By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON — The trucks will be loaded up to run the strong beer across the border into Mississippi at midnight Sunday.
Another Smokey and the Bandit sequel?
No, it’s the start date of a new law that allows higher-alcohol beer to be made and sold in the Magnolia State. It’s shaping up to be a holiday for the beer lovers who pushed the new law through the Legislature earlier this year, erasing Mississippi’s status as the only state that limited beer to 5 percent alcohol by weight.
The law allows beer with 8 percent alcohol by weight, or 10 percent by volume, to be sold in Mississippi. The move came after three years of lobbying by beer lovers and beer wholesalers.
The higher-alcohol beer can’t enter the state until midnight Sunday, but brewers including Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Co., Tennessee’s Yazoo Brewing Co. and Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. plan to send trucks to wholesalers Sunday morning. The wholesalers have promised to deliver kegs and bottles to select bars and stores that day for celebrations.
“Trucks will be here ready to go,” said Brandi Burge of Kiln-based Lazy Magnolia.
John Neal, the owner of the Keg and Barrel, a Hattiesburg brew pub, plans to open at noon Sunday, with a party later in the day. Neal says he expects a big day, although the impending Fourth of July holiday and the absence of some students at the University of Southern Mississippi might keep it smaller than that other beer-filled holiday, St. Patrick’s Day.
“If it had happened in spring or fall, it would be the biggest day I’ve ever had,” Neal said.
Among the guests will be Butch Bailey, the president of beer lobbying group Raise Your Pints.
“At noon we’ll have an official toast, a we-did-it moment,” Bailey said.
Other events are planned elsewhere. Lazy Magnolia has invited guests to watch it start brewing its first higher alcohol beer at midnight Sunday. Then it plans to cut the ribbon on a new tasting room Sunday afternoon. A second law passed this year allows breweries to serve on-site samples to visitors.
“Now we’re going to have the ability to really promote our brand, to give people exposure to all of the wonderful flavors,” said Lazy Magnolia owner Mark Henderson.
The brewery plans to triple its capacity and add 21 employees by 2016, thanks to the ability to brew more kinds of beers.
Some states don’t limit the alcohol content in beer. Of states with limits, at least 10 have raised them in the last decade. Besides Mississippi, they include Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia.
There’s a lot of room for craft beer to grow in Mississippi. It made up only 6 percent of 2011 beer sales in a five-state Southeastern region including Mississippi, according to Symphony IRI Group. At least three other breweries are in the organizational stage in the state.
And there’s likely to be a rush of new beers from the outside. Kathy Waterbury, a spokeswoman for the state Revenue Department, said 124 new varieties have been approved since Gov. Phil Bryant signed the law.
Until now, some Mississippians had been buying those beers in other states and carrying them home.
“They’re picking up hundreds of dollars per individual of craft beer we legally couldn’t sell in this state,” Neal said.
New beers will begin to trickle more widely into stores, bars and restaurants beginning Monday. John Rein, vice president of sales and marketing with Southern Beverage Co., said that Alabama saw a rush of new beers after it raised its alcohol cap in 2009.
“You had a huge influx of different products come in and then it balanced out,” said Rein, whose Richland-based firm distributes in 20 central and south Mississippi counties.