There is Something Brewing in the Ouachitas

by Josh Williams
photography by Chris Brashers & Amanda Shelley Ledbetter

Drinking beer at 10:30 in the morning usually isn’t a great idea, especially if you have something important to do like go to work or appear in court.  Unless you work for a magazine that is doing a feature on breweries in your area, and you are drinking beer in the name of research. Then it’s totally acceptable.  In fact, most people respect someone who is willing to go that extra mile to learn as much as one can about the subject they are reporting on.  It’s called journalistic integrity, okay?  And with four breweries to hit, we had a lot of beer to drink, I mean, work to do.

Ouachita High Country made four stops on the Winter 2015 Brewery Tour:  Stone’s Throw Brewing, Diamond Bear Brewing Company, Bubba Brew’s Brewing Company and Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery.  The first two breweries are located in Little Rock, Bubba Brew’s is located west of Hot Springs near Glenwood and Superior is right down the street from us.  There are twenty-eight registered breweries in total in Arkansas, but unfortunately, we only had time for four.  Though all four breweries were quite different in appearance, size and offerings, they all had one thing in common: The utilization of the high quality water in the Ouachita mountain range. So much work goes into running a successful brewery—knowledge, tenacity, attention to detail, cleanliness, patience, care—it’s nice to have a good base to work with.  With craft beer becoming more popular every day, the number of independent breweries is skyrocketing, and we felt compelled to expose them for what they really are—local businesses producing great beer.

 

Stone’s Throw Brewing  
(501) 244-9154
Our first stop on the tour was Stone’s Throw Brewing, located at 402 East 9th Street in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park Historic District.  It was a dusty old building on a little corner that beckoned us to enter. The aroma of fermented yeast and the floral undertones of malted hops were almost too much to handle.  As one of the owners, Ian Beard, arrived, our excitement was almost out of control.  He stepped out of his well-traveled, sub-compact car riddled with bumper stickers advocating local economics and good beer.  We noticed his trucker hat and scruffy facial accoutrements that shared his namesake.  We knew we were in for some quality beverages.

Ian Beard, along with 3 friends—Shawn Tobin, Theron Cash and Brad beerMcLaurin—founded Stone’s Throw Brewing on August 17, 2012.  They all met while participating in the annual Little Rocktoberfest beer festival in the capital city and it’s their first business venture as a team.  It has been a complete ground-up operation.  “We’re do-it-yourselfers to the bitter end,” Ian said.  “Painting, digging trenches, constructing walls—we even still do our own distribution.  Forty businesses in Little Rock have our product on tap. Unfortunately, (we’re) nowhere in Hot Springs yet, but we’re close.”  As we sampled tasty brews like the Broken Mill unfiltered wheat ale (an accident–hence the name) and the Shamous Stout (an oatmeal stout that puts Sammy Smith to shame) we felt right at home in the quaint tasting room with half a dozen tables and a hi-def tv that supports their weekly event, Bad-Movie Wednesdays. It was a shame we didn’t bring our copy of Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

“Beer brings people together, and it’s a great time to be in the beer business in Arkansas.” Ian stated. “The great thing about craft beer is that it has gravitated toward places that encourage outdoor activities—San Diego on the beach or Colorado on the front range by the ski slopes or Portland canoeing, hiking and biking—Little Rock and the surrounding area is almost the same.  It’s metropolitan, but it has a focused energy on the outdoors.  It’s such a great place to get outside and have a beer while you’re doing it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been down the Caddo or Ouachita [river] with a cold, stainless-steel can in my hands and thought to myself, ‘I should be drinking my own beer.’  The rest is history.”

Begrudgingly, we had to move on to our next stop. It would have been nice to sample all 60+ recipes at Stone’s Throw, but I’m sure we’ll be back in the future.  “Remember, we’re just a stone’s throw away,” Ian laughed and unloaded some bumper stickers on us as we pulled away.

 

Diamond Bear Brewing Company beer2
(501) 708-2739

Stop number two on our beer-flavored excursion led us to a titan in the Ouachita Mountain craft brewing scene.  Diamond Bear Brewing Company is Arkansas’ longest running craft brewery, and was established way back at the turn of the century, in the year 2000… (thoughts of Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter flood in).  Matthew Beachboard came on as general manager of Diamond Bear eighteen months ago and helped build a thriving restaurant inside the European-inspired brew pub.   “Without a doubt, the quality of water in this area is incredible,” Matthew gleamed. “The water is sourced from Lake Winona and Lake Maumelle and makes exceptional beer.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  If you really want to know the secret or the hidden gem, that’s it.”

Diamond Bear brews dozens of beers, both seasonally and regularly:  Strawberry Blonde, Two-Term, Rocktoberfest, Pig-Tail Porter, Dogtown Brown, Presidential IPA, Honeyweiss (Bronze medal @ Great American Beer Festival), Irish Red (Gold medal @ Great American Beer Festival), and the list goes on.  Seven of their beers in all have won national and international awards.  They also have a new “hibernation series” where beers are aged for up to ten weeks in Woodford Reserve or Rocktown Distillery whisky barrels.  This new line of beer is scheduled to hit the market very soon. Of their current offerings, states carry a variety of Diamond Bear selections, and around two dozen businesses in Hot Springs alone carry their beer.

Diamond Bear appreciates the grass-roots type of business and development and they don’t forget what got them to where they are today.  Matthew said, “We’ve got a coffee porter that uses beans from Westrock Coffee, and our meats and veggies are sourced from Hogs Meat Market and local farmer’s markets. We appreciate the quality and the type of people making a living here; They’re generous, creative, open to suggestion, and it makes my job easy and fun.”

