How Yalobusha Brewing Co. Is Changing The Beer Scene In North Mississippi
In Mississippi, craft breweries south of Hattiesburg took a tight hold on the state and Gulf Coast areas while the northern half had nothing. Self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Andy O’Bryan, Yalobusha Brewing Co.’s owner, left Greenwood’s Carroll County for college in Oxford in the latter half of the ’90s—it’s now his home. While O’Bryan found a good handful of businesses, 2013 marked his commitment to craft beer, as northern Mississippi was missing out on all the foam.
“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 in an Oxford interview. “You had a huge geographic area there, and I was a fan of what Lazy Magnolia was doing and Southern Prohibition was doing.”
O’Bryan’s out to impart ale knowledge on all of northern Mississippi, but he set up shop in the lesser-known town of Water Valley—rather than the neighboring Oxford. He could’ve taken Tupelo too, but neither had the historic building that would become Yalobusha’s birthplace.
Built back in 1860, the bricked-out building originally operated as a foundry then onto be one of the first Ford Motor Dealerships in the US. Much of the building’s original layout has been left untouched, as O’Bryan wanted to preserve and appreciate its past. He couldn’t pass this up, as O’Bryan felt this historic site has a heart built to last a lifetime.
“We’ve done the absolute minimum we can do to the building. We tried to keep everything really intact 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 built pre-electricity. Even though we have very little signage for the brewery, we have kept [Hendricks Machine Shop] on the front.”
When looking past what was the parts area, the taproom (formerly the workshop itself) is furnished with many tables, a stage for live music and infinitely many barrels of beers aging for the future. Fridays (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and Saturdays (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.), Yalobusha’s all about the public taking tours and tasting what this ale outfit has to offer.
Ten dollars will get folks a tour through the facility—$12 for a keepsake glass—as well as half a dozen six-ounce samples of any tap beer they’d like to taste. O’Bryan’s also armed with a food truck and Friday-night musicians to turn the warehouse into a welcome wagon. For aficionados eager to be educated on production and process, the more-than-informative brewing staff’s also on tap to talk to anyone about their operation and field any ale-related inquiries imaginable.
The brewery area itself was added on in the 1940s—Ford felt a larger, work area was needed (expansion was inevitable). The elevated floors enabled Yalobusha to have a pre-existing drainage feature for their suds systems.
Their mainstay mashes (Mississippi Blues Trail farmhouse ale, Larry Brown Ale, Snopes Pilsner and Coffee Break Happy Hour Porter) are always available at the brewery—along with four to six additional specials specifically for tasting. Occasionally, their brewery beers are known to become beloved bottles 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 crowdsourcing.”
But they’re operating out of the only US state to lack direct-sales laws for foam factories to sell their wares (without a middleman distributor) straight to the people—the best O’Bryan can do under the current, legal customs of Mississippi.
“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.”
However, in an effort to allow fans to buy foam directly from Mississippi’s artisan alers, he’s in negotiations with the local, distribution powers that be—the joint legislation will be pitched spring 2017. If it all washes down the way O’Bryan would like, Yalobusha’s thinking an in-house restaurant offering post-work pints and sixers for folks to take home.
The Yalobusha brewing crew’s committed to their cause, keeping on their crafty feet no matter what—even through their third anniversary back in October. They make their brew via cracked, malted barley and 180-degree water boiled together in a mash tun. The barley steeps as the seeds’ starches turn into sugars. The barley’s then thrown out and offered to any farmer looking for some fine grains.
Once that sweet sauce is boiled, they heave in the hops, which gives ale that aroma and right amount of acridity.
“If you’re making an IPA, you put in hops that give a high IBU (International Bittering Units),” 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.”
Yalobusha’s brewing process goes from about two weeks to an entire month to complete—pending the brew. Snopes is the slowest of their mainstays—30 days.
The Yalobusha bunch busts their tails to give Mississippi a wider array of craft beers, churning out as many types as they can—more than a lot of other breweries.
“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 [truly] helping a consumer [actually] 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.”
Their efforts have ultimately added a tourism aspect to Water Valley—now, the town’s name’s on the mash map. According to O’Bryan, Yalobusha incurs a weekly wave of people popping in, wanting to try out new and fun foams in a place that was once considered the southern state’s largest city.
While this now-considered-to-be-tiny town has less than 4,000 folks occupying space, it’s actually a busy situation there. Their Main Street’s sizzling with shops and eating options—O’Bryan certainly sees the ongoing growth of his hops-headquarters home.
“People want a certain lifestyle. They don’t want this hustle-and-bustle, big-city life. [Here,] 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.”