The first brewery in Benton County started making beer a few weeks ago in a warehouse just south of downtown Rogers. It’s hard to imagine a brewery in that neck of the woods, but county residents voted to legalize alcohol sales by a 2-to-1 margin back in 2012. The state’s wettest dry county officially went wet. That was good news for brewmaster Andy Coates, who along with wife Lacie and partner Jeff Baldwin decided to open Ozark Beer Company just north of the existing brewing scene in Fayetteville.
Coates made a name for himself locally as the brewer at Fayetteville’s West Mountain Brewing Company. He’s famous for waking the dormant brew house that sat in the window of the restaurant for so many years – and for making wonderfully flavorful beers across the style spectrum. He has a pedigree that includes formal education from the American Brewers Guild and stints at Chicago’s Goose Island and Denver’s Great Divide. Long story short – this guy knows what he’s doing. Local beer enthusiasts were fired up to hear he was opening his own place.
The day I decided to visit Ozark Beer Company was cold and dreary – just a few days after the first ice and snow storm of the season. The drive from my home in west Fayetteville took just under 25 minutes, even with the occasional slick spot on the interstate and traffic that moved at about 25 MPH slower than usual. OBC is a little off the beaten path for those of us in Washington County, but smartly situated in an industrial area with plenty of room for growth. The brewery sits on a two-acre lot and is your typical warehouse – with a gravel parking lot and a loading dock on its side. Even with the inclement weather and semi-hazardous road conditions, the lot was full when I pulled up on that late Sunday afternoon.
As I walked to the front door I Immediately noticed the stamped metal sign bearing the Ozark Beer Company name and logo. The logo is based on an early version of the Arkansas state flag. Three stars represent the nations to which the state once belonged – Spain, France, and the United States. The brewery has connected its brand with the region in an intimate way. Northwest Arkansas has always been a region of hardworking, salt of the earth people. OBC’s website speaks to this work ethic and how it intertwines with its own outlook on life:
“We are rooted in a deep tradition of independent, spirited people who live their lives with a resilience and humility rarely seen anywhere else, and where living from the land and crafting your livelihood is the foundation of the culture and identity of this region. In these mountains and at OBC, hard work isn’t what we do, it is who we are.”
Coates himself embodies the Ozark persona with his lengthy beard, calloused hands, and a penchant for bluegrass music. A native of Iowa, he met his wife while working as a raft guide on Colorado’s Arkansas River. They moved around the country together, pursuing academic goals and gaining work experience in the brewing industry. The couple also spent time working as organic farmers in South America, as they detail on the OBC blog. Ultimately, they decided to move back to Lacie’s home in Northwest Arkansas to open their own brewery.
Why Northwest Arkansas? “After looking over the laws in Arkansas, paired with the healthy economic climate and underserved craft beer market, it seemed to be a great choice,” said Coates. “Lacie grew up in the area and we still have family here, so that definitely helped us make our decision.”
Now, back to the brewery itself…
Walking through the front door, I entered a hallway corridor with an office on one side and a couple of sitting/tasting rooms on the other. There were several people sitting around tables drinking, laughing, and generally having a good time. At the end of the hall was a bar area with beer taps and OBC merchandise for sale. Coates and Baldwin were busy pulling pints of beer for thirsty visitors.
The offering that day included an IPA, a stout, and a coffee stout – a collaboration between OBC and Onyx Coffee Lab. Being a fan of espresso, I asked for a pint of the coffee stout. It was a beautiful ink color with a pronounced roasty aroma. The mouth feel was just right, and the finish was remarkably clean. It was a delicious beer, no doubt about it – a masterful blend of malt and coffee bean. But it’s also a special release, and thus won’t be around for long. You should hurry if you want to give it a try.
Coffee stout in hand, Andy showed me around the brewery. We walked into the main warehouse, where the brew house and fermentation tanks sat to one side, behind a series of partitions. A number of wood picnic tables were positioned in the space between the tasting room and the brew house. The room felt big, with plenty of space to grow when OBC adds more production capacity. A handful of people were seated at the tables enjoying their beers. Coates said OBC will soon add an outdoor beer garden for visitors to enjoy during the warmer months. Between the tasting room, brew house seating, and an outdoor space – OBC will have the capacity to entertain a large number of people at any given time. They recently hosted an after-party for the Arkansas State Cyclocross Championship, which took place at nearby Veteran’s Park.
The brew house – a 15-barrel copper-clad mash tun and boil kettle – was purchased from a small California brewery that replaced it with a larger system due to growth. It was disassembled and transported to Northwest Arkansas via truck, and then stored in a nearby warehouse while the crew at OBC prepared for installation. Coates and his team did most of the dirty work themselves – digging trench drains, building coolers, and performing other industrial tasks. It takes a lot of hard work to open a brewery, which is reflected in OBC’s slogan: Hard Work – Honest Beer.
Three 30-barrel fermentation tanks and a “bright” tank sat opposite the brewhouse in a single-file line. Once fermentation is complete, beer is moved into the bright tank for conditioning and packaging. Right now OBC focuses on distributing its beer in kegs to a select number of draft accounts. In Fayetteville, you can find Ozark at Maxine’s Tap Room, Tiny Tim’s Pizza, Mellow Mushroom, Jammin’ Java, and Table Mesa. In the future you will also find OBC at your favorite beer retailer – a canning line was purchased and will soon be put into production.
Ozark Beer Company’s philosophy on beer is somewhat unique in a market that is dominated by one-upmanship and big ABVs. Low alcohol brews called “session beers” define the brewery’s approach. “Session beers are great everyday beers that are easy drinking and satisfying, yet can still be complex and full of flavor and fit right into social drinking events,” said Coates. ”Low alcohol doesn’t have to mean low flavor, and the trend of making satisfying low alcohol beers is gaining popularity.” And somewhat counter-intuitively, session beers take a higher degree of brewing prowess since their flavors are not masked by multitudes of ingredients. “There is less to hide behind when making low alcohol beers, so that also serves as a challenge that makes all of us better at our craft.”
One of my favorite beers during Coates’ days at West Mountain Brewing was the IPA. I was excited to sample his IPA now that it was represented by his new brand. Poured into a standard glass, the beer was golden in color and crystal clear. The head was snowy white, and the aroma was full of fruity and floral character. The beer was slick and medium-bodied. While many IPAs are brewed with crystal malts that add sweet caramel flavors, OBC’s version is crafted with pale malt and a small amount of Munich malt. This combination provided just enough bready backbone to balance the brilliant union of Apollo, Nugget, and Bravo hops. Grapefruit, pine, and floral hop notes defined the flavor, yet the beer finished dry and clean without residual bitterness. At 5.5% ABV, this was a flavorful session beer that left this particular reviewer satisfied and wanting another.
There is a buzz surrounding Ozark Beer Company right now. “We couldn’t be happier with the reception that we have gotten here in Benton County,” said Coates. Good beer drinkers in Washington County are just as excited, with retail cans of OBC on the horizon. In a market that has seen an explosion in craft brewing – and a number of new breweries – hard work and honest beer provides a truly unique option.