2018 was a busy year in Arkansas beer. New breweries opened, existing breweries expanded, and the state’s brewers made some outstanding beers along the way.
Most of the breweries that opened this year are small in nature, and many are located in rural areas of the state. Crisis Brewing Co. got things rolling in Fayetteville back in April. Its tiny taproom — adjacent to Penguin Ed’s Bar-B-Que — has been selling a lot of Fayzed IPA ever since. Slate Rock Brewing launched in April as well. It calls tiny Amity, Arkansas (population 700) home. Another small-town brewery opened in June. Norfork Brewing Co. is situated near the lake in Baxter County that shares its name. Two breweries in Northwest Arkansas opened on the same day in September — Hawk Moth Brewery & Beer Parlor in Rogers and Ivory Bill Brewing Co. in Siloam Springs. And rounding out the year in new brewery openings, Six Mile Brewery set up shop in Ozark and Country Monks Brewing started brewing in Subiaco.
Expansion was the name of the game for several existing breweries. Rebel Kettle Brewing Co. signed a lease on more than 50,000 square feet of brewing space on 17th Street in east Little Rock. The plan is to shift production to the new facility and maintain the existing brewery and taproom for over-the-counter sales. Fossil Cove Brewing Co. in Fayetteville installed a new 20-barrel brewhouse a few doors down from its original location. The added capacity should help the maker of La Brea Brown and IPA #3 keep up with demand. And in December Bentonville Brewing Co. announced a return to its namesake town by breaking ground on a new 20,000-square-foot brewery and taproom. It hopes to make 8,000 to 10,000 barrels of beer once settled into the new location next year.
The news wasn’t all positive in 2018. In August it was learned that Saddlebock Brewery is for sale. Personal circumstances and rising input costs led owner to Steve Rehbock to seek a buyer for his 15-barrel brewhouse in Springdale. Downtown Fayetteville’s Hog Haus Brewing Co. shut its doors in October after 24 years in business (it opened as Ozark Brewing Co. in 1994). The new owners are thus far tight-lipped about the property’s future. Two Arkansas breweries are facing legal battles that may impact their future. Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville is untangling the interests of conflicted owners, and Blue Canoe Brewing Co. is doing the same in Little Rock. Rumors out of the capital city suggest that Blue Canoe, which started canning its beer earlier this year, recently halted brewing operations. Damgoode Pies appears to have stopped brewing as well.
On a more positive note, there was an uptick in quality beer made in the state this year. In May Lost Forty Brewing Co. won medals at the World Beer Cup for Double Love Honey and Wild Barrels #5. The Little Rock brewery, which opened in 2014, is currently the state’s top beer producer by volume. Also in May, Ozark Beer Co. in Rogers released another year’s edition of Barrel-Aged Double Cream Stout—or BDCS for short. Ozark was recently named the best craft brewery in Arkansas by Thrillist.
In other Arkansas beer news this year, Guy Fieri took his popular Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to North Little Rock to visit Flyway Brewing Co. Chef Georgina Jones showed off her pretzels and gumbo cheese fries in the episode. In September Core Brewing Co. announced that founder Jesse Core was stepping down as CEO in order to focus on investor relations and brand ambassadorship. The Springdale brewery also promoted two brewers — Ron Schmidt and Rodrigo Medina — to bigger roles in the brewhouse, and adjusted its lineup to focus on hoppier beers. And in a bittersweet turn of events, Josiah Moody left Bike Rack to revive his Moody Brews brand in Little Rock. He is currently using Vino’s as home base.
To round out the year, Arkansas brewers rallied to support Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and victims of the devastating Camp Fire. The revered Chico, California brewery provided the malt and hops for a traditional American-style IPA, with 100% of the proceeds from local sales going towards relief efforts. According to the Arkansas Brewers Guild, Gravity Brew Works, Superior Bathhouse Brewery, Diamond Bear Brewing Co., Fort Smith Brewing Co., Buffalo Brewing Co., and nine other state breweries signed up for the Resilience IPA project.
