Washington County's brewing history
Yesterday I had the privilege to speak to the Washington County Historical Society about the history of brewing in Arkansas. The turnout was awesome, and I even sold a few books after the lecture was over.
Of course those in attendance were mostly interested in hearing about the breweries inside the county. Fortunately there are some great stories to tell.
Ozark Brewing Co. was the first brewery in Washington County when it opened in 1994. It was just three years after brewpubs were legalized by the state, and just one year after a homebrewing club was formed in Fayetteville.
John Gilliam, a transplant from Chicago, spent more than two years renovating the ancient buildings on the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue. What resulted was a grand gastro pub that helped kickstart the renovation of Fayetteville's entertainment district.
It was also an oasis for better beer drinkers in the area. Back then the best you could do at retail was Guinness, Bass, or a few other imports. If you wanted something similar to what we now think of as "craft" beer, you had to make it (hence the emergence of the homebrewing club) or visit one of the handful of brew pubs in existence back then. And in those days there were only two others to speak of--Weidman's Old Fort Brewpub in Fort Smith and Vino's in Little Rock.
Ozark was the crossroads of Northwest Arkansas' beer culture for just about the entirety of its existence. The homebrewing club--the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds, or FLOPS for short--met there on a regular basis. It was a top-performer among the city's restaurants, driven in part by the wide array of beer styles offered on tap and to go in growlers.
It was a special place. I'll never forget watching a bunch of rowdy Razorback fans hoist a goal post and attach it to the balcony railing after the football team beat the Tennessee Volunteers in 1999. No doubt many people have their own special memories of Ozark Brewing Co., including a friend of mine who threw up on his shoes while dining there.
All good things come to an end they say, and much to the dismay of local beer drinkers, Ozark closed a grand chapter of Arkansas beer history in 2004 when Gilliam sold the business. The new owners renamed it Hog Haus Brewing Co., and have for the most part kept the tradition of brewing on Dickson Street alive. But the place just doesn't invoke the same feelings that it once did. It's nobody's fault, really. Times have simply changed and there are more options now.
Another great story involves West Mountain Brewing Co. on the Fayetteville square. Owner John Schmuecker spent nearly a decade trying to put his 3-1/2 barrel brewery together. Unfortunately, the manufacturer went out of business and failed to equip the longtime pizza man with the resources to get the job done. The "Coming Soon" sign on the window that framed the sleeping brewhouse was a painful reminder to many that beer was near, but not quite here yet.
That is until Andy Coates serendipitously strolled into the wannabe-brewery and offered his services. Coates had a pedigree in brewing and thought he could lend a hand. Schmuecker hired him right away, and before long the fermenters were full of beer. Coates endeared himself to the locals, and in the process laid the groundwork for his own brewery--Ozark Beer Co.--which he opened in Rogers in 2013.
What is so important about that story is how beer helped created an environment at West Mountain that encourages civic discourse. To me it has become a community crossroads, where people from all walks of life come together to talk over beers. The Fayetteville square is home to so much of the city's character, hosting the acclaimed farmers market and Lights of the Ozarks. West Mountain is now a foundational component of the square, churning out good beer and providing a comfortable environment to commune with neighbors.
It was during that same time period that J.T. Wampler opened Tanglewood Branch Beer Co. in south Fayetteville. I told the historical society that I spent a couple of my college days back in the mid-90s conducting field research on the city's homeless population inside the Petra Stop, which would later become Tanglewood Branch. It was (and for the most part still is) an economically deprived area of town that many considered a weird place to build a brewery.
Wampler created a beer-centric space where he served not only his own brews, but also some of the most interesting beer available in the market at the time. There were no televisions and people were encouraged to talk instead of stare at a screen. Go figure!
Although it doesn't seem like that long ago, much has changed since Tanglewood opened. I think Wampler deserved a lot of credit for helping define what beer culture looks like in Washington County today.
It was a sad day when the simple south Fayetteville brewery closed in 2014, but as far as legacies go, Wampler's is eternally secure.
Washington County is now home to many good breweries. In chronological order, here are the ones we know about from the official written record:
- 1994-2004 Ozark Brewing Co.
- 2004-Present Hog Haus Brewing Co.
- 2010-Present Core Brewing Co.
- 2011-Present West Mountain Brewing Co.
- 2012-2014 Tanglewood Branch Beer Co.
- 2012-Present Fossil Cove Brewing Co.
- 2012-Present Saddlebock Brewery
- 2013-Present Apple Blossom Brewing Co.
- 2015-Present Columbus House Brewery & Taproom
- 2015-Present Black Apple Crossing (technically a cider-maker)
- 2017-Present JJ's Beer Garden & Brewing Co.
- 2018-Present Crisis Brewing Co.
Did anyone get left out? Do you have knowledge of any other breweries operating in the county? If so, let me know. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.