FLYER Q&A: Hawk Moth’s Bradley Riggs talks about collaborations, IPAs, and business ventures

Hawk Moth owner and brewmaster Bradley Riggs / Photo: Brian Sorensen

Hawk Moth Brewery & Beer Parlor is a little more than two years old.

Over that span of time, owner and brewmaster Bradley Riggs has become one of the most respected beermakers in Arkansas.

His success is due in part to his individuality. He’s not canning pale ale and lager for distribution, he’s making small batch, wood-aged beers that are hard to categorize. And they’re even harder to find since most are sold at the brewery and disappear within days of release.

True, Hawk Moth isn’t making much beer to begin with. The Rogers brewery produced 230 barrels of beer in 2019, and according to Riggs, is on pace to do the same in 2020.

“We are about to close out at 230 barrels again,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s just very different how we’ve sold those barrels. We’ve had three or four months where we’ve made more beer than any month in the past. And then we’ve had a couple of months where we only turned out one or two batches. It’s been all over the board.”

The reason for the topsy-turvy year was, of course, COVID-19.

“We were expecting to grow to 300 barrels this year,” said Riggs. “And we probably would have done that if everything had gone perfectly.”

Despite the challenges, there was still plenty to celebrate in 2020.

In our interview, Riggs discussed his penchant for collaborations, some of the beers he made this year, and an exciting opportunity that awaits in the year ahead.

You’ve become a willing collaborator. Why are you so eager to make beer with other breweries?

I really enjoy collaborations because there’s plenty more for me to learn. It’s nice to bounce things off other people and hear about what they’re doing at their own breweries.

2nd & Hudson is a repeat collaboration with New Province Brewing Co. What’s the story behind this beer?

I’ve been brewing with Kort [Castleberry] at New Province for a long time. He and I work really well together. We use the same name every year that we brew this beer, but it’s a totally different style every time. Last time it was a dry-hopped saison that we made at New Province. We brewed a dark sour on cabernet sauvignon grapes at my place this year.

You recently brewed a beer (Buddy System) that was started at Hawk Moth and finished at Lost Forty Brewing Co. in Little Rock. How did you handle the logistics?

This one seemed like fun because I’ve never seen it done like this before. We boiled it and then chilled it here at Hawk Moth. At this stage you would normally pitch yeast. Instead, we transferred the wort to a tank and then immediately kegged it without pitching yeast. One of Lost Forty’s drivers came up that afternoon and we loaded up the kegs of chilled wort and sent them down to Little Rock. You always think about beer being the most susceptible to infection at that stage [post-boil, pre-fermentation], so it was risky. They pumped the wort into a fermenter there. We chose a pretty historic Orval style yeast strain so that enough sugar was left behind after fermentation. And then Lost Forty put their house mixed culture in the beer and finished it in Petite Sirah barrels.

You hooked up with Great Raft Brewing Co. in Shreveport, Louisiana for a collaboration beer earlier this year. What was that like?

When Hawk Moth was about to open I set some goals for what I wanted to do in the first two or three years, and doing a collaboration with Great Raft was one of them. I think really highly of those guys, so I had high hopes when I went down to Shreveport in July to brew that collaboration. I learned a lot while I was there, and took a lot back that I’m still using in my weekly practices now. The guys from Great Raft kept saying all this nice stuff, like, ‘Yeah, we got so much out of this too.’ But I know better than that!

[Their beer was a New England IPA called Three Easy Payments. Garrett Johnson from Great Raft wrote about the collaboration on the brewery’s website.]

Hawk Moth is known for obscure styles and an experimental approach, yet your biggest seller continues to be your IPA. Why is Hazy & Hoppy so popular, and how has it changed over time?

In the beginning, my plan was to do these interesting French style beers and all of this weird stuff. But at the end of the day, people want to drink IPAs. And I’m no different. I want to drink them too! Hazy & Hoppy makes up over half of our total volume. We brew ten barrels of IPA every seventeen days. Anytime you see Hazy & Hoppy, it’s the freshest IPA in the market because we’re pushing out small batches to our accounts every three weeks.

[Most of Hawk Moth’s beer is sold in the taproom, but Riggs said he has three draft accounts in Washington County and about 20 in Benton County.]

I’m currently on batch 28, and none of them have been exactly the same. Around batch 14 we locked in on the hops. We use a 50-50 blend of CTZ and Citra. With the last three or four batches we’ve been experimenting with the pH. It makes a huge difference in how the hops ‘stick’ to what you’re tasting. You can also create haze a lot easier if you get the pH just right. Batch 28 is all of those things put together.

Bike Rack and Hawk Moth hosted a pop-up in Fayetteville on Dec. 11 / Courtesy photo

You partnered with Bentonville’s Bike Rack Brewing Co. earlier this year to offer a combined delivery service. How did that come about?

I’ve known [Bike Rack co-owner] Jeff Charlson for a while, and I know a lot of his team pretty well, too. They had a bigger platform, better logistics, and more labor available to make deliveries happen. They said, “Let’s include you in this, it’s not going to hurt us at all. We can combine our orders and keep our staff busy.” So, I jumped in with them in April. That was also about the time I started working on some future plans with them.

How involved are you with Bike Rack at this point?

They were looking for an operating partner earlier this year because they were going through some changes on the production side of their business. They approached me and asked, “Would you be interested in operating our brewery while also running your own brewery?” I thought to myself, “Suuure, I’ve got plenty of time for that!” But since I already knew Jeff and the team, I was able to come in pretty seamlessly and start working with them. To this point I’ve been working there on a contractual basis, though they’ve given me free reign to tweak recipes and get involved with marketing plans and events.

[Riggs currently leads Bike Rack’s brewing team as an outside consultant.]

It sounds like your partnership with Bike Rack will evolve in the new year. What can you say at this point?

We’re working on a company-wide merger where Hawk Moth and Bike Rack will all be one revenue house. We’re not really competing brands right now, as we’re in very different circles, even in the same markets. Hawk Moth’s focus is on all these small batch beers, and Bike Rack’s focus is to grow production and sell six packs throughout the entire state.

So, it makes a lot of sense, I think, in that we kind of get the best of both worlds. I certainly get the best of both worlds. I’ll brew beer that I can go buy at Walmart, which was never part of my thinking with Hawk Moth. And it also gives me a little more freedom of capital to push the boundaries of what Hawk Moth can achieve.

This merger is really cool because it hasn’t happened in the state before. You hear about big mergers on a national scale, but often it’s Anheuser-Busch buying smaller craft breweries. But those smaller brands are losing their identities in the process. Ours is a way to join forces to grow market share, and we don’t see ourselves cannibalizing each other in any way.

A Bike Rack-Hawk Moth merger is big news. As Riggs pointed out, a merger hasn’t happened in Arkansas before. This is new territory for the state’s beer industry.

He said both brands will maintain their individual identities, so Hawk Moth will continue with its unique, small batch ways. In other words, don’t expect to see cans of Hazy & Hoppy in your local Walmart anytime soon.

The details of the merger are still being sorted by attorneys. Information regarding the structure of the combined company and individual ownership stakes will come in the new year.

In the meantime, grab some of Hawk Moth’s most recent collaboration beers from the taproom. Or be bold and ask for one of the obscure styles on the menu that you’ve never heard of before. Chances are, it was brewed on a whim and may never be repeated.

“That’s why we opened a five-barrel brewery,” said Riggs. “To make what we want, when we want it.”