Ben Mills is living every home brewer’s dream. At just 27 years old, the Gravette native is the owner and brew master at one of northwest Arkansas’ most popular breweries. The beer at Fossil Cove Brewing Company is delicious and business is booming. “We’re growing really fast,” said Mills during a recent conversation in the brewery’s tasting room. “It’s crazy.”
Fossil Cove’s ascent has certainly been quick. It opened two short years ago in a part of town long known for aging warehouses (and one infamous men’s club). That particular section of Poplar Street – between Leverett and Gregg avenues – is gritty and urban. Most of the commercial growth was happening downtown and up near the Northwest Arkansas Mall. But then on June 2, 2012 Fossil Cove opened its doors, providing midtown Fayetteville the shot in the arm it so desperately needed.
The initial response was outstanding. The demand for craft beer was impossible to ignore, and restaurants and bars wanted to offer their patrons a local option. To handle all of the orders Mills bought new fermentation tanks just six months after opening, effectively tripling his brewing capacity.
Things were going well with draft accounts, but foot traffic in the tasting room – where visitors could enjoy the beer in its freshest form – was still relatively modest. Then in February of this year business in the tasting room spiked and never returned to previous levels.
Mills said all of the area breweries have seen an uptick in on-premise sales.
“It’s something I predicted would happen, based on my experience in other breweries,” he said. Before opening Fossil Cove, Mills lived out west – obtaining his brewing credentials at the University of California, Davis and working for a short time at a brewery in Silverton, Colorado. He knew what the model looked like done well, and he knew people in Fayetteville would flock to a local option.
“It’s kind of a cool thing to hang out where the beer is made,” he said.
Hanging out at the brewery
Fossil Cove’s tasting room is relatively small and straightforward. The beer is poured from behind a bar, and several tables are scattered throughout the room. Large windows provide line-of-sight into the brew house. The place was often shoulder-to-shoulder during the cold winter months, with folks filing in to drink the Oatty Stout, T-Rex Tripel, IPA #3, and other tasty Fossil Cove beers.
To provide more room for customers Mills and dedicated brewery employees Kort, Andrew, Tyler, and Megan spent the winter upgrading the patio area outside the tasting room. They built several picnic tables and added a dinosaur-shaped bike rack for people visiting the brewery via Scull Creek Trail. The patio has been extremely popular since warmer weather arrived. Food trucks park out front several nights a week, and the place takes on a festive tone.
Improvements are also planned for the inside. Bagged malt and other supplies currently stored in the brewery will be moved to make way for additional seating. Folks will soon sit in the shadows of the mash tun, boil kettle, and fermentation tanks that once contained the beer in their glasses. Mills plans to reconfigure the tables in the tasting room as well.
“We are effectively doubling our seating capacity, which is much needed,” he said.
One of the great things about Fossil Cove is how relaxed the atmosphere is on any given evening. It’s hard to describe the typical patron because the demographics are all over the board. Graduate students are in abundance, but so are blue-collar workers and white-collar professionals. Creative minds sit across the table from dirty finger nails, all drinking the same beer and talking about life in Fayetteville.
“There’s no judgment,” Mills said with obvious pride. “We don’t really have a target demographic. People who like craft beer are going to find us. There’s no class system here.”
Still a small brewery
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re still really small,” said Mills.
New fermentation equipment and a bigger brew house (10-barrel with more automation) are on the way, but Fossil Cove will still come up just short of 2,000 barrels per year in production capacity. In an industry that collectively produced 15.6 million barrels in 2013, that’s not even a blip on the brewing radar. And several northwest Arkansas brewers have grown faster and further in distribution reach in basically the same time that Fossil Cove has been open.
None of that bothers Mills, though. The pace of growth is just right for him. His partners are his parents, and they aren’t interested in being the biggest and baddest brewery in the market.
“The way things are rolling now, we’re doing a pretty good job of spending money when we have money,” said Mills.
The rise in craft brewing has made even the casual observer aware of the money that can be made in beer right now. Mills said he has been approached by people wanting to make an investment in the brewery. But he’s aware of the challenges associated with satisfying shareholders.
“Sometimes they aren’t willing to take a hit to treat the employees right, or they may not want to step up and make this cool beer because it costs extra and impacts margins,” he said.
At this point he is most comfortable calling all the shots. “We have the freedom to say ‘this isn’t working’ and change it without asking for anyone’s permission.”
The near term
Mills had hopes of bottling by now, but the rate that beer is flying out the door – to draft accounts or in the bellies of his patrons – has prevented that from happening. He said we can expect to see our favorite Fossil Cove beers in retail coolers when production catches up to demand and inventory is more predictable.
Fossil Cove will again play a prominent role at this weekend’s Fayetteville Foam Fest. Mills takes pride in the brewery’s participation in local beer events. It is one of the primary ways he markets his brand.
On May 16 the brewery will host a release party for Tapping the Ozarks, the documentary by University of Arkansas journalism students Danny Henkel and Alyssa Becker. Mills was interviewed for the film and figures to play a prominent role in the film.
Also look for a 2nd anniversary celebration sometime during the first week of June.
And, of course, day-to-day you can find Mills and his team at 1946 N. Birch Ave., making and serving some of the most delicious beer in northwest Arkansas. It’s well worth your time to stop in and pay them a visit.
Fossil Cove established its seasonal program last year with the introduction of Whizzle (a white IPA), Blizzle (a black IPA), and Winter Ale. When it was time to brew a spring seasonal, Mills decided to conduct a competition. He brewed two beers – a hoppy wheat and a session IPA – and whichever sold out first would be declared the winner and would be brewed in larger quantities for the spring. “Hoppy Wheat” was crowned champion and will grace the menu board at the brewery for the next several weeks.
I’ve had the Hoppy Wheat a few times already, and I must say that I really, really like it. It’s a crisp, “bright” beer that qualifies as a true thirst quencher. The hops really shine in this one, but it’s not overly bitter. Columbus and cascade hops provide a citrus characteristic that dances on top of a light malt base. Wheat beers and IPAs each have their merit, but Fossil Cove’s Hoppy Wheat is really the best of both worlds. It’s comparable to Boulevard’s 80 Acres but is considerably fresher tasting since it hits your glass days (not weeks or months) after it was brewed. Drink local, folks!
I don’t generally use a rating system in my reviews, but this one is as close to perfect as any local beer I’ve had to date.