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Castaway Island
May, 2001

By Bobby Bush

Omar Castrellon has brewed for three different Arkansas brewpubs, without a change of scenery. River Rock opened in Little Rock back in 1997 with Panama-born Omar at the brew kettle. That downtown River Market brewpub closed for a while in 2000 and opened a few months later with slightly new ownership, a new name and the same brewer. Chitís, as it was named, met a similar though swifter fate. Even in the state capital, it didnít take long for the toilet humor of Chitís to wear thin. No Chit, Bubba.

Moving quickly this time, the owners turned the old town brewpub over to locally owned Native Management to streamline the restaurantís operations. Chitís closed on May 11, 2001 and by May 21 was reincarnated as Castaway Island Grille & Brewery. The change was both thorough and expedient. Done all in pinks, greens and blues, table tops were hand-painted with island scenes. The kitchen was re-worked. Structural columns became palm trees. The menu was spiffed up with a broad selection of island foods (sunny salads, jerk chicken pizza, mojo-sauce chicken, succulent steaks, fish, sandwiches and pastas). Luckily, Omarís brewhouse was pretty much left as is.

Omar took on brewing as a career not because he had been a successful homebrewer, the route most pro brewers take, but because he needed a job. Answering a help-wanted ad, he signed on as an assistant at Old Heidelberg (now non-brewing Tobacco Roadhouse) in Durham, NC. Only three months into this new job, the head brewer was laid-off and trainee became instant brewmaster, brewing nothing but lagers. When Heidelberg closed its doors, Omar moved 60 miles west to Loggerhead Brewing in Greensboro. By 1992, the now-seasoned brewer landed an assistant brewerís job at Greenshields Brewing in Raleigh, where owner Gary Greenshields and German-born brewer Thomas Kunzmann took Omar under their wings. Four years later, he headed to Tuscaloosa, Alabama as head brewer for Barrettís Brewpub. During his short stint in ĎBama, he squeezed in a two week course at American Craft Brewers in Torrance, CA. Omar became the first and only brewer for River Rock in June 1997.

On a recent visit, Omar and I, joined by management-organizational wizard and restaurant professional Bob Joblin of Native Management, tried each of his latest brews straight from the walk-in cooler or fermentation tank. Using brewhouse stairs as a table, the first sip of a beer destined to become Castaway Ale was exquisite. This honey-conditioned cream ale was bright gold, decked by thick white foam. Just a hint of sweetness was obvious, pursued by a moderately dry finish. From the glycol-cooled fermenter, three month old Light Lager was cloudy but decisively a tasty lager that will probably become one of Castawayís rotating Island Special Brews. Loaded with Crystal hops and fruity in flavor, Amber was clean, medium bodied, wafting a pleasant floral nose. Again from its fermenter, Castaway St. Thomas Brown was cloudy, sweet and yeasty, while Bocas Stout was a burnt caramel-tasting lager version of this UK style. Heavy with coffee essence, Boca was neither sweet nor overtly hoppy.

Bright yellow, Island Pale Ale left a film of white lace on the interior surface of our pint glasses. Long in hops from mid-taste onward, four gallons of honey was added to the seven barrel brew, balanced with generous quantities of Liberty and Crystal hops. An IPA indeed! Pale Lager also utilized honey, resulting in a sweeter than usual pilsner style brew, while Omarís cask-conditioned Bock, only six weeks of age, was sultry, flirting with tongue and taste buds. Yeasty with a combination of German and American hops, this copper-colored brew obviously needed proper conditioning time to reach its mellow and proper ending.

Though heís seen it happen once before, Omar seemed complacent with the restructuring going on around him. Joblin likewise was sure and certain in his vision for Castaway Island. The restaurant business is old hat. His plans to increase restaurant operation efficiency and strengthen management were right on schedule, as was the reconstruction. Admittedly not a beer person, heíd already recognized the potential in marketing Omarís enticing beer, making it an integral part of Castaway Islandís persona. Not a bad idea!

Letís hope that the third time is indeed the charm for Omar Castrellon, Bob Joblin and Castaway Island Grille & Brewery.

Arkansas minus one

On a sad note, Fort Smith, Arkansas brewpub/microbrewery Weidmanís Brew Pub has closed its doors, apparently for good.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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