What's next for site of Fayetteville's first brewery?
Hog Haus Brewing Co. shut its doors last month, and as reported by the Fayetteville Flyer, the building sold for over $3 million. Apparently the buyers aren’t ready to discuss their plans for the site.
Arkansas beer drinkers are left to wonder what will happen to the iconic brewery at the corner of West Avenue and Dickson Street. Rumors of big-money backing has many people hopeful for its future.
[Note: There was some recent social media debate as to whether the place meets the definition of “iconic.” Merriam-Webster defines iconic as “widely recognized and well-established.” I believe this particular brew pub is not only iconic inside the city of Fayetteville, but also within the broader Arkansas beer industry.]
John Gilliam opened the brewery—then known as Ozark Brewing Co.—in 1994. It was Fayetteville’s first commercial brewery, and it was the third brew pub to open in Arkansas following the legalization of microbrewery-restaurants in 1991.
There are nearly twenty breweries in Northwest Arkansas today, but Ozark was the only game in town when it opened. The two other brew pubs were located in Fort Smith and Little Rock.
Ozark’s beer was sometimes inconsistent, and John Gilliam—who was also the brewmaster—was notorious for selling every drop regardless of quality. Some beers were top-notch while others were a little off. Yet all were drinkable and people bought every drop he made.
The food was good-to-great, and the renovated building was to die for. A lot of money was spent dressing up the century-old site. People flocked to Ozark, and for many years it was a top tax collector among Fayetteville restaurants. It was a heavyweight in local business.
It was sad to see Ozark Brewing Co.’s name come off the front of the building when the brew pub switched hands in 2004. It seemed like the end of an era.
But Hog Haus Brewing Co.—as it came to be known—was able to keep the original spirt of the place alive. It was still the only brewery in town, and if nothing else, the novelty of being the best brewery in a one-brewery town made it successful.
Things started to change when Core, West Mountain, Tanglewood, and others opened a few years later. Craft beer was firmly-entrenched across the U.S. and was finally starting to make inroads in Arkansas. People were tasting great beer and becoming increasingly able to distinguish between what is good and what is not. Hog Haus was no longer the only game in town. It was getting harder and harder to keep up.
Brewers came and went and the beer suffered. Hog Haus eventually contracted its brewing operation to Core, and a little later to Saddlebock Brewery. The beer was made at those breweries and transported to the brew pub in kegs.
Having a beautiful ten-barrel copper brewhouse onsite and “brewing company” in its name made Hog Haus seem like a bit of a poser. There were certainly challenges—brewer turnover was high and the brewhouse reportedly gave the brewers fits—but waving the white towel and sending all the beer production elsewhere just didn’t feel right to those in the beer community.
The food dropped off too. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t all that good either.
The downward trajectory was sad because we all used to go to Ozark and Hog Haus back in the day. It was a great jumping-off spot for a night on Dickson. You had to eat something and have that first beer before moving on. A burger and a Six-in-Hand Stout was a great foundation for what would come later.
None of this is meant as a slam on the owners of Hog Haus. They held serve for a long time. Fourteen years to be exact, which is an eternity in the restaurant business. And it bridged the old and new eras of brewing.
All I’m saying is that it would be awesome if the old place could get its mojo back.
Nobody asked me for my opinion, but here’s the advice I would give to the new owners, from the perspective of an average Arkansas beer drinker:
Invest money in brewing. Beer should be made onsite. Always. This is the location’s destiny forever more. Pay a qualified brewer a decent salary and spend money fixing up the brewhouse. There is a mountain of potential there, but finding someone who knows what he or she is doing is paramount. There are tons of homebrewer-gone-pro stories in our area, but with this one I say “go big or go home.” Someone who has a brewing certification and some real world experience. Past brewers have complained about the technical challenges built into the design of the brewhouse. Re-engineering the system so that brewing is easier and the beer is more consistent batch-to-batch should be a priority. Don’t spare any expense here. Hire smart and put some money into infrastructure.
Brew a few beers really well. I hate it when new breweries launch with a dozen beers or more on tap. Or they constantly rotate beers so that no recipe gets brewed twice. I’m all for novelty, but I think new breweries should pick a handful of beers and make them really well. Classic styles like IPA, pale ale, and porter are good choices for staple beers. An accessible style like a wheat or golden ale would be a smart pick too given the brewpub’s high-traffic location (not everyone in the dining room will be a craft beer drinker). Consistency is key, so the brewer should fine tune the recipes and perfect the process. With four or five solid beers in the lineup, he or she can then play with ingredients and rotate experimental beers through the system. There’s even room for some limited barrel-aging down the road.
Upgrade the food. I’m not necessarily a foodie, but I can tell the difference between food that is slapped together and a menu that is thoughtfully planned out. I’m not sure what kind of concept would work best at the brew pub because Dickson has most of the major bases covered—steak, sushi, tacos, etc.—and nothing specific comes to mind. Whatever theme is chosen, it needs to be a place where locals—and not just visitors—truly enjoy having a meal. That can’t really be said about it over the last several years. Locals simply didn’t go there in the end. And it comes down to fresh ingredients and a talented back of the house. The Yellow Rocket group out of Little Rock (Lost Forty, Big Orange, Local Lime) has, in my opinion, a winning formula in how they do things, and I’d like to see similar passion in doing food at Dickson & West.
Engage home brewers. Ozark Brewing Co. opened just a year after the local home brew club was founded in Fayetteville. There was an early symbiosis, with the brew pub hosting club meetings and competitions. It would be nice to see the place once again become a meeting space for home brewers and other folks interested in the process of making beer. Hold competitions there again, and just as in years past, let winners brew their recipes on the big system.
Get the branding right. The history of the brew pub and the remarkable character of the site begs for a name that does it justice. I always thought Hog Haus was kind of hokey. The beer names were terrible too. I’m no marketer, and I’m certainly not a “creative,” but I’ve always preferred strong, traditional names for breweries and their beers. One name that keeps coming to mind—and one that I think fits the history and ethos of the place—is Boston Mountain Brew Works. The taps might include beers like Winfrey Valley Wheat, Bidville Brown, Frog Bayou IPA, and Shores Lake Stout. The logos should be simple, clean, and free of cartoon imagery. Get the name right, get the imagery right, and make sure there are plenty of t-shirts and hats ready to go.
There it is. Unsolicited advice for the new owners. I’m sure they are way down the road with their own plans at this point. But whatever they have in mind, they better get it right. Fayetteville—and the Arkansas beer community in general—deserves a quality brewpub at the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue. It’s where the city’s first commercial brewery opened, making it iconic by anyone’s definition of the word.