Stepping into Vino’s, there’s the clank of the door’s rigged counter-weight on a chain, the rich smell of pizza, and a varied soundtrack that ranges from The Kinks to Black Sabbath with every stop in between. It’s an eclectic and electric place, mixing guys in suits from the downtown offices for lunch, families in for a slice or calzone, and hipster kids waiting on the night’s band to start their sound check and get the evening’s festivities going. Just off the main dining room, though, the scents change from baking dough and melted cheese into something richer and warmer — the heady smell of barley malt coming from the small-but-effective brewing tanks of Little Rock’s longest-running brew pub.
While Vino’s has been a respected name in Little Rock and wider craft beer circles for a while — then-head brewer Bill Riffle notably managed a gold medal win at the Great American Beer Festival in 2008 for an imperial red ale — it’s really been since brewmaster Josiah Moody took over in November 2011 that the beer has gone from solid to spectacular.
Moody is an experimental and enthusiastic brewer, and while Vino’s is his first professional brewing job, he’s been an avid home brewer for more than five years. Vino’s is a small operation in size, capable of brewing only three and a half barrels (or seven kegs) of beer at a time, but Moody says that the pub is on track to turn out more than 15,500 gallons of beer this year, an amount that Moody says makes him “push that little brewhouse to its limit.”
Moody has kept many of the beers that long-time brewer Riffle made so popular at Vino’s, but he hasn’t limited himself to someone else’s recipes. Within the past year, Moody’s own creations have started hitting the taps at Vino’s, including the crisp, hoppy Kolsch .45, the Rock Island Steam (which he rates as his favorite beer to drink) and the Saison du Roche, the first beer in the saison style to ever be commercially brewed in Little Rock. The saison in particular, a style known for using wild yeast strains and producing flavors that beer-lovers refer to as “funky” (but in a good way), is not only a shining example of Moody’s inventiveness and ambition but also indicative of his skill at turning out a balanced, well-flavored brew. “For most of those beers, I haven’t even attempted to home-brew first,” Moody says, “so for every one of those, I have that moment of ‘What if no one likes it?’ It’s always a very rewarding feeling when those ‘babies’ are well-received.”
Moody enjoys being a part of Vino’s history. Its tradition motivates him to create quality beers, and says “the more I worry about the quality and consistency of the beer coming out, the Vino’s ‘perception’ will just take care of itself.” To this end, Moody has begun cask-conditioning some of his beers, a process that is unique to Vino’s among commercial producers in Arkansas. The process is a labor-intensive one, involving taking almost-fermented beer, transferring it to a hand-cleaned and sterilized keg, and then adding extra fermentable sugars and various other ingredients to change the flavor of the beer. For a keg of Saison du Roche, Moody added crushed peppercorns and extra hops, tweaking the flavor profile of a beer that was already experimental, and like most of Moody’s brews, it sold out within days.
These new brews coming from an old favorite mark just another part of the growing craft beer scene in Arkansas. Long seen as a beer backwater, the state is finally catching up in terms of scope and quality, and it’s the dedication to craft of people like Josiah Moody that is leading the charge. Ten years ago, an Arkansas-brewed saison, hefeweizen, or cask-conditioned stout would have been the stuff of beer lovers’ dreams. Today, it’s available for less than five bucks a pint with some of the tastiest pizza in town. As American tastes in beer change, with craft beer being the biggest growth sector in the market, people who have had a long-abiding love of hand-crafting beer are finding a market, introducing the thirsty masses to styles and tastes previously unknown from local sources.
Moody wants to expand Vino’s brewing capabilities, something that may prove difficult in the confines of the 1909 building that houses the restaurant. He views Vino’s as “one of the only places where a brewer is given freedom to try new things,” and it seems those new things are working well. What would he say to people who haven’t tried the beer at Vino’s during his tenure? That while the pub still offers its great regular beers and seasonals, “there is a new brewer who is trying to experiment and innovate, and I hope that folks join me for this journey.”