West Mountain gets by with a little help from a friend

Staff photo

Over 400,000 lights shine in the night sky, signaling the return of the Christmas season in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The downtown square is ablaze with the holiday spirit. Hundreds of people mill about, snapping pictures and drinking hot cocoa.

For many, the night would be incomplete without a stop at Tiny Tim’s Pizza or the adjoining (and affiliated) West Mountain Brewing Co. Inside families fill tables and thirsty patrons line the bar. Pizza and beer after a stroll around the lighted square has become a Fayetteville tradition.

Finding a place to sit can be a challenge this time of year. You have to exercise patience upon arrival. You’ll probably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other anxious customers, each ready to pounce on a table as soon as it empties.

To say it’s busy this time of year is an understatement. It’s all the hustling wait staff can do to survive the fever pitch of these December nights.

I’ve been going to Tiny Tim’s Pizza for as long as I can remember. Although I grew up in the Fayetteville area and have seen plenty of places come and go, I don’t ever recall a time when Tim’s wasn’t on the downtown square. In many ways, it has become safe refuge from an ever-changing world. Comfort can be found in the cracker-crusted pizza and beer brewed at West Mountain (which is connected by a hallway in the rear of the dining rooms).

It is one of the places I frequently spend time with friends and family. There is probably some sentimental bias woven into this story, and for that I apologize in advance.

Tim’s started brewing under the West Mountain banner in 2011. It was one of the first to do so in Fayetteville. It carved its niche at the very outset of the recent brewing craze. Many breweries would follow, but West Mountain will always be thought of as a brewing pioneer in the city (along with Ozark Brewing Co., and later, Hog Haus Brewing Co. on Dickson Street).

There are some real characters at the bar on most days, spinning yarns during the 4—6 p.m. happy hour. “It’s both ends of the spectrum,” says owner John Schmuecker, who bought the business in 1996 after working there for a decade. “A lot of the professors come down here. My happy hour is an older crowd — there aren’t a lot of college students. Farmers to construction workers, it’s quite a mix.”

For those who enjoy people watching, the brewery side is one of the best views in the state. Schmuecker keeps the volume on the music low, and guitars never strum at West Mountain. It’s supposed to be a place where two people can enjoy their conversation.

The cast of happy hour regulars has mastered the fine art of colloquy. No topic is off limits; no opinion goes unheard. “Sometimes the conversations can get heated,” Schmuecker confesses. Fortunately, most of people there know how to have a fervent debate, and then turn right around and drink to each other’s health.

West Mountain Brewing Co. — though not an actual brewing company at the time — was Andy Coates’ first introduction to Fayetteville when he moved here in 2010. He helped Schmuecker get the brewhouse up and running after it sat dormant for nearly 10 years. A year later West Mountain released its first beer, aptly named Coming Soon Pale Ale.

Coates remembers the vibe in the brewery during those early days.

“I was there every afternoon when they rolled in,” he says, referring to the happy hour regulars. “They all sit at the bar and talk, and it was that ‘Cheers’ aspect of ‘everyone knows your name.’ I don’t think there are too many bars where that happens on a daily basis.”

Of course West Mountain is not just a bar. The Tim’s side is more family-oriented, with bright lighting and an open feel. I’ve never felt out of place taking my kids to the brewery side, though. I have shared a table with four adults and twice as many children there more times than I can count.

West Mountain’s reputation for beer continues to grow. And that’s a testament to how its owner handles his relationship with the brewers. Since Coates left in 2013 the brewery has had four others at the helm. Two moved on to other jobs in the industry, one is about to open his own brewery, and another is just starting out. It seems like every year or so Schmuecker is hiring someone new. Yet somehow the brewery doesn’t miss a beat.

“I didn’t think it would be annual thing, as it has turned out,” he says, referring to the churn. “But I’ve got no problem with it. It’s been a lot of fun scoring guys like Jesse [Gagnon] to come in here.”

Andy Coates was the first and continues to influence

Andy Coates / Courtesy Ozark Beer Co.

