Beer brewing in Arkansas dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Documentation on early beer brewing in Arkansas, however, is sparse. In Little Rock (Pulaski County), the Little Rock Brewery operated until 1920. The Joseph Knoble Brewery operated in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) from 1848 to 1881. After that, however, breweries did not begin operating in the state again until well after Prohibition ended in 1933.
As German immigrants migrated to and settled in Arkansas, especially in the western portion of the state, many found homesteads near Fort Smith, where the state’s best-known historic brewery is located. Built circa 1848, the Joseph Knoble Brewery served locals until 1881. Joseph Knoble, a native of Wittenberg, Germany, constructed this three-story building using typical German brewery artisanship—each floor had a specific separate function. The third floor, which the brewer approached from a staircase on the outside of the building, was the brewing area and the space where the brewmeister would dry barley before its conversion to mash. He would then mix the mash with the hops and pour that mixture into a brewing kettle. Later, the brewer added yeast for fermentation; in about three days’ time, the beer was keg-ready. It was transferred from the third floor by the opening of several valves that allowed the beer to travel down a series of pipes and into kegs on the second floor. After the kegging of the beer, strong men moved the kegs from the second floor to the first floor vault and stored them. The second floor had a summertime outdoor beer garden, and the first floor had an indoor beer garden—both typical of an authentic German brewery.
This building still stands, but over the years it suffered neglect. The Carl H. Wortz Jr. family restored the building—for about $10,000—after Carl’s wife purchased it for him as a Valentine’s Day gift in 1961. They converted the building into a museum that displayed traditional German brewing equipment and that housed local remnants including a wine press from Altus (Franklin County), several war mementos, and Caddo Indian artifacts. In the late 1990s, the building underwent another renovation to house the chain restaurant Doe’s Eat Place.
It was a long while after Prohibition before commercial beer brewing returned to Arkansas. There was an attempt to open a brewery called the Ozark Club in the 1950s, but that plan failed. William Lyon operated the Arkansas Brewing Co. from 1983 to 1986 in Little Rock but ran into problems of consistency, as well as state regulations that prohibited both the sale of food by breweries and the sale of alcoholic beverages from the site of manufacture. In 1992, Wiedman’s Old Fort Brewery opened in Fort Smith. It made “Arkansas Ale,” a regional favorite, and “Hell on the Border Porter,” which received 14.5 points (out of twenty) in a tasting at the Great American Beer Festival in 1994. Wiedman’s closed in 1997.
In 2000, Arkansans Russ and Sue Melton revived the state’s beer scene. That year, they opened Diamond Bear Brewery in Little Rock. Russ Melton had become fascinated with craft beer while he was stationed in West Germany with the U.S. Army in the 1970s. When he returned to the States in the 1980s, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and developed a taste for the Boulevard Brewing Company’s beers. When the Meltons returned to Arkansas in the 1990s, he decided to make his hobby a business and opened a production brewery in Little Rock in 2000. Diamond Bear brews a variety of beers that are sold throughout the state and in western Tennessee and northern Louisiana. In 2003, the Arkansas Brewers Guild was established to tackle legal obstacles faced by state breweries, such as production caps and the necessity of dealing with distributors to get beer to market. The guild was able to get the Arkansas Native Brewery Act passed that same year. This law increased production limits and allowed sales on brewery premises.
In 2010, Refined Ale Brewery opened in Little Rock, but it closed in 2019. Since then, a number of other breweries have been established in the state. In 2012, Fossil Cove Brewing Co. opened in Fayetteville (Washington County), while in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties) Core Brewing & Distilling Co. and Saddlebock Brewery opened in 2011 and 2012, respectively. In 2013, Stone’s Throw Brewing opened in Little Rock, and Ozark Beer Company opened in Rogers (Benton County), while Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery of Hot Springs (Garland County), which leases a former bathhouse from the National Park Service, opened its tasting room; Superior began offering its own brews in January 2015. As of April 2015, there were eighteen “native” brewer permits for beer, three permits that included provisions for restaurants, and five microbrewery restaurants. Act 857 of 2015 simplified the laws regulating breweries and allowed for some self-distribution of beer.
The state is also home to a selection of brewpubs (restaurants that brew beer not sold outside the restaurants). Vino’s Brewpub is located in Little Rock, while Hog Haus Brewing Company—which opened its doors in 2004—is located on Dickson Street in Fayetteville in the old Ozark Brewing Company building. West Mountain Brewing Company is also in Fayetteville.
