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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 13: Yazoo Brewing Company

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The Alabama loss stings, but there's no time for melancholy. Vanderbilt comes to town on Saturday night, and with it come what must be some of the most dissatisfied and downtrodden football spirits in the SEC. Help Mississippi State avoid calamity by appeasing the underdog's beer gods—give a nod to Nashville's craft beer champions and dutifully ingest their homegrown hoppy elixirs.

Courtesy Yazoo Brewing

The External Medicine allows you to cure illnesses, and to prolong life and have lasting presence. The Internal Medicine allows you to transcend the world, and to exit from Being and enter Non-Being.

- Li Daochun, Zhonghe ji (ca. 1292)

Some ancient Taoists believed that immortality was possible through an alchemical practice called waidan. The premise was simple—the human body was as a corporeal vessel through which one's natural energies and essence could be aligned with the Tao, but was marred by impermanence. To achieve long-lasting preservation, or at the very least to go beyond the tactile and unify with the Tao, specially trained alchemists would concoct elixirs from ingredients that represented natural elements and the energies that flowed through the body, such as mercury, sulfur, lead, and cinnabar. If blended and ingested properly, these substances would transform themselves and the being of the adherent into a synthetic, pure, and everlasting gold.

That, or they'd poison you to the point of severe psychosis or death.

So yeah, that eventually lost favor with most people. And after a couple of emperors died, even the most committed finally gave up on the innards-to-gold thing.

And it's too bad, really. They were probably just a millennium or so ahead of their time. I mean, if you think about it, the entire contemporary food and beverage industry would've been right up their alley. Just imagine what those guys could've done with some Sun Drop and a box of Little Debbies. Glycerol ester of wood rosin, brominated vegetable oil, titanium dioxide, propylene glycol monostearate . . . . A treasure trove of unpronounceable delights await one's bowels to combine with the soul's essence and create perfection. Gilded immortality indeed!

But I digress.

With the decline of weidan, Taoist alchemists turned inward. The energies and essences could be channeled and preserved even if you couldn't smelt a golden liver inside yourself. You know, through meditation, contemplation, and all that crap.

This was called neidan—"internal alchemy." And it's this form of devotion that Dan Mullen so obviously recognizes:

We should feel awful right now. We just lost a football game . . . . We should embrace that feeling, that sickness in our stomach . . . . We want to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- Dan Mullen, Nov. 15, 2014

[Straight from FWtCT: Mullen no longer Unitarian-Scientologist-Atheist-Satanist-Catholic. Embraces Taoism. Still believed to like Satan. More information as it becomes available.]

Something happens. Equilibrium is lost. Essence and energies are no longer aligned.

But instead of shutting down or ignoring the problem, Mullen asks that you embrace the pain. You must consume it. You must make it your own.

A noble path, I must but admit. And one worthy of praise. The players and staff will be well-advised to heed Mullen's advice.

I, on the other hand, require more. I want to transcend my cake and eat it too.

In this here blog, then, we'll be both embracing the pain and utilizing our bodies as alchemical crucibles.

So pump Blood on the Tracks into your headphones, queue up the DVR, and watch the Bama game on a commercial-free loop. Light fire to the life-size cutouts of Gary Danielson and Verne Lundquist that you keep in the garage for just such an occasion. Let the pain wash over you.

Then, after you've swept the ashes and erased the game, slap thisthisthis, or especially this on your stereo, pop the top off of a beer named Sue, and get the gravel in your guts ready to be turned into a Vandy shade of gold. It's time to drink some Mississippi-named, Tennessee-made beer from Nashville's Yazoo Brewing Company.

Sue

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, here in Tennessee we take our whisky pretty seriously. People get fired up about it one way or another, and we make it by the boatload. We're home to one of the largest whisky manufacturers in the world, and a growing number of microdistilleries are dipping their toes in the barrel.

What about beer, though? There are, after all, at least two dozen or so craft breweries or brewpubs operating in the state. Are they getting the same love as the liquefied corn manufacturers?

Yeah, not so much. Tennessee has of course dealt with many of the same post-prohibition legal quirks that have constrained other Southern states' beer industries. Dry counties abound, and we're still sticking with rigid ABV caps (6.25%) that keep higher alcohol beers out of grocery stores and gas stations. [Note: Within the past year, Tennessee's law has changed so that municipalities can now decide whether to allow wine in grocery stores. When this law was enacted, the ABV cap on beer was raised as well (to around 10%). That change won't come into effect until 2017, though.]

