The Pine Belt beer scene has been active in Hattiesburg and Laurel, not only because of the number of drinking-age customers around the community colleges and universities in the area.
The recent establishment of successful microbreweries has pushed the social aspect of drinking beer to the spotlight in local restaurants and taverns. Slowboat Brewing of Laurel and Southern Prohibition Brewing Company of Hattiesburg have reached customers throughout Mississippi and beyond its borders.
For Slowboat’s Kenny and Carrie Mann, homebrewing turned into a passion that evolved into a business, similar to several other microbrewers. Kenny’s 14 years as a maritime chief engineer was part of the reason for naming the brewery “Slowboat.”
“It’s also in reference to the beer laws in Mississippi, like ‘the slow boat to China,’” said Mann, an advocate for reforming the state’s brewing laws. “On the Merchant Marine side, I did that for 14 years. I was doing that while I was preparing to open this.”
Mann said he preferred the social aspect involved in the brewing.
“We never really competed; we never really got to the competitions,” he said. “We did a lot of home brew and a lot of beer clubs in Laurel. We shared a beer with everybody and were just throwing events. It was really a neighborhood kind of thing. We had always wanted to open a business and we thought about opening a bar. We didn’t think Laurel was quite ready for a craft beer bar; we think it is now. Actually, we have one opening up right beside us and another one in that big building back there. The city is ready for it now; at the time, we thought it wasn’t. We also looked at doing bottle shops and it was kind of the same thing. Ultimately, if we didn’t just dive on in and do a brewery, we’d just regret what we wanted to do anyhow.”
The social aspect of beer drinking spills over into the brewery, Mann said.
“That has been one of the goals, to make it a music venue and to make it friendlier to the musicians,” he said inside the brewery at 318 W. Fifth St. in Laurel, pointing out the shelves full of board games and the cornhole area off the indoor picnic tables. “We always wanted to have a place where musicians really like to come and play and have a community here. I think we have achieved that. Sometimes I think we take a loss on the music, but I think it’s important to have that as part of the business. And the musicians love the way it sounds in here. They love to play here and I love that.”
The local music actually ties into the brewery’s former occupant.
“The building used to be an old radio station,” Mann said. “The upstairs part and the front part were originally a radio station. This was originally a car dealership with parking on the roof. This used to be their shop, with the hydraulic lift there and oil change pit there. It makes the perfect brewery. Eventually if we can get the laws changed in Mississippi, we want to open our taproom in the upstairs part and have it heated and cooled, a little bit more comfortable for patrons. With the radio station, that’s how we tied in the logo and the music names of the bands.”
The Slowboat Brewing Company resembles a 45 rpm record with a spindle insert in the center hole with “The Free State of Jones” printed on the record.
“That was way before the movie (of the same name that was released in 2016),” Mann said. “It’s something a lot of people around here are just really proud of. Jones County has set itself apart from Mississippi for a long time in a lot of ways, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. We have some horrible, horrible laws. You’re in a dry county right now – wet city, dry county. We’re proud of the accomplishments that we’ve made and moving forward, it’s looking really, really positive.”
The spindle insert on the logo has also caused some confusion.
“You’d be surprised; nobody knows what it is,” Mann said. “They think it is what is shot out of the toy disc guns.”
The brewery, which only gives tours on Saturdays – the night of the music performances – also benefits from a Backroad Bistro food truck during the events. Weekdays concentrate on production.
“I have one guy that pretty much helps me full-time on that,” Mann said. “Other than that, it is just my wife and myself. We also hold private events.”
Slowboat Brewing recently celebrated its first anniversary in business, Mann said.
“We distributed our first beer on Dec. 27, 2015,” he said. “We have actually had the building for almost two years. We spent almost a year working on the building, replacing 200 windows, painting the entire exterior, and hauling an unbelievable amount of garbage out of here. It’s still something we continue to work on on a daily basis. If you want to be in an old building downtown, that’s what you have to deal with. The building has been around at least since the 1940s.”
Small scale operation
Because Mann produces on a smaller scale than other brewers like Southern Prohibition, he is able to obtain his ingredients pretty easily.
“To get hops, I use Lupulin Exchange, a website that I would kind of compare to Craigslist,” he said. “All of the commercial breweries use it strictly for buying and selling hops. All of these big guys contract out all of these hops for years in advance and they wind up not needing them, they sell them on there at discounted prices. I will go on there and buy 44 pounds at a time. A lot of the hop companies that may not have sold all of their hops for the year, they will throw it on there at a discounted price. I look for deals on there.”
