Mississippi's Lazy Magnolia Weathers The Storm
The young brewery was spared major damage when Hurricane Katrina hit, but virtually its entire customer base was wiped out
by Jack Curtin
Leslie and Mark Henderson, a chemical and electrical engineer respectively, opened Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in an old warehouse in a small Mississippi town on the Gulf Coast and began selling beer only a few months before Hurricane Katrina came ashore on August 29, 2005. Their plant was located in the state's hardest hit area and the eye of that horrific storm passed directly over it.
It all happened in Kiln, a rural community of slightly more than 2000 residents in Hancock County, located on the Gulf roughly 20 miles west of Biloxi. Kiln is the hometown of Green Bay Packer QB Brett Favre and is historically known as the "bootleg capitol" of Mississippi. Lazy Magnolia opened there in late 2004 and sent its first beers to market in March 2005, becoming the state's first ever brewery producing beer for off-site sales, and was still in the process of establishing itself when the big one hit nine months later.
As it turned out, even though 25 to 30 feet of water surged through Kiln and other towns in the county, reaching 15 miles from the Gulf and dumping tons and tons of mud in houses and businesses throughout the region, Lazy Magnolia was relatively unscathed. The storm did blow off its roller door and there was significant looting as result. Plus there was no electricity available for about six weeks, shutting operations down completely. But there was neither flooding nor major structural damage to the building and the 15bbl brewhouse was unharmed, so losses of beer and raw materials were minimal.
"We were hammered by the wind," reports Leslie Henderson, who is Lazy Magnolia's brewmaster (she trained at the American Brewer's Guild school in Vermont), "and with door gone, all the poor locals who live in the swamps in the area kinda stormed the place for all our tools and fans and furniture, pretty much anything that they could find. Since there was no water in the building, we didn't lose any important records or large quantity of raw materials, though. And we didn't really lose much beer, which absolutely amazed me. We expected all of the beer to be bad after sitting four weeks without cooling, but most of it tested out fine. We did taste testing, clarity testing, biological testing, and only one batch in fermentation failed the taste test and that was because, when we finally got electricity back after four or five weeks, the process of restoring it caused our old chiller to die. Otherwise, all we lost were some Party pigs in the cooler. They just took on a stale taste after sitting hot for so long. I can't explain why things worked out so well, but we use good sanitation techniques at all stages so I guess the beer can handle a little abuse if need be. We were pretty lucky, all in all."
The costs in personal terms were rather more painful. "We lost our biggest fan as a result of the storm," the Hendersons write on the brewery website. "Warren Fuller was a man very well known in the brewing community. Warren was an avid collector of brewerania, and he was our biggest fan. He was the first person to ever get a tour of Lazy Magnolia. We saw Warren probably once a month. He would tell us were he had the beer recently, and he would ask where else he could get it as he liked to spread the business around. Occasionally, he would bring with him other converts, and they would tour the building with him. Warren was special; he was our biggest fan, and its people like Warren that give a job like this meaning."
Nor are things back to normal, or even close. "The sad and ongoing part of the story is that every single employee at the brewery, including my husband and myself, is still homeless," says Leslie Henderson. "Every single home was destroyed and none of us have our own place to live even now. My husband and I have been lucky enough to have friends with intact houses, so we move around a lot to keep from being a pest to anyone for very long. And we do a lot of camping. There aren't enough contractors to rebuild all of the homes on the coast, so even if you have one working for you, they're over-charging and it takes them five times as long to do the work because they are juggling so many jobs. We're building our place by ourselves.
"Our head brewer, Gar Hatcher, who joined us just four weeks before Katrina, lived in a tent for several weeks before moving into a camper-trailer. He's now living with a good friend of ours. Several other employees still live in FEMA trailers. It's tough, but what choice do we have? Thankfully, we all do have a place to work."
The most important aspect of that work in Katrina's aftermath was getting the brewery operating again and letting wholesale and retail accounts know that it was happening. And there, as they say, was the rub. For all practical purposes, the brewery's customer base was, well, no longer there. "Most of our accounts at the time were right on the beach," Henderson says ruefully, "so 80% of our business was gone immediately."
That meant it was time to "go north," she notes, and what Lazy Magnolia did next is an example of the "have a plan" theory of good business, even if the plan they had was not exactly designed to be implemented as the result of a disaster. "We were only selling in the immediate territory at that point, but we had always expected to expand northward at some point, away from the beach. This is a fairly big state, you know. We just expanded our sales efforts sooner than we'd thought we would and picked up several new distributors almost immediately. We were actually selling more beer four months after Katrina than we were the month before it hit. At this point we've covered all of Mississippi, and we're seeing a growth in orders of 30 to 50 percent monthly."
The world outside Mississippi is beginning to take notice. Lazy Magnolia won two Bronze Medals in the 2006 World Cup competition, for its Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale and its Amberjaque Rye Ale. The brewery makes six beers in all, including a summer seasonal and a "Deep South Pale Ale" sold only in the Oxford, Mississippi market.
Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin
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