Speaking of the brewers guild, one of the biggest beer stories to break this year was the hiring of Sylvia Blain as its executive director. She is the first non-brewer to lead the Arkansas Brewers Guild, perhaps signaling the growing importance and influence of the industry.
With that in mind, we’ll wrap up the year in Arkansas beer with a Q&A with Blain. Here she talks about her background, the state of the industry, and what she hopes to accomplish in the year ahead.
Q&A with Arkansas Brewers Guild Executive Director Sylvia Blain
Sylvia Blain / Courtesy photo
Where are you from and what is your professional background?
I’m originally from Fort Worth, Texas, but I have lived in Arkansas for over 20 years now. I have been heavily involved in the non-profit world and have done a lot of consulting and policy work — mostly around food systems, farm-to-school policy, organizing farmers, and working to build local markets in the community for farm products.
I went back to school as an adult, after a divorce in my thirties. At that point I was already involved in food systems work. I was interested in the anthropology of food, but also the sociology and economics of food systems. I studied urban sociology and the culture of food, specifically.
In addition to the guild position, which is part-time, I also run a hunger relief agency called Potluck Food Rescue. We take rescued food and provide it to hunger relief agencies across central Arkansas. At this point we are distributing around 12,000 pounds of food each month.
You spent a few years as the executive director of the Dunbar Garden Project in Little Rock. How did your work there intersect with the brewing community?
In food systems work there are a lot of ingredients that local farmers are growing and sharing with brewers. At Dunbar we were testing different kinds of barley to see what would grow in Arkansas. We were also growing hops. And obviously the wild yeast project has been successful. Most of the breweries around here [in the Little Rock area] have at least one beer with the Dunbar wild yeast.
?How did the opportunity with the brewers guild come about?
It was a little bit of word of mouth. I’m a bit of a beer geek, and I’ve been friends with Henry [Lee] at Vino’s since almost the beginning of Vino’s. I’m also very close to Bill Riffle and Tony Guinn up at Gravity [Brew Works], and have attended many of the guild’s tap takeovers. Bill was very familiar with my background in non-profits, and when the opportunity came open he called me and said it was something I should consider.
What makes you a good fit for the position?
I should be able to use my skills in fundraising, event planning, and membership management to help the guild grow. I’m not from the beer industry, and I think it helps that I’m not biased and I’m not favoring one organization over another.
What are your first impressions of the state’s beer industry, given the fact you only have a couple of months under your belt as guild director?
The industry is absolutely growing here in Arkansas. I’ve heard people say things like, “the beer market is saturated.” Maybe it is in a particular area, but even here in Little Rock, all the breweries are downtown. When I go to west Little Rock there’s not a single brewery out there. There’s so much room for expansion in the state of Arkansas. South Arkansas could really use some coverage. But overall, the market is strong and getting stronger.
Have you been to all of the state’s breweries?
I have a map and I’ve been marking them off my list. I’m going to do my best to get around and see them all. Membership breweries are my priority, but I want to stop at all of the breweries whether they’re members or not. I’m really interested in getting up to Siloam Springs. I haven’t really hit Rogers yet, and I need to do that. It should take me several days to take the Northwest Arkansas tour.
What’s it like working with professional brewers?
I’m really impressed with the brewers and their teams and their ability to get things done with limited resources. They remind me of farmers in that way. I’m also learning that brewers are not unlike farmers in that they are disorganized and not that interested in becoming organized. They are very independent-minded and very “DIY.” That’s why we love them and that’s why they’re successful at what they do. But it’s also why it’s difficult managing them.
How healthy is the guild’s membership, and what are your goals for the year ahead?
Right now, we have 28 members [out of nearly 40 active breweries], so we’re doing pretty well. Since I’m new to this industry, I’m not really sure how that compares to other states. I think the reason that some of the breweries are not members is a lack of organization. You know, they joined, didn’t see a benefit, and dropped. I am assessing where we are and setting some solid goals on where we need to be. The first year for me will be shoring up the events and making them more lucrative for us, adding an educational component through the state brewers conference, and building our membership base through allied-affiliate and brewer members. I’m expanding the tap takeovers to include a membership meeting. And I’ll work closely with our lobbyist to help make sure the industry is protected in Arkansas.