Is change to stronger beer on tap in Mississippi?

HATTIESBURG — Butch Bailey loves to savor the flavor of the exotic with a pint of ale or stein of stout.

To do that, though, Bailey has to hit the road, because the more “gourmet” beers have an alcohol content higher than what is permitted in Mississippi.

But Bailey — founder of grass-roots beer advocacy group, Raise Your Pints — and others like him are hoping change is brewing in Jackson.

While nothing appears imminent, these beer aficionados are waiting for Mississippi to join a growing number of states that have allowed higher alcohol content in beer.

“Raising the permissible alcohol content would move Mississippi more in line with the rest of the country, that’s all,” said Bailey, an Oak Grove resident. “We really believe that it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

Currently, the alcohol content for beer in Mississippi is capped at 6 percent by volume. It would take a vote of the Legislature to alter the cap.

Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he hasn’t heard of looming legislation.

“I’m not aware of anybody proposing a bill or there being a major push for increasing it,” Watson said. “I don’t know how much of a demand there is for a change, but that doesn’t mean that it’s something that wouldn’t be addressed.”

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said senators from the Gulf Coast counties had brought up the possibility in the past years.

“I’d seen a couple of bills about brewpubs and designer-type beers, but none of them have ever gotten through the whole (legislative) process,” Fillingane said. “I just don’t know if there’s enough political will to pass a bill that would up the alcohol content in all beers, where you could just walk down to your local pick-a-pack and buy it.”

Fillingane said he could see a version that would limit high-alcohol beer to casinos or resort areas being more palatable to legislators.

“Even in more upper-scale restaurants, that type of thing,” Fillingane said.

A recent story in USA Today said Alabama and West Virginia had boosted the alcohol cap on beer earlier this year from 6 percent to as high as 13.9 percent. Vermont raised the cap to 16 percent and Montana to 14 percent last year. Since 2002, Ohio, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina all approved higher-alcohol “specialty” or “craft” beers.

Quinby Chunn, who is moving ahead with plans for a microbrewery and restaurant in downtown Hattiesburg, said he would love to have the option of brewing a higher-end beer.

“The target market for a microbrewery certainly would appreciate the higher alcohol content beer,” said Chunn, who is working toward opening his Bakers Burger Co. restaurant before proceeding with the microbrewery.

“It would open up the customer base to hundreds of different styles of beer not available in the state at this time.

“I think it’s a shame, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s almost like having one arm tied behind my back because you’re limited to the kinds of beer that you can brew. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of really good beers that you can do under the 6 percent cap, but there’s so many more that you can’t do.”

Gar Hatcher — head brewer at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in Kiln — said the 6 percent cap kind of helps his company’s cause.

“Actually, the cap is kind of helpful because if you’ve got 8 percent, 9 percent, 10 percent (alcohol content) beer, you go out and have a couple, and that’s about all you’re going to have,” Hatcher said. “So, from a sales standpoint, you’re probably going to have a few more where the cap is now.”

Higher-alcohol beer would fall under the state’s current tax model, 42.86 cents per gallon, said Kathy Waterbury, spokeswoman for the Mississippi State Tax Commission.

While sales of higher-alcohol beer might spur another sales category, the bottom line is that beer connoisseurs simply want the opportunity to sample a wider variety of wares.

“I think it would be good for everybody,” Hatcher said. “Selection is what it’s all about. We wouldn’t change all our recipes, but I’d love to be able to do those kinds of beer.”

Said Bailey: “This is nothing new, nothing radical. All we’re asking is that the state change (the cap) to a more reasonable number, like 10 percent or 12 percent.”

TIM DOHERTY/Hattiesburg American