Jesse Gagnon is the newest brewer at West Mountain, but we’ll meet him later in the story. Before we do that let’s think about Andy Coates and the foundation he put in place.

You probably know his story by now. Coates left his cell phone number at the bar one day after blindly wandering in off the street. He asked the manager, Jeanie Wendt, to have the owner give him a call. Coates said he could probably help him get the brewery up and running. Coates was new in town and knew a thing or two about brewing (thanks to gigs at Chicago’s Goose Island and Great Divide in Denver).

“He liked me right off the bat because I’m from Iowa,” says Coates, referring to the moment he and Schmuecker first met. Iowans are much like Arkansans and people from other rural states — that is, they’re hardworking, loyal, and take pride in the abilities of their fellow statesmen. Coincidentally, Mel Cranston, the original owner of Tiny Tim’s, was also from Iowa. He died this past summer at the age of 68.

Schmuecker hired Coates knowing the young brewer was planning to open his own place at some point in the future. There was no false impression that Coates would be there for the long haul. “It was a gentleman’s agreement with Andy,” he recalls. “I needed at least a year or so from him.”

The arrangement worked out great for both men. Schmuecker was finally able to produce beer, and Coates had the flexibility to come and go as he needed while planning his own brewery (Ozark Beer Co., which opened in Rogers in 2013).

“Working for John is really great,” says Coates. “If you know what you’re doing he wants to leave you alone. And he was gracious enough to let us be flexible in terms of schedule.”

True to form for an Iowa boy, he regularly came in at 4- or 5-o’clock in the morning to get a jump on the day’s brewing schedule. Shortly after noon each workday he was free to work on the details of his business plan. “I’d get in, get the work done, and get out,” says Coates. “The flexibility was the biggest thing for me.”

Letting the brewers manage their own time is important to Schmuecker. “You keep me full of beer and you can plan your vacation whenever you want to, that sort of thing,” he says. “It’s all up to you.”

Coates saw other benefits to brewing at West Mountain — it wasn’t just his ability to come and go as he pleased. He had worked at a couple of the biggest craft breweries in America, but there were still some aspects of brewing that he was unfamiliar with. Owning the process from start-to-finish was a first, as was working with a brewing system packed into such a small space.

“I had never done actual recipe development on my own,” says Coates. “At Goose Island we had an innovation team, but we didn’t really have much of an outlet to make anything different [from the top sellers]. West Mountain was an absolute clean slate. And for better or worse, I had never worked on a system that tiny before.”

Coates was suddenly forced to think about flavor profiles and decide what outcomes he wanted for his beer. “I knew how to make a clean beer, but finding the recipes that people wanted to drink was a different thing,” he says.

West Mountain became his laboratory, and with rare exception he nailed each attempt. He says the pale ale he brewed at West Mountain was so good that it ultimately influenced the recipe formulation for Ozark’s popular American Pale Ale (with a little rye malt thrown in the mix).

Coates has enjoyed incredible success since leaving West Mountain. Ozark — which he launched with his wife and business partner Lacie Bray and friend and partner Jefferson Baldwin — is one of the darlings of the state’s brewing industry. The black cans of APA and diamond-shaped tap handles are Arkansas ubiquities these days. Folks line the sidewalks surrounding the brewery when something special is released (such as BDCS or the recent Shagbark Brown).

There is a difference in working for a small brewpub like West Mountain and a production brewery like Ozark, however.

“As a production brewery it’s a different mindset,” says Coates. “We’re brewing 120 barrels each week, and pretty much every Monday morning at 6 a.m. we’re mashing in the pale ale,” says Coates. “We get to make some specialty beers every now and then, but we’re on a pretty set schedule. It can be predictable and it’s not what everybody wants to do.”

Coates has helped West Mountain stay staffed with capable brewers since he left the job. He posted the classified ad that attracted his immediate successor, Will Gallaspy. He was friends with Ryan Pickop, who replaced Gallaspy. And when Pickop left the helm, waiting in the wings was Casey Letellier, who Coates had befriended in the Ozark taproom in the months prior.

