Sizeable crowd celebrates Arkansas beer with brewers guild

Several craft beer dignitaries from across the state were in attendance.
(Brian Sorensen)

Fossil Cove Brewing Co. hosted the last Arkansas Brewers Guild tap takeover of 2023 this past Saturday (Dec. 17). The guild promotes the state’s beer industry, and through the years these events have served as both a fundraiser and a way to get the message out to the beer drinking public.

The place was packed when I arrived around 4 p.m. Fossil Cove is often crowded on the weekends, but this was a whole ‘nother level-crowded. All seats were taken inside and outside with standing room anywhere in short supply. The beer drinking public definitely seemed open to the message the Arkansas Brewers Guild was sending that afternoon.

Several craft beer dignitaries from across the state could be spotted, many of them serving in leadership positions with the guild.

Tony Guinn and Bill Riffle from Gravity BrewWorks were in attendance. The pair brought their Nightfall India Black Ale to the tap takeover. I’m not sure why the style has fallen out of favor in recent years because I quite enjoy roasted grain alongside big hop flavor. Gravity BrewWorks’s version did not disappoint. As for Guinn and Riffle, I was able to say hello to them just before they headed back home to Big Flat (population 88). They are such genuinely nice people, and both are excellent brewers. Guinn has proven herself a capable leader, too. She currently serves as the guild’s president.

Another black IPA came from Ouachitas Brewing in Mena. The brewery was the first in Arkansas to brew commercial beer in a dry county, thanks to a 2019 state law that made it permissible to do so. Polk County voters decided to go wet in last month’s elections, but Ouachitas will always have that claim to fame. Owner Traven Bayne was on hand at the tap takeover and appeared to be having a great time. We talked for a few minutes and he invited me down to see the place. I’m looking forward to doing just that.

I got to clink pint glasses with Natural State Beer Co. co-owner Mark Smith before losing him into the crowd. He serves as treasurer for the Arkansas Brewers Guild. His brewery serves a small but mighty niche with its focus on German-style lagers. Not strict adherents to the Reinheitsgebot – the 1516 German law that restricts beer ingredients to barley, hops, water, and yeast – Natural State offers an occasional twist on old world styles. A great example is the brewery’s third anniversary release back in November. Traditional German brewers probably wouldn’t approve of Imperial Schwarzbier, a big beer aged in maple syrup barrels. Last I checked, however, the Reinheitsgebot doesn’t hold sway in Arkansas.

(Fossil Cove Brewing Co.)

Brewer Kort Castleberry was also at the tap takeover. He got his start at Fossil Cove, but has been the head brewer at New Province Brewing Co. since 2015. He brought a piña colada IPA called Escape, but I was more interested in talking to him about the beer he recently brewed in collaboration with local homebrew club, the Ozark Zymurgists. Beaver Lake S’more Stout – as the name suggests – features notes of chocolate, graham cracker, and marshmallow. A portion of the beer’s proceeds support the Beaver Watershed Alliance, which works to protect the region’s water supply. It’s the latest example of home and commercial brewers joining forces to make something special.

There were probably other brewery representatives on hand, but honestly, the crowd was so large it was hard to account for everyone in attendance. I did enjoy sampling some beers not readily available in Northwest Arkansas. Here are a few of those.

Stone’s Throw Brewing in Little Rock opened in 2013 and is considered one of the O.G.s of the Arkansas brewing industry. Co-owner Ian Beard is a Fayetteville native, though he has been in the capital city for many years now. Shamus Stout is the first beer from Stone’s Throw that I can remember drinking. It was on tap Saturday, and I think it tasted better than ever.
Gotahold Brewing is located in Eureka Springs. Is Eureka considered a part of Northwest Arkansas? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that I always grab a Gotahold when I see one on tap. Saturday it was Bubbles, a relatively light and refreshing Belgian Grisette that registered 4.7% alcohol-by-volume and 18 IBUs (International Bitterness Units).

I was excited to see Prestonrose Farm & Brewing Co. on the tap list. Unfortunately, the keg of Finch & Pony, a coffee brown ale, ran dry before I got a pour. I recently heard an interview with head brewer Liz Preston on the Good Beer Hunting podcast. She detailed the challenges of running an organic farm and brewery in rural Arkansas. She and husband Mike Preston are making progress on a farm-to-table restaurant in Clarksville. They are responsible for some of the most unique beers made in the state.

Other breweries from outside Northwest Arkansas included Diamond Bear Brewing Co. (Irish Red Ale), Lost Forty Brewing (Ice Day Arkansas Winter IPA), and relative newcomer Point Remove Brewing Co. (Rougarou Stout). I’ve been to Diamond Bear and Lost Forty a number of times, but have yet to visit Point Remove, which opened in 2020 inside a former Coca-Cola bottling facility.

There were, of course, beers from NWA, too.

Shamus Stout (Brian Sorensen)

Bentonville Brewing Co. was there with Wrecker in the Rye, the newest in the successful Wrecker series of IPAs. The lineup has at various times included Grapefruit Wrecker, Home Wrecker, Hop Wrecker, Lil’ Wrecker, Norse Wrecker, and Winter Wrecker.

Boston Mountain Brewing sent Coconut Porter to the tap takeover. I recently learned that Daniel Stubblefield – owner of the homebrew shop in Fayetteville – joined the ownership team at Boston Mountain. The brewery has built a loyal clientele since opening at the corner of Township and Gregg in 2019. It will be interesting to see what the new partnership leads to.

Crisis Brewing Co.’s Fayzed was on tap. The south Fayetteville brewery is preparing for another edition of its popular New Year’s Eve for Old People. The event features a New Year’s countdown to coincide with the ball drop in London, England. That would be midnight in the U.K., and 6 p.m. in Fayetteville. Sounds like a 40-something’s dream.

Fossil Cove hosted the day’s festivities but also had a beer on tap. Paleo Ale made what was perhaps one of its final appearances in the brewery’s taproom. Fossil Cove recently announced the beer will soon retire from service. The last of it has been kegged and canned, and when it’s gone it’s gone. If that bit of news makes you sad, lift your chin because Fossil Cove’s Frost Fest makes its return in February following a multi-year hiatus.

Relative newcomer Goat Lab Brewery was on hand with a Kölsch-style beer. It has been fun to watch Bill and Collin Adams – father-and-son/owner-and-brewer – tour Germany over the past few months in pursuit of brewing tips. Keep those Facebook photos coming, fellas!

Ozark Beer Co. supplied Black Lager. I was fortunate to pick up some of the brewery’s Meryl Haggard – a gigantic 13.6% ABV imperial milk stout aged in bourbon barrels with Onyx coffee and chili peppers – back in November. I’ve been saving it for what is now likely to be a snowy and cold Christmas day.

And last but not least, Social Project Brewing Co. sent a hazy IPA called Rivers and Roads. Everyone is going gaga for Social Project, which recently opened a satellite taproom in downtown Springdale. The new location puts hazy IPAs, pastry stouts, and fruited sours in easy reach for those south of the county line.

2022 has shaped up to be a great year in Arkansas beer. And if the sizable and enthusiastic crowd on hand for Saturday’s tap takeover is any indication, we can expect 2023 to be even better.