In 2013, Arkansas had thirteen breweries in the state; by 2016, this number had increased to thirty-one, with the largest concentrations being in northwestern Arkansas and Little Rock. Other breweries in the state include Apple Blossom Brewing Company in Fayetteville, Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville (Benton County), Bubba Brews in Bonnerdale (Hot Spring County), Flyway Brewery in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Fort Smith Brewing Company in Fort Smith, Gravity BrewWorks in Big Flat (Baxter and Searcy counties), Prestonrose Farm and Brewing Company in Paris (Logan County), Lost Forty in Little Rock, and Slate Rock Brewing in Amity (Clark County). In 2019, the trustees of the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville approved a certificate program in brewing science.
The COVID-19 pandemic that spread across the world in 2020 affected a number of Arkansas breweries, as many breweries closed their taprooms to prevent the spread of the virus. Those which possessed the capability to can or bottle their brews fared best, as they could sell beyond their immediate location. Little Rock’s East Sixth Street Brewery (formerly Rebel Kettle) closed in 2020 in part due to the pandemic.
For additional information:
Brantley, Max. “Fort Smith’s Knoble Brewery Loving Remnant of Golden Days of ‘Local’ Beers.” Arkansas Gazette, March 21, 1976, p. 4E.
Chase, Glen. “Breweries Becoming Toast of Town.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 15, 2015, pp. 1G, 8G.
Cottingham, Jan. “Craft Breweries in the Age of COVID.” Arkansas Business, August 17–23, 2020, pp. 1, 8–9.
Deane, Ernie. “Notes on a Fort Smith Landmark.” Arkansas Gazette, January 19, 1964, p. 5E.
Diamond Bear Brewery. http://www.diamondbear.com (accessed April 7, 2021).
Fayetteville Ale Trail. http://www.fayettevillealetrail.com/ (accessed April 7, 2021).
Ford, Edsel. “Preserving Splendors of the Past.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine, June 21, 1964, p. 8.
“Former Brewery Now a Museum.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine, August 12, 1962, p. 15.
“Fort Smith Man Restores Brewery Built 106 Years Ago.” Arkansas Gazette, July 30, 1961, p. 2A.
Helton, David. “Fort Smith Architecture: Two Examples of the German Influence.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 5.1 (1981): 19–20.
Koch, Stephen. “Logan Run: Breweries Both Sacred and Secular Find Footing in Hilly Arkansas Wine Country.” Arkansas Times, October 2019, pp. 81–85. Online at https://arktimes.com/travel/2019/10/09/sacred-and-secular-breweries-in-arkansas-wine-country (accessed April 7, 2021).
Magsam, John. “Abbey Has Lofty Goals for Brewery.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 6, 2019, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “Breweries Barely Keeping Ahead.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 5, 2020, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “Breweries Going with the Flow.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 24, 2021, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “Ozark Beer Co. Pours on Growth.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 19, 2015, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “Sales Hopping at 2 State Breweries.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 14, 2013, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “State Beer Breweries Deliver in 2019.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 15, 2020, pp. 1G, 7G.
———. “State Beer Output up a Frothy 37%.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 26, 2018, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “State Breweries Cleared for Growth.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 12, 2014, pp. 1G, 8G.
———. “State Sees Uptick in Craft Beers.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 4, 2019, pp. 1G–2G.
Owens, Nathan. “Beer Not Only Thing Brewing on Paris Farm.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 2, 2018, pp. 1G–2G.
Sorensen, Brian. Arkansas Beer: An Intoxicating History. Charleston, SC: American Palate, 2017.
———. “Arkansas Brewers Guild Grows alongside State’s Beer Industry.” Arkansas Times, April 25, 2019. https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/arkansas-brewers-guild-grows-alongside-states-beer-industry/Content?oid=29311145 (accessed April 7, 2021).
Steed, Stephen. “Small Brewer Missed State Wave but Sheds Few Tears in the Beer.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 15, 2017, pp. 1G, 2G.
Van Zandt, Emily. “Home(town) Brews.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 7, 2015, pp. 1E, 6E.
Jeffrey M. Widener
University of Oklahoma
Last Updated: 01/25/2021