Kenny Peden of Brick & Forge Brew Works Brian Sorensen

Kenny Peden is one outspoken fella.

To get a sense of where the Harrison beer brewer stands on controversial issues, just read his Twitter feed. He spends more time on social media pointing out social injustices than touting his beer. (And he makes great beer.)

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Just last week, Peden tweeted an open invitation to join him on the Bentonville square to protest the state’s 2021 anti-transgender legislation. Last summer he joined a march through Zinc, adopted hometown of the Ku Klux Klan, as a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. He has helped organize or publicize other protests in the region, using his Twitter feed to rally people to progressive causes.

I was drawn to Peden because of the multiple juxtapositions he embodies. For one, he’s a brewer in what was for decades a dry county. Booze was, historically, the devil in Harrison, and the county line was where you went to find him. Boone County went wet in 2010, but the memories of county line liquor runs are still fresh in many people’s minds.  

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But perhaps more peculiar is Peden’s status as a political progressive living in one of the state’s most conservative towns. There aren’t many pro-immigrant, pro-transgender rights, anti-fascist voices in Harrison. If there are, they aren’t loud voices. Nearly 70% of Boone County’s presidential vote went to Donald Trump. Peden tends to stick out like a sore thumb there.

Peden grew up in nearby Green Forest. He remembers when the first Hispanic students arrived at his school. They were cultural oddities in a sea of white faces. During high school, he got into the punk scene, but there weren’t a lot of punk kids in Green Forest, so he started hanging out in Fayetteville. He was introduced to “progressive people and ideas” at places like Clunk Music Hall.

Brian Sorensen

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After high school, Peden traveled the United States. He bummed around San Diego for a year, wearing out a skateboard in the process. He worked pipeline jobs for a while. He toiled in the fields of Wyoming, North Dakota and Pennsylvania before returning to Arkansas to be near his wife’s family.

Peden has been brewing beer at Brick Oven Pizza Co. since 2012. The pizza chain has 15 locations scattered across Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. The beer is licensed and sold under the Brick & Forge Brew Works name. Harrison isn’t the only location with an onsite brewery. The Paragould restaurant has a one-barrel system of its own. 

The Harrison store upgraded from a half-barrel SABCO brew magic system to a four-barrel setup about three years ago. It employs a basket that holds the grain mash, and a hoist to lift the mash and drain the wort into the same vessel. Homebrewers use a similar process called “brew in a bag.” Five fermenters and a conditioning tank round out the brewing kit.

According to the Arkansas Department of Finance, Peden produced 129 barrels of beer in 2019 (the most recent data available). That’s about as much beer as Crisis Brewing Co. in Fayetteville made that year, or a little less than 1% of the output from Little Rock’s Lost Forty Brewing Co. (the state’s biggest brewery by volume). Every drop is spoken for. “I don’t have any problems selling beer,” Peden said. Beer is sold onsite, and kegs are shipped to other Brick Oven locations across the state.

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It wasn’t like that in the beginning. Small-town Arkansas is notoriously light lager-oriented, and beer bought by the suitcase was (and still is) the norm. “People were standoffish because it was new,” said Peden. “But then they tried it and the beer started to take off.” 

A pale ale made with Cascade hops grew popular. Then people started asking for IPAs and stouts. Peden gets a thrill out of seeing light lager diehards switch to craft beer and never look back. “It means something to me personally because I created it,” he said. “It’s one of the best feelings in the world when people enjoy my beer.” 

Converting people to craft beer is important to Peden, but so, too, is helping his community convert to a more caring and inclusive place for people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ. Harrison has a reputation for being intolerant towards anyone not white, Christian and straight. How true that stereotype might be is hard to say. But it exists, and much of the outside world sees Harrison through that lens.

Peden said he was personally stirred to action after George Floyd’s death, which came at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May of last year. The Black Lives Matter movement that emerged from that incident found its way to Harrison, of all places. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate, Harrison is 94% white. Less than 1% of the town identifies as Black.

“I heard there was going to be a march on the square, so we went,” Peden said. “There were several hundred people there. We marched onto the square and there was a sea of people standing in opposition. They were carrying rifles, waving Trump flags and yelling ‘all lives matter’ at us.”

Peden said he used to think that Harrison wasn’t the prejudiced place it was made out to be. But his experience on the town square startled him. Racist attitudes and bigoted behavior can hide beneath the surface of social interactions, and the past few years of racial turmoil and heated political rhetoric have emboldened many in his community to air their grievances loudly. Last year’s viral video of a man holding a BLM sign in a Harrison Walmart parking lot serves as a case in point.   

“I would rather be around people who aren’t bigots,” Peden said. He’s had thoughts of leaving Harrison for a more tolerant place. “But there are also a lot of good people in Harrison,” he added, noting a small but growing group of progressives in town, as well as open-minded natives who shouldn’t be lumped in with the bad apples.

Peden wonders if his beer can play a role in making people more tolerant of each other’s differences. He’s not pollyannaish about it, but he thinks beer often helps people loosen up and talk about issues they might otherwise avoid. In fact, Peden notes that beer served as fuel for America’s revolutionary fire.

Brian Sorensen

“Where do you think our founding fathers had their meetings? Where did they come together with these radical ideas at the time? The taverns! They weren’t talking about this shit at church!”

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When I pressed Peden regarding diversity (or lack thereof) in breweries and taprooms, and issues related to harassment and discrimination in the broader beer industry, he retreated. He told me he wasn’t comfortable as a white man in a white town, talking to another white guy (me) about how people of color feel about diversity in beer. Instead, he told me to talk to a friend he met on Twitter to gain her perspective. 

