Home-brewed beer supply salesman taps emerging market

Mac Rusling saw it coming.

After years of hiding in the shadows, Mississippi’s home-brewed beer enthusiasts were seeing a light emerge at the end of the tunnel.

Rusling’s store Brewhaha Homebrew Supply had been open for four months when Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill in March that would legalize homebrewing in Mississippi in time for the Fourth of July. Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams would be proud.

“This is not an original business by any means. They are all over the country,” Rusling, 61, says. With the new law on the books, Alabama will be the only state in the country where homebrewing is still illegal.

Brewhaha is subtly tucked away in the LeFleur’s Gallery shopping center on Interstate 55 in Jackson where it hopes to attract beer nerds from Olive Branch to Ocean Springs eager to develop their own ales and lagers. The American Homebrewers Association only lists one other supplier in the whole state.

The rich smell of grain hangs in the air of the store. “Browsing is approved,” Rusling tells a customer.

Homebrewing supplier Mac Rusling and a bag of Wyermann malt from Bamberg, Germany. The Jackson store supports every level of beer brewing from novice to advanced brewer.

Homebrewing supplier Mac Rusling and a bag of Wyermann malt from Bamberg, Germany. The Jackson store supports every level of beer brewing from novice to advanced brewer.

Brewhaha’s supplies are organized based on experience with easy-to-make starter kits and storage kegs lining one side of the wall and dozens of containers and bags of grain from malz pilsner to Wyermann’s carahell malt lining the other. All along the walls are shelves full of quart-sized bags of brewing elements like maltodextrin extract and lactose. A cooler near the cash register is full of yeast and hops products.

From a novice needing an extract kit that includes yeast and even bottle caps to medium-range kits that don’t require a lot of guesswork, Rusling has something for every learning level. Occasionally a rookie brewer will come in thinking he can make a batch of his favorite brand of beer and Rusling helps educate them on which style they prefer.

Advanced brewers that will grind and mash their own grain can also find what they need to help build a dry beer, sweet beer, control the body or add extra flavor or color.

Since sterilization is such an important step for brewers in between batches Rusling also stays stocked with a fair share of brushes, pipe cleaners and other cleaning supplies.

Rusling grew up in Jackson and says he has had an interest in homebrewing and owning a small business for a long time.

In the old days, Rusling says anyone could walk into the local grocery and find the ingredients to make “prison-style” beer. Ingredients included sugar, Fleischmann’s bread yeast and Pabst’s Blue Ribbon hops flavored malt syrup.

“It was consistently horrible and never failed to put us on the floor,” Rusling says.

After finally deciding to go into business for himself, Rusling began months of planning including and developing a business model.

“I thought it might be a good thing to do to help the local homebrewing community around the state,” Rusling says. “Someplace where they could go and you could actually put your hands on things rather than do like everyone else and order it off the Internet.”

While employed as a wholesale distributor, he used up some vacation days to take a short course at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, the country’s oldest brewing school.

“I used up four pens in a week taking notes,” Rusling says.

The recent beer-friendly law changes spurred on by advocates like the Raise Your Pints organization have caused a culture shift and opened people’s eyes to a potential hobby or business, according to Rusling.

“The major brewers pretty much had the market wrapped up,” he says. “We just didn’t have a lot of choices when it came to commercial beers because of the alcohol cap. People were tired of driving across the river or going to another state to get these beers and the state was losing money from a tax standpoint simply because these products were not available.”

Owner Mac Rusling shows off a handful of his finest Thomas Fawcett halcyon malt.

Owner Mac Rusling shows off a handful of his finest Thomas Fawcett halcyon malt.

The perception of the homebrewer has also been refined in recent years.

“There are hundreds of people that do this. It’s a little deeper than hiding out in the woods with a still,” Rusling says.

“This is not the caliber or the profile of the local homebrewer. These guys are educated; doctors, lawyers, professional people.” Rusling says it wasn’t the law breaking that prompted their interest in homebrewing but the love for a creative and scientific hobby.

Brewhaha allows Rusling to pursue and lobby his hobby in a state that is now more accepting. He also likes the small business service mode of interacting with people including those who like buying local, knowing their food sources and promoting sustainability.

As for his future, right now Rusling has a corner on the market and says he’s not interested in any extra competition.

“I put my trust in God,” he says. “I let Him drive the boat. I’m just the water-skier out back trying to hang on.”

Brewhaha Home Supply is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

 

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