Checking in with Springdale’s beer (and cider) makers

Cans of Core’s Scarlet Letter spiked seltzer / Photo: Brian Sorensen

Springdale is smack in the middle of the Northwest Arkansas beer scene. It doesn’t garner as much attention as its neighbors to the north and south, but the city known for chicken and traffic jams produces plenty of tasty beverages, too.

We recently spent time in Springdale, checking in with its two breweries and one cidery. Here is a quick update on how each is faring in 2021.

Black Apple

Black Apple opened in late 2015, tucked into the backside of a starved-for-attention building in downtown Springdale. Walking along Emma Avenue in those days, you’d hardly notice it was there.

Local cider was a brand-new concept back then. People generally knew about cider, but only because of the few national brands that were available — Angry Orchard and Woodchuck, primarily.

“We started off super small because we were doing something that hadn’t been done before,” said Black Apple co-owner Leo Orpin. He and partners Trey Holt and John Handley led the charge for local cider production.

In early 2016, Black Apple began distributing to a handful of local retail accounts. The reception was tepid at first, but cider quickly proved to be a popular alternative to beer. Consumer demand has increased significantly since that time.

“Cider has grown in a major way,” said Orpin. “Just like you see with breweries, wineries, and distilleries. As we got used to our equipment, as our personnel grew, as we grew to understand the industry…it just got better and better as we went along.”

Black Apple renovated its production area in 2018. Stainless steel fermenters — each 1,000 to 2,000 gallons in size — replaced the plastic tubs originally used for fermentation. According to Orpin, production capacity increased ten-fold with the additions.

Black Apple’s barrel-aged cider / Photo: Brian Sorenesen

The taproom was then expanded into the front of the building. Money was spent to further rehabilitate the structure, which is owned by Black Apple. Now Emma Avenue passersby can peer in and see happy patrons drinking cider.

Orpin said the traditionally flavored Hibiscus (formerly known as Cardinal Kiss) represents 40% of total production. Semi-Sweet is the only other year-round offering. There are several seasonal ciders that rotate, and lots of playful batches that take a more experimental approach.

The bigger, bolder varieties are garnering a lot of local attention, too. A recent example is an 8.2% ABV orange and vanilla-flavored cider aged in rum barrels.

“We assumed the barrel-aged stuff would relate enough to what the craft beer industry was doing, and it would bring the craft beer drinkers,” Orpin said. “What we didn’t realize was that we were incubating a cider culture right here in Arkansas.”

One of the more fortuitous investments for Black Apple was a canning line acquired in 2019. Cans were initially launched in Northwest Arkansas only. Distribution to the rest of the state began just as COVID-19 emerged last spring.

“It was a blessing and a curse,” said Orpin. “It was a blessing because the revenue was nice to have at that particular moment, to help us keep our heads above water. It was a curse because we had events planned. We had store tastings planned. We had 10 different event people ready to go for the first few months to cultivate the brand, and none of that happened.”

The news isn’t all so glum for Black Apple.

According to Orpin, total production for 2020 finished at 85,000 gallons of cider. This is equivalent to 2,742 barrels of beer, and represents 30% growth over the previous year.

Three of its offerings were recently awarded medals at a competition sponsored by Cider Craft Magazine. Among 450 submissions from across the globe, Black Apple won “Double Gold” for its Hibiscus, Double Gold for Wild Berry, and Gold for Spiced.

Black Apple recently launched a new cider spritzer, which is its take on the increasingly popular hard seltzer category. Orpin describes it as light and refreshing, with only 90 calories and less than one gram of carbs.

And Black Apple is venturing outside the state for the first time. The Arkansas-made cider will be distributed to northeast Oklahoma later this spring.

Orpin and his partners are hoping to add more equipment this year. They are currently looking for another production facility because they can only fit two more fermenters in the existing space.

If that were to happen, the current location would be maintained as a taproom.

“We would never abandon downtown Springdale,” said Orpin. “It’s the community that helped us get started.”

Saddlebock Brewery

Saddlebock owner Steve Rehbock is winding down his brewing career.

“I’m putting deadlines on myself,” he said. “One way or another I’m going to step aside by the end of the year.”

Saddlebock was originally listed for sale in 2018. No buyer with interest in a turnkey brewing operation has emerged, though Rehbock has started selling off individual pieces of brewing equipment in the interim.

“My brewing equipment is now bigger than I need,” he said. “This is a fifteen-plus-barrel system. It’s all American made and high end. I’ve sold six of my fermenters so far.”

Excess brewing capacity was created when Saddlebock stopped distributing to the retail market last year and focused on taproom sales instead. Production output has dropped significantly as a result.

Saddlebock Brewery / Photo: Brian Sorensen

Rehbock also sold the 10,000-square-foot warehouse across the road from the brewery and moved his restaurant’s kitchen and inventory of beer supplies into the main brewing facility.

Business was up and down throughout 2020. The spring was tough on everyone, with the pandemic having a dampening effect on sales. Yet by the summer months Rehbock was seeing a rebound in his taproom traffic.

