BY AMELIA CAMURATI
Craft beer in Mississippi was long dominated by the breweries south of Hattiesburg and dotting the Gulf Coast while the top half of the state went without. Yalobusha Brewing Co. owner Andy O’Bryan moved from Carroll County to Oxford in the late ‘90s for college and has made his home in this corner of Mississippi ever since.
A self-described serial entrepreneur, he has been founder of numerous businesses but has stuck with the beer industry since 2013 after noticing a gaping hole in north Mississippi.
“I came at it at the angle of there’s a huge hole because there hasn’t been a brewery here since Prohibition, and when I started, there wasn’t one between Hattiesburg and Memphis,” O’Bryan said. “You had a huge geographic area there, and I was a fan of what Lazy Magnolia was doing and Southern Prohibition was doing.”
With the whole of northern Mississippi as his target, Water Valley seems a random choice considering the college town of Oxford, the growing city of Tupelo and many other more well-known options, but what sold O’Bryan on the little town was the magnificent building.
Originally constructed in 1860, Yalobusha Brewing Co. resides in a former foundry and one of the first Ford Motor dealerships in the United States. The photos in the brewery, which at first glance look like stock images to give the building character, actually are glimpses into what the building was a century ago.
In one, you see a parts room with a wood-burning stove, used to heat the building at the time, and mere feet away from the photograph is the same mark on the floor from the same stove. In honor of the history, the building has been left as true to the original as possible.
“We’ve done the absolute minimum we can do to the building. We tried to keep everything really in tact because I wanted to preserve it as much as possible,” O’Bryan said. “The sky light, even though it looks new, was there as the light source because the building was build pre-electricity. Even though we have very little signage for the brewery, we have kept (Hendricks Machine Shop) on the front.”
Beyond the former parts room is the taproom, a space where mechanics worked on vehicles for decades that is now outfitted with a number of tables, a corner stage for live music and barrels upon barrels of aging beers. Yalobusha Brewing Co. opens its doors to the public from 2 to 10 p.m. Fridays and 2 to 6 p.m. Saturdays for tours and tasting. For $10 (or $12 for a souvenir glass), patrons are given a brief tour of the facility and a tasting flight of six 6-ounce samples of any beer on tap. O’Bryan has a food truck and musicians come on Friday nights, turning the working warehouse into a little party.
For those more interested in the production and process behind the brewing, everyone on staff is highly knowledgeable and eager to talk to visitors about how it works and answer questions.
Yalobusha’s four flagship beers, Snopes pilsner, Mississippi Blues Trail farmhouse ale, Coffee Break Happy Hour porter and Larry Brown Ale, are always on tap at the brewery along with four to six other specials just for tastings. However, sometimes the fan favorites at the brewery turn into bottle favorites for the world.
“Twice, we have had beers that were made for the taproom that had such massive customer response, we’ve made and bottled those for the world,” O’Bryan said. “Mississippi Blues Trail started as a taproom exclusive. It’s really neat to have that interaction with customers because this is the ultimate crowd-sourcing.”
However, as Mississippi is the only state in the country without direct sale laws for breweries to sell their products directly to customers without a distributor as a middleman, O’Bryan said that’s about all he can offer.
“In 2015, we had people from 43 states and 13 countries come through these doors, and all of those people left empty-handed. The best they could go away with is a t-shirt and souvenir glass,” O’Bryan said. “I think it’s so important for our growth and for promoting the craft beer industry in Mississippi for those people to be able to buy a couple six-packs of beer and take it back home with them, deepening the connection but also taking it back and sharing it with their friends and family and getting those people excited about coming to Mississippi and visiting us here in Water Valley. That’s been a big part of the tourism puzzle we’ve been missing there.”
O’Bryan has been negotiating with the state’s distribution network and will be introducing joint legislation in the spring that would potentially allow direct sale at breweries in Mississippi. If passed, the brewery would be able to expand its operation with a potential restaurant in house where people could order a pint of beer after work and take a six-pack home for later.
The brewery space itself was an addition to the building in the 1940s when Ford ran out of space in the two front rooms and needed an expansion. Thanks to the elevated floors, the room was easily equipped with a drainage system perfect for its new yeasty environment.
The brewers at Yalobusha Brewing Co. take pride in their work, opting to work through their third anniversary last October because of their passion for the product.
To make the bubbly brew, cracked malted barley and 180-degree water is kept in a mash tun, and as the barley steeps, the starches in the grain are converted to sugars. From there, the barley is discarded and available for free to any farmer in need, while the sugar water is boiled.
Hops are added to the boiling water, which give the beer its aroma and level of bitterness, measured by International Bittering Units.
“If you’re making an IPA, you put in hops that give a high IBU,” O’Bryan said. “If you want something like a milk stout, you don’t want much bitterness, so you pick hops that compliment the kind of beer you’re making.”
After hours of boiling the sugar water and hops, the temperature is rapidly lowered by sending the liquid through a heat exchanger and on to the fermentation tanks. In the fermenters, O’Bryan said, brewers yeast is waiting in the cold tank. When the liquid and yeast meet, the yeast begins eating the sugars and producing two important parts of beer: alcohol and carbon dioxide.
O’Bryan said that process take anywhere from about 12 days to a full month to produce, depending on the type. Snopes takes the longest of their flagship beers at 30 days.
Yalobusha Brewing Co. works to provide Mississippians a larger variety of options for craft beer, focusing its attention on different types than most.
“We operate a little differently than every brewery in the state, and the most notable example of that is we don’t make a year-round India Pale Ale. That is one of the most popular beer styles in the country, but the way I look at it, I want to make styles that are new and underrepresented in Mississippi.
“Every brewery has an IPA, so if I make an IPA, am I really helping a consumer really expand their knowledge on craft beer? That’s why we do the pilsner, and imperial brown ale, and no one really does a saison the way we do ours.”
Yalobusha Brewing Co. has brought a new form of tourism to Water Valley, putting the town’s name on brewery trail road trips across the country. O’Bryan said people come to the brewery every week from out of town looking to taste new craft beer to what was once one of the largest cities in Mississippi.
Though Water Valley is a small town of less than 4,000, it is a bustling one. With a vibrant Main Street filled with shops and restaurants, O’Bryan said he understands the recent growth of a town once on the decline.
“People want a certain lifestyle. They don’t want this hustle and bustle, big city life. You can get a very Mayberry-esque lifestyle, where your kids have a good school to go to, you don’t have to worry about high crime or about your neighborhood,” O’Bryan said. “They can live here. And if you want to have a big city experience, it’s just 15 minutes to Oxford or an hour and a half to Memphis. But your day-to-day, Monday-through-Friday routine, you can find a really happy life in a town like this.
“I think between what I’m doing here and what Alexe (van Beuren) is doing at The B.T.C. and a few other businesses in town, we are providing some entertainment in these towns that wasn’t always there. Some people would avoid a small town like this because there wasn’t anything to do. Now, you don’t have that excuse.”