The future indeed looks bright for Diamond Bear. They’ve got a good business plan, they have a vast, quality product and they value what the Ouachita region has to offer. “I didn’t truly appreciate this place until I went to GABF [Great American Beer Festival] in Denver,” Matthew admitted. “I’m not knocking the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, but upon our return to the Ouachitas, it was almost euphoric.  Even Denver pales in comparison to the lushness of our home.  As I become older, I fully understand how special this place is.  It’s ridiculously beautiful—eye opening.  Definitely a rare and amazing place, and I wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.”   Sadly, the Ouachita High Country team had to be somewhere else, so we left—for now.

 

Bubba Brew’s Brewing Company beer3
(870) 356-4001

The third stop on our tour was the imposing Bubba Brew’s Brewing Company, which opened its doors on New Year’s Eve 2014 at 8091 Airport Road in Bonnerdale, Arkansas.   As we approached this brewery/restaurant monolith, we were greeted by a jovial, welcoming brewmaster and “general consul” by the name of Jonathan Martin.  He’s a local attorney who’s been home-brewing for a dozen years. He’s a former avid kayaker, so he knows the correlation between the two activities and the people who enjoy them. “I used to kayak back in the day,” Jonathan exclaimed.  “I know how beautiful and clean this place is.  That’s why I source the water for my beer from Lake DeGray. It’s different here, this is the best water in the world—most places have to filter rigorously or add a bunch of chemicals—not here. This is every brewmaster’s dream canvas.”

Jonathan brews a dozen beers:  Arkie Amber Ale (his initial attempt at brewing), Skullcrusher IPA (6.3% ABV), Sandbar Pilsner, Bubba’s Dirty Blonde, 10-Point Bock, Great White (Belgian Witbier), Wilford Oatmeal Stout and their flagship beer Buckshot Pale Ale (not listing all 12, you’ll have to go try some for yourself).  “I’ve always wanted to open a brewery here,” said Jonathan.  “The craft beer movement has really taken hold.  I met my business partner Ned Bass, who had the restaurant knowledge that I lacked, and we decided to go for it.  We didn’t know what to expect, but the response has been great so far.”

This spacious brewery/restaurant/entertainment venue is starting to make some real noise in the foothills of the Ouachita mountains.  Jonathan said, “I couldn’t be more pleased  with the support from the local establishments.  Brick House Grill, Copper Penny Pub, Vina Morita and DeLuca’s are just a few that have been phenomenal.  If you would have told me that nearly 40 businesses in the Ouachita region had my beer in stock today, I would have called you crazy.”

2016 looks bright for Bubba Brew’s.  “We’re selling 60-80 kegs a week here at the brewery.  We are going to open a second location closer to Hot Springs. We’ve got an old Ford Transit that has 12 taps installed, so we can take it to festivals all around and pour beer straight from the truck. The 10-Point Bock made the medal round at the GABF [Great American Beer Festival] in 2015—I’m excited, Ned’s excited. This is such a fun industry because brewers are cooperative—we just have fun.  We want to take you on a weird beer journey and maybe throw in some fried catfish and frog legs to take with you.”

 

Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery beer4
(501) 624-2337

Three breweries down, one to go—it’s a good thing I have a designated driver with me.   Our last stop on the trail of beers was the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery.  Located at 329 Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, it’s right in the thick of the renaissance that the town is experiencing.  Actually, Superior has a lot to do with the artistic and cultural rebirth of Hot Springs. It is the only brewery in the world to use thermal spring water in the brewing process; the only documented brewery, anyway. Owner and brewmaster Rose Schweikhart said, “I saw my dream come true here.  I’m entrepreneurial at heart and this place was perfect to toy with my idea.  Hot Springs is so full of life and art, I wanted to help the downtown area—it’s very important.” Rose and her partner in crime, fellow brewer Jimm Powell, have known each other for five years.   They shared a vision—to create great beer and inform the local community about the benefits of it.

“I never thought I would be fulfilling my dream,” Jimm said.  “I started brewing beer 11 years ago and I remember discussing the possibility of being a brewmaster with my sister in Tahoe, but they were basically pipe dreams.  Then I met Rose, who was basically sharing my brain, and I thought ‘I want to come work for you’, so I did.”  Superior has been producing its own beer since January of 2014, and downtown Hot Springs has been a noticeably happier place since.  The brewery currently has 12 beers on tap, but they rotate about 20 in total, with offerings ranging from the Ba-Donk-a-Donk Dunkel (4.6% ABV) and the Pumpernickel Porter (4.8% ABV) to the Whittington Park Wheat (5.0% ABV) and the Fouke-Ness Monster Scottish Ale (7.2% ABV).  Several businesses in Hot Springs already have Superior’s beer on tap:  Maxine’s and The Copper Penny are two, and Superior plans to move into the Little Rock area next year at places like Stickyz Rock n’ Roll Chicken Shack and The Flying Saucer—two very prominent beer locales.

Superior’s 2016 plans also include several changes to the property.  They’re  going to develop the 2nd floor of their building, they’re putting in an ‘Ale yard’ with a patio so you can get outside while you enjoy your beer.  There will be more space for live entertainment and we haven’t even mentioned the kitchen.  Head Chef Angela Nardi-Nix is one of the area’s best.

Our current beer journey has come to an end, and we’re not happy about it.  Maybe we can make this an ongoing feature, you know, like an 8-part series or something.  After all, we have 25 more Arkansas breweries to cover.

To join the rapidly growing craft beer culture, be sure to check out these breweries on Facebook.  Cheers!