The nationwide explosion of craft beer has become increasingly evident in central Arkansas. Of course, there were the pioneers of Little Rock. Diamond Bear Brewing Co. and Vino’s Brewpub are not only the longest-serving brewers in central Arkansas, but they also both laid the foundation that made this recent craft beer boom possible. It was through their work that the state of Arkansas passed the Native Brewery Act of 2003, allowing beer makers to sell and distribute their beer to restaurants without using a distributor, sell beer out of their own taprooms and open for business Sundays.
Still, it was 10 years after that until the second wave of craft beer in central Arkansas hit. That’s when Stone’s Throw Brewing opened its doors on Ninth Street near MacArthur Park. Fellow nanobrewery Blue Canoe Brewing Co. followed suit downtown, and Yellow Rocket Concepts’ Lost Forty Brewing made arguably the biggest splash yet, selling cans of its beer in grocery stores in addition to a robust, popular kegged lineup.
Almost a year has passed since then without a new brewery opening in the Little Rock area. But don’t let that convince you that the craft beer scene has stagnated. In reality, a third wave of brewers is busy working behind the scenes right now, and the number of breweries in central Arkansas is set to at least double in the next couple of years. Finally, Little Rock is about to experience the real surge in local beer that so many cities around the country have already enjoyed.
In less than three years, Little Rock’s beverage scene has more than tripled in size. What was once two solid local breweries has grown to at least seven beer makers, a distillery and two wineries. And with even more beer and wine planned for 2016, central Arkansas is quickly crafting its own identity in the world of craft beverages. Such a rapidly evolving landscape naturally creates a support structure, and both Little Rock brewers and winemakers back one another fiercely.
Seeing the impact this revolution can have on the city’s economy and culture, Little Rock and North Little Rock leaders have also come together with a program to help these businesses stay vibrant. The collaboration between the two’s convention and visitors bureaus is called Locally Labeled.
“It’s our beverage tourism product for the greater Little Rock area,” says Gretchen Hall, CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s highlighting all of our local adult-beverage makers, including the breweries, distillery and the winery.”
Locally Labeled is a unique incentive program that encourages customers to visit all of the city’s drink manufacturers. Visitors can pick up a passport at the visitors bureau, or any of the participating businesses, and collect stickers at each location they make a purchase. Once they get seven unique stickers, customers can turn in the passport for a free Locally Labeled sandstone coaster that isn’t available for sale. Visit all 10 businesses, and you get a special Locally Labeled T-shirt and a discount on other merchandise.
“We hope this raises the awareness of central Arkansas as a wonderful tourism destination,” Hall says. “And we also want our local residents to learn more about these makers and all of our local business here.
“Our culinary scene here in the greater Little Rock area is really growing and expanding, and our beverage scene is a big part of that. Ale trails are popular across the country. Kentucky has their bourbon trails, and we’re lucky enough to have all three in this area.”
At the Locally Labeled kickoff event Oct. 15, the buzz was noteworthy, with hundreds of people showing up to get a taste of the craft beer and wine available in the city (spirits were not permitted at the event). And while the program is now only two weeks old, breweries in the Little Rock area have already noticed a difference.
“In the program’s first weekend, we’ve seen a trend of people starting at the bigger breweries and then making their way to smaller operations,” Stone’s Throw Brewing co-owner Ian Beard says. “If this trend continues, the Locally Labeled program will be a great way to connect the dots in the local brewery scene, showcasing the close proximity and variety of places to visit in Pulaski County. Hopefully, this will continue to grow the central Arkansas alcohol industry by creating more demand for local choices.”
That potential for increased demand is something that has city leaders excited for ideas like Locally Labeled. The hope is that the heightened interest will spark economic growth, both from locals and tourists.
“Little Rock is unique as a destination, and we want to continue to make it that way,” Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola says. “So whether its food or unique craft beer, we want to encourage that. And it’s one of my jobs as mayor is to continue that progress. You know, whether it’s the creative corridor on Main Street or the technology corridor, or whether it’s all the wonderful restaurants and microbreweries. It all creates that wonderful experience. People want to live in a place with a good quality of life, and this really helps that.”
While Locally Labeled is starting with 10 businesses, there are already plans in place to expand in the coming years, both in terms of adding new beverage companies and making changes based on how well the program is able to succeed.
“We have two more breweries and another winery that are in the works,” Hall says. “As soon as those get opened, we’ll have new iterations of the passport printed. We’re interested to see how many people participate and actually redeem those passports, and then we’ll take it from there.”
Currently, there are 10 participating businesses in the Locally Labeled program:
Blue Canoe Brewing Co.
