Not even the weeds are growing as fast as Northwest Arkansas’ craft beer industry.
Tax records kept by the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration show 11 breweries in Benton and Washington counties produced 33.5 percent more beer in 2015 than they did in 2014. They followed it up with 25.4 percent growth in 2016.
To put the remarkable growth in perspective, the craft beer industry production volume grew 12.8 percent in 2015 and another 6 percent in 2016, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association reports.
The 11,274 barrels produced in 2016 in the two Northwest Arkansas counties were enough to fill almost 2.8 million pints. It was a huge increase from the 2.2 million pints in 2015 and 1.7 million in 2014.
“There is much more room for growth,” said Marty Shutter, marketing manager for Ozark Beer Company in Rogers. “More breweries brewing different beers simply brings more and different people to craft beer. If a brewer friend of ours creates a beer we’d never dream of, that beer will bring more people into the fold, and eventually those folks will try one of ours, and it works both ways, too.”
The Northwest Arkansas brewers are benefitting from popular events that draw attention to their products For instance, the sixth annual Fayetteville Foam Fest takes places May 13 and involves most of the region's breweries. The region's second annual Frost Fest occurred earlier this year, and it involved more than 30 breweries, including Northwest Arkansas' Apple Blossom, Bike Rack, Fossil Cove, Ozark Beer, Core Brewing, Bentonville Brewing, Saddleback, Columbus House, Foster's Pint and Plate, West Mountain and New Providence.
The local breweries benefit from the efforts of the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau, too. The organization promotes 10 of the breweries across the region and the Black Apple Crossing Cidery in Springdale, creating the Fayetteville Ale Trail and handing out thousands of trail "passports" since establishing the trail in 2013.
The craft beer industry is on a roll in Northwest Arkansas, and that’s to be expected in a state where craft beer hasn’t been widely regarded as hip until recently. In states such as Colorado, Oregon, California and in the Northeast, the craft beer industry isn’t growing like it did and that’s because it was already big, said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association. There are more than 500 breweries in California and more than 200 in states like Oregon, Colorado and New York.
“In a market like Northwest Arkansas, the people who run breweries are probably going to want to see more breweries join them in the region,” Watson said. “It creates more points of exposure and it builds awareness. Adding a brewery there is likely to add to the market rather than take traffic away from the others.”
Steve Rehbock, who owns Saddlebock, believes more breweries will ultimately arrive in Northwest Arkansas. He thinks local beer consumption will increase and there's plenty of room for new breweries in the region.
Northwest Arkansas is already drawing some attention for its craft beer industry. In October 2016, travel-focused website Travelocity put Northwest Arkansas at No. 20 on its list of the nation’s Top 20 Beer Destinations among large metros. Only four other large metros in middle America (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Indianapolis, Madison and Grand Rapids) made the same list.
Travelocity used a "Beer Tourism Index" to determine the Top 20. It took into account factors such as the cost of lodging and the number of nonstop destinations available from the local airport.
Most of the craft beer producers in Northwest Arkansas are like the majority of the nation’s 5,300 breweries. Roughly three-fourths of all craft breweries in the U.S. produce less than 1,000 barrels a year, Watson said.
How many breweries can be supported in Northwest Arkansas is difficult to estimate, Watson said. In the Boulder, Colo., area, the 300,000 residents support 40 craft beer producers. That’s more than in all of Arkansas.
"Small and independent craft brewers are part of the DNA of their communities," said Julia Herz, a program director for the Brewers Association. "They are becoming mainstay attractions for travelers.
"Whether as part of a backyard getaway, a break from a business trip or as the main reason for a beer-focused vacation, we encourage everyone to broaden their knowledge of beer by visiting these local brewers, to experience firsthand the advancing beer culture across the country."