ROGERS, Ark. (AP) — Ozark Beer Co. is expanding, adding new equipment that will allow it to brew 50 percent more beer.
Ozark Beer isn't alone. Several breweries in northwest Arkansas are making various moves to meet what they say is steadily growing demand, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
Some breweries have moved into canning and are experimenting with food options while another is opening off-site pubs and has begun some local delivery of its products. Over the past few months, two new breweries, Bentonville Brewing Co. and Bike Rack Brewing Co., also in Bentonville, opened their doors.
A few weeks ago, Ozark Beer, known for its colorful and artsy beer cans featuring scenes of Ozark wildlife, added three giant tanks that each hold 900 gallons. The additional tanks give Ozark Beer the ability to make a little more than 5,000 barrels a year. There are 31 gallons of beer in a barrel.
The new equipment also allows the brewery to add a cream stout to the two beers it already cans — an American pale ale and a Belgian golden ale. Ozark Beer, which employs about 20 full- and part-time workers, has been open less than two years.
Lacie Bray, co-owner of Ozark Beer, said the plan from the start was for the brewery to take things slowly, with the goal of serving Washington and Benton counties in Northwest Arkansas before eventually moving into other parts of the state. She said the brewery expanded, not to meet a growth target, but simply to keep up with the needs of Ozark Beer's 100-plus commercial accounts, primarily local restaurants and bars.
"We want to take care of our neighbors first," Bray said.
Earlier this year, Act 857 removed overlapping classifications in Arkansas' former law regulating breweries. The new law establishes only two divisions — microbrewery restaurants and small breweries — and allows for some self-distribution of beer.
Currently there are 20 small brewery permits issued across the state, along with eight microbrewery restaurant permits.
Under the new law microbrewery restaurants can produce more beer each year, going from 5,000 barrels to 20,000. For small breweries, the production limit increased as well, from 30,000 barrels to 45,000 barrels.
Arkansas brewers produced 14,641 barrels of craft beer in 2014, ranking 50th for gallons of beer produced per person 21 or older, according to the Brewers Association. In 2014, sales of all beer were up 0.5 percent to 197.1 million barrels, while craft beer production was up 17.6 percent to 21.8 billion gallons, according to the association.
As the demand for craft beer continues to rise, the northwest Arkansas breweries have developed a variety of tactics and strategies to cash in.
Core Brewing and Distilling Co. in Springdale, the largest of the region's breweries, recently went through a rebranding process to help make its product more visible and more identifiable in retail stores.
"It's more visible. Now Core beer pops off the shelf," said Matt Biles, the brewery's director of sales and marketing.
The company now is distributing its own beer in several counties in northwest Arkansas, has stand-alone brew pubs in Rogers, Springdale and Fort Smith and is offering a variety of its beers in six packs, 12 packs and 12-ounce bottles. Also, the company plans to unveil its first distilled offerings soon.
Biles said the brewery had well over 200 commercial customers.
"And that list is growing every day," he said.
Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, said growth like northwest Arkansas is seeing is typical when a brewing community begins to reach critical mass. He said production expansion, new ventures like moving into food service, additional methods of presenting the product, and off-site locations are all trends the industry is seeing nationally.
Watson noted that the nation's improving economy is also helping northwest Arkansas brewers.
Last year, the northwest Arkansas metropolitan statistical area — which consists of Benton, Washington and Madison counties, along with McDonald County in Missouri — saw its population grow beyond 500,000. The preliminary unemployment rate for the region in May was 4.3 percent, compared with 5.6 percent for the state overall and 5.5 percent for the U.S. overall. The northwest Arkansas labor force was at 249,504 in May, up nearly 5 percent from the same period last year, according to preliminary data.
Watson said the growing population and low unemployment give northwest Arkansas' breweries a strong customer base.
Two northwest Arkansas breweries are reaching those potential customers by adding canning lines and offering food and other options to make their operations more attractive and to hopefully keep customers there longer.
Owner and operator Steven Renbock said Springdale-based Saddlebock Brewery expects its canning line in any day and said he hopes to have its canned beer in stores soon. Saddlebock was one of the first regional breweries to have both a 22-ounce bottle, called a bomber, and re-fillable growlers in area stores. It now also offers its beer in 12-ounce-bottle six packs.
To entice brewery visitors to stay longer, a beach volleyball court is being added and a one-room cottage is available for rent nearby. To offer variety to its drink selection, Saddlebock also now serves some Arkansas wines.
Other plans include a restaurant that will operate as a separate business, located just across the road from the brewery to cater to hungry folks who stop by the brewery and taproom.
In Fayetteville, Ben Mills, owner and head brewer at Fossil Cove Brewing Co., is also adding food at his business. The Container Kitchen sits next to the brewery but is a separate corporate entity. A few weeks back, the eatery was set up inside a souped-up shipping container and opened for business.
The brewery recently began to can its beer and sells its Paleo Ale and La Brea Brown in six packs in its tasting room.
Watson, from the Brewers Association, said the growth in the beer industry in northwest Arkansas echoes that seen in much larger markets, like Colorado and California, when craft brewing first started to take hold.
"They are creating their own marketplace," he said.
Marty Shutter, marketing chief at Ozark Beer, said the local breweries help one another thrive.
Old attitudes and mass-produced commercial beer are the real competitors, he said. Local brewers have to focus on their products' quality, taste and availability, he said. People want to buy locally if they can, he said, but that only goes so far.
"Beer drinkers will try something because it's made right here in their backyard, but they won't buy it again if it's not any good," Shutter said.