Three years ago, there were four craft breweries in Arkansas. Three in Little Rock — Boscos, Diamond Bear and Vino's — and Hog Haus in Fayetteville. Today, there are 17, and at least two more expected to open sometime in the coming months.
What's triggered the boom? "I think Arkansas is catching up with the rest of the world," said John "Bonz" Rogers, retail manager for Diamond Bear, the 13-year-old craft brewery that'll soon move to an expanded brewing facility in North Little Rock. Then there's social media and the general reach of the Internet for promoting craft beer culture. Perhaps no one locally is more prominent in that arena than John "The Beer Snob" Wells, who's been sending out a bi-weekly e-newsletter on craft beer culture in Central Arkansas for 10 years. When he started, Wells said, there were only three or four really good craft beers available for purchase in the area. Now there are hundreds.
His anecdotal experience reflects a national trend. Overall, the U.S. beer market is relatively stagnant. From 2011 until 2012, across all categories, domestic and import, the market only grew .6 percent, according to the Beverage Information Group. But craft beer is exploding. From the same period, the craft beer segment of the industry grew by 14.6 percent.
Despite Arkansas's recent growth spurt, Wells thinks Arkansas is still lagging behind much of the rest of the country. "If we doubled the number of breweries in the state, they'd sell every beer they made." Asheville, N.C., should be a target, Wells said. The city of 86,000 and 16 craft breweries markets itself as "Brewtopia."
Matt Foster knows firsthand the divide in culture. The proprietor of one of Arkansas's newest breweries, Flyway Brewing, moved from Asheville to Little Rock more than 15 years ago. When Foster travels back to Asheville, he sees what Little Rock and Arkansas brewing could be.
In the coming weeks, beer from Foster's Flyway Brewing will be on tap at bars and restaurants around Central Arkansas. Foster teaches English and creative writing full time at Central High School and has no plans to quit anytime soon, so all of his brewing will be done in his spare time. Initially, he plans on brewing one barrel (30 gallons) of beer a week to divide into six pony kegs to sell to bars and restaurants. Flyway might be the smallest commercial brewery in the state, but Foster's vision is big: He's hoping to spark the cultivation of all the necessary elements to brew beer using only Arkansas ingredients. Already, his Flyway brews use Cascade and Nugget hops grown at Dunbar Community Garden.
Last week, he assembled a small meeting at the Dunbar garden to discuss sowing the seeds of Arkansas beer independence with Jason Kelley, an agronomist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension service who specializes in wheat and feed grains, and an assortment of Central Arkansas urban farmers. The farmers had agreed to grow an acre and a half of barley selected by Foster and Kelley. They'll plant later this winter and harvest in the spring; Kelley will do crop-yield testing.
Foster calls his brewery a pico-brewery. His beer won't be available for purchase directly. Flyway doesn't have any retail space. Foster doesn't even have his own brewing space; he shares a commercial kitchen in the basement of Quapaw Towers building with Loblolly Creamery and someone starting up a juice business.
A pico-brewery is a step down in size from a nano-brewery, which is what Stone's Throw Brewing is considered. The Ninth Street brewery is run by four guys with other jobs; together, they manage to pump out enough beer to supply their small tap room and local restaurants. That's a model Central Arkansas upstarts Rebel Kettle and Dog Towne Brewing Co. hope to soon emulate.
A step up from nano-brewery is micro-brewery. There aren't any hard and fast rules to the designations, but in Arkansas there are clearly two big dogs, Diamond Bear and Springdale's Core Brewing & Distilling Co., which distribute beer throughout the state and region; an upstart in Rogers, Ozark Beer Co., which just launched and plans on eventually distributing its canned beer throughout the state, and a handful of brewpubs and smaller, hobby operations.
Whatever the size, Arkansas's brewers are smaller than the big players in the industry.
"Anheuser Busch has brew tanks big enough to fit a city inside," beer snob Wells said. "It's only a matter of time until someone starts making really good beer in huge volumes. But right now the door is wide open for the entrepreneur."