Former Joseph Knoble Brewery building, Third Street, Fort Smith / CC 2.0, Valis55
The beer industry in Northwest Arkansas has skyrocketed over the last several years. Since 2011 there have been at least a dozen breweries open for business. And with only one or two exceptions, they have all been wildly successful.
Brewing is also becoming big business in other parts of the state. Little Rock is home to a bunch of new breweries – including Lost Forty, the state’s biggest brewer by volume – and smaller towns like Bonnerdale, Hot Springs, and Paris are seeing some brewing action, too.
It’s easy to think that beer has always gone gangbusters in our state, but things haven’t always been so bubbly for Arkansas brewers.
Only a handful of breweries operated in Arkansas prior to Diamond Bear Brewing Co.’s debut in 2000. At the time there was Vino’s in downtown Little Rock and Ozark Brewing Company in Fayetteville – both brewpubs that catered to onsite consumption. Diamond Bear’s arrival was significant because it marked the first time that an Arkansas brewery put most of its resources into packaging its beer for off-premise sales.
There was another brewery down in Fort Smith in the early 90s. Wiedman’s Old Fort Brewery opened in the former Joseph Knoble Brewery in 1992. Revered beer writer Michael Jackson traveled through Arkansas in 1997 and wrote that the “nutty, chocolatey, dry” Danny Boy Stout was his favorite of the brewery’s offerings. Unfortunately Wiedman’s closed shortly after Jackson’s visit.
A deeper look into the history books yields very little documentation of the state’s early brewing industry. But according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, at least two breweries operated in the state before Prohibition. German immigrant Joseph Knoble ran his aforementioned brewery in Fort Smith from 1848 to 1881, and Little Rock Brewery was open until the national ban on alcohol went into effect in 1920.
The Joseph Knoble Brewery is particularly noteworthy because the building still stands in downtown Fort Smith (422 N. 3rd Street). It represents some of the city’s oldest surviving architecture, and is a likely example of the kind of breweries in Knoble’s hometown of Wittenberg, Germany.
In 1971 an application was submitted to include the old brewery on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wortz family had restored the property to a close semblance of its former self, complete with brewing equipment (it served as a museum for many years). The application describes in great detail the layout of the brewery and how the brewing process worked from end-to-end.
Knoble built the three-story stone structure into the side of a hill. Brewing operations – including malting, mashing, boiling, and fermentation – were carried out on the third floor. From there beer was sent to kegs on the second floor. To keep the kegs cool they were stored in an underground “beer vault” next to the brewery. In the winter ice was chipped from the Arkansas River and stored there, too. As noted in Wortz’ application, the historical significance of the brewery is how it “…illustrate[s] the mechanics of an early Arkansas industry, or craft.”
Should we credit the Wortz family for coining the term “craft” to describe small batch brewing? Maybe, maybe not; but they can most certainly be acknowledged for restoring the building that once housed the entirety of the Arkansas brewing industry. The Joseph Knoble Brewery is currently home to popular steak chain Doe’s Eat Place.
Researchers recently discovered another early 19th-century brewery during preparations for the Historic Arkansas Museum’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Like Joseph Knoble in Fort Smith, brothers Alexander and Henry George originally hailed from Germany. It wasn’t long after their arrival that the George Brothers opened a beer garden at the current site of the Acxiom office building in downtown Little Rock (601 E. 3rd Street). According to an Arkansas Gazette story in 1841, they brewed their own beer for their new “biergarten.”
It’s tempting to view Arkansas beer as a new phenomenon. The number of breweries has grown from just three in 2000 to a total of 31 across the state today (with upwards of ten looking to start production soon). That’s tremendous growth over a relatively short period of time! Step back and look at the total picture, however, and you will see that Arkansas’ brewing industry is much older than you might think.