The newest brewer — Jesse Gagnon — worked for Coates at Ozark and was encouraged to take the West Mountain gig when Letellier departed to start his own brewery.

“He doesn’t have to do any of that stuff,” Schmuecker says of Coates’ penchant for keeping him staffed. “He has been such a great friend and ally from the beginning.”

Will Gallaspy and Ryan Pickop

The focus for this story is primarily on the brewers who remain in Northwest Arkansas, but it should be noted how important the contributions made by Will Gallaspy and Ryan Pickop were to the success of West Mountain.

Both brewers made favorable impressions on the folks drinking their beer. Both had unique personalities and put their own mark on the styles and recipes they produced. Each brewer was profiled more fully here on the Fayetteville Flyer when they were hired at West Mountain. Gallaspy has an interesting story to tell; as does Pickop.

Gallaspy moved to the west coast and brewed at 32 North Brewing Co. in San Diego after leaving West Mountain. He recently wrapped up some consulting work for Guthrie CiderWorks and is in between gigs right now. He will likely catch on somewhere after the holidays are over. He has a great resume and won’t be a free agent for long.

Pickop is now brewing at Tulsa’s American Solera, which was named the best new American brewery at the RateBeer Best awards earlier this year. American Solera is a side project of Prairie Artisan Ales founder Chase Healey. Working there should be seen as a feather in Pickop’s hat.

“Every single person that has gone in after me has changed it for the better,” says Andy Coates, referring to Gallaspy, Pickop, and the rest. “Better in terms of changing the process or better by adding something new.”

Letellier puts his stamp on West Mountain, launching Ivory Bill soon

Casey Letellier inside the future home of Ivory Bill Brewing Co. / Courtesy

Casey Letellier has his hands full these days. The Minnesota native and John Brown University graduate is busy converting an old building in downtown Siloam Springs into the brewery of his dreams. He and partner Dorothy Hall plan to open Ivory Bill Brewing Co. next month.

Or so they hope. There’s still a lot of work to do.

I met the couple one afternoon to see how things were moving along. It was a sunny day and the café adjacent to the brewery was bustling with students from the local college. “This building was a car dealership built in 1937,” says Letellier. “Pour John’s coffee shop is in what would have been the show room. The area that will be our taproom was the service entrance.”

The space is big and airy with windows all around. The morning light fills the soon-to-be brewery on one side, and the setting sun winks from the other. Rollup doors indicate where old Pontiac Bonnevilles and Chieftains were provided entrance to the building long ago. The footprint is nearly 4,000 square feet — plenty of space for Letellier and Hall to work with.

A few years ago, Letellier worked for posh Siloam eatery 28 Springs, serving as the “head drinks enthusiast” there. It was his job to keep the bar at the forefront of cocktail culture. He also focused on the growing number of available craft beers. Letellier was a passionate homebrewer, and providing great beer to the restaurant’s patrons was important to him.

Letellier expanded his palate by sampling different styles of beer from a variety of breweries (from both near and far). The first time he tried the molé stout from West Mountain he thought, “Well, this is the best Arkansas beer I’ve had by miles.” It was a transcendent experience, and he admits he became a big fan of Andy Coates that day.

Once Coates opened Ozark, Letellier began hanging out at the brewery on Sunday afternoons, discussing beer with the owners. He got to know Coates pretty well over time. The pair even brewed a batch of beer together — what Letellier describes on the 28 Springs Facebook page as “a pale, not-too-strong Belgian farmhouse style beer with delicious old-school Saaz hops and a yeast strain that adds tons of complex spicy aromas.”

Eventually Lettelier decided he wanted to pursue brewing as a career and took an internship with Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op in Los Alamos, New Mexico. While there he worked alongside experienced brewers and improved his own skills in the process.