But most insidious of all has been the state's tax structure on beer. To be blunt, Tennessee's beer taxes in recent years have been offensive. Up until a year ago, beer manufacturers in Tennessee have faced a confusing double whammy—their beer could be taxed by volume, so you owed more the more you made; but it could also taxed by price, such that the more you charged for beer, the more you paid. This created a Catch-22 for brewers. Success would allow you to sell more beer, but that would require you to pay more taxes. Hard times or rising materials costs could require you to sell a little less and raise your prices, but that too would require you to pay more taxes.

The result of this giant screwgie was a revenue scheme straight out of the Mad Hatter's tea party. Between 1999 and 2010, beer sales in Tennessee ebbed and flowed and eventually decreased by about 5%. Over the same span, however, the tax revenue the state collected on these declining sales actually increased by about 30%:

Beer tax graph

Blue line = tax revenue; Red line = sales. WTF?

Was this a good idea from a policy perspective? Well, forty-nine other state in the country taxed beer differently than Tennessee, so no, probably not so much.

Brewers in Tennessee eventually decided this was bogus and lobbied for a change. They won. Sort of. The dual price-volume tax was replaced by a strict volume-based tax. So that was good. But the rate's still ludicrous:

Tax map

One of the leaders of Tennessee brewers' antiestablishmentarian movement has a personal stake in all this. His name is Linus Hall, and is a Mississippian by birth. He initially found himself in Tennessee for reasons totally unrelated to the beer industry—he was working as an engineer for a tire manufacturer in the 1990s.

The job was fine, but his heart wasn't in it. He was, however, all about the homebrew marathons he had every weekend. He found that he was really good at it, and his friends started pushing him to do it for a living.

At the time, though, craft brewing in Tennessee wasn't really much of a thing. There was no established scene, and Hall freely admits that he didn't know how to go about making a business out of it.

So instead of closing his eyes and stepping off a cliff, he bought a parachute and took some lessons on how not to plunge to his death—he got an MBA from the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt, got a certificate in brewing, and then interned with a James-Beard-award-winning master brewer at Brooklyn Brewery in New York. After all of this, he was convinced that the South's glorious food culture deserved access to—and would eventually learn to dominate—the craft beer industry.

Hall and his wife—who had been married on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River near the Yazoo River canal—loved Nashville, and the city's already-established-but-still-growing food scene made the location all the more desirable for a brewery. So in 2003, the Halls started their very own and gave it a name to honor their roots: Yazoo Brewing Company.

Yazoo lineup

Yazoo grew steadily over the past decade, and is now Tennessee's largest craft brewer, producing over 300,000 cases of beer per year. Its beer is available only in Tennessee and Mississippi—Linus told me, by the way, that because of his state's ludicrous tax laws, it's actually cheaper for him to ship his beer to Mississippi and sell it there than it is so sell in a shop down the street from the brewery—but even restricting the business to that footprint, the brewery is operating at full capacity.

The portfolio of products that fueled the brewery's success is somewhat traditional, though it certainly includes some beers that stand out in a crowd. There's a pale ale, a hefeweizen, a rye porter, a low-ABV stout, and a few seasonals. But then there's a malty, Mexican-style dark beer ("Dos Perros"), which has become (at least in my observation) the brewery's flagship; a pre-prohibition-style beer called "Gerst" that—like Dos Perros—has a little corn in the mix; an ever-evolving IPA-style beer called the "Hop Project," whose grain profile changes constantly with the palates of the brewers; and then "Sue," a dark-as-a-dungeon imperial porter whose malts are smoked with cherry wood and whose fans are now legion. Throw in the brewery's "Embrace the Funk" series of sours, and I'd say they've got their bases pretty well covered.

Yazoo pint

But that's not all. No, there's something else that this brewery has done that has endeared it to my hike-happy, biodiversity-nerd, local-loving, hipster-doofus ethos even more. Yazoo created a limited release beer called "Bell's Bend Preservation Ale," the proceeds from which benefit a patch of wild space northwest of Nashville along a bend of the Cumberland River. This patch of mostly undeveloped land contains over 800 acres of parkland, small farms, a number of rare and threatened plant and animal species, and still-untapped archaeological sites.

That's all great stuff. Save the whooping cranes. Stop suburban sprawl. Get your head out of your ass. Etc.

But here's the rub, people: Preservation Ale is made with hops grown at a local farm in Davidson County, Tennessee.

I'm obviously not really in the know, but that baffled me. I had no idea hops could grow at all in the hot and humid South, let alone grow well enough to flavor a commercially available and regionally distributed bottled beer. (And apparently it's out now—my wife picked one up a couple of days ago.)

So if you're hoping to make yourself into a football-focused crucible this weekend before the game, look no further. To create some everlasting Tao-infused intestinal gold, go get some Tennessee-grown, Mississippi-named, Nashville-made beer. Your spirit, essence, and energies will thank you later.

Preservation Ale