Damgoode Pies River Market
Diamond Bear Brewing Co.
An Enchanting Evening Winery
Lost Forty Brewing
Refined Ale Brewery
River Bottom Winery at BoBrook Farms
Rock Town Distillery
Stone’s Throw Brewing
You can pick up a passport at any of these businesses or the River Market’s Ottenheimer Hall. To redeem the passport, go to Shop the Rock in Oppenheimer Hall. You must be 21 or older to participate, and only one prize per completed passport will be awarded. For more information on Locally Labeled, go to littlerock.com.
The next brewery to open in the area will likely be Flyway Brewing in North Little Rock. Construction is nearly complete on the Maple Street location, brewing equipment has been installed, and the taproom is quickly coming together. Co-owners Matt Foster and Jess McMullen both got their first beer-making experience in Asheville, North Carolina’s massive craft beer market and plan to bring a little of that culture to central Arkansas.
“We saw the Asheville scene blow up; we were there in school when Highland [Brewing Co.] first got started,” McMullen says. “We started by making recipes and seeing if people liked them. We gave away a lot of beer. And people did. So we started a second phase, getting our permitting and see what it’s like to sell commercially. And that led to the third phase, which is this, and we decided that if that happened, I would move out here with my family.”
If there’s any one thing that is going to separate Flyway from other breweries, it’s the owners’ plans to make the taproom as family-friendly as possible. Both McMullen and Foster have children, and they are determined to make Flyway a place everyone can enjoy.
“Everybody has different opinions about what a tasting room should be like, and the places that I went to in North Carolina, Asheville and Charlotte, were extremely family-friendly places,” McMullen says. “It doesn’t mean that kids were running around screaming, but kids were welcome along with their parents. And that’s what we want. So we want to have a couple of special sodas on tap that we make in addition to the beer, like root beer, sarsaparilla and cream sodas.”
Flyway will feature a small front patio that’ll seat about 20 people, along with a relaxed taproom that can hold roughly 70. The bar will feature 12 taps, 10 of which will be used for Flyway beer and other brews from around town. The other two are reserved for specialty sodas.
Flyway’s 10-barrel system is nearly operational in the back of a building that used to be a pool hall and a BF Goodrich. McMullen says the team hopes to be brewing beer in the next couple of weeks. Already, the walk-in coolers are running, lighting is installed, and the building’s HVAC is humming along. Flyway has begun selling some of its beer at Little Rock restaurants and will continue that part of its business after the taproom opens.
“It remains to be seen how much we’ll sell out of the taproom,” McMullen says. “But we are going to keg and wholesale. We’ll be ready in the brewery before we’re ready in the front [of house]. So no matter what, we’ll be able to distribute. We just don’t know how much yet.”
Also nearing completion is Flyway’s kitchen, which will be making food specifically designed to pair with the brewery’s own beers. McMullen doesn’t want to reveal any particulars about the menu just yet but promises something that will be unique to Flyway.
“Whatever we do food-wise, it’s going to be about the beer,” McMullen says. “So for example, if we wanted to sell $2 cups of chili in February, it’s going to be small, and it’s going to be all about the beer.”
An undertaking as massive as opening a brewery requires a lot of support. Speaking on what would become a common theme among many breweries, McMullen says that Flyway has benefited tremendously from a helpful craft beer community in central Arkansas.
“There’s a brotherhood and sisterhood in brewing that is consistent throughout the country, and it’s here in Little Rock, as well,” McMullen says. “Little Rock’s in its infancy still; there’s a lot of room for more craft beer here. And we’ve been over at Stone’s Throw, those guys helped us with our glycol lines and washing out our kegs. Russ [Melton] at Diamond Bear has been a big help. Lost Forty helped with our grease trap. I really love the brewing community here, and I hope it stays that way because there’s plenty of room for everybody.”
Given the progress of construction and getting final approvals, McMullen is anticipating the brewery being open by this winter.
Flyway Brewing beers (others planned):
Migrate pale ale
Free Range brown ale
Early Bird IPA
Shadow Hands stout
Rebel Kettle Brewing
It doesn’t take long talking to Rebel Kettle Brewing head brewer John Lee before you realize this brewery won’t be satisfied making just another beer.
“We wanted to build a brewery centered around, you know, not your average beer,” says Lee, who has been making beer off and on for 20 years. “We wanted to create something a little different. And that’s where the name comes from, Rebel Kettle. We wanted to create a rebellion against the average beer.”
The building that will become Rebel Kettle’s home is on Sixth Street, just yards from Lost Forty Brewing and Yellow Rocket’s headquarters. And while the two companies share an obvious passion for beer making, their approaches vary drastically.
