One of the most revered breweries in Arkansas turns 10 this weekend.
Ozark Beer Co. is throwing a party in the taproom on Friday and Saturday (Nov. 3-4) to celebrate the occasion. Festivities will feature food trucks and special beer releases, including an old fan-favorite, Double IPA.
Also available will be the annual barrel bomb known as BDCS, which was released a couple of weeks ago. Barrel-aged Double Cream Stout was first brewed in 2014 and is Ozark’s most celebrated beer.
The birthday bash comes on the heels of the brewery’s first-ever medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. In September, Ozark won bronze for Paper Game, its American-Belgian farmhouse ale. It joins a select few from Arkansas that have earned medals at the nation’s preeminent beer competition. Past winners include Bosco’s, Diamond Bear, Lost Forty, Natural State, and Vino’s.
There were only about a dozen breweries in Arkansas when Ozark opened in November 2013. It was the first brewery in Benton County, which went wet by popular vote just a year earlier. Demand for locally-made beer was just starting to pick up in Arkansas, so Ozark launched with a modest plan and a do-it-yourself attitude.
A lot has changed in a 10-year span.
There are now more than 50 breweries in the state, with 10 in Benton County alone. Ozark has grown into one of the top 2-3 breweries in the state in terms of production volume. It expects to brew more than 5,000 barrels in 2023, which puts it back near pre-pandemic levels.
Most of Ozark’s beer is distributed in Arkansas, though product started shipping to southwest Missouri in 2020. Entering out-of-state markets has not been a priority thus far. But the Arkansas-Missouri state line is as close to the brewery as Fayetteville is to the south, so it still feels like home up there.
The public face of Ozark belongs to power-couple-and-business-partners Andy Coates and Lacie Bray. They have led the brewery through a successful launch, significant growth, and the unforeseen challenges brought on by Covid-19.
I talked with Bray earlier this summer to reflect on Ozark’s first decade in business. She was upbeat about the brewery’s approaching anniversary.
Starting out and building a team
“A lot of businesses don’t make it this far,” said Bray. “I’m grateful for the team that we have, and I’m grateful for the community that keeps showing up for us.”
Ozark was a concept years in the making. Coates, whose previous stops included Goose Island in Chicago and Denver’s Great Divide Brewing Co., was working at West Mountain Brewing Co. in Fayetteville when the finishing touches were put on the business plan.
Ozark’s first home was a retrofitted warehouse in east Rogers that was barely big enough for a taproom and a few mismatched dining room tables and chairs on the brewery floor. The place was a labor of love, with Bray and Coates handling most of the day-to-day duties themselves.
“It was so much work,” said Bray. “We started out small, so we worked all week and the weekends, too. It was more than six months before we brought on an employee. That’s one of the reasons we went with ‘Hard Work, Honest Beer’ as our slogan.”
Even Jefferson Baldwin, a co-founder who maintained a career outside the brewery, was pouring pints in the taproom back then.
Once sales grew and Ozark needed to hire employees, it was important to bring in the right kind of people and treat them well. As leaders, Bray and Coates didn’t want to be the smartest people in the room. And they wanted their employees to stick around for the long haul.
“From the beginning we tried to surround ourselves with people that know what they’re doing,” said Bray. “We were looking for people that were smarter than us. It was a process of hiring people who had expertise, and then turning them loose. We really try to run this place as a team.”
40% of Ozark’s current employees have been with the brewery for seven or more years, a sign that employees feel appreciated and enjoy their work. Marty Shutter, the brewery’s do-it-all marketing director, joined the team about nine months after Ozark opened.
“One of the things I realize as I look back at my time here is just how important relationships and community have been for us,” Shutter said. “Everyone’s job here is to protect our culture and show passion in what we do so that our customers always get our very best.”
Business was brisk and demand for Ozark beer soared. New equipment was added to accommodate more beer production. The brewery moved to a much bigger location in downtown Rogers in April 2017. The historic flour mill at 109 N. Arkansas Street provided more space and was located closer to the reawakening downtown district. Built in the 1880s, the building’s rugged good looks and blue collar aesthetic fit Ozark like a glove.
Slow growth and a focus on the taproom
While the move to the new building was a sure sign of the brewery’s success – and a nod to Ozark’s long-term potential – the brewery has always approached opportunities to grow with caution. New fermenters and a bigger brewhouse didn’t happen until there was demand for more beer. Unlike more aggressive breweries, Ozark didn’t want to chase sales. It was happy growing in its home market.
The formula worked well. The brewery pushed past 5,000 barrels per year and found its footing among the top breweries in the state. Ozark was cruising by the time 2020 arrived, and the future looked bright.
“We were reaching a really comfortable place when the pandemic hit,” said Bray. “That started a two-year stretch that made it feel like we were starting over. Honestly, it was so hard on us that we reached a point where we were tempted to quit.”
