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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 14: Oxford Brewing Co. & Lazy Magnolia

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The clouds have rolled back and the Egg Bowl is upon us. Do you have the intestinal fortitude to imbibe the essence of your countrymen to appease the state's football gods? Mississippi craft beer awaits you at the apex of MSU's quest for glory.

Photo: www.memphisport.com

The weight of the moment seems apparent. The wake of Saturday’s game has receded and the salaried gossips have had their say. I’ve reviewed the box scores. I’ve repeated the highlights. I’ve seen the program records that have been set and re-set. Interviews. Notes. Speculation. Divination. I am nearly worn down and the week has yet to really begin.

But the season has unfolded itself and now I reach the first and the last simultaneously. Trips, both temporal and otherwise, to a cane field, a taproom, a barrel house, a record store, a construction site, an old schoolroom, a driveway strewn with homebrew paraphernalia.

I then recall a series of past games in scattered, halting flashes. Thanksgivings in Natchez. An SEC road game on a dreary November day in Oxford. An improbable win. A nonsensical loss. Family members with degrees from either or both schools taking it all in stride.

These images came intermittently all day yesterday to create a cacophony. I must be both reacting to the stimuli I dutifully expose myself to at every opportunity and compartmentalizing any semi-related experiences that may lend themselves to exposition. This occurred throughout my afternoon, interspersed with more linear—and, given that this is a weekday, obligatory—ventures in lucidity.

But then this happened: I’m gazing out of my office window, either experiencing some momentary football-related lapse of reason or thinking about the latest jumble of words I’d just constructed for my boss—probably a little from column A, and little from column B—and, right in front the ten-story bank building across the street, this woman rides by on a unicycle.

Wait, what?

Mind you, this wasn't accompanied by juggling, sword swallowing, or mustachioed men in scoop-necked unitards bending oversize carbon rods. Nor was the rider regaled with the ironic accouterments of self-aware hipsterdom.

The chick just rode on by like she was on her way to a lunch appointment.

This somewhat surreal, but beautifully pedestrian display of Gilded-Age-era transport was outstanding. All I could do was smile and giggle like a squirrel-chasing schoolboy.

And, even if it had to sink in for a spell, that was really all it took to forget art in favor of dance. Y'all, this is the best time of year to watch the best teams in the country play the best sport in the world. Hearts will break, voices will crack. Wives and children will shudder at your demonic possession, only be uplifted by your unbridled joy. This is what it's all about, and—as long as we're doing it right—it should be a damn good time to be alive.

So get your I.D. ready, tell your significant others to remove any fragile items from your field of vision, and prepare for the circle to be unbroken. We're ingesting the statewide pageant of brotherly loathe known as the Egg Bowl, so Mississippi craft beer will flow freely. How can the State-educated artisans at Lazy Magnolia and Oxford-based craftsman at Oxford Brewing Company satiate our gastro-theological needs and allow us to appease our very own pantheon of long-smoldering football gods? Let's find out.

LM beer bucket

As you may recall from our season-opening amble down southern-craft-beer lane, Mississippi's past with alcohol is unlike any other. The state's local bans on the sale and manufacture of intoxicants presaged the national movement by decades, and official statewide prohibition began ten years before and ended more than thirty years after its federal counterpart. And the body of regulations that governed the brews and spirits heartily consumed thereafter spent around forty years in the dark ages until an ambitious group of bearded patriots refused to bend the knee.

But before the shroud was lifted, there were two voices of reason that questioned the reach of the oppressive norm. Leslie and Mark Henderson were young Mississippi State graduates, recently married and working on the gulf coast with their fancy engineering skills. On a lark, Leslie had bought Mark a contraband set of homebrewing equipment as a gift (at the time, homebrewing wasn't legal in Mississippi). And, as any good beer-loving engineer spouse would do, she almost immediately commandeered the set to her own use. (Mark's lone batch was apparently only alright. For shame.) With Mark relegated to designing and building increasingly complex contraptions to aid Leslie's brewing, the couple's hobby soon took over their lives. Pots, fermenters, and huge bags of grain littered their home from floor to ceiling.

But the beer was great. So they decided to stop letting their hobby consume them—instead, they consumed it. In 2003, they formed a company whose sole purpose was to marshal the resources necessary to start a brewery.

There was a small conceptual hitch with this grandiose vision, though: what they were doing was illegal. It had been outlawed since statewide prohibition around the turn of the previous century, and the law had never changed. The same friends and family members who encouraged them to brew their hearts out knew this. The local business community knew this. The attorneys and government officials in Jackson that they talked to knew this. They knew this. Everyone knew this.

After seemingly hundreds of confirmations of this immutable fact, Mark reached what was probably the end of the line with the head of the Mississippi's Alcoholic Beverage Control. He was told without hesitation that brewing beer was punishable by a significant fine and six months' imprisonment. Mark asked for the statute that sealed his fate, and the administrator told him he'd call him right back with what he needed.

Hours later, Mark got his return phone call. The head of the ABC was puzzled. "Yeah, I can't find it."

Ok. So . . . what's, uh, the deal?

Turns out the manufacture of beer wasn't regulated by the ABC at all. Mark needed to talk to someone at the tax commission.

The call to the tax commission did not go as expected.

Mark: "So I'm just looking to confirm what everyone's telling me about this business I was hoping to start. Can I brew beer in Mississippi?"

Tax dude: "Sure."

Mark: - stunned silence - "Come again?"

Tax dude: "Yeah, just get your federal permits in order, pay us a licensing fee, and that's about it."

Mark: "That's it?"

Tax dude: "Yep."

Mark: "Well, if it's that easy, why aren't there any other breweries in Mississippi?"

Tax dude: "I don't know. No one's ever asked."