“The styles of beer that I do aren’t always styles,” Lee says. “They’re kind of off the wall. I add things to beer that wouldn’t normally be there. Some work. Some don’t. And that’s kind of what the focus is here, is to kind of have our mainstay beers — we’ll do that. But we also want to be there for the people who like something creative, something different.”
Rebel Kettle has seemingly been just months away from opening for a year now, with multiple minor setbacks lengthening the amount of time needed to get the business going. The brewery’s team purchased the building toward the beginning but couldn’t begin construction until the city approved the plans. That took almost eight months.
“It’s finally coming along pretty well,” Lee says. “There might be a little hold up with licensing, and we’ll deal with that. But as soon as that comes in, it’s a go.”
Still, looking around the building, it’s easy to see the light at the end. The brewing equipment itself is in place, a full seven-barrel system behind a set of glass doors easily visible from the taproom. The bar area is adjacent to three garage doors, which roll up to what will be a massive beer garden area outside.
“This is really what sold us on this place,” Lee says. “It’s big. It’s naturally shaded by the roof, so even when it’s a little warmer, it’s going to be a lot better than it would be somewhere else.”
A small kitchen will create a limited menu for guests, but the most impressive feature at Rebel Kettle is the bar, which will feature 16 taps. That would make Rebel Kettle home of one of the largest selections of craft beer in any Little Rock brewery. But lest you think Lee and his team aren’t ambitious enough in just getting the place open, those taps will all be dedicated to Rebel Kettle beer from day one.
“I guess the tricky part is doing that on opening day,” Lee says. “But I really want to, and I think I can do it. I think, given four to six weeks, I can do it.”
Right now, Rebel Kettle is getting its licensing in order and finishing up construction. And once again, the business looks like it’s just a few months away from opening. But Lee and his team are eagerly looking forward to putting their own unique stamp on Little Rock’s beer scene.
“[Little Rock] is in a great place right now,” Lee says. “Two and a half years ago, we had Vino’s and we had Diamond Bear. And now, it’s nuts.
“The support from the community has been amazing since our first Rocktoberfest two years ago. It’s hard to believe, you know, just from a festival and a Facebook page, that suddenly people were asking us when we were opening. And now, we’re looking to churn out some really good beers and hopefully set the mark, change things up a little bit.”
Rebel Kettle Brewing beers (others planned):
Mango Habanero IPA
Wake and Flake Coffee and Coconut Cream stout
Orange Creamsicle ale
Leap of Faith Brewing
Sometimes, owning a brewery is about more than just the beer, as Leap of Faith’s Joe Mains can attest. A retired military man, Mains fell in love with beer making and, like so many other brewers, began making his product just for drinking at home.
“The whole process is so much like cooking and science, biology, all wrapped into one,” he says. “I love the whole process of making beer. I’m amazed that you can take grain and turn it into beer. It still amazes me every time I make it. I get excited like a little kid every time I see the air lock bubble, and I’m still like that. It’s a live thing.”
The love of brewing alone kept Mains working at his craft for years. Then a few friends got a taste, and Leap of Faith Brewing, complete with its jumping monk logo, suddenly started seeming like a real possibility.
“People kept saying, ‘You need to sell this,’” Mains says with a chuckle. “It was just a hobby, so I kept saying no. But then I did a beer fest with Central Arkansas Fermenters, and a friend came up and asked when he could sell my beer in his bar. And that’s when I decided, you know, maybe I could do this.”
Mains is the only person that every other brewer in this piece mentioned when asked about the support they received from other central Arkansas beer makers, a testament to his passion for brewing and for his outsized heart. If that sounds a little too congratulatory of Mains, just ask him about his plans for his brewery.
“What I want to do is do great things with great beer,” Mains says. “I want to pay the bills, of course, for the brewery, break even and then give the rest away. That would make me most happy.
“I don’t want to be like a Lost Forty or Diamond Bear. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; they are great guys and have helped me out a lot. But I want to keep it small and do some good stuff with the proceeds. There are a lot of organizations that need help.”
Mains doesn’t have one particular charity he works with, instead opting to spread his success among many worthy causes, including The Van, the Humane Society of Pulaski County and the Arkansas Foodbank. He also says that when he opens, he plans on special events where each tap corresponds with a different charity.
Speaking of opening, Mains says he had something special planned for a location that hadn’t been done before in Arkansas. However, at that moment (keep reading), he wasn’t willing to tell me what it was. He did, however, talk about the obstacles every brewer faces in starting up.
“Money is always the hardest thing, the biggest challenge,” Mains says. “That and just finding a space and getting started. Licensing takes a little while, but money is always the biggest challenge.
