by Dwain Hebda
It’s a weeknight at Stone’s Throw Brewing and the joint is filling up. Big windows glow, beckoning patrons to come in for a pint and conversation, which they do in twos and threes. Many of them regulars, they greet each other warmly, grab a chair and relax.
“I still think there’s a beer for everybody and some people have yet to find their beer,” says Shawn Tobin, co-owner, to explain craft beer’s sustained popularity. “The consumer now is more educated. They’re looking for a higher-quality product and a more local product.”
This space, found in Little Rock’s up-and-coming Stifft Station neighborhood, is Stone’s Throw’s second; the original is still going strong across the street from MacArthur Park downtown. Neither one has a kitchen, but food trucks are never far away. Stone’s Throw is also one of the only Little Rock breweries that doesn’t bottle or can their beer, save for individual growlers and crowlers.
“It’s always hard to tell if we’re trendsetters ahead of our time or if we don’t know what we’re doing,” jokes Ian Beard, co-owner. “The self-distributing small brewery or a taproom without a restaurant works in most markets but it doesn’t seem to work here, because we’re the only one left.”
These facts, along with the operation’s small size, makes it arguably the city’s most neighborhood-centric brewery, a true local hangout. Which, the owners say, feels right and hasn’t failed them yet.
“We look at national trends,” Beard says. “Satellite taprooms are something a lot of breweries have gotten into, especially as the wholesale market has become more and more competitive. It’s a lot easier to sell the beer ourselves face to face with our neighbors than battle for taps.”
Stone’s Throw’s prosperity isn’t happening in a vacuum. Truth be told, 2019 was a great year for craft beer nationwide and pretty successful in Arkansas, too. The Brewer’s Association, a trade group for small and independent American brewers, reported U.S. craft brewers upped production 4 percent last year. More than 8,000 breweries were in operation in 2019, an all-time record.
In Arkansas, the number of breweries stayed about flat with 2018, according to Sylvia Blain, executive director of the Arkansas Brewers Guild. This translates to roughly 40 Arkansas brewers producing nearly 46,000 barrels, although more companies are in the making.
“We have several groups that are in the process of opening new breweries, but they’re not yet brick and mortars or do not yet have their permits,” she says. “We’ve got four more coming online, hopefully in 2020.”
Part of what’s driving this growth was a new law passed last year that created guidelines for breweries to open in dry counties. Act 681 set down production and sales limits as well as other guidelines that are already attracting entrepreneurs’ attention to parts of the state previously off limits. But it’s still a complicated process, Blain says, especially as regulators continue to interpret the new law.
“Regulation is still a challenge,” she says. “With each new ABC director, there is a reinterpretation of existing laws. So, you could have a brewery that’s been around for 20 years abiding by laws and now they’re interpreted in a new way and there’s a lot of confusion. That is our biggest struggle is getting clear rules and regulations that everyone understands.”
“The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board took public comments on their interpretation of that new law allowing breweries in dry counties. Based on their interpretation of those rules, and the rules that they put out there, it will determine how that will move forward. That’s kind of still up in the air.”
As regulators continue to sort out guidelines, the industry has moved forward in a big way, led by the Guild. The group is working in an advisory capacity with the University of Arkansas’ new brewer certification program. It’s also hosting a brewer’s conference in Central Arkansas this summer, although specific details have yet to be worked out.
Market growth continues to be split between new converts and those already into craft beer, says Marty Shutter, marketing director for Ozark Beer Company in Rogers.
“Capturing people making the transition from macro to micro very often means needing a world-class product that’s consistent,” he says. “We’ve built our brand and our reputation on four world-class, year-round styles.”
“The other half of our growth is that existing customer base where there is pressure for new things. Our small batches, unique offerings that maybe are a little more costly or more of a marketing challenge, we’ve seen those sales greatly increase across our taproom.”
Shutter says he doesn’t expect most Arkansas breweries to ramp up brick and mortar locations in multiple markets in the state, a departure from long-held growth strategies by restaurants or retail.
“It’s been almost a thoughtless assumption of expansion that if I physically am in more places that will somehow drive sales. I don’t think that’s a dumb idea. I don’t think it’s counterintuitive, but I also don’t think it’s the best way,” he says.
“Our partners are the retail outlets, liquor stores, bars and restaurants because it makes more sense to put our products in more places. That brings people either to the taproom or to our other products.”
Overall, Arkansas’s beer business climate is much more favorable than other states, another factor that points toward continued growth.
“Our breweries are much better off with our onsite package sales and our Sunday sales,” Blain says. “We’re way ahead of the game on that. Texas just got that in 2019; they just made it legal to cash and carry. The industry itself is growing nationally; the older breweries are settling in and expanding. I think we’re in line with the rest of the country on that.”
Images by Dwain Hebda