What Is Southern Beer?

By Bob Townsend


I have on occasion been asked if there is such a thing as Southern beer. Until recently, I never knew exactly how to answer that question.

Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale from Lazy Magnolia Brewery in Kiln, Mississippi, would always come to mind. Billed as “smooth and sweet,” it claims to be the first beer in the world made with whole roasted pecans.

Jekyll Brewing of Alpharetta, Georgia,  has a habit of naming and describing its beers with jokey Southern references. Hop Dang Diggity Southern IPA is said to be “hopped up like a one-legged chicken.”

I enjoy drinking those beers, and many others somehow defined as Southern. But they don’t reflect a unique environmental context in the way that, say, Cantillon Gueuze captures the funky aromas and flavors produced by the wild airborne yeasts from the Senne Valley in Belgium. 

Of course, now we’re talking about terroir, the French word that defines that country’s sacred system of regional wine appellation. 

But more and more, that sort of sense of place is being discussed in terms of the unique characteristics of the soil food crops are grown in or the aquaculture of oyster farming. 

And all around the South, many breweries have been sprouting up taking a cues from those ideas, while finding inspiration in the Old World farmhouse brewing practices of Belgium and France.

Shawn Johnson of Birds Fly South Ale Project in Greenville, South Carolina describes his family’s experiments as “progressively old school urban farmhouse brewing.” 

Their primary focus is on saisons and sour beers, and one of the wildest is Rumblefish. It’s an open-fermented white wine solera brewed with Calypso and Citra hops and a touch of caramel malt. It’s aged in oak puncheons, giving it a deft balance of crisp, bitter, tart, funky, and wood aromas and flavors with a clean finish.

At Blackberry Farm Brewery in Walland, Tennessee, Roy Milner and his team have been producing small batch farmhouse ales for Blackberry Farm restaurant since 2011. 

After moving into a larger facility in 2015, they were able to expand distribution in the Southeast, and offer releases such Wild Classic Saison. It’s fermented with wild yeast harvested from honeysuckle blossoms in the orchards at the farm, creating delicate aromas and flavors of honey and citrus in an effervescent ale that drinks like Champagne.  

Co-owners Todd Boera and Mark and David Bennett of Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, North Carolina, aim to create what they call “a totally unique North Carolina/Appalachian style of beer.” 

They use grains from Riverbend Malt House in nearby Asheville, forage for wild flora, and partner with local farms for fruits and vegetables to use in making saisons and fruited sours. They won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for a local beet saison described as having “notes of dirt/earth/soil, citrus hops and fragrant Belgian yeast.”

Athens Georgia’s Southern Brewing regularly uses produce and products such as honey from nearby farms, along with wild yeast strains wrangled from the 15 acres around the brewery.

Brewer and co-founder Brian Roth’s Wild Azalea Saison features yeast harvested from an Azalea bush, and is described as “crisp, dry, fruity, and just a bit funky, with pronounced clove and orange notes.”Cherokee Rose, fermented with yeast harvested from flowers at the nearby State Botanical Garden, has “beautiful hints of banana pudding and vanilla.”

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to seek out more of these Southern farmhouse breweries and beers in 2018. You should, too.