“Crowdfunding has greatly helped the craft beer industry. There are a lot of breweries that wouldn’t otherwise be in existence without those sites. I’m going to do a Kickstarter eventually.”
No matter the work he has to put in, Mains says he believes it’s all going to be worth it.
“Craft beer in Arkansas right now is amazing; it’s an amazing time to be in this business. What makes it most fun to be a brewer in this state, and this is especially true in central Arkansas, is the collaboration. We all like each other; we’re all friends; we all brew together. It’s really a special thing, it’s unlike any other business I’ve ever been in.”
Leap of Faith beers:
Righteous Indignation (Belgian ale with honey)
Ridge’s Rye (red rye IPA)
My Beautiful Steph Hefe (traditional German hefeweizen)
Blood Eagle Brewing and Taproom
It was two days after I had spoken to Leap of Faith that I visited the guys behind Blood Eagle Brewing and Taproom, who had just wrapped up a meeting with their attorney about getting their brewery started. They were understandably excited; they had recently secured their location in the large garage behind Hancock Staffing on Fourth Street in North Little Rock. But that was only one reason for the excitement. The big reveal was hinted at as I drove up and spotted none other than Mains hanging out with the group.
“We have Joe here, and we’re going to go in together,” co-founder Joe Bartsch says. “Two breweries, one location. Joe is a great person. We met him through the festival scene, and it was one of those things where as soon as we talked, we realized that this could work. It’s hard to have a conversation with Joe and not be completely on board.”
The plan is for Blood Eagle and Leap of Faith to share the space and brewery, in effect splitting time among the brewing equipment, though each brewery will have its own fermenters. It’s perhaps the most striking example of the collaboration and community spirit that is so pervasive among brewers in central Arkansas.
“Monks and Vikings have a long history against each other,” Bartsch says with a smile. “So we’re thinking that maybe this can be the way we bury the hatchet. We can play off that notorious history and make something special here.”
“We all like each other; we all get along; we’re all friends,” Mains says. “It’s just the collaborative spirit with all the brewers, that’s what makes it worthwhile to me. I enjoy that more than anything.”
Blood Eagle is the business concept of five bikers whose rough-and-tumble appearance can be intimidating at first. Numerous tattoos and long beards only tell part of the story, though, and after just a few minutes of conversation, their passion for craft beer becomes unmistakable.
“We started as a group of beer drinkers called the ‘Beerzerkers,’” Blood Eagle’s Jared Davis says. “We actually brewed, Jay and Joey did, our first beer for a baby shower. Everyone came to the baby shower and said, ‘This beer is amazing!’ So we started brewing together and formed Blood Eagle out of this group.
“We had a group that was willing to back us if we contributed a certain amount. So we ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised $18,000, which was more than our goal. We have the equipment. We now have the building, and it’s time to work on our licensing.”
Blood Eagle plans on running a seven-barrel system that will allow it to keep its four flagship beers in stock, as well as run some more experimental brews. Currently, the group plans on a large taproom and patio area that will offer beer from the two breweries and a small food menu. In addition, Blood Eagle is looking into growing its own hops in an organic community garden area behind the brewery. But it’s the proximity to both Diamond Bear and Flyway that has the potential to create a true “hops district” in North Little Rock.
“We’ve spoken with those guys, and they’re really excited about us coming in and being a part of the beer community,” Davis says. “They’ve told us, if we need anything, just come ask. We’re all trying to really get this Argenta beer community going.”
Blood Eagle’s theme and decor plans harkens back to the days of the Vikings. Some of its original beer names referenced Norse mythology, and although those names are currently being refined, the spirit of the Vikings has already begun informing the group’s planning.
“We have an idea where we’d like to get a bus and paint it like a Viking ship and have raid parties,” Davis says. “Load all these people up with foam axes and helmets, and go ‘raid’ another brewery, you know, buy a bunch of beer and move on to the next one.”
“And that, along with Leap of Faith, it just shows we’re trying to support and draw attention to our beer scene,” Blood Eagle brewer Jay Ragsdale says. “This burst that we’re seeing now is awesome, and anything we can do to help with that, we’re ready.”
Look for Blood Eagle and Leap of Faith to begin renovation and construction soon, with an expected opening later in 2016.
Blood Eagle beers (unnamed):
Black rye IPA
Slate Rock Brewing
It’s possible there’s no brewery more unlikely than Slate Rock Brewing. It’s not because the owners lack passion or experience (they don’t), but rather because of its location. Owners and husband-and-wife team Orianne and Shawn Burgess are setting up their business in Amity. It’s a tiny Clark County town boasting fewer than 750 people at last census. Oh, and did you know Clark County just went wet less than five years ago?
