Bill to raise beer content contentious

Published 3:06 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

Since 2003, Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. in Kiln has operated as Mississippi’s only brewer, churning out locally flavored beer and becoming a small business success story.

It isn’t what it could be financially because of Mississippi’s laws that restrict the alcohol content in beers to 5 percent alcohol by weight, the lowest in the nation.

Leslie Henderson, who co-owns Lazy Magnolia with her husband, Mark, said if the alcohol content ceiling was raised to 8 percent, it would mean a sizable jump in her sales because she could add to her product line of gourmet and craft beer, whose alcohol content by weight hovers in the range of 7 percent and 8 percent.

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“I would estimate our business would have been approximately 25 percent greater (the past year), which is on the order of about $750,000, just in revenue. I would say at least 50 percent of that goes to pay some sort of taxes. That’s a lot of tax dollars that are lost.

“There are existing customers that want (craft beer) from us, but we can’t produce it for them. Most of our sales by percentage, particularly because we’re in five states, are outside of Mississippi. It has certainly held us back as far as expansion goes,” she said.

Raise Your Pints Mississippi, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to the pursuit and enjoyment of craft beer, has supported legislation the past two sessions to raise the allowable alcohol content for beer in Mississippi from 5 percent to 8 percent alcohol by weight.

They’re doing the same this year, and have found a friend in Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who has filed the content-specific legislation and another bill that would legalize the home-brewing of beer in Mississippi.

The outlook for each is grim.

“Dead on arrival, both of them,” Baria said of the bills’ chances of making it out of the Senate Finance Committee.

“It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m from the coast. When we run campaign events, if we don’t have beer, we won’t get a single vote. It’s just different in other parts of the state.

“It’s frustrating because it’s reasonable. All you would (do) is bring our laws in line with every single other state. As it is, you’re limiting choice. We have one brewer (Lazy Magnolia) in Mississippi. They’ve had to turn down brewing contracts because the recipe would have resulted in a higher alcohol content. They have literally lost business because of this law. I haven’t given up on these, but if it has anything to do with alcohol, (Lt. Gov.) Phil (Bryant) doesn’t want to see it.”

Bryant said in an e-mailed statement that he did “not see a reasonable public benefit to increasing the alcohol content in Mississippi.”

Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, chairman of the Finance Committee, confirmed that the beer legislation stood zero chance of making it out of his committee, and that he wouldn’t introduce it.

“I really don’t want to put my committee members in an uncomfortable position in an election year,” he said of his reasons for not bringing the bill to a vote.

Kirby said he would allow Bailey and Henderson and other pro-craft beer groups to present their case to his committee some time before the session ends.

“We’re rather resigned to defeat at this point,” Henderson said. “It’s frustrating, especially when all we want to do is create jobs in Mississippi and give more money to the state. We’re not coming to Jackson asking for anything. We’re begging them to let us give them more money. I think they really need my money.”

Butch Bailey, a Hattiesburg forester who serves as president of Raise Your Pints, shares Baria’s and Henderson’s frustration with the legislation being lost in the anxiety of election-year politics.

“No one’s ever given me a good reason why we should not pass it,” he said. “‘It’s an election year.’ That’s all I ever hear, but there’s never an explanation behind it. My response as a citizen of Mississippi is I think they should stand up and do the right thing. Stop worrying so much about your political bosses or your party bosses and the tough election. Do the right thing for the state that will raise revenue.”

Bailey said the bill would expand the number and style of beers available for consumers to buy in counties where alcohol is legally sold, and would grow the number of places distributors would service, because it would open the door for microbreweries like those found on many street corners in the western U.S.

Because of that, the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association, a trade group representing beer distributors across the state, is in favor of raising the alcohol content maximum to no more than 8 percent, said president Richard Brown.

“Anything more than that and you start to get away from beer’s intended concept as the beverage of moderation,” he said.

Bailey said his organization wants to bring a world-class craft beer scene to Mississippi.

“If you go to places like Oregon and Colorado, it’s treated the way fine wine is. These are gourmet products, and there are thousands and thousands of Mississippians who enjoy it the same way and travel out of state to buy it. We want to buy it here. To get that, we have to remove this ban.”

Bailey said about a third of all beer styles are banned in Mississippi as well as 70 percent of the top-rated beers in the world.

“We don’t think that’s fair. They’re legal in almost every other country, and in 49 out of 50 states. So it’s basically Mississippi and Saudi Arabia that ban these products.

“We think Mississippians are mature and intelligent enough to make the same choice people in Alabama and Louisiana and Tennessee can make.

“This isn’t anything radical. We’re not going away until we get this done. This is a commonsense, win-win situation for everybody involved. We’ll fight until this happens,” Bailey said.