The internship ended after a few months and he returned to Northwest Arkansas. As luck would have it, West Mountain was once again in need of a brewer. Coates immediately recommended Letellier for the job.

“When Casey showed up I was in a bad spot,” says Schmuecker. There was no brewer for a period of weeks, and West Mountain almost ran out of beer. “He came in and really knocked it out of the park. We went from having three or four beers on the line to what we have now.”

It didn’t happen overnight, however. When Letellier started at West Mountain there was no transition time with the former brewer. Pickop was gone and beer was quickly running out. So, he spent his first week checking inventory and turning knobs to see how the system was built. Eventually he figured things out, and over time he filled all fourteen tap handles at West Mountain with house beer — an amazing feat for a tiny 3-barrel brewing system.

Just as it was for Coates, Letellier walked into the job at West Mountain knowing he had plans to eventually strike out on his own. And just like Coates, he found the flexibility Schmuecker afforded him invaluable.

“John’s expectations were entirely results-based,” says Letellier. “He did not care if I got there at 4 a.m. and was out by noon, or if I got there at noon and worked until 4 a.m. If I made good beer, we were good.”

And good beer he made. Of course, the standards were there — IPA, brown, blonde, etc. — but Letellier also introduced new flavors. A chai spice beer stood out, as did a peach saison. And really, the list could go on and on because he was always trying something new.

Letellier brewed his last batch at West Mountain a little more than a month ago. He’s ready to do exactly what he told Schmuecker he was going to eventually do — open his own brewery.

Ivory Bill Brewing Co. is a work-in-progress in downtown Siloam Springs. It was a no-brainer for Letellier to locate there, despite its reputation as a tee-totaling town.

“Some [city leaders] are from faith traditions that don’t encourage drinking,” he says. “But they have seen their kids—who are now adults—embrace the [beer] culture.”

Hall, who has an accomplished culinary background and also worked at 28 Springs, says being a part of Siloam prior to opening the brewery was key to swaying opinions. “I think part of it is the reputation Casey has with the city. He already had rapport with them. He helped start the bar program at 28 Springs and kind of proved it wasn’t going to be the downfall of the city.”

Letellier and Hall recently purchased a 7-barrel brewhouse from a brewery in Iowa. It’s a handsome assortment of British-manufactured vessels clad in wood.

“When we found this system, it just felt like this amazing gift for the kind of beers that we intend to make,” says Letellier. The fermenters have covers but are not pressurized. Letellier says he plans to build a room with HEPA filters and positive pressure so wild yeast and bacteria don’t drift into the beer. He thinks this form of open fermentation — along with properly-handled yeast — imparts a favorable character on the beer.

Letellier is still experimenting with yeast strains and recipes for Ivory Bill. He has just about nailed down the formula for what he calls Regular. It’s a simple, approachable beer brewed with pilsner malt, Arkansas corn, and British yeast. It most closely resembles a Kolsch or cream ale in terms of style. Other beers in the works include Regular Extra and Dark.

These are simple names for simple beers says Letellier. “There’s this thing with craft breweries and third wave coffee shops, where you walk up to order and can’t decide what you want.” Menus can be confusing and too many options overwhelm people new to craft beer. “We’re really wanting to have a mixed crowd, to not seem so pretentious.”

Letellier values his time at West Mountain. It stripped him to his core in terms of brewing philosophy. The small system and tiny footprint made him think outside the box and develop troubleshooting skills that will benefit him as a brewery owner.

“You don’t need everything you think you need to make great beer,” he says. “You can make great beer on an incredibly straightforward system.”

It’s fitting that West Mountain will be Ivory Bill’s first customer, just as it was for Ozark.

Gagnon takes the helm

Jesse Gagnon / Courtesy Ozark Beer Co.

Next up at West Mountain is 31-year-old Jesse Gagnon. He’s a friendly and energetic guy who lives a short distance from the brewpub. The Maine native most recently worked at Ozark Beer Co. He had a previous stint at Mother’s Brewing Co. in Springfield, Missouri. In other words, he’s no stranger to making good beer.

