2020 comes to an end for Arkansas beer

Courtesy Fossil Cove Brewing Co.

As we come to the end of a year some would prefer to forget, let’s look back on some of the beer news that was made in 2020.

January was relatively quiet in the industry. Was everyone practicing “Dry January?” In hindsight, perhaps more events should have been scheduled for the first month of the year.

In February, Fossil Cove Brewing Co. hosted the fifth installment of its winter beer festival — aptly named Frost Fest — on the frozen tundra of the Washington County Fairgrounds. Little did anyone know it would be the last major beer festival of the year in Arkansas.

Things took a turn for the worse in March. First, co-founder and brewmaster John Lee was ousted from Little Rock’s Rebel Kettle Brewing Co. Not much was said about the reasons why, but the move signaled a dramatic shift in the brewery’s direction.

By the middle of March, it was clear that COVID-19 was going to dramatically impact daily life. Schools were shuttered and office workers were told to work remotely. Governor Asa Hutchinson closed bars and restaurants (and taprooms) for onsite consumption on March 19. But in a surprise move, he issued an order that allowed breweries to make home deliveries. Fossil Cove, Bike Rack Brewing Co., and New Province Brewing Co. were among the first to test drive the new rule.

In April, most breweries shifted to online ordering and curbside pickup. One bit of good news did come out of Fayetteville, where local favorite West Mountain Brewing Co. invested in a can seamer and started offering 16-ounce cans for takeaway.

Courtesy, Crisis Brewing Co.

Bentonville Brewing Co. returned to its namesake home in May. Its brand new 20,000-square-foot facility includes a 20-barrel brewhouse and expansive indoor and outdoor seating areas. Bentonville Brewing moved to the new space from Rogers, where it had been operating since 2017.

Also in May, Flyway Brewing Co. in North Little Rock opened what it dubbed “Tent City” in the parking lot next to the brewery. With more than a dozen event tents assembled, patrons were able to start enjoying Flyway’s beer onsite once again (albeit in socially-distanced manner). Other Arkansas breweries would soon erect outdoor tents of their own, including Crisis Brewing Co. and Fossil Cove in Fayetteville.

Rebel Kettle made news again in June. The brewery’s revamped leadership team made the decision to completely rebrand, unveiling a new name — East Sixth Brewing Co. — along with an updated color scheme and a new lineup of beers. Hearts broke at the end of the month, when Fayetteville’s Apple Blossom Brewing Co. announced it was closing its doors after a successful seven-year run.

In July, Gotahold Brewing opened in Eureka Springs, making it the city’s second active brewery. A couple of counties to the east, Rapp’s Barren Brewing Co. announced plans to renovate the second-oldest building in Mountain Home and move brewing operations there once complete (expected in early 2021).

Pridgin Family Brewery opened in Scranton in August. It joined a group of tightly-clustered Logan County breweries that includes Country Monks Brewing and Prestonrose Farm and Brewing Co. All three are within 10 miles of each other.

Ozark Brewing Co. released BDCS 2020 in August, without the typical fanfare and long lines that snake around the brewery. This year’s release was a more subdued event, with orders processed online and pickups taking place over a three-week period.

Courtesy, West Mountain Brewing Co.

In September, Diamond Bear Brewing Co. announced the rebranding of its popular Strawberry Blonde, ditching the provocative pinup model on the label for a more modern look. The fruit flavored pale lager is now known as Little Red Strawberry Lager and features a fishing bear on the package. In similar fashion, Diamond Bear switched Southern Blonde to Blu Golden Lager a couple of months later.

Also in September, Point Remove Brewing Co. opened inside a renovated Coca-Cola plant in Morrilton. A canning operation was included in the project so that other Arkansas breweries are able to package their beer at Point Remove on a remote basis.

In October, Lost Forty Brewing Co. won the most important award ever earned by an Arkansas brewery. The state’s biggest beer producer was named the top mid-sized brewery of the year at the Great American Beer Festival, a category that includes breweries producing between 15,000 and 6 million barrels annually. Lost Forty also won a gold medal for Bottle Conditioned Day Drinker.

Another brewery opened in October, this one inside the new Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff. Downstream Crafted Brewing Co. lists an IPA and a brown ale made with honey on its menu.

Rendezvous Junction Brewing Co. announced in November that it is building a new brewing facility near Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers. It is expected to open next summer. Later in the month, Lost Forty released its big barrel-aged imperial stout known as Nighty Night. The beer is typically unveiled during the annual Festival of Darkness (a multi-brewery celebration of dark beer), but the event was nixed due to COVID-19.

December brought bittersweet news. East Sixth announced it was closing its doors, ending a tumultuous year for the once-promising brewery. On the following day came word that Lost Forty was acquiring the property with plans to brew small batch beers there and introduce a new food menu. Ending the year on a high note, the Arkansas Brewers Guild elected two new members, increasing the number of women in leadership positions to four.

Courtesy, Point Remove Brewing Co.

2020 was a challenge for everyone, and the Arkansas beer industry was no exception. Brewers were forced to adjust their operating plans and get creative to stay in business.

Taproom traffic seemed to improve somewhat as the year progressed, but outside draft accounts have been slower to recover. Breweries that bottle or can their beers had a competitive advantage in 2020, as grocery and package store shipments held steady (or even increased).

Next year should be better for everyone. There are even a few new breweries slated to open as the calendar flips — Burks Brothers Brewing in Bryant, Native Dog Brewing in Camden, and Apple Blossom in Fayetteville (which is reemerging under new ownership).

Cheers to a new year, everyone!