I got into home brewing because of a Christmas crisis," says Lazy Magnolia cofounder Leslie Henderson.
"When you're married to an engineer, it's very hard to figure out what to get them for Christmas. I racked my brain and finally thought about a beer kit. A friend had told us a little bit about it. I thought, hey, this will be fun for a weekend."
Henderson takes a moment away from the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, where she is a panelist, to talk about Lazy Magnolia, the Kiln, Mississippi-based brewery that launched in 2005. The brewery has grown rapidly, now selling its products across the South.
Henderson, herself a chemical engineer, and her husband, Mark, an electrical engineer, met in college. After college, they moved to the Gulf Coast to start their careers. For a while, things went as expected. Then the beer took over.
"We brewed our first batch of beer, and I thought it was going to be terrible but at least it would be fun. But it was actually pretty good. We started experimenting every weekend. You can imagine when a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer get in the kitchen, it can get kind of crazy."
But it turned out to be a good kind of crazy. And crazy good.
"We were having so much fun brewing beers that we brewed much more than we could ever drink ourselves," Henderson says. "We would take beer to friends' houses and have awesome beer parties at our house. We would ask that people write down their opinions, because I would have five different versions of a beer."
It was during this period of initial experimentation that the flagship beer for Lazy Magnolia was born.
"During that time of home brewing, we developed the recipe for Southern Pecan. My husband had the idea of making something truly Southern, and he couldn't think of anything more Southern than pecans — pecan pie, pecan pralines," Henderson says.
Southern Pecan is the only commercially produced beer made using pecans, and even back in the kitchen brewing days, it was a hit.
"A lot of our friends started telling us we should go pro with this," Henderson recalls. "We said no one else in Mississippi is doing this. There has to be a reason. So [we did] a couple of years of research to learn is it legal, can you get financing for it, and is there a market for it?"
When the Hendersons were ready to go pro, timing and luck were on their side.
"We were in the right place at the right time," Henderson says. "The craft brewery movement was just starting to come this way. And it's a young movement. With craft beer, we're working together, not fighting each other. It's more of a community."
Her own brewery is more a family than a company.
"I have three priorities. Number one is that nobody gets hurt or killed on my watch," Henderson says. "One thing about women brewers, we're kind of like mothers. I'm kind of like a mother to my employees."
This family is a growing one, and as Lazy Magnolia grows, so does its impact. Christiana Craddock, Southeast brand manager, says, "We're not just a brewery from the South; we're a brewery about the South. Lazy Magnolia is not just a beer. It's a lifestyle; it's an ideal. It's sitting on the porch with your neighbors."
Henderson sees the beer as an ambassador for Mississippi.
"I knew that my business could be a vehicle for bringing a better reputation to our state, showing off the good things that we have to offer. We're a state full of charm, hospitality, and romance. That's the kind of image we're trying to put forth all around," Henderson says. "Lazy Magnolia. 'Lazy' isn't a bad word. Think about life in New York City. That's constantly on the go. You don't have time to talk to your friends. Here, we sit on the back porch, listen to music, drink some beer. It's all about relationships and family and fun. That's what a lot of our culture is about — friendly, happy.
"Our mission statement used to be, 'We don't tell people what to like. We just give them lots of choices.' But over the years through our involvement with a lot of charitable organizations, it has turned into 'Making Mississippi a better place one pint at a time.'"
So what's in the future for Lazy Magnolia?
"I'm never satisfied," Henderson says. "As soon as you reach a milestone, you have to get yourself educated and emotionally prepared for what's going to happen next. You never stop learning. The problems I have now will seem like a trifle in five years. I look back five years ago and laugh at the things that stressed me out then."
It might seem pessimistic to look beyond bright spots to the next problem, but, for Henderson, that's where the thrill is.
"It's so interesting. I'm constantly learning something. Right now, I am just so interested in seeing how the careers of all my team members develop. I've had so much fun building the team, learning how to get the culture right. I used to be thinking about the brewing. Now I'm thinking about the details of human psychology. So my brain is always on, and I'm growing as a person. I'm seeing the impact we're having on our state."
But in the end, it all comes back to the beer.
"I'm not a beer snob; I'm a beer geek. Being a beer geek means you really love beer and want to get into all the intricacies of it," Henderson says with a smile.