Despite the threat of rain last Saturday, craft beer enthusiasts came out in droves for the first annual Arkansas Stout Brewing Championship on the downtown Fayetteville’s square. Fortunately the forecast didn’t pan out.
“God spared us today,” declared event organizer Don Brown. “The rain held off and we have excellent weather.”
The contest – which named winners in professional and amateur categories – was one of several events associated with St. Patrick’s Day on the Hill. A parade around the square and along Dickson Street took place earlier in the day.
A beer garden on the East Avenue section of the square served as command central for the brewing contest. Inside “Craft Beer Village” ales were poured by the brewers themselves. Situated under tents, they served the stouts entered in the day’s competition – along with other brews brought simply for the crowd’s enjoyment.
People streamed into the beer garden throughout the day. Over 600 wristbands were sold, but Brown estimated another 400 people were outside the garden area enjoying the traditional Irish music played from atop a nearby flatbed trailer.
Ozark Beer Company’s Jeff Baldwin was impressed with the crowd. “We didn’t think it would be this big of a turnout,” he admitted.
Baldwin and partner/brewmaster Andy Coates brought their Cream Stout and poured samples for thirsty craft beer fans. The response was overwhelming.
“They liked the balance,” said Baldwin, “the subtle sweetness to it.”
Other area brewers at the competition included Apple Blossom, Core, Fossil Cove, Saddlebock, and West Mountain. Their individual entries ranged from one end of the stout spectrum to the other. Java, oatmeal, chocolate, Irish – each brewer brought something unique.
Saddlebock brought three stouts for festival goers to sample – Java Stout, Chocolate Stout, and a basic stout that served as the foundation recipe for the other two. Owner and brewmaster Steve Rehbock was surprised when his basic stout was named winner of the brewing competition.
“I was really shocked,” he said. “I was hanging out talking to somebody, and when they announced it I just lit up.”
The only brewery in attendance from outside Northwest Arkansas was Stone’s Throw Brewing Company, which made the three-hour drive from the state’s capital city.
“I’m actually a Fayetteville native,” said co-owner Ian Beard. “We have a pretty good stout so we decided to come on up.”
Stone’s Throw has only been open since August, but like its counterparts in NWA has seen success come fast and furious.
“We averaged about nine barrels a month out of our tap room through December,” said Beard. “And we’re doing 19 barrels a month now – it’s exploding.”
The winner in the amateur category was Jeff Harrison of Russellville. His oatmeal stout – aged in a whisky barrel obtained from a friend at Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock – was met with high praise from judges.
Poster: Bryce Parker Harrison
“They said it was worthy of commercialization,” said event organizer Don Brown.
A home brewer with eight years of experience, Harrison didn’t immediately know his beer had won.
“I wasn’t there when they announced it,” he said, laughing. “I was at Hugo’s eating a burger! But I was really excited when I found out.”
Harrison said he hopes to see the competition expand in the years ahead.
“I thought it was a lot of fun, a great festival,” he told me. “But as big as the Craft Beer Village was, it couldn’t hold many more people.”
Saturday’s attendance numbers certainly suggest the event has potential for growth.
“In a few years this will be bringing people in from other states,” said professional champion Steve Rehbock.
Brown was also optimistic when asked about the future.
“Next year we will take another street,” he said. “You’ve heard of a tap takeover? Next year will be the square takeover.”