Visiting Apple Blossom: New head brewer, state legislation, upcoming projects

Photo: Hutch and Futch / Courtesy Apple Blossom Brewing Co.

I made several beer-related resolutions a few months ago. One of those resolutions was to visit more local breweries. Another was to get to know some of the new brewers in the area. I killed two birds with one stone during a recent visit to Apple Blossom Brewing Co. to meet new(ish) brewer Brian Youngblood and catch up with one of the brewpub’s co-owners, Evan McDonald, to discuss beer legislation and projects underway at Apple Blossom.

Strong recommendation leads Youngblood to Apple Blossom

Believe it or not, Youngblood celebrated his one-year anniversary at Apple Blossom on March 21. He took over for Marcus Ward, who took the reins from original brewmaster Nathan Traw in late 2014. That makes Youngblood the brewpub’s third head brewer since opening for business in July 2013.

Youngblood is a Little Rock native who graduated from Bryant High School. While studying history and anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock he worked at Vino’s Brewpub – one of the state’s original breweries (and the oldest brewery still in operation today). At first he was assigned exclusively to the restaurant side of the business, but an opportunity in the brewhouse soon came his way.

“I was always interested in beer,” said Youngblood. “I had never made beer before, but it sounded fun.” When the general manager approached him about helping out in the brewhouse Youngblood jumped at the chance. He had recently graduated from UALR and was hungry for new sources of income. “They started me off cleaning kegs,” he said. Every brewer seemingly starts at the bottom, and Youngblood was no exception.

Bill Riffle was the head brewer at Vino’s when Youngblood joined the brewing team. Riffle eventually left to start his own brewery in Big Flat, Arkansas – about two hours north of Little Rock in what many would describe as the middle of nowhere (but totally worth visiting). “When he left they brought Josiah Moody in [to take his place],” said Youngblood. “And Josiah took me under his wing.” Claiming tutelage under a respected brewer like Moody helped Youngblood get off to a solid start.

Youngblood worked under Moody – who coincidentally moved to Northwest Arkansas recently to take the head brewer position at Bike Rack Brewing Co. – for about a year and a half. Youngblood soon picked up and moved to Los Angeles, California to start a new chapter. His wife was in the fashion industry, and he was anxious to make it on his own as a brewer. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to make a name for myself in the brewing industry,” he said. “Maybe I was a bit naïve because I figured it would be easy to get a job.”

Despite tremendous growth in LA’s brewing industry, Youngblood discovered it was hard to parlay his experience at Vino’s into a fulltime gig. In the interim he worked to build his resume – working at beer-centric bars, reading as many brewing books as he could get his hands on, and completing the esteemed Cicerone program (which essentially certifies someone as a “beer sommelier”).

Apple Blossom brewers (from left) Roger Rains, Brian Youngblood and Dan Bush

Courtesy photo

He also brewed at home quite a bit. He joined a local homebrewers club and met some people who were opening a commercial brewery of their own. Their expertise, however, was in the information technology field, not making beer. They didn’t have the know-how to run a brewery themselves so they hired Youngblood as head brewer and tasting room manager. Transplants Brewing Co. opened in Palmdale, California in January 2016 with Youngblood at the helm.

The gig at Transplants didn’t last long, though. Youngblood’s wife took a job at Walmart and a move to Northwest Arkansas was suddenly on the table. He started putting feelers out and an old connection came through. Josiah Moody, his former boss at Vino’s, was friendly with the Apple Blossom crew and knew they were in the market for a new brewer. He recommended Youngblood for the job and brewpub management was quick to take action.

“We hired Brian after a single Google Hangouts interview and Josiah’s word alone,” said Apple Blossom co-owner Evan McDonald.

The day I visited Apple Blossom I was able to sample several of Youngblood’s beers. One of which was an English Special Bitter (better known as ESB) brewed using the SMASH method (which stands for single malt and single hop). Youngblood used Maris Otter malt and East Kent Golding hops, and the combination resulted in a balanced and traditional take on the style. To soften things up even further Apple Blossom’s ESB is served on nitrogen.

On the other end of the spectrum was Youngblood’s barleywine, which was based on one of his longtime homebrew recipes. “I love brewing big beers,” he said. “We spent the winter brewing several big beers, and the barleywine was one of the first.” Youngblood has been brewing his barleywine around his son’s birthday every year, putting several bottles back to age so he can enjoy them when his son comes of age. To scale it up for a production run at Apple Blossom was special for him.

Also available for sample that day were a porter (chockfull of black patent malt with a nice roast character), a dry cider (a first for Apple Blossom), and a session IPA (based on a previous brewer’s recipe). All were fermented clean and were on-point as far as styles go. Assistant brewers Roger Rains and Dan Bush both play a part in creating a quality outcome on brew days.

