A beer road trip across northern Arkansas
I have been to most of the breweries in the state, though there are a few that have escaped me in my quest to see them all.
The Arkansas Brewers Guild hosted one of its tap takeover events at Gravity BrewWorks in Big Flat this past weekend, which got me to thinking about how tragic it is that I've yet to see that particular brewery with my own two eyes.
I made an attempt during spring break last year, between a canoe trip on the Buffalo River and a side excursion to Blanchard Springs for some caving. Unfortunately I caught owners Bill Riffle and Tony Guinn on a day off and was forced to wave at the brewery's exterior from the driver's seat of a passing Honda Pilot. I've talked with Bill and Tony over the telephone on a few occasions, and have drank their beer at a couple of festivals in the state. They seem to be great people and make really good beer. But to this day I haven't actually been inside Gravity BrewWorks. I'm experiencing some self-loathing as a result.
There are other breweries in the northern part of the state that I haven't visited, which made me think that a road trip might be a fun way to knock them all out at once. Taking an extended weekend during the peak of fall foliage season would be a charming backdrop to some Arkansas beer exploration. The Ozark Mountains provide some of the most beautiful scenery in America during that time of year.
I live in Fayetteville, which is on the western edge of the Ozarks. For me the journey would start by heading east along Highway 412. This notorious two-lane road twists and turns through the worn out hollers that stretch between Springdale and Harrison. I've had a few white-knuckle situations on that particular highway. It is strongly advised to take it slow and enjoy the pastoral views instead of getting in too big a hurry.
Brick & Forge Brew Works operates inside Brick Oven Pizza Co. in Harrison, and is the first stop of the trip. Brewer Kenny Peden has been making beer there since 2012. Unfortunately I missed the brewery when compiling information for Arkansas Beer and failed to give it a mention. I spoke to Kenny not too long ago and apologized for the oversight. He was extremely gracious and admitted that there hadn't been much buzz to that point, causing Brick & Forge to fly completely under the radar. He has been getting the name out more and more as of late, drumming up interest in his beer at events across the state and through various social media platforms. He stepped up to a 4-barrel brewhouse late last year, and people I trust tell me the beer he is making is really good.
It's hard to imagine a brewery having success in Harrison based on my experience working there in the early 2000s. It seemed like the driest and most conservative place in Arkansas. A lot has apparently changed since then, and I can't wait to order a pint there soon.
Continuing east on Highway 412 for an hour takes us to our next stop, Rapp's Barren Brewing Co. in Mountain Home.
According to its website, Rapp's Barren was the original name for Mountain Home when the town was settled around 1810. Owners Chris Gordon and Russell Tucker (whose middle name is surely "Mother") are brewing on a 1-barrel HERMS system. It looks like Rapp's Barren is hosting quite a bit of live music these days, which in northern Arkansas might mean a fiddle appears every now and then.
The brewery's website lists a regular lineup that includes Hoppuccino (a pale ale with coffee), Settlers Ale (a brown ale), 1000k IPA, My Sweet Mtn. Home Stout, 1810 Cream Ale, and Buffalo Blonde Ale. Rapp's Barren seems to be focusing on classic styles, which I think is an important niche to serve.
Mountain Home is beautiful country. It's a lake town that attracts fishermen, water sports enthusiasts, and folks looking to slip off the beaten path for a day or two. Lake Norfork is the closest body of water to Mountain Home, and it shares a name with one of the state's newest breweries, located just 15 minutes to the south, near the confluence of the White River and the lake's tailwater.
Norfork Brewing Co. opened in June. I'm intrigued by the thought of renting a cabin for the night and a pontoon boat the next day to cruise the nearby lake. A visit to the brewery for a pint of graf (a fermented mixture of cider and pilsner) or what Norfork is calling "mulberry framboise" is an appropriate way to come off the water. Another beer of interest there is Paw Paw Steam Beer. A wild yeast strain was isolated on fruit from the paw paw trees growing along the river, and later used to ferment the beer.
Honestly, I don't know what else to expect in the town of Norfork. I have never been there in my life, which is strange because I spent my early career driving around Arkansas in a rental car. I criss-crossed all over the state for years and never--not once--did I set foot in Norfork. I'm excited to scratch that one off my list!
The last brewery on the northern Arkansas road trip, Gravity BrewWorks, is an oasis for thirsty drinkers who find themselves deep in the Arkansas hinterland.
It's pretty amazing that talented brewers like Guinn and Riffle would set up shop in such a place. The population of Big Flat was exactly 105 at last census count. It's remarkable that there are enough people in the vicinity to support craft beer. Like most of rural America, it has traditionally been the land of suitcase beer (that is, commodity light lager). Now, leaving the Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock metros no longer means forgoing good beer. Out there, in the middle of nowhere, world-class brewers are making hoppy-as-hell IPAs.
The owners are super nice, and the brewhouse is custom-built and like no other. Riffle is a bit of a pioneer in the state, too, having brewed for a decade at Vino's Brew Pub in Little Rock and winning some national medals along the way.
Gravity BrewWorks isn't far from the lower end of the Buffalo River, and the small town of Mountain View is just thirty minutes to the brewery's southeast. Mountain View is known as the "Folk Music Capitol of the World" and provides a glimpse into the kind of ancient Ozark culture that is quickly disappearing. I think I take back what I said about this brewery being in the "middle of nowhere." There's plenty to do and explore, and you could easily spend the entire weekend there if you wanted to.
It's quite a hike back to Fayetteville from Gravity BrewWorks. It's probably an easier trip home if you're returning to the Little Rock metro. I would probably space this road trip out over a long weekend, but the well-rested and highly adventurous (who also happen to have all-day designated drivers) might choose to make the trip in just one day. It's more than 6 hours round-trip from Fayetteville, so it would be an extremely long day, but an enjoyable experience chockfull of good beer and magnificent views.