STONE'S THROW BREWING: Master brewer Theron Cash stacks kegs at the longtime outfit on Ninth Street, near MacArthur Park. Brian Chilson

Ten years doesn’t seem that long, but in the craft beer world it might as well be an eternity.

This is particularly true in Arkansas.

Back in 2009, you could count the number of breweries in the state on one hand. Today there are nearly 40.

Ten years ago, the few breweries in Arkansas were located in just two cities: Fayetteville and Little Rock. Today they can be found in such smaller towns as Harrison, Mountain Home, Paris and Amity.

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Arkansas breweries are scattered across the rural landscape, tucked into the hills and hollers far off the beaten path.

Have you heard of Big Flat? If so, it’s probably because there’s a brewery in the diminutive town that straddles Baxter and Searcy counties and just barely dots the map.

As the first decade of the new millennium came to a close, beer drinkers in the state were limited to macro lagers — Bud, Miller or Coors — when dining out. Now Arkansas-made beer can be found in most restaurants with tap handles.

We are arguably living in the greatest era of beer our state has ever seen. Arkansas brewers are making flavorful beer in many different styles. Options truly abound.

 According to the Brewers Association — the craft beer industry’s trade organization — the state’s brewers produced nearly 46,000 barrels of beer in 2018, which was good for the 48th most in the United States.

For comparison’s sake, Pennsylvania was No. 1 with 3.7 million barrels.

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With those numbers in mind, there seems to be plenty of room for growth in the Arkansas brewing industry.

This truth is reflected by recent brewery launches across the state. In the last year, four have opened: Country Monks Brewing in Subiaco, Six Mile Brewery in Ozark, Eureka Springs Brewery and Boston Mountain Brewery in Fayetteville. Several more are rumored to be in planning.

And it’s not just new breweries making waves. A handful of existing breweries are experiencing growth on a significant scale.

Lost Forty Brewing Co. continues to increase production. The state’s largest by volume, the Little Rock brewery produced nearly 15,000 barrels of beer in 2018. Every last drop was sold inside the state’s borders. Its brews are ubiquitous: You can find Lost Forty from one corner of the state to the other, and just about everywhere in between. 

 The state’s second-biggest brewery — Core Brewing Co. — recently signed a sponsorship deal with the University of Arkansas’s athletic program. Core is now available inside the football stadium in Fayetteville and could conceivably grace tap handles in Bud Walton Arena if alcohol sales are ever allowed at basketball games. The deal will expose scores of Hog fans to Core, increasing the Springdale brewery’s visibility among existing and potential consumers alike.

Bentonville Brewing Co. will move into its new 20,000-square-foot facility in mid-October. For the past couple of years, the brewery has called Rogers home. The return to Bentonville also involves an upgrade from a seven-barrel system to one capable of producing 20 barrels at a time. The facility is a far cry from the brewery’s humble beginnings in a small warehouse just a few years ago.

Buffalo Brewing Co. — once intertwined with a home brew supply shop — has stepped out on its own with a brand-new production facility on Cantrell Road in Little Rock. It also opened a new taproom in the Heights.

The news hasn’t been good for every Arkansas brewery. Some have faced challenges. A few have even closed their doors.

Blue Canoe Brewing Co. folded under what appeared to be domestic and legal troubles faced by the owners. Refined Ale Brewery’s owner recently announced his brewery’s closing due to an illness in the family. Damgoode Brews — which made beer on the system originally used by River Rock Brewery and later Bosco’s — also ceased brewing operations.

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Some might wonder if shuttered doors might signal the end of the craft beer momentum in Arkansas. With the never-ending nature of brewery openings across the country, it seems strange to see some fail in our state.  

Clearly it is no longer enough to install a brewhouse, hang a sign on the building and expect customers to flock on an endless basis. Arkansas beer drinkers have grown more discerning over the past decade. Tastes have changed and quality and consistency are now the key to brewing success.

Simply put, if you aren’t making great beer, it doesn’t matter how good your business plan might be. And if you make great beer, you better have the ability to run a profitable business.

Preferred styles have also changed. Old school pale ales, stouts and wheats have all seen their popularity plummet. They have been replaced by sours, hazy IPAs and barrel-aged ales as the styles people seek in brewery taprooms.

Lost Forty has earned accolades for its Trash Panda series. This hazy IPA — or New England IPA if you prefer the style’s official name — is brewed with a rotating selection of hops. It’s big, cloudy and “juicy” in its composition.

Just 10 years ago, anything other than a crystal clear appearance would indicate a serious flaw in a beer.  Now most breweries in Arkansas have a hazy IPA in their repertoire.

Another industry trend is spiked seltzer. It is so popular nationwide that one producer’s lack of inventory has created an uproar among consumers. People can’t seem to get enough of this low-calorie, effervescent cousin of beer. Though Arkansas breweries have yet to fully embrace the style, Core and Ozark Beer Co. have introduced their own versions in cans. It’s safe to assume others will follow in their footsteps soon.

An obvious preference in Arkansas is drinking beer at the source. Taprooms have become hubs of local communities, often replacing coffee shops and town squares as the places people meet to socialize and exchange ideas.

Most of the breweries in Arkansas are, in fact, selling the bulk of their beer directly to consumers over taproom counters. The average output per brewery — based on the Brewers Association’s numbers — was just over 1,000 barrels in 2018. Only a few are packaging beer for sales in the broader retail market. 

West Mountain Brewing Co. is a great example of this phenomenon. The small brewpub on Fayetteville’s downtown square attracts a large crowd every day of the week. People from all walks of life congregate to talk politics, religion and philosophy. It’s a wondrous sight to behold  University of Arkansas professors discussing Dostoevsky with blue-collar workers over pints of blood orange IPA.

Brian Chilson
FOUND AT LOST FORTY: The S’morest Queen brewer is the state’s largest.

Stone’s Throw Brewery is much the same. The longtime Little Rock brewery has become a MacArthur Park-area institution, drawing legions of fans into its taproom for trivia, bingo and pint after pint of tap list standouts like Shamus Stout and Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse. It’s going for the same scene at its second taproom in the Stifft Station neighborhood.

Small breweries play an important role in communities all across the state. Ox Bend Brewing Co. in Ozark, Slate Rock Brewing Co. in Amity and Norfork Brewing Co. — just a few examples — give their towns an identity. They not only provide a communal atmosphere for local residents, but also attract visitors who add tax revenue to local coffers.

Mirroring trends seen across the United States, Arkansas breweries have turned into bona fide travel destinations. Prestonrose Farm & Brewing Co. in Paris has become one of the most heralded breweries in Arkansas without the benefit of distribution (see page 80). The organic farm provides a serene backdrop for those looking for a little R&R with their pints. The same can be said for Saddlebock Brewery in Springdale, which is located near the point where the White River becomes Beaver Lake. Indeed, nature serves as a suitable backdrop for many Arkansas breweries.

The Arkansas brewing industry is an ever-evolving thing. The changes seen over the last decade have been dramatic. What was once seen as a novelty has become a significant part of the state’s economy.

The Brewers Association estimates the economic impact of the state’s brewing industry to be somewhere near $500 million. It’s no wonder the state legislature recently legalized brewing in dry counties. The benefits of a vibrant brewing community far outweigh any perceived consequences.

It will be interesting to see the changes that occur over the next 10 years. If they are anything like what we’ve seen over the past decade, the developments will be transformational.