On Tap

Craft beer movement alive and well among area brewmasters

Story G.E. Light | Photographs Luisa Porter

Homebrewing and craft beer seem to be more the rule than the exception these days. Even mighty Budweiser felt it necessary to respond to this growing trend with a much derided Super Bowl ad (the anti-hipster one that lampooned sniffing your “pumpkin peach ale”). Why? The Wall Street Journal noted that American craft beers outsold Budweiser for the first time in 2013. The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) estimates there are 1.2 million homebrewers in the United States, with two-thirds of them beginning in 2005 or later. Mississippi craft and homebrewers are among them.

Bryan O’Neill, a Scottish expatriate, who once actually worked for Ma Bud in St. Louis before moving to Starkville with his English professor wife Bonnie, caught the homebrew fever about five years ago. First he went it alone, then joined with Cameron Fogle and another professor of English Peter deGabriele.

Bryan matches the demographic of many of the AHA’s typical homebrewers: He’s over 30, married and has a college degree (University of Glasgow, MBA from Mississippi State).

Bryan’s interest was piqued when he attended Starktoberfest in 2010, where homebrewers shared their creations and competed for tasting awards.

“I also really wanted to have some high-gravity beers, which at the time were not commercially available in Mississippi,” said O’Neill.

Made with higher quality ingredients, high-gravity beers are more flavorful and meant to be sipped and paired with food. Bryan’s favorite personal production was a Starktoberfest award-winning Black IPA. Alas, the entire production run has long since been consumed.

In June 2011, friends Richard Bryant, Ron Unz and Jeremy Wickham founded Golden Triangle Brewers, a support group for homebrewers and Mississippi breweries.

All shared similar passions. Bryant: “I’m interested in cooking and also tinkering. So homebrewing was an obvious way to combine these two passions.” Wickham: “My brother-in-law was a homebrewer. My interest in cooking led me to research a recipe for a beer like one of my favorites, Fat Tire. We made it, and though it didn’t really taste like Fat Tire, I still enjoyed the process and the taste.”

The club has thrived, producing a monthly newsletter and annual competitions, including War of the Wort. Perhaps their most unusual event is the biannual Makeshift Mashout, where the previous year’s winners provide three specific ingredients, and each contestant produces the best beer they can from said ingredients.

The GTB meets the first Wednesday of every month in the cigar lounge of the SmokeStack in West Point.

Jeremy Wickham of Golden Triangle Brewers at GTB’s monthly meeting location — the SmokeStack in West Point

While all members share an interest in various craft brewing styles, most have a personal favorite. Wickham’s favorite is Imperial Stout: “I brew at least one exemplar every year, so I can do vertical tastings to compare my annual efforts.” Bryant prefers to brew all over the map, but his favorite is a Kriek, a “Belgian-style Lambic, with a sour cherry flavor profile.”

This latter interest in the sour beer style generated the most memorable club meeting of recent vintage. Upping their game with a Skype Q&A, connecting Jeremy’s laptop to the SmokeStack’s large TV monitor, the club chatted with noted beer blogger Michael Tonsmeire (MadFermentationist.com). Members were able to discuss their attempts at producing sour beers. “We talked about what we did and how to fix it,” said Wickham. Tonsmeire, speaking from Washington, D.C., responded with technical discussions of the art of using “innovative techniques for mixed fermentations.”

For those interested in discovering more about the club, feel free to stop by their monthly meeting. Later in May even novice homebrewers are invited to compete with their favorite style in the annual War of the Wort brewing competition (wickdawg.com/warofthewort).

Students of Jeremy Wickham and Richard Bryant’s Homebrewing and Craft Beer Appreciation class (offered through the MSU Extension Service Center for Continuing Education’s Personal Enrichment program) test their bottling skills. Ever wonder why the bottles are brown? “Brown bottles do the best job keeping light out. Hops react to light and can give a skunky aroma to a beer. Ever wonder why Corona is skunky? That’s why,” explained Wickham.

Ed Dechert’s faded and omnipresent Sierra Nevada baseball cap betrays his long-running passion for craft beer. When his friend Steve Chrestman got a homebrewing kit some six years ago, Ed decided to try his hand as well.

“Soon we were brewing together and moved away from the small kit to a larger bathroom or even garage-sized brew using five-gallon buckets on the stovetop,” said Dechert.

Ed moved on to further experimentation with yeast and fermentation before he and his wife started a family business, Rustic Bread by Ed and Kristen. They market their wares at the Starkville Community Market.

Then in the winter of 2012 Dechert, with partner Cameron Fogle, made the leap from from amateur homebrewer to craft beer entrepreneur, founding Starkville’s own SweetGum Brewing Company.

Setting up Starkville’s first microbrewery was no easy task. “Clearly we couldn’t afford the million or so dollars of capitalization we’d need for even a small commercial microbrewery,” said Ed, “so we focused on contracting our beer through Kiln–based Lazy Magnolia.” That process required a painstaking couple of years of preparation for licensing and graphic design.

SweetGum Brewing Co.’s Ed Dechert

With its relationship with Lazy Magnolia, SweetGum joins a long tradition of small breweries outsourcing their brewing and bottling. Purists still shudder at the thought of ’90s-era Samuel Adams’ signature Boston Lager being produced in commercial facilities not owned by the company in places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon. The company was bowing to the financial realities of beer brewing on a commercial scale. The investment necessary for brewing infrastructure is beyond the reach of many craft beer start-ups.

A key moment in the nascent commercial craft beer industry in Mississippi was the passage of a 2012 law allowing for high gravity beer with abv (alcohol by volume) above 5 percent. From a single craft brewer in 2005 (the ubiquitous Lazy Magnolia), there are now nine different craft brew labels being sold throughout the state. Last fall SweetGum produced its first beer, Standby Red Ale, a well-balanced Irish Red currently available in Columbus, Starkville, Tupelo and West Point.

While Ed has achieved his dream of becoming a commercial craft brewer with monthly trips to Kiln to manufacture the company’s product, he continues to homebrew smaller batches both for fun and experimentation. Who knows which of his home concoctions might become SweetGum’s next big thing?