The other brewing components are usually found nearby, Mann said.
“As far as other ingredients such as hibiscus, vanilla bean, we just did a pineapple and a peach beer, I always try to source that stuff locally,” he said. “I’ve got a Mexican grocery store a few blocks from here that I deal with a lot and they will pretty much order anything I want, cases and cases of anything. They have actually started stocking hibiscus for us. In case I run low, I can just run a few blocks over and pick it up. I also have a forager that I work with who will go out and get things from the restaurants. We will get stuff from him. We’ve got a few big batches coming up using things like mushrooms from him.”
To start the business, Mann began with what led him to his business.
“The first three beers we came out with I brewed for a long time as a home brewer,” he said. “Actually Dairy of a Madman was the very first beer I brewed. I R&D’d those out pretty well. The three new beers that we have coming out on the market soon, I did not have the benefit of having R&D on them, because it’s a very lengthy process. I did definitely try to play around with small batches on them. We try to do some little 5-gallon batches here and there. How we do a lot of R&D is doing casks for bars to play around with a lot of flavor combinations, not necessarily the exact beer I am going to make, but the base style of the beer and what kinds of fruits and stuff we are going to blend with it.
“We do play around with the beers.”
Seasonal beers are also on tap at the brewery.
“We do have a stout with gingerbread cookies that we are serving tonight and we have a Satsuma farmhouse ale serving tonight too,” Mann said. “Those are just little quick kegs. We do two or three different ones every weekend. We get to play with flavors a lot like that.”
Mann said the brewery is working to expand.
“We usually do around 40 barrels a month, which is still pretty small in the brewing world,” he said. “That equates to 250 kegs a month. We are still a Mississippi-only beer; we’re distributed all over the state except for Oxford. They just happened to be the last market in the state. Our approach has been not to just blast it out there, but to take one market at a time and really spend some time there and do some events. As owners, we like to be at the event and it just takes time to get our footprint in the market. We are just taking our time with it and just releasing in the new markets when we feel like we are ready to do that. Oxford is coming really soon.”
However, marketing his brews out of Mississippi is not in Mann’s plans.
“As far as moving out of state, I really have no intention of doing that anytime soon,” he said. “I want to stay small and hopefully, get some more friendly laws coming up this year.
“Our plan moving forward – and it’s been our plan since those three beers that we first released – is to brew constant small batches. Next week, I’ll be brewing two new ones; we’re doing 5-barrel batches, so we’ll get about 30 kegs out of them. We’ll serve about five of them here in the brewery and the rest will go out on the market. A bar will get one keg and then it will be gone. We are going to have the same tap handle and the same price and everything, and then hopefully we will constantly be giving them a new beer. So every time you go in there and see that new tap handle, it’s going to be a different beer. I’m finally getting to play around with the beers.”
Mann said he believes each new beer is an experiment.
“Any brewery will tell you this and if they don’t tell you this, they are lying,” he said. “We don’t really know what we’re doing; we are figuring this out day to day. Every beer is different and every fermentation action is different. All we can do is try to give it the happiest environment that we can. A really hard lesson that I learned this summer is that Mississippi heat is very unforgiving. It is very hard to keep things like that walk-in cooler over there half as cold as the ambient temperature. So if it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s only going to get down to 50 degrees and that’s not good enough. We have to take other actions to make sure we get down below 40 on that. That was definitely a bridge we had to cross.”
Experimentation on a small scale is exciting for Mann.
“If you have a beer as one of your mainstays and it keeps the lights on and that’s all you do, you would get pretty tired of working there,” he said. “I can do our three top beers (Into the Mystic, Dairy of a Madman and Wayward Son) with my eyes closed; I know them by heart. But with these new beers, I’m doing a little bit of R&D, but it’s mostly by the seat of my pants. I’m just brewing beer and hoping for the best. So far, so good. Doing small batches like that, you’re not spending a lot of money on it. I’m not scared to dump a batch down the drain if I don’t particularly like it. That’s one of the advantages of being a smaller brewer.”
Expansion for Mann includes improving how the Slowboat brews are served.
“We are draft-only right now,” he said. “That’s the one thing I want to focus on in expanding is getting into bottles. That’s a huge expense. Bottles are very important, because that is how Mississippians drink beer. They really don’t go out to bars to drink beer. I would say that 80 percent of all beer consumed in Mississippi is in bottles.
“We want to focus not so much on expanding, but getting more into our market.”