OBC shirt

Around the time Mark was discovering the esoteric secrets of Mississippi's regulatory apparatus—ask someone who actually knows what they're talking about—another of his Magnolia-state brethren was getting the craft beer itch. Mason Meeks had grown up and worked in Winona, and loved spending time in Oxford as he came of age. But his life's early passion had him spending weeks and months away from these rural Mississippi haunts—from the mid-to-late 1990s until the early 2000s, Mason lived the high life traveling with Phish.

Now, if that doesn't already bear dozens of connotations and stir vivid mental images, I'm not sure any prose I conjure here can help you understand what following Phish entails. (I recommend watching this if you're entirely unfamiliar with the phenomenon.) Suffice it to say that it can become anything from an all-engrossing seasonal lifestyle to a week-on, week-off traveling birthday party perpetually on the cusp of New Year's Eve, Halloween, and Mardi Gras.

During one of Mason's more prolonged excursions with the band in 2003, he traveled down the eastern seaboard from Maine to Miami. And as he went, no doubt loving life as much as a person could under any circumstances, he discovered something totally foreign to his ramblings through northern Mississippi, where even getting a cold beer could be a difficult task—he discovered craft beer. Town after town exposed him to new styles and local artisan breweries. The macrobrews he was accustomed to back home quickly became an afterthought.

Upon his return to life in Mississippi, he tried to settle back in to the status quo. The King of Beers. The Beast. The Banquet Beer.

The horror.

Mason eventually realized that he could not go back. With access to few decent beers, he and a friend decided to take matters into their own hands—they invested in a homebrew kit.

The hobby gradually became a more and more significant part of Mason's life until he found himself successfully competing in homebrew competitions across the state. His unique, moderately-hopped take on IPA—"Mississippi Pale Ale No. 8"—was especially endearing to judges.

So a couple of years back, he studied up on the business of brewing—Mason's recommended reading for aspiring brewers: Beer School, by the founders of Brooklyn Brewery—got a business plan together, and set a goal to start a brewery in Oxford.

But he was in a bit of a tough spot. He hadn't found an ideal location for production in town, but he already had a couple of great, retail-ready recipes that could play a huge role in raising capital to finance the whole thing. What do you do?

This: Find some dudes with a brewery and get them to leave the door open for you every once in a while. In other words, Mason had made enough of a name for himself that by July 2013, a brewery in the Birmingham area allowed him to come by to use their equipment to personally brew and bottle his beer. A year or so later, when some of his buddies opened Lucky Town Brewery down in JacksonLucky Town had traveled the same road as Mason, using the same Birmingham-area facility for a few years until they could start their own—Mason started driving to Jackson instead of Birmingham for brew and bottling days.

So far, so good. Mason's working full-time at making this thing work. He's got his equipment source lined up and is ready to hit the ground running as soon as he finds the right facility. (By the way, anyone looking to unload a 6,500 sq. ft. space in Oxford should drop him a line.) In the meantime, you can pick an Oxford Brewing Company MPA No. 8 or an ever-so-aptly-named "Sorority Blonde Ale" at more than a few places in and around Oxford.

OBC beer

As Mason is now poised to make his mark, Lazy Magnolia has become more than the state's flagship brewery. It's a southern institution. Its distribution area covers the entire SEC footprint as well as a few other states in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region. In fact, other than Abita, I can't think of a southern brewery with a wider regional presence. And its production capacity is likewise enormous—last year alone they sold 5,000,000 beers.

And no doubt you know the Mississippi-proud lineup. There's the mainstay that launched the brewery's initial success—"Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale"—which Leslie and Mark were able to create only after developing a proprietary process for dealing with the oils and other peculiarities of the local pecan. There's the sweet-potato-infused "Jefferson Stout." There's an Ellisville-honey-infused "Southern Gold" ale (complete with a USM-colored label). There's the yearly "Southern Debutante" series, the current entry of which is a bourbon-barrel-aged sour. There's the high-gravity rye IPA named "Timberbeast" after the legendary man behind the "Raise Your Pints" organization to whom all Mississippi beer drinkers owe a cookie. (He also happens to be an MSU alum and huge Bulldog fan. Skidoosh.) There are the seasonals geared toward southern Mississippi's unique climate. (For the more technically inclined than I, Leslie mentioned that the alkalinity of Kiln's water supply is perfect to brewing dark ales. And if that kind of tidbit butters you biscuit, spend some time on Lazy Magnolia's blog. It's got some extensive posts concerning brewing know-how and beer-related scientific wonderment. Not really sure what the deal with hops is? Read up, friend.) And there's even a mead—"Mississippi Nectar"—fermented from the same honey Lazy Magnolia infuses into its Southern Gold ale.

In other words, if you want to drink Mississippi, Lazy Magnolia has you covered.

LM collage

Now that you are prepped for intestinal war with your brothers and countrymen, it may be appropriate to pause for appreciation of the season's denouement. Our gullets have served us well these past thirteen weeks, prevailing over all but one of our opponents' temperamental football gods.

But more than that, we've been able to revel in our opponents' boozy reverie. The separation of I and thou has dissolved, at least in part, to make way for a relational experience akin to the sport itself. I often hear people talk about the unifying characteristics of athletics, and largely agree in its ecumenical qualities. But, so long as there exists a minimal amount of shared cultural norms, I'd venture to say that the union created by bonding over a pint of beer made by a guy down the street or sharing a taste of whisky crafted from corn grown the next county over has just as much substance. Competition is exchanged for mutual adoration.

Everybody wins when the prize is a sip and smile.

Of course, if you've been playing along at home, it also just so happens that the best regular season in the history of Mississippi State football has been accompanied by a cornucopia of artisanal southern spirits produced by fans of our conquered foes.

So everybody wins.

But some of us win more than others.

Beast and son