Devotion to college football has become a taxing endeavor. It is no longer enough for me to set aside four hours on Saturdays three months a year. With blogs, message boards, recruiting sites, practice reports, and endless streams of blather from televised talking heads, I’m presented with enough team-specific minutia to fill every waking moment between games.
Why do I subject myself to this weekly barrage of raw information? Does my knowledge of an opponent’s depth chart increase my team’s chances of winning? If I stay up all night creating a spreadsheet to chart our defensive substitutions in the red zone, will the tiny men on my television screen run faster or tackle better? Will my over-analysis of in-conference, third-down yards-per-carry contribute to some cosmic reservoir of goodwill that, if swelled with enough manic sports devotion, would imbue State’s coaching staff with the beatific foresight and wisdom to lead our team to glory?
Yes. Absolutely. Time well spent. All of it.
But I feel like something’s missing. What else about the game don’t I know? An obscure special teams metric? A correlation between mascot species and wasted timeouts? Surely there is some other kernel of knowledge I could consume or SEC-related phenomenon I could experience that would better prepare me for mindfully circumambulating the mandala of Jackie Sherrill’s head I construct in front of my television every Saturday morning.
And indeed, there is—ingesting your opponent. The digestive battle that ensues will vicariously engulf you in the on-field war about to take place. As MSU’s players look to deconstruct the other side player by player, you absorb what lends substance to the enemy and make it your own.
A form of this is of course quite common situationally in tailgating culture. You roast an alligator before a Florida game. You smoke a pork shoulder before an Arkansas game. You fry some chicken before a South Carolina game. You earnestly try to find a way to cook a madras bow tie before the Egg Bowl.
But unless you’re willing to grill up some exotic endangered species or dabble in the underworld of dog meat, you’re going to be hard pressed to walk the walk for an entire season.
Where, then, lies the proper path?
Why, in the glorious world of Southern craft beer and small batch spirits, of course!
So for the next fourteen weeks, prepare your minds and palates as I guide you through Mississippi State’s schedule as it is represented by the local microbreweries and distilleries that fuel the communities in and around SEC country. Every week, I’ll take a look at a craft brewer or distiller from an opponent's home turf. The landscape of these companies’ offerings is as diverse as the teams they’ll represent—from Louisiana whisky with a local-rice-tinged mashbill to Texas ale brewed with sweet potatoes to bourbon-barrel-aged Kentucky rum to English-style hard cider from the Loveliest Village on the Plains—and each brewer or distiller has graciously lent some of their time to help me navigate you through it. Beer geekery, whisky snobbery, and football buffoonery will abound.
But first, a brief primer.
Prohibition in the South was nowhere more pervasive than in Mississippi. In 1850, the state’s legislature declared that municipalities had the authority to wholly ban the sale or consumption of alcohol. In 1908, the state was dissatisfied with the congressional lollygagging in Washington, so it passed its own constitutional amendment mandating prohibition. When the rest of the country caught up a decade later, Mississippi was all too happy to jump aboard—it was the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment in January 1918, and it was one of the only states that never got around to doing anything with that pesky 21st Amendment that damned the nation back to its heathen ways.
So instead of joining the rest of their countrymen in slowly shedding the façade of sobriety after 1933, Mississippians stayed the course—the statewide prohibition laws stayed on the books for another thirty-three years.
But even then, Mississippi’s alcohol laws throughout the rest of the century reflected the state’s history of government-sanctioned abstention. Beer’s alcohol-by-volume content was severely capped—early on the limit was 3.2%, but as late as 2012, it was only 6.5%. As of a couple of years ago, dozens of Mississippi counties were still "dry," and until 2013, homebrewing wasn’t legal anywhere in the state. And even now, brewers are prohibited from selling their products directly to consumers, a restriction that, among other things, prevents Mississippi’s breweries from having taprooms to let the public sample their hoppy wares.
Embracing that history while simultaneously rejoicing in its slow-but-inevitable passage is Hattiesburg’s aptly named Southern Prohibition Brewing Company. The brewery evolved out of a line of beers developed at the Keg and Barrel, a local brewpub, starting around 2008. When a grassroots movement of beer lovers ("Raise Your Pints") convinced Mississippi’s legislature to raise the state’s ABV cap from 6.5% to roughly 10.2% in 2012—opening the door for dozens of previously illegal higher-gravity beers to appear on store shelves in Mississippi—Southern Prohibition was ready to take the next step. It announced that it would be opening a stand-alone brewery in an old furniture warehouse in downtown Hattiesburg. Less than a year later, Southern Prohibition had a full-fledged, operating brewery, and began selling its beers across the the state.
The brewing, of course, was well-honed by this point. The recipes had been tried and retried for years before the brewery existed. They were good on a small scale, and so of course they were good on a larger scale.
The distribution of beer to the masses, however, required something new. To confront this business reality, Southern Prohibition became the first brewer in Mississippi to embrace what had for a number of years been a growing trend in the national craft beer industry—canning. Cans are, after all, lighter and easier to transport than bottles. They recycle easily, they are quicker to chill than glass, and they are not banned in nearly as many places—such as beaches, lakes, and parks—as glass bottles.
