By Bobby Bush
Even though this microbrewery revolution has been going on for over 15 years, the entire
state of Arkansas, birthplace of President Bill Clinton, has only three brewpubs to its
name. The count used to be four until Fort Smith’s Weidman’s Brewery shut down their
pub several years ago and went micro. Little Rock, the state capital, serves as host to
Vino’s Pizza*Pub*Brewery and RiverRock Brewery, while Ozark Brewing resides in
the university town of Fayetteville, a city I’ve never visited. They may be few in number,
but in terms of quality, the two Little Rock brewpubs are doing well.
West of the downtown area, Vino’s is an unassuming dive of a place with great
pizza, good house brews and an extensive list of draft and bottled guest beers. Established
in 1900 as a pizzeria, Vino’s added brewing equipment in 1993, two years after the
legislature made micros and brewpubs legal. As the state’s first such venture, the 7th and
Chester brewpub struggled with quality until, following another loosening of regulations in
1996, brewing capacity was expanded and a real brewer was hired.
Vino’s also has a music hall which hosts mostly local acts, from alternative rock ‘n
roll to Celtic. On Wednesdays and Saturdays house brewed beers go for happy hour
prices all night long. They include three regulars- Six Bridges Cream Ale, Firehouse Pale
(Little Rock Fire Department is just across the street) and the slow pouring, milky smooth,
dark chocolate meets harsh ending Lazy Boy Stout -and occasional brews like Ouachite
ESB, German Alt and Pinnacle IPA, a medium bodied floral-hopped ale with bitter
aftertaste. And as guest beers, expect to find diversity with selections like Abita Purple
Haze, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Guinness, Budweiser, Shiner Bock and Hornsby’s
Cider on tap. Bottled choices are craft beer oriented, like Breckenridge IPA, Celis
White, Anchor Steam and Weidman’s Arkansas Ale and Naked Nut Brown. (I bought a
six pack of each before I left town). Vino’s also keeps about 20 imported bottled beers,
including delicious Chimay Red, White and Blue Belgian ales.
Downtown on the riverfront in a dilapidated area off Markham that is slowly being
rebuilt waits RiverRock Brewery, established 1997. Brewer Omar Castrellon was out
when I visited, but his presence and experience was evident in his creative beers. (Omar
has been around the brewing industry for a while, serving time in Durham, NC with
now-defunct Old Heidelberg, Loggerhead in Greensboro, NC, Barrett’s Brewpub in
Tuscaloosa, AL and American Craft Brewers in Torrance, CA. He credits German brewer
Thomas Kunzmann of Greenshields Brewing in Raleigh, NC for much of his brewing
education and a keen sense of good beer).
Through the balcony patio windows, I could seek folks ice skating next door as I
ordered a pint of Omar’s Christmas Ale. Trying to guess what secret spices were used, I
tasted cherries and cinnamon in this tart-finishing ale. Made with only pilsner malt,
Sledgehammer was a sweet pale ale. Alter Ego was hoppy and amber, while Pig Trail Ale,
of similar hue, was creamy, less hoppy. Almost Pilsner was exactly that, a Saaz
hops-infused lager-like ale. Bird Dog boasted hints of chocolate, while Rice & Shine was
lightened with rice flakes in the brew. My favorite was Flatbed Stout, a dark, smooth
brew fortified with oats and honey. Its rough entrance was modified by sweet, coffee-ish
finish. Good enough for breakfast any day of the week.
RiverRock Brewery was acquired by new owners in late 1999 and has undergone
reorganization and remodeling. Scheduled to re-open this month (April ‘00) with Omar
still working the brew kettle, the establishment will carry a new name, Chit's, and a new
menu with emphasis on Southwestern cuisine. As long as Omar is brewing, everything
will be all right.
Brewpubs haven’t exactly set the world on fire in Arkansas, but with examples like
Vino’s and RiverRock, er, Chits to go by, there’s still hope for this deprived state.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush