Northwest Arkansas is best known for its amazing natural beauty, its three Fortune 500 companies and the University of Arkansas, but its incredible craft beer is drawing more and more attention.
Local residents and tourists are familiarizing themselves with craft beer made by Saddlebock, Foster’s Pint & Plate, Core, Bike Rack, Ozark, Fossil Cove, Apple Blossom, Columbus House, West Mountain and Bentonville Brewing Company. Most of those craft beer companies didn’t exist five years ago.
“These microbreweries are essential to a growing and thriving tourism economy,” said Joe David Rice, tourism director for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. “They’re particularly important to the millennial tourists who’ve come to expect such amenities in their travels. After spending a day on their mountain bikes or experiencing other adventure tourism activities, these guests enjoy sampling and sharing local brews with their friends. For certain travelers, such brewpubs are a valuable quality-of-life indicator, helping them plot their itineraries.”
Tax records kept by the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration make clear how much craft beer’s popularity is growing in Northwest Arkansas.
In 2011, revenue from a $7.50 state per-barrel tax collected in Benton and Washington counties was $5,749. In 2014, seven breweries in the counties paid $50,478. In the first six months of this year, eight breweries in the two counties paid $33,238. More breweries have opened in the later part of this year, too, suggesting that beer production and the state's tax revenue will continue to foam over.
What’s happening in Northwest Arkansas and its rising craft beer industry is similar to what’s happening in larger metropolitan areas, including Pittsburgh. A story published by a National Public Radio station suggests Pittsburgh is moving toward becoming a craft beer destination. An article published on the Millennial Marketing website suggests that generation craves craft beer, and Northwest Arkansas it's also true that millennials have embraced the region’s growing craft beer industry.
The Fayetteville Visitors Bureau’s self-guided Fayetteville Ale Trail now promotes breweries in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale, and it’s handed out more than 30,000 trail passports since the program started two years ago.
Many of the Northwest Arkansas breweries have great stories of small beginnings that led to impressive growth. Springdale’s Core Brewing & Distilling Co., for example, is experiencing solid growth.
Started in 2010 by former Springdale City Council member Jesse Core, the company has expanded from a single suite in a building and now occupies all 16 suites in the same building. Its products are now sold in liquor stores, restaurants and bars in Northwest Arkansas, Little Rock, Fort Smith and Joplin, Mo.
“I’m not sure where craft beer will be in five or 10 years for Northwest Arkansas, but I'd have to imagine we'll have another five to 10 successful breweries and several more brewpubs that brew beer on site and serve food,” said Jonas Dunnaway, Core Brewing’s sales and marketing director. “ We have world-class beer being brewed all over Northwest Arkansas, and we'll garner much more national attention in the coming years.”
Saddlebock Brewing started in 2012. Owned by award-winning home brewer Steve Rehbock, he built the brewery at his horse farm. The beer, including its best-selling Dirty Blonde, is distributed only in Arkansas.
Craft beer will increase in popularity across the state, Rehbock predicts. Craft beer is a far bigger portion of overall beer sales in other states.
Fossil Cove owner Benjamin Mills, who opened his brewery in Fayetteville in 2012 and now has his beer sold on draft at 25 to 30 restaurants, said what's happening in Northwest Arkansas is typical. "We've gone from no breweries to a bunch of breweries very fast," Mills said. "There's a lot of room for growth."
Owned by Lacie Bray, Andy Coates and Jefferson Baldwin, Ozark Beer Company arrived in 2013 in Rogers. The beer is sold at the company's tap room, at 120 restaurants, and in 15 liquor stores across the region. Beer production has more than doubled in the company's second year, said Marty Shutter, who manages the company's marketing.
"What we would like to see is a return to the regional approach to brewing that was a hallmark of our industry for so long, one where drinking is not a mindless pursuit but a choice made by a consumer to have a quality, fresh product," Shutter said.
Several of the region’s breweries, including Fossil Cove, Apple Blossom Brewing Co. in Fayetteville and Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville, operate near the Razorback Regional Greenway or one of Northwest Arkansas’ other bike/ped paths.
Far newer than Core, Fossil Cove, Ozark and Saddlebock are Columbus House Brewery in Fayetteville, Bentonville Brewing Company, and Foster’s Pint & Plate in Rogers.
Foster’s started brewing its beer in February and it’s only sold at its company’s restaurant near New Hope and Bellview roads. The most popular of the five beer varieties made on site is P&P Red, a red ale, said Matt Fonken, the restaurant and brewery’s front-house manager.
Bentonville Brewing Company opened the doors to its tap room in June. Its beer is available there as well as 16 Northwest Arkansas bars and restaurants, said Katie Boykin, the company’s general manager and one of its partners.
“We are looking forward to nurturing this new industry and proving that not only is Northwest Arkansas a destination know for its natural beauty but for its communities that support local artisans and craft-centered businesses, and the amazing breweries,” Boykin said.
Meanwhile, Columbus House is a Fayetteville company started by Sam Morgan, Carey Ashworth and Jason Corral in April of this year. Corral and Ashworth are University of Arkansas graduates; Morgan is a UA student. Columbus House beer is available in a few local restaurants and bars. Its Yellow Card Golden Ale is the most popular; Spottie Oattie Oatmeal Stout is the most highly regarded, Corral said.
“All three of us are proud Razorbacks and are very excited to own and operate a business in Fayetteville,” Corral said. “We love this town and wouldn’t give up this opportunity for the world.”