JJ’s Beer Garden & Brewing Co. nears opening day

Local restaurateur Jody Thornton leads a recent tour of the new JJ’s Beer Garden & Brewing Co. in north Fayetteville.

Photos: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

Fayetteville has seen its fair share of breweries open over the past few years. Everywhere you turn it’s all about local IPAs and stouts. For local restaurateur Jody Thornton local beer can be much more than a hop storm of flavor. His new endeavor – JJ’s Beer Garden & Brewing Co. – will ensure light lager will be another viable option for people thirsty for locally crafted beer.

Thornton, a native of Hot Springs, is a veteran of the restaurant and bar industries. After spending some time in Fayetteville as an undergraduate he moved to Austin, Texas to work for Fred Nelson at Souper Salad. Despite success there as general manager, family ties eventually brought him back to Northwest Arkansas to help revive Hoffbrau Steaks (which was owned by his sister and brother-in-law). The venerable eatery on the downtown square had seen business dip and needed a jump-start, which Thornton provided through promotions that proved popular with the college crowd like “flip for your burger” and “drink ‘til you pee.” By the late 90s it was again bustling with business. Ask anyone who attended the University of Arkansas during those years and he or she is sure to have fond memories of Hoffbrau.

In 2001 Thornton partnered with Matt “Grub” Christie to open Grub’s Bar & Grille. After leaving Grub’s and after a detour through Texas and a gig as general manager at the short-lived Granite City Food & Brewery in Rogers, he struck out on his own with JJ’s Grill in 2008.

If you live in Northwest Arkansas you probably know how successful JJ’s has been since it opened. The concept has scored many devoted fans. There are now a total of eight JJ’s locations across Arkansas, including the recently unveiled JJ’s on Dickson.

Photo: Todd Gill

JJ’s features a menu of approachable favorites like burgers, sandwiches, and nachos that is complemented with local music on most nights of the week. By Thornton’s count JJ’s is now booking more live music than anyone else in the state – an average of forty-two shows each week. The acts are local, and the hospitable venues provide a place to get their name out in the public. Many have developed a loyal following, including Bottlerocket, which plays at most of the JJ’s locations across the state. The band is a four-piece collective of local musicians led by guitarist and lead vocalist Jerrod Mounce.

“JJ’s has meant a lot to me,” said Mounce. “I more or less cut my teeth on playing ‘real’ live shows there. They’ve created a great opportunity over the last few years for a lot of us local musicians to perform and do what we love to do.”

Another big part of JJ’s Grill’s success is the commitment to beer in the restaurants. Local and regional breweries are featured alongside more common offerings from the big industrial brewers. “We’ve had 32 taps since we started,” said Thornton. “But light lager is still our best seller.” It is more commonplace for patrons to order a Bud, Miller, or Coors over a local IPA (of which several are available at JJ’s). This is true at virtually every restaurant and bar in the area, despite the rising popularity of craft beer.

Over the years Thornton has seen the big corporate brewers squeeze his margins on beer. “It’s really simple,” he said. “When we first opened a keg of Bud Light cost $78, and now it costs $111.” Passing on the added expense to price-conscious beer drinkers was hardly an option, so profit on pints dropped like a rock.

That led Thornton, who is not much of a beer drinker himself, to start thinking about making a JJ’s branded beer. The reasoning was fairly straightforward. He could make it for less than it cost to buy wholesale.

The original plan involved contracting with a local brewer to make a light lager at another location, to be sold at JJ’s locations (Hog Haus Brewing Co. is currently partnering with Saddlebock Brewery in Springdale in a similar manner). Much to Thornton’s surprise, however, none of the local brewers was keen on the idea. It was at that point he decided to do it all himself.

