COMMENTARY: The local beer culture is maturing

Steve Rehbock, owner and brewmaster at Saddlebock Brewery.

We are at a point in Northwest Arkansas where our beer culture is no longer new or emerging. It has been here for a while now, and has firmly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. With an abundance of breweries and easy access to good beer everywhere you turn, outsiders have started to recognize the area as a true beer destination.

What is it about NWA that created the perfect climate for a boom in craft beer? There are a number of factors, but you have to start with the local home brewing club – the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds. Club members have been celebrating their favorite fermented beverage for over 21 years now. The club has created awareness and placed considerable pressure on local retailers to carry the good stuff. FLOPS has even spawned one of our local brewers – Steve Rehbock of Saddlebock Brewery in Springdale.

Another contributing factor is the University of Arkansas – a bastion of liberal thought in an otherwise red state. It’s hard to say why liberals like tasty beer, but college towns tend to have a lot of it to offer. Perhaps it’s the well-traveled nature of the faculty and the developing taste buds of the graduate students. It’s certainly not the drinking habits of the undergrads, who tend to prefer quantity over quality. Nevertheless, college towns are often known for good beer, and Fayetteville ranks right up there with the best of them.

You also can’t ignore the influx of outsiders to our area. Companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods, and JB Hunt have recruited people from far and wide, many of whom brought with them a taste for craft beer. Chicago, Boston, New York, and Cincinnati have long had thriving beer cultures, so it’s no surprise that transplants from those cities would demand access to more than the typical “macro swill” when arriving in Northwest Arkansas. In fact, a few of them have even opened their own brewery (Bike Rack Brewing Company in Bentonville).

And sometimes it’s the locals who recognize a good thing when they have it. The Fayetteville Visitors Bureau – in a flash of brilliance – created the Fayetteville Ale Trail a year ago, and has played a key role in promoting the area as a beer destination. Ale Trial passports are almost always in sight when visiting one of the local breweries, a testament to the program’s popularity. People from across the region come to Northwest Arkansas to have their passports stamped, bringing not only national attention to the local beer scene, but also an injection of tourist dollars. There is no doubt that a thriving beer culture can be a significant contributor to the local economy.

The brewers themselves have evolved. They were understandably concerned with creating a consistent product when they opened their doors, but now that consistency and quality have largely been achieved, they are starting to experiment with their brews. Sours, Belgians, imperials, and the “Randall” – all bets are off now and anything goes. The atmosphere surrounding the beer itself has also improved; with food trucks, live music, and film screenings now weekly (if not daily) occurrences. The breweries are happening places, and there’s always something different to keep your interest level high.

I’m thankful that Northwest Arkansas’ beer culture is maturing. Not too long ago I had to make pilgrimages across state lines to find interesting beer. Now I can drive a few blocks – or better yet, hop on Fayetteville’s trail system – and sit on a bar stool next to like-minded beer enthusiasts while enjoying a handcrafted ale. When eating out I’m not relegated to Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada as my only craft beer choices. The tap selections are much, much better these days. And of course state regulations changed recently to allow growler fills at retail beer establishments. Even Walmart and Harps carry a decent selection of craft beer! Yes, access to the good stuff has improved dramatically over the years.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here. Will Northwest Arkansas reach the point where it can’t support any more breweries? Will the herd thin as drinkers swear allegiance to certain brewers? Will Fayetteville beer festivals become more frequent and specialized (think sour festivals, or dark ale festivals)? Larger beer towns often host multiple festivals throughout the year. Why not here too?

One thing is for certain – craft beer is here to stay. And what a wonderful thing that is for us in Northwest Arkansas! Beer is a common denominator, bringing people from across socio-economic classes together over a pint. It adds so much richness to what is already a great place to live. And perhaps nobody said it better than humorist Dave Barry: “Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.”

Brian Sorensen (@EBSorensen) is an admitted beer geek, occasional home brewer, and member of the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds.