It’s hard to miss the newest player on the Little Rock beer landscape, or any landscape for that matter. East Sixth Brewing Company glimmers in shades of turquoise, pink and various lavenders in an up-and-coming warehouse district that’s fast becoming one of Little Rock’s trendiest.
Inside, the black-and-red machismo of the former tenant, Rebel Kettle, has been repainted and the décor minimalized, although on this point it’s hard to tell where the rebranding ends and COVID-19-mandated slimdowns begin. You could easily imagine the sleek space in the tonier enclaves of Denver or Nashville but it’s here, where hipsters meet the highway.
“You can go to any craft beer destination and hang out and see things similar to this,” said Becca Bona, marketing director. “It’s popular elsewhere where there are destinations for beer. We wanted to be the first ones here.”
“We wanted to be a place where people that think Little Rock isn’t cool can be like, ‘Oh wait, actually, Little Rock is cool.’ We could go anywhere and do this; it’s just not really being done this way here. We wanted it to be more inclusive for anyone of any age at any stage in their beer drinking journey to come and check us out.”
The business plan makes a lot of sense, but that didn’t make the transitional events of 2020 go down any easier with some longtime Rebel Kettle fans. At the first of the year, founder John Lee and the brewery’s other co-owners broke ties, with both sides remaining tight-lipped about the split.
East Sixth’s unveiling in June attracted social media commentary on everything from the new brews and menu (ownership wiped the slates clean and started over) to the name and décor. Painfully par for the course, Bona said.
“That got real sideways pretty quick. I tried to stop responding to everyone,” she said with a wave of her hand. “We were given the opportunity to rebrand, which large companies do all the time and keep soldiering on. We just decided that some of the ideas they had back in the brewery were really off the wall [under the] Rebel Kettle branding.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the Rebel Kettle branding. We didn’t rebrand it because it has the word ‘rebel’ in it. The timing, though—we got so much hate.”
East Sixth’s brewers didn’t waste any time getting a new lineup in place, and then some. In addition to three mainstay brews—East Sixth Haze IPA, Topside Tart Ale and Hustle Blonde—the brewery has quickly assembled a rotation of other selections to round out the menu. The quirky, inside-joke feel of a lot of the new selections—It’s Called Culture, Dad Pilsner and Biscuits & Gravy IPA, for instance—give a glimpse at the youth culture and mad-hatter creativity at work here.
“We wanted to go in this goofy, wacky, off-the-wall direction that I don’t really see happening in Arkansas right now,” Bona said. “Why is the craft beer game so serious in this state? Like, you’re drinking a beer, man. At the end of the day, the beer that they’re brewing can stand up to anything anyone wants to say.”
“I’m not, by any means, trying to say that our industry in Arkansas is not good, but it’s still relatively young in terms of the second wave of craft beer.”
East Sixth’s rebrand was complicated considerably by the COVID-19 pandemic as bars and restaurants were shuttered across the state. Here again, the energy of youth was served as the company stepped nimbly into canning and an online ordering system that helped keep product moving.
“At the beginning of COVID we just closed,” Bona said. “We had Saturday/Sunday beer sales and that was it. They switched very quickly to putting everything in cans and it was a crazy about-face, while still planning this new brand, new look and this new vibe.”
“Now, our main goal is to survive COVID. People aren’t very comfortable wanting to come out and we are a taproom model. It was not in our plans to be on the distribution side; our goal is to make it as easy as possible to grab beer if they want, without coming into the taproom or the patio.”
As the 6,000-square-foot brewery, which produced just under 1,000 barrels last year, continues to work to establish itself on its brand and merit, Bona wouldn’t predict the company’s next move.
“I don’t know how anyone who’s in the business world right now, especially if it’s a small local business, is definitely solid about their three– to five–year plan,” she said. “Our goal is, maybe in a perfect world, to have another satellite taproom. But that’s taken a way, way, way back seat.”
“A lot of people in Little Rock and in the business community and the food and beer world are doing it right. The biggest thing, right now, is being flexible. We’ve had to change our hours multiple times, for example. I know that’s frustrating for customers, but we want to be able to serve them in a way that’s safe for our staff and for our customers.”