In March 2020, beer drinkers were suddenly homebound. Shutting down the taproom and losing retail accounts took an immediate toll on the brewery’s financial health. Ozark laid off employees in an effort to save the brewery – obviously a difficult decision to make. Fortunately, everyone was brought back when Paycheck Protection Program loans provided some much-needed relief.
Bray said things were rough for Ozark in the months following the pandemic’s arrival, but she didn’t ponder quitting for long. She and her husband’s identities were too tied up in beer to pull the plug. And more importantly, she wanted to see the community Ozark nurtured pre-pandemic come back to the taproom.
In time the brewery reopened to the public, and retail accounts restarted as people returned to their “normal” lives. However, some of those Covid-related hardships remain. The cost to produce beer has increased substantially as the price of brewing supplies remains high. Everything – grain, aluminum, utilities, labor – costs more now, reducing margins and making it necessary to find more efficient ways to make and distribute beer.
Plenty of focus is placed on the taproom these days, which helps offset some of those lost margins. The profit on beer sold by the pint is exponentially higher than beer sold by the case or barrel. It makes sense to keep the taproom as full of customers as possible.
“Raw materials and packaging costs are so high, we will always benefit from driving more traffic through our taproom,” said Bray.
Connecting with the community
A full taproom makes everyone happy. Owners, employees, and community members all benefit from the synergy created when they come together in one place. Yes, margins are higher there, which makes business outcomes better. But crowds create more energy and goodwill, too.
The current taproom has been open for more than six years now, and it attracts people from all walks of life. On any given day you’ll find young people, old people, friends, families, and people on their own. Community organizations often use Ozark’s taproom as a venue for their events.
“Our taproom has become a community space like never before,” said Bray. “The events we host aren’t always beer-related, but we try to find a way to tie beer into them so that there’s something in it for everyone.”
One of Bray’s favorite events is the Big Gay Market, which the brewery has hosted on numerous occasions. The market is a safe space for members of the LGBTQIAI+ community to sell their goods. Ozark will host another on Saturday, Nov. 25.
“It started with a need from the community,” said Bray. “A couple of years ago the organizers came to us because the space they thought they were going to have fell through.”
Rogers – like much of Northwest Arkansas – has a history rooted in small-town conservatism. People living an alternative or non-confirming lifestyle have not always felt free to be their authentic selves in public.
“We didn’t know what it would look like because we’ve never done anything like that before,” said Bray. “I was shocked at how little pushback we got. And what little we received was far outweighed by the support we got for what we were doing.”
Dealing with issues related to human sexuality often takes on a political tone. Attitudes and opinions often reflect party affiliation. Not so at Ozark.
“It’s not political for us,” said Bray. “We think hosting these types of events is being a good neighbor. If we want real change to happen, it will happen because people are interacting with people they don’t normally cross paths with. We are open to absolutely everyone here at Ozark.”
Ozark supports the community in other ways. Each month it hosts “Drink Beer, Do Good” with $1 from each pint donated to a local charity. Recent recipients include Rogers Friends of LLS (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, and 7Hills Homeless Shelter.
Cans get updated look
Ozark started canning beer soon after opening, making it the first Arkansas brewery to distribute its beer in cans. American Pale Ale (APA) was the first off the canning line, followed by Belgian-style Golden Ale, Cream Stout, and IPA.
The label artwork was noteworthy. In late 2014, Paste Magazine named APA as one of the 40 most beautiful cans in craft beer. The black can with the outline of an elk was iconic. Jeremy Teff – then with BLKBOXLabs – was responsible for the distinctive Ozark look.
Ozark’s cans have recently been updated. APA, IPA, Lager (which replaced the Belgian-style golden ale), and Cream Stout all sport new artwork. Once again, Teff is responsible for the design.
“We’ve been working on it for over a year,” said Bray. “When we first started the process, we went with a completely different concept than what we just rolled out. Jeremy tinkered with it a little bit and it evolved over time. We’re really proud of what we created.”
The result is a clean design that remains rooted in the iconic imagery used in the original illustrations. The elk, buffalo, and eagle (or is it a hawk?) still serve as eye candy for folks that enjoy Ozark’s beer.
Artwork aside, there continues to be a glaring void in Ozark’s lineup of canned offerings. “When will you put Onyx Coffee Stout in cans?” remains an unanswered question.
Ozark is a brand that speaks to Arkansans. Hard work, honest beer. People in this state can relate to a roll-your-sleeves-up approach to life.
The brand is intertwined with the ethos of the region. So much so it was selected by the Smithsonian Institute to represent the Ozarks earlier this summer. During the Folklife Festival in late June/early July, Ozark poured beer on the National Mall to celebrate the region’s “expansive creative spirit.”
Lacie Bray and Andy Coates have built something special. They didn’t do it alone, and they need a lot of help to keep it going. As good as the beer is, the community that surrounds the brewery might be just as important as the product.
Ozark loves the community, and Arkansans – especially Northwest Arkansans – love Ozark.
If you want to wish Ozark a happy 10th birthday, pay the brewery a visit this weekend and enjoy a Double IPA or BDCS. A decade in the brewing business is kind of a big deal.