By Sean Murphy
Photography by Marianne Todd
The small community of Onward, Mississippi, sits about 30 miles north of Vicksburg where the Mississippi Delta really becomes the Mississippi Delta. It was in that town, which now consists of a store situated along Highway 61, that then-President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a black bear that had been captured for the president’s hunting trip.
Lore is that the event led to the creation of the Teddy Bear as an ode to the 26th president’s famous hunt.
Locals refer to towns such as Onward as “plum and a poke towns” — poke your head out the window and you are plum out of town. They dot the Delta landscape like freckles in a sea of cotton and soybeans. Kinlock. Sledge. Arcola. Pace.
The owners and brewer at Mississippi’s most recent addition to the craft beer world — Mighty Miss. Brewing Co. in the Delta city of Greenville — see Onward as an exemplification of what they are striving to do: honor the uniqueness that is the Mississippi Delta.
The Delta’s figurative boundaries are Interstate 20 to the south, I-55 to the east and Old Man River ambling by to the west. Autumn is snow white with thousands of acres of cotton. A drive up its arteries along the historic Highways 61 and 1 find catfish ponds.
It is those little towns that make up the branding for the brewery, which is pumping new life into downtown Greenville.
“There are a lot of forward-looking people here who want to turn Greenville around for the better,” said head brewer Scott Hettig. “A brewery is a cool thing for a city to have and there are other developments around downtown. It’s a time to be excited about Greenville again. We can only make things better, too.”
Hettig, the face of the brewery, is a recent transplant from beer-happy Wisconsin. Like the brewery's founder, Hettig began his craft as a home brewer, begging for his first job as an intern at a brewery in his hometown of Milwaukee.
That summer gig to tone his hobby became an obsession.
“I was in a career that had nothing to do with brewing,” Hettig said. “At one point, I realized I wanted to turn that hobby into a career. There was not one aspect of brewing that I didn’t like."
His summer internship led to an assistant brewer position with the same company, but in Cleveland, Ohio, where Hettig worked full-time. He eventually returned to Milwaukee for a full-time head-brewer position, where he spent nine years.
“My wife, who is originally from California, came to me one day and said she was tired of Wisconsin winters,” Hettig said. “We started looking around and saw an opportunity here at a brand new brewery in a state where craft beer is in its infancy.
“We really never considered Mississippi a place to live, but it was an adventure for my wife and I. We came down, met the people and really liked it. There were so many friendly people with a lot of civic pride.
“I got here in May and my wife joined me in July. We have bought a house and are dedicated and committed to Greenville.” And in Greenville, “You don’t have to shovel sunshine,” he said with a laugh.
Hettig brought a few of his recipes, while brewery owners contributed their recipes into the six company staples.
Each beer is named for a town in the Delta — some quite hard to find on most maps. Each can contains a map of Mississippi with a star by the featured town's location. A small bit of history about the town is printed on the can as well.
The six everyday selections are:
• Arcola Amber is named after a town of 352 people 18 miles southeast of Greenville off Highway 61. “Our Amber style ale is a well-balanced offering featuring notes of sweet caramel with a touch of roast, giving way to a citrus and spice hop bite. The brew features a carefully selected variety of caramel, wheat and a hint of chocolate malts paired with four distinct Noble hops. The result is a gorgeous gold-red hued pour with a beige head.” The four Noble hops are Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt and Tettnang.
• Kinlock Kolsch is named after an unincorporated community southeast of Greenville. “Our Kinlock Kolsch-style ale is the color of fresh straw. At first sip, you’ll find hints of honey and bread, which will then give way to a soft, spicy character of European hops. Perfect for Delta summers, this cold-fermented ale will satisfy craft beer lovers, both new and seasoned.”
• Mighty Miss. is the company’s flagship brew. “This American Pale Ale is designed to be an easy entry point to craft beer. Developed with an eye to cleanliness and less-than aggressive hop flavor provided by All-American Cascade hops, this beer won’t overpower any meal and will fit the taste of beer drinkers who appreciate simple, clean beers.”