You might think growing up in Maine, Gagnon would have a tough time adjusting to our region of the country. But, he says, Maine was not unlike Arkansas in many ways. Back home he lived down a dirt road and was surrounded by woods. “I grew up in a pretty laid-back area. A lot of good acreage to run around on, that’s for sure,” he said.

Folks in Maine are also fiercely independent, and have a healthy distrust of outsiders. Those are qualities found in abundance in the hills and hollers of the Ozark Mountains.

Gagnon moved just outside of Evening Shade, Arkansas while he was still in high school. Perhaps the only thing he knew about the state back then was a television show starring Burt Reynolds named for his new hometown. He remembers seeing tattered billboard images of the mustached 70s sex symbol scattered throughout the landscape. Many had suffered damage from beer bottle tosses and shotgun blasts.

After completing high school Gagnon attended the College of the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri. He studied English there, which makes sense considering how well-read he seems to be. He dropped several references to literature during our interview. I picked up a copy of Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry because he mentioned it a few times.

Following college Gagnon drifted between his native Maine, adopted Ozarks, and Colorado (where he found work as an outdoor guide and instructor). After a fair amount of time, he decided to stop living the life of a transient, to lay down roots. As he contemplated things, he kept thinking about his adopted home in the Upland South.

“There’s something about the Ozarks that felt more real than Colorado,” he says. “There was a part of it [in Colorado] that felt like an extended vacation. It didn’t have that essence of grit. The Ozarks felt more real and tangible to me.”

His experience in Colorado did pay off in the long run. As with many who visit the state, he took notice of the flavorful beer available all around him. When he moved to Springfield, Missouri he found a new brewery in town — Mother’s Brewing Co. — and decided he should probably work there.

As he explains it, Gagnon got the job by hanging out at the bar and socializing with the employees. Instead of blindly casting his application and waiting for a call, he became a regular and developed relationships with people at the brewery. He started volunteering on the packaging line, and a few months later, was offered a job managing the taproom.

“I ended up wearing a lot of hats there,” says Gagnon. He moved into a full-time brewing role at Mother’s after impressing the owners with his beer knowledge and enthusiasm at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver (where he was a part of the brewery’s official pouring contingent).

Gagnon started dating his now-wife Ashlyn while working at Mother’s. She later moved to Siloam Springs to attend John Brown University — a two-and-a-half hour drive each way. The couple tried having a long-distance relationship for about six months. Gagnon eventually soured on living in Springfield, and tired of the long schlep to Northwest Arkansas, decided the time was right for a move.

Based on an earlier experience, he knew there was a brewing scene developing below the Arkansas-Missouri state line. And one brewer in particular stood out.

“I was working in the taproom at Mother’s,” recalls Gagnon. “Andy [Coates] brought some growlers in from West Mountain, and I remember getting him in on a tour on a slammed Saturday.” A connection was made that day — one that would pay off in the not-too-distant future.

Coates opened his own brewery and Gagnon made Ozark Beer Co. a regular stop on his way to see his girlfriend in Siloam Springs. He was intrigued by Ozark and couldn’t get enough. “Its reputation and quality were important to me,” he says. “There are parts about their model that I really enjoy. There’s this rustic laidback nature to it.”

Just as he did before landing the job at Mother’s, Gagnon made a point to develop relationships with the people inside the brewery. He calls it his “informal application process,” though some might think of it as networking done well.

The strategy was once again successful.

Ozark grew to the point that Coates needed help with brewing duties. Demand was up and capacity was being added in the form of more and more fermentation tanks. There was simply too much work for one brewer to handle and it was time to hire another. Coates reached out to Gagnon, with whom he had grown familiar, and offered the job.

A lot has happened at the brewery since Gagnon joined in early 2015. BDCS, Double IPA, canned IPA, etc. There have been a variety of small batch releases that were met with fanfare. But from Gangnon’s perspective, nothing matches the brewery’s move to its new location earlier this year.