The brewery, brewers, and beer

Plans were soon unveiled for a 12,000-square-foot brewery, restaurant, and corporate office near the Northwest Arkansas Mall in north Fayetteville. “JJ’s Grill has continued to watch as the local, regional and national craft beer scene has developed and evolved,” Thornton told the Fayetteville Flyer in August 2015. “There are some great breweries in Northwest Arkansas that are thriving and JJ’s wants to be a part of that community.” Thornton decided to call his new brewery JJ’s Beer Garden & Brewing Co. – or JBGB for short.

Thornton placed an ad on Probrewer.com and caught the eye of an established brewer in the Northeast. Jennifer Muckerman – head brewer at Half Full Brewery in Stamford, Connecticut – was intrigued and decided to visit Fayetteville. The St. Louis, Missouri native liked what she saw and decided to help Thornton get his concept off the ground. “The whole Connecticut lifestyle was not for me,” said Muckerman, reflecting on her time there. Arkansas proved to be an attractive alternative. “It’s gorgeous in Fayetteville and the cost of living is really good,” she said. “Plus, there’s so much outside stuff to do here.” Muckerman brings a solid portfolio of brewing experience with her, including formal brewing education at Chicago’s Seibel Institute and stops at Marble City Brewing Co. in Knoxville, Tennessee and Trailhead Brewing Co. in St. Charles, Missouri.

Brewmaster Jennifer Muckerman (left), will head up brewing operations at JBGB.

Photo: Todd Gill

Also joining JBGB is Andrew Porter, who assisted Muckerman with brewing duties at Half Full in Stamford. Porter is a Connecticut native and attended college in Upstate New York. He had never been to the South before arriving in Fayetteville. “Everyone is nice here,” he said. “It’s much more relaxed than Connecticut. Everyone moves at a slower pace.”

JBGB is an impressive structure. Behind five huge street-side windows resides a 15-barrel brewhouse manufactured by Specific Mechanical Systems in British Columbia. Muckerman said she played a role in designing the system. “I wanted it to be very brewer-friendly,” she said. “A five-foot, 100-pound person can brew on it with ease.” Also looming large and in easy view from the street are five 15-barrel and four 45-barrel fermenters. One 15-barrel bright tank and one 45-barrel bright tank provide additional space to condition the beer.

“We are expecting an initial output of 3,000 barrels with the space to double if the demand is there,” said Myriah Owens, Chief Operating Officer for JJ’s. JJ’s Brewing Company definitely feels like a commercial brewery, with great scale and significant capital investment. All of the brewing action can be viewed through glass windows that separate the 225-seat dining area from the brewery.

Thornton said the goal is to supply a JJ’s-branded light lager to all of the company’s locations. Contemporary craft beer style such as IPAs, pales, browns, and Belgians will be brewed under the JJ’s Brewing Company name. Muckerman will have free rein to develop whatever styles and recipes she sees fit – as long as light lager production is able to keep up with demand from the other JJ’s locations.

“I want her to brew award-winning beer,” said Thornton. “I want great IPAs. I want all the things she is capable of doing. But I also want a light beer that sets us apart.”

Some will be tempted to thumb their noses at light lager brewing. Craft beer drinkers can sometimes be known as stuck-up snobs – the kind who look down on others for enjoying beer they see as beneath them. Truth be told, light lagers are extremely difficult to brew. It takes a gifted brewer to pull it off.

For one, control of the fermentation process when cold-temperature lager yeasts are used can be a challenge. A few degrees off here or there can severely jeopardize the outcome. Perhaps even more frustrating for novice brewers is the no-frills flavor profile that provides virtually no cover for brewing flaws. Whereas a hint of off-flavor can be overpowered by the bitterness of IPAs or the robustness of stouts, a mistake with a light lager will stick out like a sore thumb. Ask any commercial brewer and he or she will tell you that the brewers at Anheuser-Busch are some of the most technically gifted in the world.

