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Crooked Letter sets sights on fall opening

During the last legislative session, supporters of Mississippi’s beer law reform bills listed as one of their benefits the possibility of new breweries opening.

Raising the maximum alcohol content in beer from 5 percent alcohol by weight to 10 percent by weight, and letting breweries brew beer that would be illegal here for sale out-of-state, would encourage growth, they said.

That may turn out to be true, once each of the new laws takes effect July 1. But, it’s not why Crooked Letter Brewing Co. is opening in Vancleave. It’s merely a bonus.

“It just happens to be that over the past few years the state itself has made a lot of progress with beer,” said Paul Blacksmith, Crooked Letter’s general manager. “We started this project not counting on any of the legislation taking effect. We’ve gotten a lot of questions about if we’re doing this because of the legislation. The answer to that is no.”

Crooked Letter would become the state’s second brewery, joining Hancock County’s Lazy Magnolia Brewery.

Blacksmith and his wife, Wanda, who serves as the company’s CEO, decided three years ago that they would try to turn their homebrewing hobby into an occupation. “People have always enjoyed our beers,” Wanda Blacksmith said. “We’d take them different places (socially) and people would keep coming back for more.”

Using each of their backgrounds in marketing, the Blacksmiths started crunching numbers. What they found is that Mississippi’s craft beer culture has a lot of economic potential.

“Our market research alone – just from the coastal tri-county area to Hattiesburg, Mobile and New Orleans – tells us we have a fan base and we haven’t put out anything yet,” Blacksmith said. “We’ve basically taken a hobby that’s become a passion. Not just because we like to drink beer but because of the art and the craftsmanship that goes into it. We’re entrepreneurs anyway, so we decided since we have other businesses we ought to see if this one can thrive.”

The Blacksmiths hope to break ground on their building July 2, and have beer on the shelves this fall, perhaps in October or November. They said they’re close to finalizing contracts with distributors – they wouldn’t reveal which they’ll use because nothing is signed yet – within Mississippi and Alabama. There’s also the matter of procuring a few more pieces of equipment for their 30-barrel facility.

All of that will come together right before the start-up money loan closes, Blacksmith said. “We’ve got a lot of capital that we’re putting into it,” he said. “Of course, with what we want to open with, it is going to require some lending funds. That loan is supposed to close very soon. All the plans are set. It’s on at this point.”

Crooked Letter won’t be the only business the Blacksmiths operate. Paul has a real estate brokerage firm. Wanda, when she’s not working as a registered nurse, runs the family’s Gypsy horse breeding operation. They were involved at one time in the music business – both on the performing side, and on the marketing and promotional side.

“Of course, we’ve never put this much money up front into anything we’ve done,” Paul said. “We’re doing it out of love. We’ve got a lot of faith in it, a lot of research into it.”

What kind of beer they’ll make is not something the Blacksmiths are ready to reveal, citing proprietary concerns. They only hint they’ll offer is that one of the styles will be named for the Gypsy horse, a breed built like a Clydesdale but with a fuller mane and tail and more diverse color pattern.

“Otherwise we’d like to keep some suspense there,” Wanda Blacksmith said.

Whatever they produce won’t be confined to Mississippi. Paul Blacksmith said the plan is for Crooked Letter beer to be in neighboring states “shortly after the New Year.”

Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, was one of the primary sponsors of the bill that raised the state’s alcohol content in beer, and the bill that allowed breweries to exceed that limit in beer made for sale out-of-state. Even though Crooked Letter’s opening isn’t directly attributable to the new laws, Zuber said it does satisfy one of their primary objectives. He added that it also serves to provide a measure of validation against those who had negative things to say about craft beer and those who appreciate it.

“The purpose was two-fold,” Zuber said. “It was to provide more consumer choice and to help upstart companies. And I can guarantee you that the people who had smart-aleck comments for me when I was presenting these bills to the House wish they had a small business growth sector starting up in their district.”

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