***

April Boyce was born and raised in California. Her family roots sink deep into Louisiana, but for the most part, her family’s time in the American South is a distant memory. She’s married to Toni “Two Pint” Boyce. Together they own BlaQ & Soul, a multi-faceted company that provides a voice to black and LBGTQ+ people inside the beer and culinary scenes. They write, cook, consult, and plan events to highlight those marginalized by mainstream society.

Boyce appreciated Peden directing the diversity in beer conversation to her. She knows people of color are still on the outside looking in, and she welcomed the opportunity to point out existing barriers.

courtesy of April Boyce
April Boyce of Blaq & Soul

“It’s very important because craft beer in general doesn’t want people of color at the table,” she said. “I feel like a lot of white cis[gender] men hold beer near and dear to their hearts, and they feel if certain people are let in, they might lose something.”

Boyce isn’t your average beer geek. She doesn’t get lost in tasting notes or hunt for the hardest-to-find beers on the planet. Her interest lies mostly in cooking with beer. For that, she prefers Belgian styles. She absolutely hates IPAs, despite living in a hotbed of hoppy ales.

She has been involved with the broader craft beer scene for the past few years, and she sees some troubling trends related to taproom diversity and a lack of inclusive environments. She felt this most acutely when she and Toni lived in Fort Collins, Colorado; during Toni’s tenure at New Belgium Brewing Co., where Toni was putting her degree in chemical engineering to work as a beer chemist.

“It was like Mayberry because we were the only people of color,” she said, referring to the lily-white setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.” “Fort Collins is a beautiful place, but in some of the taprooms we felt like zoo animals because everyone gawked at us.”

Boyce doesn’t want to turn heads when she visits a brewery. Like her white counterparts, she just wants to relax with friends and enjoy a good beer from time-to-time. Interactions with staff who aren’t comfortable serving Black people leave her frustrated, and those experiences discourage her from making repeat visits to certain breweries.   

As craft beer has grown bigger, so too have the industry’s problems regarding race and gender in the workplace. Accusations of racial discrimination were made at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A settlement was reached with the victim, who said he was called the N-word on multiple occasions. Sexual harassment was the charge at Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Co., which led to the departure of its CEO. Scottish beermaker BrewDog came under fire earlier this year, when several transgender employees were fired from its Indianapolis location.

Boyce, who identifies as both Black and LGBTQ, sees harm in each of these incidents. “You literally have a fucking blueprint on what not to do,” she said, referring to modern human resources practices. “Yet they continue to fall in line with the good old boys club and try to sweep things under the rug.” 

Toni Boyce took on the difficult topic of inequity in beer for craft beer blog Good Beer Hunting. In “The Time Is Now” she wrote, “Until now, the beer industry has been largely content — not to mention successful, and profitable — in catering to an audience composed mainly of white, upper-middle-class men rather than making active efforts to bring new faces onto its teams or into its taprooms.”

Appeals were made to the Brewers Association to stake a strong position on issues of diversity and inclusion, and to better police bad behavior by member breweries. April said she and Toni were a part of several calls with CEO Bob Pease, but his response did not meet their expectations.

“On a follow-up phone call … Pease mentioned that his concern was his voting brewery members, and not Black consumers, emphasizing that economic issues were more important to the former,” Toni wrote in her piece for Good Beer Hunting. 

April notes, too, that cultural appropriation is ever-present in beer marketing. April Boyce thinks the use of Black culture to sell white beer to white people is a form of theft and shouldn’t happen if Black people aren’t made to feel welcome in those spaces.

She offered the example of a brewery putting images of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. on labels, with no royalties being paid to the deceased artists’ estates. To her, the use of the images is a way of profiting from Black pain. If you don’t welcome Black people into your taproom, she says, you shouldn’t co-opt the culture to make a buck.

“I wish that Black people and our culture were more welcomed,” said April. “I feel like a lot of white breweries — you’ll go in and hear hip hop music and they’ll have soul food. But you won’t see a Black face in the taproom, you don’t see any Black people serving, you don’t see any Black representation in management or among the brewers.”

Despite her frustration, April still harbors hope for beer. Yes, there is room for improvement. But there is also the lingering idea that beer can make us more receptive to others — even the ones that don’t look or act like us.

“I’ve met a whole bunch of people that I wouldn’t have met if I wasn’t in the beer sphere,” she said. Countless pints have been shared with soccer dads and military veterans and others who share a passion for beer. “I don’t know why it can’t be like that, because it should be.”  

I asked April if she and Toni had ever been to Arkansas. She doesn’t recall ever visiting the state, but she hopes to visit soon — at Peden’s invitation. I told her how Arkansas is a small but complex place, and that towns less than an hour apart (Harrison and Eureka Springs, for example) can be the polar opposite of each other.

Talking to April and Kenny, and reading Toni’s words, made me ponder the state of diversity and inclusion in Arkansas beer. Women hold several leadership positions with the Arkansas Brewers Guild. The president of the guild, Tony Guinn of Gravity BrewWorks, is a woman of color. But are all of our breweries and taprooms welcoming places? Do people of color, members of the LGBTQ community — anyone other than straight, white, middle-class Americans — feel comfortable drinking beer in Arkansas? 

It’s hard for me to say. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white dude with a beard. I can drink beer in any taproom in America and feel welcome, and likely be surrounded by people who look like me.

I do wonder how the recent antics in Little Rock — opposition to hate crime legislation and bills laced with anti-LGBTQ sentiment — reflect on the environment in Arkansas. If people don’t feel welcome and safe in our state, how would they feel welcome and safe in our breweries and taprooms?

I’m left with more questions than answers. However, one thing is for certain: April Boyce sees the value in having allies like Peden. 

“Kenny is a stand-up guy, and I would tell him to keep doing what he’s doing,” she said. “He’s the type of person that stands on his beliefs and principles. I’m looking forward to visiting his brewery and having a beer with him someday soon.”