“Our August was as good as it was the year before,” he said. “September was good for us, too.”

Optimism turned to pessimism as the summer shifted to fall.

“Around October people started getting worried again,” said Rehbock. “November was down 50% from the previous year, and December was down 70%.”

Saddlebock finished 2020 with 134 barrels of beer production, down from 188 the previous year. The brewery produced nearly 600 barrels in 2018.

Rehbock said his most popular beer with taproom visitors remains Dirty Blonde. IPA and Farmhouse continue to do well, too. A chocolate stout is resting on cacao nibs right now and should be ready soon.

Once Rehbock is done brewing beer he plans to make mead and wine under a small farm winery permit. He’s calling the venture Ozark Grape Escape.

“My strategy is to brew a lot of beer over the next 30 days,” said Rehbock. “If I don’t have a buyer [for the whole brewery] at that point, I’ll list my brewhouse, and the rest as real estate. The wine will be going by then, which you don’t need as much equipment for.”

The restaurant will stay open. It has been fairly successful on its own, and draws a nightly crowd. Outside beer will be brought in once the stockpile of Saddlebock is depleted and the taps run dry.

Rehbock, who is approaching retirement age, said he’s planning to relax a bit after closing the book on his decade in brewing.

“Brewing is hard work,” he said. “People think it’s glamourous. And it is for a little while.

“Until you realize you have to double stack kegs all day long.”

Core Brewing & Distilling

Jesse Core is a humbled man.

It’s not an intended slight to say that. Those are literally his words.

“Life has humbled me tremendously,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs. It’s really, really hard. And if there’s a mistake to make, I’ve made it twice in the past eight years.”

Core Brewing & Distilling Co. came onto the scene in 2010. Its founder was out to conquer the world from the beginning. Backed by investors, dominating the local market and growing beyond Arkansas was his objective. By 2016 Core beer was being shipped to several surrounding states.

“I went as far as Atlanta and fell flat on my face,” said Core, referring to the lack of success in out-of-state markets.

Despite the setbacks Core kept pushing ahead.

The high-water mark for the brewery was 2018, when Core produced 4,800 barrels of beer and was the second-largest beer maker in the state. Much of the product was being sold in Core-branded pubs located throughout Arkansas. However, operating retail outlets proved to be more nuisance than advantage for the brewery.

The following year Core closed its pubs in Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville. Pubs in other cities were also closed, or otherwise sold to private parties.

Photo: Brian Sorensen

“Getting out from under the pub model allowed us to do what we do well, which is make beer and develop strategic partnerships,” said Core.

Output dipped to 3,468 barrels in 2019, dropping the brewery from second-largest producer in Arkansas to fourth place.

2019 was also the year Scarlet Letter was born.

Scarlet Letter is a spiked seltzer. According to Core, it’s brewed like a beer (using malted barley) and ultra-filtered to obtain its crystal-clear appearance. Unlike seltzers that are made by fermenting cane or other simple sugars, Core’s version does not claim to be gluten-free.

Seltzer was once thought to be a passing fad, yet sales are skyrocketing year-over-year. Goldman Sachs estimates global sales will reach $30 billion by 2025.

Needless to say, Core got into the seltzer game at the right time.

One advantage the brewery had when launching Scarlet Letter was a German canning line that was installed in 2016.

“It took our canning capacity from nine cans per minute with about 10% waste up to 262 cans per minute with less than 1% waste,” said Core.

Despite the speed and efficiency of the canning line, Core learned from previous mistakes and launched Scarlet Letter a bit more cautiously.

“We started off in a few liquor stores and did a few tastings,” he said. “We learned that the shotgun approach doesn’t work. From now on we’ll start small and sell out, grow some and sell out again.”

Even with the conservative approach, sales of Scarlet Letter exploded. It’s now a common sight at retailers throughout the region. It’s also being distributed to Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Colorado.

Packaging has become a key capability at Core, and it proved to be an advantage during the onset of COVID-19. The virus had a devastating impact on bar and restaurant accounts, but according to Core, the brewery’s total sales were still up an astonishing 100% in 2020.

The rise in sales came on the back of Scarlet Letter. The hard seltzer now represents 75% of Core’s total production output.

That doesn’t mean beer has lost its place at Core. According to the founder, the brewers are experiencing a sense of freedom now that seltzer money is buoying the broader business.

“Scarlet Letter is paying the bills right now,” said Core. “So, we pulled back on a lot of the mainstream stuff and let them do what they do best.”

Core was referring to the brewers’ penchant for making bold taproom-only and small batch beers intended for limited distribution.

Recent examples include Abundance of Rain (a double hazy IPA), Falling Ladders (a “blueberry cobbler” kettle sour), and a barleywine aged in Maker’s Mark barrels. Known as Batch 01, it weighs in at a massive 14% ABV.

The canned lineup you’re used to seeing at beer and grocery stores — which includes Arkansas Lager, Dickson St. IPA, and others — is still in the market. It’s just that brewing the one-offs has rekindled an old feeling — one first felt in 2010.

“We’re having fun again,” said Core.