Things I wish I had said about Arkansas Beer
This past Sunday I had the privilege to travel to North Little Rock to give a talk on my book, Arkansas Beer, as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival. I was nervous about what kind of crowd might show up because the various book signings and beer events I have done as a part of the book's publicity push have been a crapshoot of sorts. Sometimes they are well-attended, and sometimes they are downright barren people-barren. And with it being a gorgeous 75 degrees and sunny on that particular day, I was worried beer drinkers and book readers would find something else to do outdoors.
With that said, I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. I didn't do a headcount but there appeared to be between 50 and 60 people in the audience. Two fellow beer writers were there to support me as well--John Wells, aka "John the Beer Snob," and Scott Parton, aka "Woo Pig Brewey" of Twitter fame and the blog Arkansas Beer Scene. I met those guys a few years ago on a beer blogger outing on the Fayetteville Ale Trail organized by that city's visitors bureau. Arkansas' brewing industry is pretty small and extremely friendly towards each other, and so too is the state's beer writing community. I appreciate the fact John and Scott made time to come to my talk since they most certainly know as much as I do about Arkansas beer, if not more.
The rest of the crowd was a mix of beer drinkers and folks enjoying the diverse topics of the literary festival. I would have loved to participate more fully in the festival myself, but youth sports kept me busy on Saturday, and I was forced to make it a down-and-back affair. Thankfully, Flyway Brewing proved a welcoming host to myself and others and the day turned out great.
I have to say, Flyway is making some great beers these days. I'm a big fan of coffee beers, and the Free Range Finca Pena Obscura is a fine-tuned coffee brown that I would drink in mass quantities if I could find it back home in Fayetteville. And if I hadn't eaten just before arriving I would have plowed through an order or two of the buffalo chicken and waffles dish that kept flying out of the kitchen. Flyway has really established itself as a major player in Arkansas, and I was super pumped to visit again.
I have a confession to make before I go on to say what I wish I had said on Sunday. I didn't make notes to reference while delivering my talk. I've covered the topic so often, and in so much detail, that I have grown comfortable just standing in front of a crowd and winging it. That strategy generally works well for me because it allows me to engage the audience in more of a conversational way (as opposed to reading from a script and not reading the audience's reactions). I'm a former corporate trainer, and working a crowd comes easy to me. I think I use my freewheeling style to fairly good effect. The problem with going noteless, however, is that sometimes I forget important details, or mess up a name or date. While I don't think I messed anyone's name up on Sunday, I did leave a few things out that I wish I had covered:
I spent some time talking about the Joseph Knoble brewery in Fort Smith. It operated from 1848 until Knoble's death in 1881. The brewery was three stories in height and used gravity to facilitate the flow of the brewing process. Milling, mashing, boiling, and fermenting were performed on the third floor, and finished beer was drained through pipes to kegs on the floor below. After describing this to the crowd I told them to hold the thought because I would revisit this notion of gravity brewing later in the talk. I must have said "hold that thought" three or four times.
Unfortunately, I got so caught up trying to remember a funny quote about Knoble I had found in the state's judicial record--"...[he] slept in the brewery, not, it seems, for want of room in his house, but on account of the business, and because he did not live pleasantly with his wife."--that I forgot to return to the thought I told the audience to hold on to.
Well, what I intended to say was that there is a striking similarity between Knoble's brewery and Saddlebock Brewery in Springdale, which opened in 2012. Steve Rehbock built Saddlebock with energy efficiency in mind, constructing a three-story brewing facility that, just like Knoble's, uses gravity to facilitate the brewing process. Rehbock stores grain and equipment on the top floor, mashes and boils on the second floor, and ferments in the basement. It's a curious coincidence that two breweries separated by more than 130 years operate in much the same way. Not only did I forget to draw the link between the two breweries, but I also butchered the funny anecdote about Knoble sleeping in the brewery because he didn't get along with his wife. Instead of hearty laughs, all I got were puzzled looks!
My talk then shifted to the importance of the brewpubs of the 1990s. "Microbrewery restaurants" were made legal in Arkansas in 1991, and brewpubs sprang up across the state in rapid fire succession. First out of the gate was Weidman's Old Fort Brew Pub, which opened in Fort Smith in 1992. I told the audience how astonishing it was that it took so long for commercial brewing to regain a foothold in Fort Smith after Knoble's brewery closed in 1881; and that when it finally returned, it would do so in the very structure Knoble had brewed in 111 years before. I also talked glowingly about Vino's Brewpub (Little Rock, open in 1991 and brewing in 1993) and Ozark Brewing Co. (Fayetteville, 1994). What I failed to mention, however, is that River Rock Brewery was a part of that initial wave of brewpubs when it opened in Little Rock in 1997.
I really can't believe I forgot to talk about River Rock, or more importantly, about Omar Castrellon. He was the brewer there, and also for the brewpub's future incarnations--Chit's and Castaway Island. Castrellon was an experienced brewer when he was hired, and his beer helped buoy the troubled restaurant side of the business. As the restaurant format continued to shift, the beer remained the one constant. Castrellon left Little Rock for Indianapolis when Castaway finally collapsed in 2002, but returned to the capital city in 2014 to help launch Lost Forty Brewing Co.
I wish that I hadn't skipped over that chapter of Arkansas brewing history because Castrellon was--and still is--an important figure in the state's brewing industry. He made great beer at time when even good beer was in short supply in Arkansas. While at River Rock he hired Bill Riffle, who would later move on to Vino's and win a couple of medals a the Great American Beer Festival (and eventually open Gravity Brew Works in Big Flat with wife and brewer-partner Toni Guinn). And now Castrellon is mentoring the young brewers at Lost Forty. His contributions have been significant and span two decades. In terms of helping lay the groundwork for Arkansas' current brewing scene, few can claim as much influence as Castrellon. I just wish I had mentioned his name to the crowd gathered at Flyway!
Despite these omissions, I think the talk was a success. Several people bought books afterwards and seemed genuinely pleased with the Cliffs Notes-style overview I gave. And although my free-wheeling style seemed to serve me well on Sunday, I may decide to jot down a few notes before my next presentation. Leaving out information that I think is important drives me crazy! Even if I'm the only one that noticed.