By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – At least once a month, people from Tupelo are running clandestine beer missions. They pool their money and cross the state line to Memphis or Birmingham to stock up on craft beers that are currently illegal in Mississippi.
Business owners hope two bills moving through the state Legislature will help keep those tax dollars in Mississippi.
“It’s a really good thing for Mississippi from an economic standpoint,” said Adam Morgan, who owns Blue Canoe on North Gloster Street.
House Bill 1422 and Senate Bill 2878 would raise the alcohol by weight in beer from 5 percent to 8 percent. The bill would legalize more craft and imported beers in the state.
Craft beers usually offer more flavors and alcohol than a standard domestic like Budweiser.
“It’s more of the fine dining of beer,” Morgan said. “As you go up in quality, you go up in price range. They’re not chugging craft beers. It’s somebody who is drinking to appreciate it versus drinking to get drunk.”
Morgan’s business has had four fundraisers for Raise Your Pints, the grassroots business geared at changing beer laws in the state. Mississippi currently has the lowest beer alcohol limit in the country, thus preventing many craft and imported beers from being sold here.
Proponents of the bill say it puts the state on a more level playing field with neighboring states in terms of tourism and sales tax revenues. Opponents voice concerns about increased DUIs and alcohol problems.
Previous attempts to increase the alcohol percentage have failed. But so far, the efforts this year have gained traction.
The bill on March 1 passed the Mississippi House with a vote of 67-45. It’s the first time a bill of this nature has survived the House in many years.
A similar Senate bill is pending before the full Senate and could be taken up this week. Or, the Senate could take up the House bill.
Once both chambers have agreed on a bill, it would have to be signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant. If he signs it, it could go into effect July 1.
And Tupelo business owners already have a wish list. Morgan has about 75 different beers for sale at his business, but his customers keep asking for ones he can’t get. Popular requests are brews from SweetWater Brewing Co. in Atlanta, Good People Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Rogue in Oregon and Abita Brewing Co. in Louisiana.
“I have a lot of people ask if I’m going to add more taps, but I say, ‘No, I’m just going to add better beer,’” he said.
Johnny Robbins at Papa V’s in Fairpark wants everything he can possibly get. The store sells about 150 to 200 different types of craft and imported beers and they make up a large portion of his beer sales. He said he keeps telling his distributors not to hold anything back.
“There’s a wide open market out there for craft and imported beer,” he said. “We’re not even touching the tip of the iceberg. My store isn’t large enough.”
The tourism industry also has thrown its support behind the bills. Neal McCoy, executive director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors, said international visitors usually expect a more robust beer selection than Mississippi currently has. Allowing more craft and imported beers, he said, would “enhance what we have already.”
“We do think it will increase and enhance a visitor’s experience while they are here,” McCoy said.
Morgan also hopes that a bill will pass so he can stop having awkward conversations with out-of-state patrons when they ask for beers that are illegal in Mississippi.
“We have to explain that Mississippi’s laws are archaic and stuck in the past,” he said.
Robbins also is crossing his fingers about the bill.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I’ll just wait to see if it passes or if it doesn’t. I really hope it does.”
Bobby Harrison contributed to this story.