story by Josh Taylor Souza
special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE — The pinnacle of the sporting world descended upon New Orleans this past weekend with the arrival of Super Bowl 47, smack dab in the center of a city known for big celebrations.
It doesn't matter if you're talking mardi gras or football, the life-blood of the festivities undoubtedly lies in the alcohol – namely the beer.
However, you can cast aside the stereotypical view of a swash-bucking, can crushing beer-drinker. Over the last decade the beer industry has undergone as many changes as the game of football itself, and in a society that has a thirst for variety, hand-crafted beer is becoming a necessity.
"Northwest Arkansas is a great area for this business. I honestly don't think we will ever reach the point in my lifetime when there will be too much beer in this area," said Evan McDonald, co-owner of Smoke and Barrel Tavern and Apple Blossom Brewery.
It is undeniable that the giants of the beer world, such as Budweiser and SABMiller, still have a strong grasp on the market (roughly 96% of distribution and sales), but a new generation of independently owned breweries are starting to grab a bigger piece of the pie.
"Micro-Brews," which once controlled less than 1% of the market, have seen that number increase to 4% over the last five years and Northwest Arkansas is no exception to the trend. This region is home to 10 breweries, with five in Fayetteville.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control division of the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration, confirmed there are just 15 native micro-breweries in the entire state.
One of the oldest operating breweries in the region is Hog Haus Brewery, a staple on Dickson Street, where they operate seven days a week. H.H. is known for its large variety of hand-crafted ales and cuisine.
Over the last few years Fayetteville has seen the rise of several newcomers, such as Tanglewood Beer Branch, West Mountain Brewery, Saddle Bock Brewery and Fossil Cove, just to name a few.
"The support for local business is evident and it really helps that everyone is putting out quality product," said Jesse Core, owner/founder of Core Brewery, in Springdale. "Even during a tough recession, independent brewers doubled in sales and that seems impossible when you consider our prices aren't any lower than the big distributors. It’s a good sign for guys like me."
Tanglewood opened its doors in September of 2011 and began selling its own craft house-made beer in May of 2012. Brew-master J.T. Wampler has whipped up more than 50 different styles of his house-made beer.
So far the most popular have been the Southside Porter and the Half-Pound Pale Ale. The bar routinely sells at least one barrel (roughly 31 gallons) a week of both its top two beers, as well as the seasonal beer.
Tanglewood also has live music two nights a week and comedy shows twice a month. Aside from its popular house-made beer, Tanglewood offers a menu that is a step in the opposite direction from typical bar-food, featuring a variety of vegetarian options as well as pizza and deli sandwiches. Happy Hour runs extra long (3-7 weekdays).
"We have had great support from the community since we opened up and we people are really responding to our (house) beer selection," said Wampler. "Our biggest problem right now is that we have a hard time keeping up with the demand … soon we expect to expand from a one barrel system to a seven barrel system."
Springdale is home to Saddle Bock and Core Brewing Company. Both breweries distribute their craft beers statewide.
Core is a well-oiled machine that pumps out its eight craft beers from a 25-barrel system. Every aspect of the Core product is handled on site by a five-man crew, including the bottling, labeling and the shipping.
Core beer can also be bought on site at the Brew-Pub, that features tastings twice a month. Adding to its list of products Core is now offering 22-ounce bottles called "bombers," as well as a half-gallon growler. They also plan on producing moonshine as early as next quarter.
"I'm a home brewer at heart and this business is something I have always wanted to be a part of," said Core. "Some of these recipes have been in the making for the more than 10 years and we are still looking for ways to make them better."
"We have a tight community of brewers in this area. When my guys aren't working most of time they are hanging out at (Fossil Cove Brewery).
He said it’s not about competing with each other, it’s about making sure they are putting the best possible product out to the public.
Adding to the growing list of breweries, Apple Blossom Brewery (located on Zion road and owned by the same proprietors as the Smoke and Barrel Tavern) is set to open this summer. Unlike Smoke and Barrel, Apple Blossom, will offer hand-crafted “house" beer and a full menu, complete with food/drink pairings.
"Our group learned a great deal over the last four years with (Smoke and Barrel) and we are excited about the opening of our own brewery," said McDonald. "My goal when I first came to Northwest Arkansas was to open a brewery, but with the recession the way it was we felt it was better to start with a bare-bones bar. This area has showed great support for local business and local beer makers. There are many fine breweries around and we hope to add to that strong community. Our goal is to evoke an atmosphere that is a celebration of all things Arkansan."
The process of brewing your own beer on a business scale is nearly as tedious as the process of obtaining the legal right to do so. Even establishments that already carry a liquor license must apply for a "brewers license" to sell its own ale. The wait-time can take up to 24 months in some cases.
A spokeswoman from the ABC said the wait time can be lengthy as federal permits and inspections are also required and there has been a backlog in requests at the federal level.
"Its a tough stretch of time for anyone who has this dream," said Core. "There is plenty of other things you can focus your time on during that period, which isn't a bad thing. For us I think it took almost 18 months of tedious paperwork and waiting around to finally get our license, but it was well worth it of course."
When it comes to the brewing, every brew-master goes through their own steps and procedures, but the overall process typically follows the same guidelines. Crushed malted-barley placed in hot water before a sugar-water substance known as "wort" is collected and then boiled. After the wort is boiled, the brew master puts his/her creativity into the equation. Hops and other ingredients are added to define the style and taste of the beer, before yeast is added to start the fermenting process.
"It usually takes us a month to brew one barrel of our beer from start to tap," said Wampler.
While the profit margins in a typical barrel brew vary widely based on overhead and ingredient costs, the industry average is somewhere between 10% and 15%, according to probrewer.com.
With craft beer on the rise and brew masters gaining more creditability by the schooner-full; it doesn't seem that the rise of micro-brews will go flat anytime soon.