Founded in 2013, Ozark Beer Co. has grown to become the second largest brewery by volume in the state of Arkansas.
According to numbers recently released by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, the Rogers brewery produced 5,003 barrels of beer in 2019.
This represents a 20% increase over the previous year’s output.
Little Rock’s Lost Forty Brewing Co. produced 14,238 in the same time period, claiming first place among Arkansas brewers.
Although the gap between first and second place is significant, Ozark is the clear leader among brewers in the northwest corner of the state. Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville trailed with 3,783 barrels, and Springdale’s Core Brewing Co. was the third largest brewer in Northwest Arkansas with 3,468 barrels of output.
2020 is shaping up to be the most challenging year on record for Arkansas brewers. The double-digit growth rates enjoyed by many will be hard to match once final numbers are tabulated for the year. COVID-19 has had an considerable impact on brewery output.
That said, the state’s breweries have implemented protocols to create safe environments for people interested in leaving lockdown for a pint or two.
Although the beginning of the pandemic was bumpy for Ozark (resulting in a precipitous drop in production volume and a temporary employee layoff), the brewery seemed to have regained its stride by mid-summer.
Fueling some of its resurgence has been a focus on small batch beers.
Small batch variety
Ozark has a well-known lineup of year-round beers. Its IPA, American Pale Ale, and Cream Stout are found on taps and shelves throughout Arkansas.
Craft beer enthusiasts love small batch releases, though. And in that category Ozark does not disappoint.
In this context, small batches are defined as those made in lesser volumes and with an expected run of only a few weeks. They may or may not be canned or bottled, and they may or may not be available outside of brewery taprooms.
The fact is that some of the most interesting beers made by modern breweries can only be found on draft and on premise.
Perhaps Ozark’s most well-known small batch beer is Bourbon Barrel-aged Double Cream Stout (BDCS). It is, of course, canned for limited distribution. Craft Beer & Brewing magazine rated the 2018 version a 99 out of 100, and the lines wrapping around the brewery on release day are legendary (the release of BDCS 2020 was a lowkey affair due to the ongoing pandemic).
Ozark releases a new small batch beer every three to four weeks on average, and they draw from the full spectrum of beer styles.
At any given time, you might find German Hefeweizens, Märzens, or Schwarzbiers on tap. Or you might see fruited sours, farmhouse ales, and various things aged in barrels.
Many recent small batch beers have taken a more hop-forward approach. They include Frost Hammer (a black IPA created by brewer Teddy Pepper), The Wizard (a west coast IPA), Idaho 7 Pale Ale, and 40 Miles from Denver (a “Colorado style” IPA).
Ozark marketing director Marty Shutter said he enjoys the year-round staples, but some of the small batch offerings are scratching his itch these days, especially one named for a mysterious country doctor.
“I’m a dork for our APA and lager,” he said. “But in the small batch world, I like a good strong beer right now. The Wizard reminds me of everything I liked when I was young and my dad was making beer. It’s velvety and has a good punch to it, but it’s not going to overwhelm anything you’re eating.”
The story behind the beer’s name was detailed in a recent Facebook post by the brewery. Its namesake, “The Wizard of Oto,” was an early 20th century figure who treated thousands of otherwise hopeless patients in southwest Missouri. He was arrested in 1933 for practicing medicine without a license (though nobody would come forward to testify against him). He died in Prairie Grove, Arkansas in 1946.
According to Shutter, the IPA bearing the name of this legendary healer (which boasts a hearty 7.2% ABV) serves as a sort of “strong country medicine” during these stressful times.
One of Ozark’s more recent small batch releases is Harvest Lager, a red lager made with rye and a big addition of American hops.
“It has about five times as much rye as we put in our pale ale,” said Shutter. “The brewers wanted that slight spiciness of the rye to dovetail with the Chinook hop, which is kind of spicy, too.”
As a part of its acclaimed “Highlands Series,” Ozark unveiled Peach Solar the week of Thanksgiving. It is a golden ale originally brewed in January 2019. After primary fermentation it was fermented again in pinot noir barrels with the assistance of a special kind of yeast called Brettanomyces. True to its name, Peach Solar was finished on 50 pounds of peaches.
Shutter said the next small batch releases will be Ozark’s newest blend of barrel-fermented Early Train (a golden ale) and the latest installment in the “Our Hazy Distant Youth” series of hazy IPAs (this version brewed with the Simcoe hop).
