Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Beer Travels: Mississippi's Gulf Coast

Beer and traveling seem to go extremely well together, especially when you do a little research ahead of time and find some of the best beer destinations that happen to coincide with your actual destination!  From Baton Rouge there are plenty of reasonable beer vacations in range if you have a few days to travel, Houston is great, so is Austin or the Texas hill country.  St. Louis is a great time and an easy day's drive, and Asheville is beer city, USA, and also a day's drive away.  For something shorter though, out of Baton Rouge, consider the Mississippi gulf coast.  

You're not going to get the acclaim that some of the breweries in those other cities receive, but there is still plenty of good beer, and it's only a few hours away. I did this trip with Mandi not too long ago, and here's how it went...

There are three breweries currently operating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Lazy Magnolia in Kiln, Mississippi Brewing Company in Gulfport, and Crooked Letter in Ocean Springs. As of this writing Lazy Magnolia offers three tours on Thursday and Friday evenings starting at 4, and 6 time slots on Saturdays starting at 11. Crooked Letter does tours on Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, and Mississippi Brewing Company is a brewpub open every afternoon and evening.  This pretty much limits the trip to Saturdays unless you can call ahead and make private arrangements, which is certainly possible with a big enough group.

For us it seemed simple enough, leave Baton Rouge in time to get to Lazy Magnolia for their 11 AM tour, which wasn't difficult at all.  According to Google Maps it's almost two hours from BR to the brewery, but it's I-12, so use your own judgement.  We ended up leaving early and stopping in Slidell for breakfast before continuing on to Kiln, which as you'll find out on the tour, is the hometown of Brett Fav-ruh! The brewery is in an odd location, just across the street from NASA's airport, and before you get to the town of Kiln itself, so there's no real connection to anywhere, but hey, it's a brewery!

Unfortunately for Lazy Magnolia, when there were designing and building out their brewery, taprooms and tastings weren't legal in Mississippi.  There is a gift shop which doubles as the office and tour starting point in the rear of the brewery, and once 11 rolled around everyone had paid their $10 it was time to start.  We made our way to right outside the office and tasted a few beers as the guide told us all about the brewery and let us try some malts and smell some hops.  There was a stack of barrels aging away, which was very encouraging, as Lazy Magnolia's barrel-aged products are some of their best.  The rest of the tour was pretty standard... if you've been on one craft brewery tour then you've pretty much been on them all. There were 6 beers to taste along the way, an upcoming barrel aged sour was probably my favorite, followed by the Timber Beast, which I've always loved.

Once the tour was over it was back to the gift shop / office.  Each tour came with a complimentary pint glass, but for $1 you could upgrade to a logo tulip glass... so of course we did.  There were also plenty of t-shirts, stickers, etc., and some of Lazy Magnolia's mead for sale.  Now there was no beer for sale at the brewery, which is against the law in Mississippi, but apparently mead is considered a wine, and selling wine direct isn't illegal, so if you want a bottle of Mississippi brewed mead, there's your stop!

After that it was time to head to Crooked Letter in Ocean Springs, which is about 45 minutes from Lazy Magnolia.  The tour and everything took about an hour, so we figured we'd be able to make it to Crooked Letter in time for their 1:00 tour, and we made it there a little early, which gave us a chance to take a few pictures and enjoy a few beers before the tour started. If you leave Lazy Magnolia a little early, or if you hang out there long and aim for the 2:00 tour, there is also the option of taking Highway 90 and driving along the beach the entire way, which would probably be a pretty nice drive, but around 30 minutes longer than taking I-10.

Upon arriving at Crooked Letter you'll probably find it to be the antithesis of Lazy Magnolia, and I'm not trying to bash Lazy Magnolia. Crooked Letter is located in the middle of the town, on one of the main streets and you have to pass through the very charming downtown area to get there. They have a large front porch with tables, and then a tasting room with some gifts once you go through the doors.  Tasting is legal in Mississippi now, but they still aren't allowed to sell directly to the public. Fortunately sharing their parking lot is a little restaurant that serves growlers!  

Crooked Letter has expanded their repertoire a good bit since I saw them at WYES a few years ago, but their flagship is still the Mystery Romp Porter, and it's still a thing of beauty. They also had their Gipsy IPA, Crooked Heffy, Mariposa Pale Ale, and Stabello lager on tap.  I'd recommend getting the pint glass so you can enjoy full pours of all the beers, unless of course you're driving, then enjoy a responsible small taste of a few!  They are supposed to mark off your wristband for each pour, visitors are limited to 4 total per tasting session.

For all interested there was also a nice tour, in our case it was led by Paul Blacksmith, the co-owner and brewer at Crooked Letter.  Basically, it's his baby, and he treats the place as such.  Like I said before for Lazy Magnolia, just about all brewery tours are the same.  There's no magic trick, or man behind the curtain, it's brewhouses, fermenters, bright tanks, bottling lines, sometimes a canning line, maybe some barrels aging some beer?  The stuff stays the same, but the scale does change, and it can change a lot.  From Lazy Magnolia to Crooked Letter is a huge drop off in scale, but trust me, breweries can get even smaller. 

In the end, I highly recommend a stop at Crooked Letter, the town is beautiful, the people are nice, and the beer is awesome.  In addition to their flagships they also brew three beers for the nearby Beau Rivage casino, and all were on tap as well.

From there we made the quick drive back West to Mississippi Brewing Company in Gulfport. It's less than 30 minutes from Crooked Letter, and you can either hop back on I-10 or take 90 down the beach... we opted for the beach route and headed through Biloxi and by the casinos until we veered away from the beach and along the industrial canal until we found the "brewery" itself. And I use brewery in quotation marks not because it's debatable whether they brew their own beer, it's just that the feel of the place is far from a typical brewery.

For starters, it's really a brewpub, licensed for full on-premise sales and no distribution. Their location is pretty cool, sort of a beach-cabana theme with a massive deck right on the water of the rather large canal.  There is a seafood restaurant next door, but otherwise the area is dominated by shipbuilding and other marine industrial uses.  They have a small stage set up for live music, and plenty of room for cornhole and other games, making it a really fun atmosphere for some drinks. 

Unfortunately when we went it was a little dreary and on the cold side, so the place wasn't lively at all and pretty sparse.  The good news is that gave us plenty of time to talk to the owner of the place, and time to try all sorts of good beer.  They had an assortment of styles, but nothing too crazy... blonde, brown, amber, red, pale, ipa, and stout were all represented, and all were pretty damn good.  They also regularly feature guest taps, often from other Mississippi breweries, although they just had some Kona on tap while we were there.

All of their beer is brewed on site in a small system pretty similar to what Parish started on. They said that they regularly put on new beers and change up the recipes, so I'll be looking forward to trying something different on my next time through.  And hopefully the weather will be much better for hanging out on the deck!

From there it was back home, with our Mississippi Gulf Coast brewery tour completed. The original plan was to stay out that direction, but the non-smoking hotel room that we booked turned out to be a smoking room and a bottle of febreze.  Fuck that. Fortunately we weren't too far from home, and were able to make it back without any problem.

If I had to do this trip all over again from Baton Rouge, I'd definitely switch it up some, and probably make the first stop Old Rail in Mandeville when they open at 11, then Crooked Letter and Mississippi Brewing Company.  Or make Old Rail the dinner spot on the way home... either way there are plenty of options, and really the north shore could be an entirely different trip!

Be sure to always drive safe, cheers!

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