• Pace Porter is named after a town of 256 people on Highway 8 between Cleveland and Rosedale in the northern part of the Delta. “This beer will prove to anyone dark beers can be easy drinking, with lower ABV than a typical Porter. Use of a Patagonian specialty malt removes any of the harsh, tannic flavors often associated with dark beers. It’s lightly hopped with a strong, malt-forward aroma and flavor.”
• Sledge Saison is named for a town of 510 residents northeast of Clarksdale. “High in alcohol and low in color, this saison is an easy-drinking entry point to the world of farmhouse beers. Fermented at temperatures more closely related to ale fermentation, this saison lacks many of the sour farmhouse notes characteristic of these beers and takes well to fruit in secondary fermentation.”
• Onward Amber Ale, “A hearty beer as brown as the water running through the big river just over the levee. This American Amber Ale is a malt forward example featuring American-variety hops, medium hop bitterness and flavor with smoky aromatics.”
The naming of the beers is part of a strategy to pin the moniker The Delta’s Brew on the only brewery in the Delta. The next closest brewery is Water Valley’s Yalobusha, which is 114 miles away.
The genesis of the brewery began more than a decade ago and came into the budding Mississippi market at just the right time.
Ten years ago, Jon Alverson, now the publisher of the Delta Democrat-Times, started home brewing. Each batch got better and better.
As an investment in a refurbished downtown building, Alverson led the effort to begin Mighty Miss. In March, it brewed its first beer. Coming up with the company’s name was pretty simple, said Melia Christensen, brand manager for Mighty Miss. The Mississippi River lumbers south through Greenville on its slow roll to the sea. The river has nicknames aplenty, but it’s often referred to as the Mighty Miss. Every name suggestion had to do with the river, Christensen said.
The first batches were made off site — commonly known as contract brewing — but every drop was made in Mississippi. The timing of the initial batch was of good fortune. The Mississippi Legislature was on the cusp of passing a beer bill that would allow breweries to sell beer from their taprooms. It was the third major step for brewing in a state that still has more than 20 dry counties.
In 2012, the cap on alcohol in beer was raised from 5 percent by weight to 8 percent by weight, which is equivalent to about 10.8 percent by volume. Before the change, the only production brewery in Mississippi was Lazy Magnolia from the Gulf Coast. Breweries began sprouting almost immediately.
Two years later, home brewing beer became legal — although home brewers rarely paid attention to the law anyway.
But the biggest change happened July 1 when Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill allowing beer sales from taprooms. That also was the day Mighty Miss. opened its taproom doors to great fanfare on Washington Street.
“Business is starting to pick up and the beer we brew is fantastic,” Hettig said.
The beers are made to attract new drinkers to the market. Mississippi is still in its craft beer infancy. The state is home to 10 breweries — a minute portion of the more than 5,000 craft breweries in America. Mighty Miss is the latest entry into the Mississippi market and is already being distributed throughout the state. It recently made its way to Hattiesburg and the Gulf Coast.
“Craft beer is kind of a new thing here,” Hettig said. “Most of the people are grabbing Michelob Ultra or Bud Light. We offer an alternative to that, which a lot of people have never had anything like it.”
Hettig uses a 15-barrel system, which allows for the production of just under 470 gallons per batch. The word seems to be getting out, too. On a recent weekend, Hettig was criss-crossing the state to beer festivals from Jackson to Memphis.
“I am excited about craft beer in Mississippi,” Hettig said. “I haven’t run into that in Mississippi. I have loved what’s out there. I would personally drink most anything that I have tried.”
It is that second city, at the head of the Delta, where Mighty Miss. has set its sights as the next market the company will target for distribution.
For aesthetics – and an experience like few others in the state – visitors will have to go to the taproom. Most Mississippi breweries are in industrial type areas, not in downtowns. In the Greenville building the brewery shares space with an upscale restaurant, The Downtown Grill. The Loft at 517 are located upstairs.
The refurbishment is a step toward returning people and commerce to downtowns across the state, brewery officials said. The taproom is climate-controlled, unlike many in the state, which certainly aids the taproom experience.
It is the beer that shines, though, and continues to not only bring in people but to keep Hettig busy.
“We are waiting on paperwork to get into the Memphis market now,” Hettig said. “Then we will start looking at Little Rock (Arkansas) and Louisiana. Wherever we can get our beer into the market.”