Growing inside the state and beyond its borders
Ozark’s slow-growth, demand-driven mentality led to a focus on reaching all corners of Arkansas before pursuing distribution opportunities outside the state.
The addition of equipment earlier this year—including a new centrifuge, an 80-barrel lagering tank, and various other brewing vessels—paved the way for expansion.
“Here in Arkansas, we increased from three to five SKUs, and in some places six,” said Shutter. “The new equipment also allowed us to introduce small batches for distribution and a new mixer pack [which includes twelve Ozark beers].”
The centrifuge—which separates solids from liquid beer by spinning them out of suspension—was a critical investment for Ozark. It leads to quicker turnaround times for batches, as well as more predictable and shelf stable beers. It replaces a more traditional filtration system that took longer and was less effective at doing the same job.
“Consistency is one of our most important priorities since we are in cans in stores year-round,” said Shutter. “The centrifuge is a huge component of creating that consistent outcome.”
It should be noted that not all of the beers from Ozark are clarified. Some are “unfiltered” based on the style or desired flavor and appearance of the finished product.
Hearing the constant cries for its beer from across the state line (which is just a few miles from the brewery’s front door), Ozark partnered with Missouri beer distributor Major Brands to enter a non-Arkansas market for the first time.
“Because of the increases we made inside the brewery to cover more of Arkansas, it gave us the space to make a little more for them,” said Shutter.
The distribution agreement doesn’t mean Ozark will be found in the Kansas City or St. Louis metros. Instead, Ozark and Major Brands will focus on nearby Joplin, Springfield, and Branson, effectively covering the portion of Missouri that shares an Ozark Mountain heritage with northern Arkansas.
Dealing with the present, but looking towards the future
Like everyone in the brewing industry, Ozark has been forced to adjust its operating plans this year.
The downward trend in the food service and entertainment industries means less beer is being sent to draft accounts and more beer is being canned for sale at package stores. Ongoing concerns of virus transmission require a laser beam focus on safety protocols in the taproom and brewhouse.
“We are trying to be as careful as possible,” said co-owner Lacie Bray. “For our customers, but also for our staff, who’s here working every day.”
Ozark recently invested in anti-viral UV lights for its HVAC system, and high-powered air purifiers for both levels of the taproom and the restrooms.
There are also plans to add additional patio seating along the side of the building that faces Arkansas Avenue, once the road construction that currently surrounds the brewery is complete.
Shutter, who is member of the Arkansas Brewers Guild’s board of directors, said he hopes some of the temporary rules that were put into effect at the beginning of the pandemic (online sales, direct-to-consumer deliveries, etc.) are made permanent by state legislators.
“Although there weren’t a lot of rules in place in the beginning, there wasn’t much opposition to them once they started taking shape,” he said.
As for the brewery’s immediate future, Shutter said balancing priorities is the name of the game.
“The question is…how do we remain safe, but still viable as a business?
Surviving in the current economic climate while preparing for multiple futures is the challenge for virtually every brewery in this era of COVID-19.
Fortunately for Ozark, its slow-growth mentality and willingness to adapt has it well-positioned for any future that might unfold.
Brewers guild selects leaders for 2021
The Arkansas Brewers Guild recently wrapped up its election for next year’s board of directors.
The 2021 leadership team is comprised of the following member brewery representatives:
President: Tony Guinn, Gravity BrewWorks (Big Flat)
Vice President: Omar Castrellon, Lost 40 Brewing (Little Rock)
Treasurer: Russ Melton, Diamond Bear Brewing Co. (North Little Rock)
Central Director At-Large: Megan Wylie, Stone’s Throw Brewing (Little Rock)
Northwest Director At-Large: Marty Shutter, Ozark Beer Co. (Rogers)
General Director At-Large: Wendy Reese Hartmann, Gotahold Brewing (Eureka Springs)
Executive Director Sylvia Blain said she is excited to work with the newly installed board. The guild intends to restart its strategic planning process after what has been a very challenging year for the industry.
“This year’s board is representative of an industry that is growing,” she said. “We have members from breweries of all sizes and representing many regions.”
A special election will be held next year to fill the vacant secretary role.
With the addition of Hartmann and Wylie to its board of directors, the Arkansas Brewers Guild now boasts four women in positions of leadership.