And most importantly, as the brewery’s sales manager Emily Curry told me, it ensures the beer’s uniform quality. (After all, no light passes through aluminum, and light, as we all know, is not kind to beer.) Because Southern Prohibition is "slightly ahead of the trend of craft cans in Mississippi," she acknowledges that sometimes "people turn up their nose when [she] pulls out a can for sampling." But, she assures me, it’s not too hard to make them believers—"ninety-nine times out of one hundred, that attitude changes when I get them to taste the beer."
With its new-fangled cannin’ apparatus, Southern Prohibition quickly established a wonderfully diverse array of styles. Its first two offerings, "Devil’s Harvest," an extra pale ale, and "Suzy B," a blonde ale, had the brewery’s bases well covered. The former is a hoppy explosion of hops inside a can of hopped-up hoppiness, while the latter is more of a versatile "easy drinker." So if you’re looking for a tailgating friend, you should hook up with Suzy. And as an added bonus, you get the be the hipster chugging microbrewed local beer in a sea of Natty Lite squalor. In the words of head brewer Ben Green, "smashing tall boys of delicious craft beer will make you look cooler than you actually are." True dat, Ben. True dat.
To support those two mainstays, Southern Prohibition soon added a couple of additional beers to its regular lineup, and later introduced limited and seasonal releases. The two other year-rounders are "Jack the Sipper," a traditional ESB comprised solely of English hops and malts, and "Mississippi Fireant," a high gravity imperial red ale that Ben tells me pairs wonderfully with smoked pork. (Ben also noted that, with its higher alcohol content, the Fireant is great for your self-confidence. That really is a salient point that’s often lost in the pomp and circumstance that surrounds high gravity beer. But then, that’s why he’s a master brewer, folks. Take heed.) The seasonals and limited releases include a baltic porter ("Răgana"), an oatmeal stout ("Hipster Breakfast"), a this-year-only dry-hopped IPA ("2014 IPA"), and a whisky-barrel-aged barleywine ("Barley Legal") whose high alcohol content (11.4% ABV) restricts it to sale outside of the state. (Right now, Barley Legal is only available in Louisiana.)
All those glorious beers—save the barleywine, because, you know, we can’t have anything with that much alcohol in the state, except whisky and vodka and gin and tequila and scotch and rum and bourbon and merlot and cabernet and pinot noir and sauvignon blanc and syrah and chardonnay and champagne—are available in restaurants, bars, and stores across Mississippi. If you don’t know where to get some, look yonder and learn.
Ah, but should we be looking out for a limited release to commemorate the upcoming game? A maroon-and-gold pale ale, perhaps?
"Let’s see who wins first," Ben replies.
When I asked Ben, a USM alum, about the football team’s recent, um, rough patch, and about any lingering animosity toward a certain SEC defensive coordinator, his response was brief but telling: "Everyone has tried to forget him who shall not be named and move forward."
What else is there to say? Ellis Johnson’s crime against football is still so difficult to comprehend that an analogy to the Dark Lord himself may not only be apt, but perhaps necessary. Before Johnson showed up, USM had eighteen straight winning seasons, ten straight bowl appearances, and was only a month or two removed from probably the most successful season in school history. It had won its conference five times in that span, and probably hadn’t fielded a below-average team since the dawn of the Clinton administration.
And then in a single season, Ellis Johnson just blew it all straight to hell. 0 for 12, and in spectacularly bad fashion. The only winless team in the nation that year.
The Aurors lost, the boy-who-lived was slain, and the muggles burned in their homes.
But through it all, it seems as though the fans are in good spirits. Emily—an MSU alum and die-hard bulldog—and Ben say that everyone in town is especially stoked about the renewal of the series with State. The trash talking will be lively, with all sorts of opportunities for new and creative vulgarities to hurl at your fellow Mississippians. But "it’s all fun and games," Ben assured me. "I mean, this isn’t Ole Miss we’re talking about."
 Ernest Hurst Cherrington, The Anti-saloon League Year Book: An Encyclopedia of Facts and Figures Dealing with the Liquor Traffic and the Temperance Reform 220 (Anti-saloon League of American 1921) (Google eBook, last accessed August 26, 2014); "5 Prohibition Disposal(9)" by Unknown, Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. The esteemed Gov. Russell received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Mississippi. His experience in Oxford led him not only to champion the ongoing blessings of prohibition that would last another four decades in Mississippi, but also support and eventually sign a law that banned all fraternities and "secret societies" from the state’s institutions of higher learning.
 Just to make myself perfectly clear: What Ellis Johnson did to USM was a travesty and the man should be ashamed of himself. No, USM wasn’t a powerhouse in an elite conference, and no, Jeff Bowers and Larry Fedora weren’t John Woodens of their generations. But come on, man, eighteen straight years of solid football turned to a steaming pile of poo in less than twelve months? Inexcusable.