Lewis was excited about a canning line that was being installed, which will allow them to grow from just offering kegs to also offering canned beers. He said they plan to start the canning with the Freemason and Lil' Smack and see how it goes, and he is hopeful it could be a game-changer.
While I was there, I also got to meet brewmaster Dave Reese, who came from Milwaukee, to help the guys get the brewery up and running.
Reese, who went to school for chemistry, said they are on target to brew 2,500 barrels this year and hopefully 3,500 next.
"It's all done here from start to finish, 21 days from grain to glass," Reese said.
Thinking back on all the beers I had the opportunity to sample on my Gulf Coast Bucket List beer tours, it's hard to pick a favorite. I fully intend, however, to try them all again, as well as see what they have brewing for the future.
Nate Thurman, a Sun Herald reporter, contributed to this story. The Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company is located at 7030 Roscoe-Turner Road in Kiln, and offers family friendly, hour long tours on Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays. For $10 you can sample six different beers and bring home a pint glass. For more information, call 228-467-2727 or visit www.lazymagnolia.com The Crooked Letter Brewing Company is located at 1805 Government Street in Ocean Springs, offers $5 all ages tours on Saturdays from 1pm to 3pm. If you’re 21 or over you can sample up to six of their flagship & seasonal brews. For more information, call 228-447-4153 or visit www.crookedletterbrewing.com The Chandeleur Brewing Company is located at 2711 14th Street in Gulfport, and offers $10 sampling tours Thursday’s though Saturdays. For more information, call 228-701-9985 or visit www.chandeleurbrew.com The Mississippi Brewing Company’s beers can be found in bars, restaurants, and retail outlets throughout Mississippi. For more information, call 228-323-1336 or visit www.mississippibrewing.com The Biloxi Brewing Company's beers can be found in bars, restaurants and retail stores throughout Mississippi. For more information, visit www.biloxibrewing.com You can find pictures of my brewery visits at: https://www.facebook.com/gulfcoastbucketlist