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Change on Tap? Beer legislation supporters are being cautiously optimistic

Beer legislation supporters are cautiously optimistic

Lawmakers and grassroots organizers who have unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to modernize Mississippi’s beer and brewing laws are optimistic their efforts stand a better chance of paying off this session.

As he has the past few sessions, Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, has filed bills that would increase the state’s alcohol-by-weight limit in beer, and potentially pave the way for the state’s lone brewer to expand while encouraging new breweries to open.

One bill would raise the state’s current cap — the lowest in the U.S. — of 5 percent ABW in beer made and sold in the state to 8 percent. The other two bills would allow Hancock County’s Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. to offer certain samples to folks who tour the brewery, and to brew beer whose ABW is above 5 percent as long as it’s shipped and sold out of state. The last would legalize homebrewing.

Each piece of legislation has died in committee the past three legislative sessions.

“There has been time for folks to digest this a little bit,” Baria said. “Hopefully they’ll understand that this is just not necessarily about the alcohol content, but it’s about business expansion and generating additional revenue and creating additional jobs. To go with that, it’s about providing additional choice in the marketplace.”

Lazy Magnolia owner Leslie Henderson told the Mississippi Business Journal in a 2011 interview that the ability to brew and sell beer with an ABW content up to 8 percent would mean an additional 25 percent in annual revenue. Figures from a national beer-advocacy organization back that up.

According to The Beer Institute’s almanac for 2010, the latest year for which numbers were available, the total financial output for breweries in Alabama, which has six and whose ABV cap is 13.9 percent, was $4.05 million. In Mississippi, with one brewery, that number was $1.3 million.

Mississippi’s ABW cap of 5 percent translates to 5.9 percent ABV.

Rep. Jessica Upshaw, R-Diamondhead, has filed legislation identical to Baria’s.

“It’s a tourism issue, and it keeps tax dollars here,” she said, referring to beer enthusiasts having to cross state lines to buy certain brews that are illegal in Mississippi. “That’s a definite benefit. I think there is some openness to at least discuss it. But I also know there’s some element that thinks we shouldn’t offer anymore alcohol than we already do.”

Last fall’s elections rendered new leadership in both chambers of the Legislature, including committee heads. Baria’s and Upshaw’s bills have been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus. Calls to Smith’s cell phone rang unanswered last week. As of last Wednesday, companion legislation had not been filed in the Senate.

Gov. Phil Bryant, who last year as lieutenant governor told the MBJ in a written statement he saw “no public benefit” in raising the ABW cap or easing brewing restrictions, said last week he was not “totally opposed to it” this time around.

“As I talked last year to some beer manufacturers, I don’t think Budweiser, Miller or all of those are really interested in (seeing the bills passed), but if we can form small businesses and help them in that way, I’m not opposed to that,” Bryant said in an interview after he unveiled his executive budget recommendation.

Butch Bailey, president of Raise Your Pints, an organization that was formed to advocate for the reformation of Mississippi’s beer laws, is hopeful his instinct on the bills’ chances of passage proves accurate.

“I’ve got a good feeling, but feelings aren’t worth a whole lot,” he said. “I do feel optimistic about the direction Mississippi is moving on this.”

The political process that determines if bills of any kind live or die offers a reality check to those who choose to engage in it, Bailey said.

“We went into this very idealistic. We thought it was a good thing, a win-win for everybody. But it just takes time. You have to build relationships. This is going to sound like I’m pandering, but it’s the truth: This has made my opinion of lawmakers go up. The vast majority of them are coming from the right place.

“Times are changing and people are starting to realize we’re being left behind,” Bailey continued. “Mississippi businesses are being left behind. If we’re serious about looking at regulations that hurt businesses, this is a perfect example of that.”


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