Arkansas wine country had managed to thrive even before recent sessions of the Arkansas legislature started liberalizing some of the state’s booze laws in the name of economic development. Now, inside the state’s venerable vino country is an outpost of something that barely existed here late last century: Arkansas beer country. Two breweries, Country Monks and Prestonrose, have opened their doors on the gravel roads of Logan County; both are helping change the flavor of the Arkansas River Valley, a region known for decades for its wine.
With the area’s rolling hills and abundant water, it’s easy to see why one might think Benedictine monks chose to settle in this picturesque portion of Western Arkansas in the late 1800s. But actually, the land was donated by a railroad company for a monastery in an effort to get more German Catholics to immigrate to the area. Today, Subiaco Abbey stands as a regional beacon of near equal to nearby mounts Nebo and Magazine. For many non-Catholics, the abbey is best known for selling Monk Sauce, a habanero hot sauce made by the local monks. But in a nod to the centuries-long history of monks and brewing, Subiaco’s Country Monks Brewing launched in late 2018. Brother Basil Taylor, a native of Fort Smith, is head brewer. (An obvious pot-stirrer, Bro. Basil is also responsible for a new addition to the Monk Sauce lineup: a smoked pepper hot sauce.)
Taylor enjoyed homebrewing for several years before he joined the monastery in 2012. “A couple of monks brewed when I joined the monastery for the monks to drink when we have community,” he said. “When they found out that I knew how to brew, it was passed off to me.” True to its rustic moniker, Country Monks Brewing is located in a nondescript metal building in the rolling pastures and farmland adjacent the majestic abbey.
While the venture to sell beer to the public is new, beer has a long history here: “We joke that we have been a monastery for 141 years, and have probably been brewing beer for 140 of those, which is probably pretty close to the truth,” Taylor said. “Our founding monks were a mixture of German and Swiss who lived close to the German border.” As for the wine heritage of the area, he noted that the monks have historically grown grapes here as well, mostly for Mass wine.
Brewing at the monastery is not Taylor’s main job, which for every monk at Subiaco is praying with the community five times a day: “I have to split my time up quite a bit.” He works his brewing day in around the prayers, along with the several other jobs he is tasked with. “Most times, I will go down and add the barley to the hot water — which is called mashing — in between 5:45 morning prayer and 6:30 a.m. Mass. Then [I] come down after Mass and continue the brewing. Sometimes in the evening, I will come down and can beer after 7:05 p.m. Vespers,” he said.
Down another quiet gravel road a few miles east of the abbey, is a more secular, but just as unexpected, hub of activity: Prestonrose Farm and Brewing Co. Liz and Mike Preston started their hilltop farm and brewery in 2016 with the idea that the two ventures should complement each other. Fruit, peppers and, most notably, hops from the farm all end up in the brews; bounty from other crops ends up at the farmers market, or on patrons’ plates at the taproom.
The Prestons bring a lot of brainpower to the operation: Liz has a degree in biology; her background is marine microbial ecology and environmental regulation. She has since trained at the American Brewer’s Guild in Vermont and become certified in Brewer’s Science & Engineering. Mike’s background is in nuclear chemistry.
With family-style seating, there’s family-style talk in Prestonrose’s miniature beer hall, actually a small Quonset hut-shaped portable building softened by big windows and lots of cedar. Just minutes after opening time, it’s filled up. “Where’s home?” Mike asks new visitors, and there are plenty of those. But regulars also squeeze in, with nearby Pope County/Russellville well represented.
Mike doesn’t mind holding court, telling one group how they sold 1,000 12-ounce beers in six hours at a recent event, and regaling the whole taproom with a story about getting a shirt for his brother’s recent wedding. There’s also a lot of talk about beer. And it’s not all from employees, but they do explain in great detail to patrons about Prestonrose’s London-style porter fermented with Fort Smith coffee beans, its French farmhouse saison brewed with wild sumac berries, and even its (usually) nonalcoholic Laughing Stock Ginger Ale, made from fresh Arkansas-grown ginger root. We were the first patrons to sample Weld County, a Hefeweizen named for the Colorado county where its wheat was grown.
Prestonrose’s beer has generated a lot of interest from those who haven’t made the almost two-hour drive west from Little Rock to the farm. (It’s available on tap in Little Rock only at Dos Rocas Beer and Tacos.) But not enough is said about the kitchen. The menu featured tacos as an entree, with smoked pork, braised pork belly, smoked chicken, roast beef and “fat top” mushrooms as options. Humble smoked chicken emerged as the star for us, as did a mushroom mole acorn squash bisque, made with Arkansas mushrooms, of course. The vegetarian Hatch queso is a thick take on Little Rock cheese dip, made with peppers and tomatoes from the farm and served with local tortilla chips. Sadly, left untried amidst the savory delights were cantaloupe ice cream and watermelon horchata.
“We are pretty much at capacity,” Liz said, adding that Prestonrose is looking at expanding both its taproom space and production area.
Like the monks, the Prestons were called to the area — they chose Logan County for its proximity to Mike’s job at Arkansas Nuclear One. And they chose this property “because it was love at first sight,” Liz said.
