Diamond Bear Brewing flight picture

A FLIGHT: At Diamond Bear Brewing in North Little Rock

You’ve heard a lot about craft beer over the last decade or so. Neighborhood breweries were once a rarity across America; now they’re seemingly everywhere.

Craft beer is firmly in the mainstream. Even the chain restaurants are carrying beer from local breweries.

The Brewers Association — the industry trade group that represents the nation’s small and independent beermakers — keeps an annual tally of breweries in operation, and the growth is astounding.

In 2007, there were 1,511 active breweries across the United States. By 2017 the number had grown to 6,372. And when the 2018 statistics are released later this year, the official count is expected to exceed 7,000.

This explosion in beermaking was supported in part by a network of state brewers guilds, which are local coalitions of brewers who pool their resources to promote and defend the craft beer industry.

According to Pete Johnson, the state and regulatory affairs manager for the Brewers Association, guilds now cover all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. The BA, as it’s known, provides the tools and resources for guilds to organize and be successful.

“First and foremost, we work closely with the guilds in all the states because that’s where the action is,” he said. “The state guilds prioritize the issues they want to work on, and the BA plays in support.”

Johnson said guilds tend to focus much of their attention on legislative issues because the country is still a complex patchwork of beer laws. Some states are progressive, while others make it tougher for brewers to operate. Depending on the situation, some state guilds have even hired professional lobbyists to work on their behalf.

“To be engaged politically and legislatively is the mark of a truly effective guild,” he said.

Arkansas brewers organize

The Arkansas Brewers Guild was founded in 2003 to address the restrictive beer laws of the time. Russ Melton of Diamond Bear Brewing, Henry Lee of Vino’s Brew Pub, John Gilliam of Ozark Brewing Co., and West Mountain Brewing Co.’s John Schmuecker were the early leaders of the effort in the state.

At the time, production was capped at 1,500 barrels per year for small breweries (5,000 for brew pubs), and breweries were forced to deal with distributors — in what is commonly known as the three-tier system — to get their beer to market. Competing with Budweiser, Miller and other national brands for distributors’ attention was a major barrier to entry.

William Lyon of the short-lived Arkansas Brewing Co. (1984-1986) once suggested outright sabotage by distributors. He said wholesalers let his beer gather dust in their warehouses for fear it might find favor with the state’s beer drinkers. Loss of market share would surely anger the distributors’ benefactors in St. Louis or Milwaukee, so according to Lyon, they sought to squash small brewers.

A few years ago, I interviewed Diamond Bear’s Russ Melton for a book on Arkansas’s brewing history. He told me about the Arkansas Brewers Guild’s first major accomplishment.

“We all threw some money in a pot and hired a lobbyist, and really tried to work with the wholesalers to do the first native beer law … ,” he said. “That was a big deal to get that passed.”

The Arkansas Native Brewery Act was made law in 2003. It gave brewers the right to self-distribute their beer and significantly increased limits on production. It also allowed on-premise sales in what would come to be called “taprooms.”

This changed the game for prospective brewers. Suddenly brewing beer and making money in Arkansas were no longer mutually exclusive. As a result, the number of breweries in Arkansas has skyrocketed from just four in 2007 to over 40 today.

Today’s brewers find success, credit the guild

Quentin Willard said he faced a few challenges with city government when he launched Fort Smith Brewing Co. in 2017, but that overall, Arkansas is a great place to open and operate a brewery.

“The state’s rules are really nice,” he said. “Arkansas is doing very well when it comes to regulations for breweries. I credit a lot of that to the brewers’ guild and all the stuff they did in the past. The Arkansas Brewers Guild has economic development at heart.”

Things are going so well for Fort Smith Brewing Co. that Willard is planning to open a second taproom in the downtown district of the border town. He also upgraded his one-and-a-half-barrel brewhouse to a seven-barrel system used by Weidman’s Old Fort Brew Pub in the late 1990s.

Another brewery taking advantage of the state’s favorable brewing environment is Gravity BrewWorks in Big Flat. It opened in late 2013 and has seen its popularity soar.

“We’re doing pretty well for year number five,” said co-owner and current president of the Arkansas Brewers Guild Toni Guinn. “We are doing a bit more distribution in Little Rock. Billy has been drawing up plans for an addition to our brew space, as well as a few more changes to the taproom.”

“Billy” is Guinn’s husband and business partner Bill Riffle. He spent a decade making beer at Vino’s before the pair decided to strike out on their own. They joined the guild right at startup.

“We knew we wanted to be part of it,” said Guinn. “It’s a big deal for the state, and with Billy having been involved when he was at Vino’s, it just seemed like a natural step for us.”

Guinn thinks Arkansas has many built-in advantages that other states don’t enjoy.

“We’re kind of lucky here, as compared to other states where they are still fighting for every inch,” she said.

Only in the last year, for example, have South Dakota brewers been able to sell beer directly to retailers. And in Oklahoma, taproom sales have been legal for less than two years.

Arkansas brewers have been allowed to do both for 16 years.

In this most recent legislative session, Rep. Spencer Hawks (R-Conway) successfully introduced a bill to legalize breweries in dry counties. They must operate as private clubs and cannot sell beer for off-premise consumption, but the trend of creating an advantage for state breweries continues for now.

“But we can’t assume it’s always going to be that way,” Guinn said of the favorable operating environment. “We have to keep our eyes open and listen for rumblings.”

According to Guinn, the Arkansas Brewers Guild must maintain a defensive posture — even in the best of times.

Picture of Sylvia Blain, executive director of the Arkansas Brewers GuildBrian Chilson
NEW HIRE: Sylvia Blain, executive director of the Arkansas Brewers Guild.

The guild looks ahead

Last November the Arkansas Brewers Guild named Sylvia Blain as its first executive director. It marked the first time a non-brewer has led the group.

According to the Brewers Association’s Pete Johnson, it’s an important step in the evolution of a state guild.

“It takes the day-to-day guild business off the brewery owners and lets them focus on higher priority items for the guild, as well as their own businesses,” he said.

The Arkansas Brewers Guild took advantage of a grant offered by the Brewers Association to partially fund the position.

Blain has spent the first few months on the job getting to know the extended Arkansas beer scene. She recently visited the northwest corner of the state, where she saw several breweries — including Ivory Bill Brewing Co. in Siloam Springs and Crisis Brewing Co. in Fayetteville — for the first time.

“I’m in the process of shoring up our membership,” said Blain, noting that there are still a handful of breweries to bring into the fold. “Beyond that, our tap takeover schedule is set for the year, and we’re working to bring our members educational opportunities at this summer’s brewers conference in Fayetteville.”

The first tap takeover took place in March at Core Brewing Co.’s pub in downtown Springdale. These quarterly events showcase Arkansas-made beer and give the public a chance to interact with the brewers. Tap takeovers will rotate to breweries in Mountain Home, Paris and Amity later this year.

The brewers conference is slated for Saturday, July 13, on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where keynote speaker Neil Witte — co-author of the Brewers Association’s “Draught Beer Quality Manual” — will discuss the topic of quality control.

“I’m excited to hear what he’s got to say,” said Guinn. “Quality control is always a big deal. It’s always good to make sure we’re all getting our stuff right.”

Arkansas beer has grown in terms of both volume and quality over the past decade. And with the Arkansas Brewers Guild’s continued focus on promoting the industry and educating its members, there’s no reason to think the trend won’t continue for the foreseeable future.