West Mountain’s brewing baton passed to new brewmaster Ryan Pickop

Ryan Pickop / Photo: Brian Sorensen

In the span of just three short years West Mountain Brewing Company has become one of Northwest Arkansas’ most popular craft beer destinations. The dimly lit tavern bustles with activity on most afternoons and evenings, filled with crowds that thirst for some of the area’s freshest beer.

It wasn’t always this way. Brewing equipment once sat untouched, teasing passersby with unfulfilled intentions. West Mountain, joked locals, was a brewing company that didn’t brew beer.

Things finally changed in 2011 when Andy Coates – now of Ozark Beer Company fame – serendipitously walked through the front door and convinced owner John Schmucker that he could breathe life into the unresponsive brewhouse.

Pickop rakes spent grains from the mash tun at West Mountain Brewing Company.

Photo: Brian Sorensen

Breathe life he did, as West Mountain birthed barrel after barrel of fresh beer. Locals quickly realized how special it was, and drank as fast as Coates could brew. The demand for more IPA, brown ale, and saison was a testament to the enormous potential that was finally being realized.

But eventually Coates decided that he wanted to be the captain of his own ship. So off he sailed to Benton County with partners Lacie Bray and Jeff Baldwin to open Ozark. West Mountain devotees were left to wonder who would take up the mash paddle and brew the beer they had grown to love.

Along came Will Gallaspy – a fellow from Cajun country who lacked a Cajun accent. He was also absent the traditional brewer’s beard, though he knew his way around a brewhouse and produced some tasty beer himself.

The Gallaspy era was a short one, however, as the lure of brewing in the big city was too much to overcome. In the blink of an eye he was gone to Brooklyn, once again leaving local beer fans to ponder their fate.

They didn’t ponder long. Texas native Ryan Pickop was recently named the new brewmaster at West Mountain. Rumors initially circulated that he had never brewed commercially before, leaving many to doubt his ability to pick up where the others left off.

Fortunately those fears have proven to be unfounded. He actually possesses a background in alcohol production – albeit Texas-made whisky – and his credibility grows with each batch of beer he brews. Even West Mountain’s most discerning beer drinkers are now confident in his abilities, relieved to know that the brewhouse is once again in good hands.

The 26-year-old talked to me recently about his roots and how he landed in Fayetteville. He was relaxed and open during our conversation, and I’m happy to report that he sports a beard that would make a lumberjack jealous.

Talk about your background.

I grew up in a town south of Dallas, Texas called Mansfield. It was totally suburban, a little place. I left there in 2007 and moved up to Denton. Denton’s a cool place. It reminds me a lot of Fayetteville, actually. It’s where I had my first taste of craft beer and my first taste of homebrew. I homebrewed there for the first time and it was just awful. Just awful! I was there for about two years and moved down to Waco to live on a farm.

How did you get into farming?

I’m interested in social movements, and this farm I went to was an educational farm. The idea was that you learn how to farm so you can either set up urban gardens or teach sustainable agriculture in developing countries. I was an all around volunteer. Livestock, dairy, chickens – the whole nine yards. I did that for about two years and realized I pretty much hated farming.

What did you do next?

After the farm I moved to Waco. I met this fellow who happened to be the production manager at a local whisky distillery called Balcones. He needed a hand, so I came in and started learning about mashes, fermentation, distillation, and all sorts of stuff. We did corn mashes and a single malt mash, a couple of fruit spirits. It was a company that was growing very quickly, so it was fun to be a part of the formative years of that place. Both of the distillers were avid homebrewers and were super-knowledgeable about homebrewing. I learned a lot there.

What led you to Fayetteville?

My wife and I actually honeymooned up here at a little place in Chester. It was beautiful. We went up to Fayetteville and Eureka Springs, and thought they were awesome. We fell in love with the place.

The next year we came up for the Roots Festival. I play Americana music, and I met Bryan and Bernice Hembree from the band 3 Penny Acre. Later on I emailed them about finding a job because we were thinking about moving here. I knew there was music happening here, and I wanted to start making a move toward a semi-career making music.

I got hooked up with Jerrmy Gawthrop over at Greenhouse Grille and I started working at their new pizza place [Wood Stone Craft Pizza], building up their bar program. I bartended there for about two months.

How long have you been playing music?

I started playing the drums when I was 12 or 13. I played in church bands and little rinky-dink garage bands. I also play guitar and write songs.

When I moved to Waco I found out that the production manager at the distillery was also a musician. For four out of the six years we were there I was playing in bands with him, and playing my own Americana music. There’s actually this really cool underground scene there in Waco.

I moved up to Fayetteville partly because Fayetteville is such a central location to everywhere, as opposed to Texas where it takes nine hours or more to get anywhere. I started playing drums with Bryan and Bernice as soon as I got here.

Are you playing any local gigs?

No, I’ve been busy trying to keep up [in the brewery]. Especially because the [Lights of the Ozarks] are about to happen, and from what I’ve been told this place gets rocking and rolling. But I have a couple of gigs happening at the beginning of next year. I’m probably going to do a short run through Oklahoma City and down to Denton.

How did you become the brewer at West Mountain?

Somebody mentioned the job, and I thought I should come in and say hi. I had never even stepped foot in the place. I had seen it and thought it was cool, but I never actually came in. So I dropped in and talked to John one day. We had a great little talk at about 9 in the morning. He called me later on that afternoon and said, “Hey I want to give you the job.”

Are you brewing house recipes, or are you doing your own thing?

When I got here I had a boxful of recipes. I’m going through and reading what was left for me, but Andy [Coates] and Will [Gallaspy] had such awesome handwriting. Just kidding, they had awful handwriting! But I’m figuring it out. I’m taking some recipes and tweaking them here and there. I’m even building some new recipes of my own.

What’s currently on tap?

Right now I have the IPA, an American-style stout, and a copper. I’ll have a blonde coming up pretty quick.

Is there a beer that you’re most proud of?

Probably the IPA. I think it’s an understated IPA, but the aroma is nice. I think it’s just a really solid beer. The first beer I put out was a black IPA. I think it was the most interesting beer I’ve done so far.

What do you hope to brew in the future?

I’m thinking about doing a Berliner Weisse – a really low alcohol, sour-forward Berliner Weisse. I’ll definitely do a sour mash [instead of using lactobacillus – a bacteria notorious for infecting the equipment in brewhouses]. I like making clean beers and I don’t want anything to go awry.

What’s your impression of Northwest Arkansas’ beer culture?

I think the beer scene is really cool. It’s fun to be a part of something that’s on the cusp of being great. The more beer that comes out the more educated the general public is going to become. And then the public is going to want us to make the best beer we can possibly make. Which is exciting to me because I like drinking beer. And I don’t like drinking my own beer all the time. I want to go out and try everybody else’s stuff.

Have you met the other brewers in the area?

Whenever the Fayetteville Ale Trail anniversary happened I got to meet some of the folks from Bike Rack, and some of the Apple Blossom folks. Within the first week of having this job I got to meet a bunch of people. I’ve spent a good bit of time at Fossil Cove, and obviously with Andy at Ozark. I’ve hung out a couple of times with Nathan [Traw], the new brewer at Core. He actually has a little baby, too. There’s a bunch of brewery babies right now.

Everybody’s been incredibly encouraging. Nobody has ever said anything that made me feel like I was going to fail. Everybody’s been totally cool with helping me out whenever I need help. It’s really awesome here in Fayetteville.

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