McDonald’s service in the Arkansas Brewers Guild continues

McDonald, also a Little Rock native, is outspoken and a colorful character in the Arkansas brewing community. The Hendrix College graduate originally moved to Fayetteville with the intention of opening his own brewery. His first job after arriving in town was in the kitchen at Tiny Tim’s Pizza on the downtown square. “Sammy hired me and Al later fired me,” he said referring to current business partners Sammie Stephenson and Al Schaffer. Despite the occupational hazards involved with their first meeting, the new friends joined forces to launch a successful bar venture called Smoke & Barrel Tavern – a precursor to Apple Blossom Brewing Co.

McDonald has been active in the Arkansas Brewers Guild since Apple Blossom’s beginning. He previously served as the guild’s secretary, and is currently the vice president. Jonathan Martin of Bubba Brew’s Brewing Co. in Bonnerdale, Arkansas (near Hot Springs) is the president. He is a licensed attorney by day and brewer by night. “That’s precisely the reason I nominated him for the position,” said McDonald, recognizing the importance of managing the guild’s legal affairs.

Apple Blossom co-owner Evan McDonald (right) frequently appears alongside Brian Youngblood in ABBC’s weekly Facebook video updates.

Courtesy photo

Lobbying state legislators is, in fact, one of the Arkansas Brewers Guild most important charges. In an industry that has an estimated economic impact of $500 million across the state, making the laws more brewer-friendly is extremely important. Fortunately, The guild is finding an increasing level of support from legislators in Little Rock.

One of the industry’s biggest allies is a state representative from Northwest Arkansas. “Greg Leding is a real hero for craft beer,” said McDonald. “He’s such a sweet heart to all of us.”

Leding, a Springdale native and outspoken Democrat in what is an increasingly red state, recently co-sponsored a bill intended to improve the operating environment for the state’s brewers. I caught up with Leding at one of his “coffee with constituents” events at Onyx Coffee Lab to discuss the legislation.

Senate Bill 659 seeks to clarify several things, including the right of “front-of-house” brewery employees to work at other businesses that serve alcohol. “There is a law that says if you work at a brewery you can’t also work at a restaurant that serves alcohol,” said Leding. “A lot of people that work in the industry have multiple jobs, so it seemed kind of ridiculous that you might be cut off from job opportunities if you work in the [beer] industry.”

659, which passed the senate without a single no vote and was subsequently sent to the governor’s desk for signature, also allows small breweries in the state to receive and hold out-of-state beers to be poured at beer festivals. Hard liquor will be allowed in brewery taprooms, and the legislation clarifies the rules regarding beer shipments between small breweries and their various satellite locations.

Leding said there are virtually no holdouts in state legislature in terms of making things easier for the state’s brewers. “Even if you don’t drink – and there are a lot of people in the legislature who don’t drink – they recognize the economic impact of the brewing industry,” he told me.

Apple Blossom projects

There’s plenty in the works at Apple Blossom these days. Youngblood continues to hone his recipes, and several beers are on their way. There are a few (rather conspicuous) Four Roses whiskey barrels sitting in the brewhouse, imparting character on the beer contained inside. One barrel holds an old ale which Youngblood estimates will finish near 13% ABV after a six-month soak. Watch for special barrel releases soon.

Business at Apple Blossom is strong, and Emma Street Bar & Tap – an offshoot in downtown Springdale – is doing well, too. “We’ll be coming into music season soon and the patio will start livening up a little bit,” said McDonald. Bar & Tap is the model for the ground level of another Apple Blossom project in south Fayetteville.

A 0.2-acre lot adjacent to Greenhouse Grille on West Prairie Street will eventually be the home of a new mixed-use development with an Apple Blossom Brewing Company taproom on the ground floor.

Staff photo

The 12-unit project in Fayetteville’s Mill District is progressing, and should break ground later this month. McDonald said Apple Blossom will operate a taproom on the bottom level with residential units on upper floors. The mixed-use project, which includes Fayetteville Alderman Matthew Petty as a partner, will take about a year to complete.

Apple Blossom’s bakery business – led by Cody Johnson – is going gangbusters. McDonald said he and his partners are looking for a location to build out that side of the business, which gets busier with each passing day. Where and how it happens is still up in the air, but a standalone bakery continues to be a priority.

Even with clear priorities for the business the guys at Apple Blossom are always looking for the right set of circumstances to grow. “We’re basically looking for opportunities that will lead to total world domination,” said McDonald with a mischievous grin.

With Youngblood at the brewhouse helm and McDonald providing equal parts wisdom and humor, Apple Blossom should continue to dominate its particular corner of the state’s brewing industry for the foreseeable future.