I am incapable of writing an unbiased review of the Keg and Barrel. This ramshackle house on Hardy Street, porches sprouting from it like eyes on a potato, is too much a part of me for objectivity. I’ve drank too much there. I’ve made too many friends within its walls. I’ve had too many crushes on too many of its waitresses. The Keg and Barrel has guided the last 10 years of my life with too kind a hand for me to be anything but grateful.
If all those reasons are as meaningless to you as I expect them to be, the Keg also happens to be the best beer bar in Mississippi. Perhaps that’s more motivating for you.
Owner John Neal believed in craft beer’s future in Mississippi before anyone else did. In his words, “I just wanted to see a bunch of beers on the wall.” John has an endearing tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, or never, if he hits his mark. That quality is why the Keg exists, why Hattiesburg has a brewery, and why Mississippi’s beer culture is ascending to near-respectable status.
The Ke g’s location was previously home to a flower shop. Dragged there one Saturday by his wife Audrey, John Neal’s mind wandered to what the space would be like if some enterprising individual where to turn it into a bar. When the building went up for sale a few years later, Audrey was the one to remind John of his absurd daydream.
“I think I’m gonna do this,” John said. “It might not work, and we might lose everything. You cool with that?”
‘Fuck it. Do it,’ Audrey replied, reserving her spot in the Spousal Hall of Fame.
Keg and Barrel opened in 2005, immediately establishing itself as Hattiesburg’s best outdoor drinking venue. In 2007, John was kind enough to donate the bar’s otherwise-vacant Sunday evenings to Hattiesburg’s first craft beer club. The grassroots beer evangelist organization Raise Your Pints sprung from this soil.
John and homebrewer Sam Sorrels crammed a brewhouse into the Keg’s closet-sized former kitchen in 2009. For a few years, Southern Prohibition was the country’s smallest licensed brewpub. It budded off into Hattiesburg’s first production brewery, and they currently distribute beer in three Southern states.
In 2012, after years of heavily contributing to the cause of craft beer in Mississippi, the Keg was rewarded by our state legislature in the form of a bill that upped the allowable ABV in beer from 6 to 10 percent. Overnight, a multiverse of new craft beers and homegrown breweries flooded the state. The Keg’s business doubled over the course of a year. That’s not supposed to happen to established bars. But, once again, John Neal’s audacity worked its magic.
If you’ve never visited the Keg, do this: find a vacant Friday afternoon. Sit at a table on the front porch, and order a flight of four beers you’ve never had. This will be easy, as there’s over forty beers on the bar’s constantly rotating taps. Pick your favorite, and order pints as the bar fills up. Once you’re hungry, get a burger, made with 100 percent grass-fed beef from Perkinston, Mississippi’s own Stonnington Farms. Keep drinking. Stand up and wander. Chat with folks. Fall in love.
A few months back, I received an interview request from a food publication, asking some questions about a local watering hole. As fine and respectable an establishment as this anonymous bar is, I found myself wishing with every answer that I were being asked these same questions about the Keg and Barrel. My stories about Keg and Barrel run deeper than they do for any place save the homes I lived in as a child.
Everyone needs a third place, as comfortable as home and as sociable as work, where the unexpected and the familiar can swirl together in equal measure. If that spot in your life isn’t already occupied, I humbly suggest you head to Keg and Barrel on Hardy Street in Hattiesburg. I guarantee you’ll make friends.