“The move was huge,” he says. “I wasn’t officially the head brewer at the time, but I was managing the flow of production and scheduling. Having Andy spearhead everything with the new building, and then trying to keep production going and trying to make this huge leap with equipment and everything while not letting the production drop off the map…was quite the feat.”

Despite the success, Gagnon (who seems to have a philosophic approach to life) began thinking about his future in brewing. The demanding schedule and repetitive nature of production brewing were perhaps not in line with his personal goals.

“The head brewer at Ozark Beer Co. is the best position that I can think of,” he says. “But if I’m going to stay in the industry, we have to do this to the beat of our own drum. I’ve been mulling this over for a long time.”

By “this” he means what outsiders may not see as a natural straight-line progression for a brewer’s career. By “this” he means moving from a large-scale production brewery to a small brewpub environment.

When Casey Letellier announced it was time to leave West Mountain, owner John Schmuecker once again consulted Coates on a replacement. Coates casually mentioned the position to his coworkers at Ozark, brainstorming possible solutions for all to hear. Little did he know his second-in-command started seriously considering the job for himself.

“I ended up calling Casey and picking his brain about the position,” says Gagnon. “He was really encouraging. He was also very conscious of the fact that he and Andy were close and he didn’t want to be stealing a brewer.”

Gagnon ultimately decided the move was the right one to make. He pulled Coates and Lacie Bray aside one morning at the brewery and told them he wanted to pursue the job at West Mountain.

He says their response was tremendous. “They had been around the block enough, and they care enough about real things, that they weren’t going to be selfish.” When Schmuecker later called to check in, Coates told him, “I’ve got your guy.”

By the time I sat down with Gagnon to interview him for this story he had been on the job for just a couple of weeks. He had the opportunity to brew a batch with Letellier, which was helpful in terms of understanding how things work on the quirky brewhouse.

He is still thinking about what approach he wants to take with his beers, but Letellier has some advice for his successor:

“It’s a unique place, but a really special place too,” he says. “The brewery has a few quirks. The burner won’t heat while the pump is running, so keep that in mind while you’re sparging.”

“And don’t run out of IPA.”

“The most sacred pub in Arkansas”

Brian Sorensen

Jesse Gagnon plops through hose water in black rubber boots as he cleans the brewhouse. It’s early on a Friday morning and there’s not much traffic on the downtown square. City workers are busy replacing bulbs on the Christmas light installation that attracts so many visitors this time of year.

Although many of the happy hour regulars steer clear of West Mountain when the lights are on (to avoid the crowds that jam the downtown square), they’ll be back. Nothing scratches their itch quite like the cozy brewpub at the corner of Block and Mountain.

“West Mountain is this really wonderful, honest stripped-down version of what beer in community means,” says Casey Lettlier. “As a brewer, you can take that experience and go anywhere with it.”

There have been five brewers in six years, with each one departed using West Mountain as a springboard to something new. And thanks to Andy Coates, there hasn’t really been an issue finding a brewer to replace them.

Of course, part of the equation is having a great boss. Working for a guy like John Schmuecker is appealing in its own right.

“They’re coming because they get to do their own thing,” said Schmuecker. “They get to make up their own recipes. It’s such an artistic thing for them. As long as they keep those four or five basics I want on the line [IPA, brown, blonde, stout, and rye ale] they can do whatever they want.”

Schmuecker does sit down with his brewers on a monthly basis, but mostly just to make sure there’s a plan in place. As long as his brewer is organized, he really only has one other expectation.

“The brewer needs to be pleasant with the regulars,” he says. “That’s part of the deal here — you have to be able to associate with these people and talk with them. They want to know what’s coming down the line, and sometimes give their input too.”

Although Gagnon has only been at West Mountain a short time, he already sees the importance it has in the community.

“It’s the most sacred pub in Arkansas,” he says. “The group of regulars in here can’t be beat anywhere. All of them are really interesting characters that I hope to have time to sit down with soon.”

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