Be forewarned — both breweries maintain limited hours, but there are other sights to see. State Highway 22 is the main thoroughfare through the area, and it’s highly recommended over the interstate. This spring, a portion of 22 from Dardanelle to Fort Smith was designated as the “True Grit Trail” in honor of El Dorado native and Little Rock resident Charles Portis’ West Arkansas-centric novel. With Mount Nebo in the distance, Lake Dardanelle wouldn’t have been created yet when “True Grit” heroine Mattie Ross set out from Yell County in 1873 on her journey — but the area is a gorgeously auspicious entree to the trail.
On one visit, we drove a few miles west of the breweries to take in nearby Paris’ charming square, which (at last!) comes complete with the town’s own Eiffel Tower, sized proportionately with its population. Paris’ tower was erected in 2014, according to Paris City Director Tonya Baumgartner. “It got a lot of attention,” she said of the tower, which is 18 feet tall — 25 if you count the fountain on which it’s mounted. Lovers come to the “love lock” fence by the tower to declare their amour via padlock. They then cinch the lock on the fence, throw away the key in the tower’s two-tier fountain, and assuredly live happily ever after.
On Paris’ Elm Street is the city’s coal miners museum, paying homage to a less celebrated Arkansas product than wine. Coal was the main industry around here for decades, and the location also serves as a memorial to those who gave their lives doing this dirty and dangerous job. The museum recently acquired a 125-year-old train engine, laboriously relocated from a Paris city park, where it sat rusting behind a fence. The train engine is being moved to a more visible spot on the museum’s grounds — along the former railroad tracks where this very engine used to run. The town’s 40th annual Frontier Day Oct. 5 will pay homage to the train. It’s the largest event in the city of Paris. There’s live music, a parade, a car show, a pumpkin patch — all the trimmings. It draws about 3,000 people — “in a town of 3,500, that’s big,” Baumgartner said.
The area outside town has a lot of trails and biking, and it all ties in with the new breweries. From Paris, you can take the lovely, winding way over to Cove Lake in the Ozark National Forest. During the season, there’s swimming, hiking, camping and fishing, and you can even buy hamburgers out of the CCC-era stone main building. Just to complete Cove Lake’s idyllic Norman Rockwell scene, a youth group was in the middle of a scavenger hunt when we visited — heads down, scouring the premises with great intensity for a certain 2017 penny.
Just a bit further south of Cove Lake is Mount Magazine, the highest peak in the state. Some 400,000 visitors come to the mountain annually to hike, bike, climb rocks, ride horseback, watch birds and even hang glide. There’s also a state park with cabins and a lodge overlooking the valley and lake below. The park’s Skycrest Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and beer — but not local beer. (The Skycrest name pays homage to a historic hotel once found on the mountain.) Butterflies are big on Mount Magazine; the rare Diana fritillary can be found here, along with examples from the majority of the entire state’s butterfly species. In June, there’s an international butterfly festival.
On another visit, we drove up into northern Logan County toward Prairie View to Cave Creek Recreation Area. This silent and overgrown nature park with an asphalt loop abuts a river-sized creek, as well as something called the McKennon Bottoms Waterfowl Impoundment. (Hide yo ducks, hide yo geese!) It sports painted-over signage at the entrance and ivy-encased bathrooms that seem to indicate this is a U.S. Corps of Engineers joint gone to seed, or a “Life After People” tableau. It’s as desolate and lonesome as Cove Lake is verdant and inviting, but not without its own creepy and isolated charm.
“People will call from all over the state” to ask about the breweries, Baumgartner said. “[Prestonrose] can’t make enough. The monks are selling out pretty often as well,” she said. “The start of wine country” is in Paris, she said, but she thinks beer and wine can also be a great complement to each other.
Vintner Bob Cowie agrees. Cowie Wine Cellars and Vineyards is a winery just west of Paris that he’s run for a half-century. “I’m almost 80 years old,” he says, “and I’m an interesting old goat.” Like the man, his compound is pretty interesting, too. It contains a museum of Arkansas wine history — although Cowie is his own walking depository of knowledge. He can name off the top of his head the Little Rock streets where wineries were once located.
There’s a Catholic chapel on site, where his wife, Bette Kay, is buried. “She died on our 50th anniversary,” he adds. This little chapel contains an ear-ringing 30 bells, but that’s just a fraction of Cowie’s vast bell collection. He alleges his assemblage of bells is the largest of its sort in the country, and I have no competing information to counter this claim.
Cowie also operates a B&B here, which he clarifies stands for bed and bath, not bed and breakfast, since his wife, who used to cook, passed on. It consists of two suites and a guesthouse across the street. He plans to display at the guesthouse his deep autograph collection, which includes presidents and, he notes, all the men who walked on the moon. Oh, and did you know? There’s also wine. Having the breweries in the area “suits me just fine,” Cowie said. He gets it, he says. “It’s just a beautiful part of Arkansas.”
Prestonrose Farm & Brewing Co.
201 St. Louis Valley Road, Paris
Open 4-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday.
Country Monks Brewing
405 N. Subiaco Ave., Subiaco
Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.
Cowie Wine Cellars
101 N. Carbon City Road, Paris
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Been to Franklin?
More Arkansas beer, and especially wine, is on tap in adjacent Franklin County, a county named for noted booze aficionado Ben Franklin. Twenty minutes up state Highway 23 is Ox Bend Brewing Co. in Ozark. The historic Arkansas wine country around Altus (pop. 758) and Wiederkehr Village (pop. 38) includes Mount Bethel Winery, Post Winery, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars and Chateau Aux Arc Winery.