Monday, January 2, 2012

What’s wrong with the beer we got?

I had an English assignment to write about a unique community.  I would have to observe, interact and interview this group.  Considering the amount of time and research involved, I chose the Hattiesburg Beer Club.  I take my school work seriously!

Special thanks to members of the Hattiesburg Beer Club community for taking time out of their busy schedules to have a beer or two with me!


“What’s wrong with the beer we got? I mean the beer we got drink pretty good, don’t it? I ain’t never heard nobody complain about the beer we have. It drink pretty good.” said State Representative Alvin Holmes on the Alabama congressional floor during opposing arguments for raising Alabama’s prohibition era alcohol laws. If you ask members of the Hattiesburg Beer Club there is plenty wrong with the beer we got. They have made it their mission to drink and enjoy better beer.

It is an early Sunday afternoon at the Keg and Barrel, a tavern a few blocks from The University of Southern Mississippi. The bar area and surrounding tables are full. In front of each patron is a small glass. The volunteer bartender reaches into the freezer and pulls out two or three bottles. He announces the name and style of the beers. The caps are popped and the bottles make their way around the tavern from bar stool to bar stool and then to the tables in the back. Each patron pours a couple ounces of the fermented beverage. Much like a wine tasting, they swirl the liquid and smell the aroma before tasting. The look on their faces let you know immediately whether they thought the drink was a success or a failure. The group then discusses each pour and invariably compares it to the previous selection. Most members also have a large glass of water in front of them. Between rounds of beer, the beer club members swish water in their sampling glasses and either drink the water or pour it into another glass. They do not want the previous beer to detract from the next sample. They also use the water to cleanse their palate. On this occasion, there were more than two dozen members present, each having brought several beers into the bar from their homes. As the afternoon turned to evening and more and more sampling took place the beer was still the central topic of conversation. Members continued to discuss their favorite styles, their favorite breweries and whose home brew was the best at this meeting. Discussion still centered on the beer. These people are passionate about their brew.

The Hattiesburg Beer Club meets the second Sunday of each month. There are no dues and membership is informal. Each month features a specific type of beer. Members bring beer, food and conversation, or any variation of the three. Commenting on who comes to beer club, Southern Mississippi chemistry professor Karl Wallace says, “People that enjoy beer and people that enjoy a variety of good beer. People that are willing to taste different beers.” He went on, “We even allow people that like to drink lager occasionally, Bud Light or Coors. We have managed to convince people to drink other styles of beer too.” Beyond these basics, the club only has two rules. The first is that home brew is always welcome, regardless of style and the second is to bring beer that cannot be purchased in Mississippi. Both of these rules violate state law.

When asked why he brews his own beer, Bo Brady, a recent Hattiesburg transplant believes that it is the perfect blend of science and drinking. “I liked beer but it wasn’t until I moved to Mississippi that I started to brew my own. It seemed like the appropriate thing for me to do. Mississippi had a limited beer selection and I need another hobby, maybe. There seemed like there was enough literature around and it was easy to access. I thought just give it a shot and it turned out awesome.” A common theme among Hattiesburg brewers is the lack of selection in Mississippi. Home brewing has become a creative outlet. Although some brewers create a new type or style each time, other brewers try to concentrate on a particular beer. Wallace has attempted to perfect an IPA for years. “I want to try to tweak some of the conditions to try to make that style a little better than the previous.”

David “Soup” Campbell enjoys many aspects of home brewing. “I enjoy tasting the beers that I make, I enjoy tasting them at different steps in the brewing process, I enjoy making the labels for the beer and I also like just trying to make a new beer.” Mass-market beers have become unobjectionable by their very definition. The very flavors that the beer club members embrace have been removed by the big breweries. The global beer industry is catering to the largest market possible. The mass-market beers have become homogenized to appeal to the largest possible population. This is the business model of the global beer industry. Many of the most unique beers in the world have an alcohol content that exceeds the amount allowed in Mississippi. The passionate brewers find this appalling. Ben Green started brewing 2 and half years ago. “I brewed a Saison, Belgian farm house ale. It turned out like a Blue Moon, which was not what I was going for. I now brew between 7 and 10 batches a year. My favorites are hoppy pale ales, which are over the top hopped and Saisons. I throw all kinds of crazy stuff in there, like lavender and let the yeast do their thing, and get nice and funky.” There is no appeal in a mass-market beer for Green.

When brewing at home the possibilities are endless. You are not constrained by what the state, distributors or simply what other people have decided you can drink. The creative process is in full bloom when deciding what style of beer to brew.

The beer club provides a place to share experiences and compare their home brews. “The beer club is my critic,” says Campbell. Green elaborates, “I definitely like to drink my own beer but I also like other people to drink my beer. I like people to taste it and have that big smile on their faces. Tell me that it is a great beer and that [the beer] is solid. This is one of the main reasons I do it. I enjoy making people happy.” These home brewers take great pride in their creations. Beer club is their social outlet. They come together to share new creations and new discoveries. The beer is the centerpiece of the community but the people and their relationships are what make the beer club special. Here they can swap stories, share recipes and provide feedback on each batch. Through their interactions, they are refining their language used to describe beer, their palate and becoming better beer tasters and brewers. The Hattiesburg Beer Club brings people that enjoy good beer together.

There have been grassroots efforts to change the beer laws all across the United States. All have been successful except in Mississippi. The Deep South, with its religious roots, has been slow to change. Alabama and West Virginia both altered their beer laws in 2009. Mississippi law restricts beer sales to malt-based beverages that contain 5% alcohol or less by weight, no beer or wine may be brought into the state across state lines and the law does not allow for home brewing. Mississippi beer lovers and home brewers are passionate about changing these laws. The grassroots organization Raise Your Pints is trying to get the alcohol limit increased in Mississippi. Most members of the Hattiesburg Beer Club are also members of Raise Your Pints.

“I would consider home brewing a hobby. The craft beer movement is the passion,” exclaims Campbell. Wallace completely agrees, “I enjoy brewing my own beer but I enjoy the beer more.” The beer selection in Mississippi has improved vastly in the past five years. The local grocery stores now stock a variety of beers; of course, they are all under the 5 percent alcohol by volume. However, Wallace elaborated, “Although the beer selection is not bad in Mississippi it pales in comparison to Austin [Texas] or the UK.”

What’s wrong with the beer we got? Come to the next Hattiesburg Beer Club meeting and they will tell you plenty.

Hattiesburg Beer Club

Raise Your Pints


Ransick said...

Nice write up James! I've toyed with the possibility of home brewing. It seems like a fun hobby to get into and I love sampling different kinds of beer.