A playground for adults

The beer will be a major part of JBGB’s appeal, but there will be much more to delight visitors to the brewery. Most prominently, an outdoor stage will provide cover for musical acts that will soon play for JBGB patrons at no charge. Thornton prides himself on providing free shows for the community to enjoy. He plans to keep shows free even as he creates a space capable of holding up to 1,200 concertgoers. Music will run from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Locals will still hold court, but JBGB will occasionally feature bigger-name acts more familiar to a regional or national audience.

The backyard at JBGB will include a music stage, shuffleboard, bocce ball, sand volleyball court, exterior restrooms, BBQ pit, converted Airstream trailer bar, and a heated pool.

Photo: Todd Gill

The new venue is significant for Fayetteville, which was at one time best known for its live music scene. Thing changed through what some might refer to as the gentrification of Dickson Street. Much to the dismay of Fayetteville purists, live music gave way to cheap drinks and the “here to be seen” crowd. JBGB is a sign that the pendulum might be swinging back in the other direction. Bottlerocket’s lead singer is looking forward to playing there.

“The new brewery location is exciting for us,” said Mounce. “It combines two of our favorite things – rock and roll and craft beer! I’ve been by there to see the stage being built and I’m looking forward to spending summer nights out there with friends, playing some rock and roll and enjoying some of JBGB’s beers.”

Some of JBGB’s other features were influence by nouveau restaurant Pinewood Social in Nashville, Tennessee (which incorporates gaming and lounge areas into a traditional dining environment). Thornton carefully designed JBGB to be a sort of adult hangout – complete with shuffleboard, bocce ball, and a sand volleyball court. A 3-feet deep heated pool is perhaps the most interesting feature on the property. Thornton thinks it will become a congregation area for people finishing a hard day’s work. “We expect people come hang out with their feet in there,” he said. A nearby airstream trailer will serve as a bar for those relaxing outdoors or taking in a show.

JBGB’s menu is still in development, though Thornton knows barbeque will be a part of the equation. A smoker pit is being constructed on the property with room to cook up to sixty briskets at once. An offshoot business called JJ’s Brew & Que will dish various smoked delicacies inside the restaurant and via a food truck in the outdoor concert area. Thornton said he expects the menu to vary slightly from what JJ’s Grill has typically offered in the past. He wants JBGB’s food to stand on its own compared to the other restaurants.

Something for everyone

JBGB will be a brewery first and foremost, but will provide a little something for everyone who visits. Even the kids will be able to have a good time according to Thornton. Nine 70-inch televisions will grace the back wall of the stage, making kid-themed movie nights a possibility on warm summer nights. “They can bring their sleeping bags and roll them out on the lawn,” he said. “We’ll make some chicken nuggets and watch Lilo & Stitch together.”

Map: Todd Gill

Hardcore beer geeks will also find something to keep their attention. Muckerman will of course keep things interesting with the recipes she develops with Porter on the 1-barrel pilot system. That same system will be loaned out to amateur brewers to brew their own recipes through what Muckerman describes as a guest brewer program. “We’re excited about giving people the opportunity,” she said. “It should be fun tasting what they come up with.” Guest beer will be offered on a dedicated tap in the brewery. It should be a neat opportunity for local homebrewers to grab their fifteen minutes of fame.

More than anything, Thornton is building JBGB for the people who work for his company. “This is great and this is beautiful,” he said. “But I don’t need it.” With eight – and soon to be nine – locations, Thornton has essentially secured his family’s future. Now he is left to consider the future of his extended family. The JJ’s empire has grown to employ several hundred people, with twenty-two non-revenue generating employees in its corporate office (which will move into the JBGB facility once open). Thornton wants to make sure that he provides a future for them, too.

“This brewery is way more than I need,” he said. “This is for them.”

Located at 3615 N. Steele Boulevard, JJ’s Beer Garden & Brewing Co. will open as soon as the beer is ready, which according to Thornton and Muckerman will be soon (though no date has been set). The first live show is planned for Memorial Day weekend. Taking into account all of the exciting things Thornton has in mind, JBGB should be a valuable addition to the local brewing and live music scenes.

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.