“It’s a challenge, for sure,” Orianne says. “We’re not trying to make it big, so it’s just going to be simple, family-owned. If we have anybody else work for us, it’ll be close friends.
“It’ll just be a hometown spot. During the summertime, you have your river floaters and campers and fishermen who will be customers. But really, we’re just trying to appeal to the local crowd and turn them into craft beer drinkers.”
The two also come from uncommon brewing roots. Shawn is a contractor; Orianne, a painter who runs a rural mail route. But they both got the brewing bug just a year after getting married.
“It was an anniversary present to each other, our first anniversary, just a little brewing kit,” Orianne says with a laugh. “And we did it for a couple of years. Then we went to Mexico, where a friend of ours is a brewer, and he asked Shawn to help out. And Shawn said, ‘We can do this!’”
Work has already begun on Slate Rock Brewing, with the foundation dug out and formed on some property belonging to Orianne’s parents. Shawn’s skills and connections mean the family will be doing most of the building themselves, except where the state requires professional work, such as with the plumbing.
Still, building a brewery is an expensive proposition. Slate Rock has started a Kickstarter fundraising project with a goal of reaching $16,000 by Nov. 16. As of press time, donations totaled a little more than $1,000.
“We know the local economy isn’t that great,” Orianne says. “We’re not trying to make a million dollars. But it’ll hopefully help everybody here see that beer isn’t a bad thing.”
As for the brewery, the Burgesses plan to operate a 10-barrel system, capable of putting out 310 gallons of beer a week (though they will likely operate under capacity until the product takes off). Slate Rock is not planning on offering any food, though the owners do want to partner with area restaurants for a takeout and delivery program. The Burgesses will also be kegging their beer to sell to restaurants, including several that reached out to them at Arkadelphia’s Arktoberfest celebration.
Slate Rock likely won’t be ready to go until late 2016, but that’s not keeping people from getting excited.
“In Amity, the mayor wants to see this happen. He says we need some good beer here,” Orianne says. “And the guy with city water and sewer has been very helpful. All the breweries we’ve talked to have been super helpful with any information we needed. We’re working together with Blood Eagle, Superior in Hot Springs, also Bubba Brews has been friendly and helpful.”
As for the name?
“I had 20 names written down that hadn’t already been taken, and [Shawn] picked that one,” Orianne says. “We live in the woods; we live next to a creek and a slate pit, so the area is slate. Of course, it would be the hardest logo to draw.”
Slate Rock beers (unnamed):
For Caleb Looney, beer making is about more than just the brewing chemistry and process. It’s about a more holistic experience, part of a complete strategy of relaxation and self-improvement. That’s the key to Asana Alehouse, which looks to become one of the country’s first brewery-and-yoga-studio businesses.
“At Asana, we have a yoga philosophy on brewing. We like to experiment a lot but kind of keep it formulaic,” says Looney, the brewery’s owner. “We keep working on the same recipes over and over, like you would with a yoga pose. We also want to offer yoga classes and offer some experimental beers that cater to the specific class. So we want to do yoga and have a pint afterward.”
It’s an interesting approach that combines Looney’s two biggest passions. Like many brewers, Looney started making beer at home early on. But like everything else in his life, Looney’s efforts at brewing were hampered by some medical problems. That got him started with yoga.
“I have two herniated discs in my back. I had a lot of pain all the time, and I heard that yoga could help alleviate the pain,” he says. “And it did. My back almost never gives me pain anymore. I kind of fell in love with it. I went from being in constant pain to being an active person again.”
While Looney kept refining his beer making skills, he also received his yoga instructor certification three years ago. It’s an experience that has informed much of his future planning (“asana” is a yoga term for a pose).
As for the brewery, Looney ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in the summer, raising $15,000 to get Asana started. With funding in hand, Looney is actively shopping locations in North Little Rock, hoping to take part in a craft beer surge there.
“It’s exploding right now; there are just so many breweries popping up, and everybody is really friendly, open to giving advice and helping us find a spot,” Looney says. “One of my favorite is Blood Eagle; they’re kind of the opposite of us, with the biker and Viking theme. I love those guys. We always have fun hanging out with them. Joe Mains is always helpful, too.”
Until he gets a location, Looney is taking a break from brewing for festivals to focus on business aspects with his wife, Alisyn Reid, and giving out Kickstarter rewards for those who donated. He hopes for the brewery to be open sometime next year.
Asana Alehouse beers:
Fiery Ginger (an adult ginger root beer)
Elderflower wheat (most popular so far)