Looking at a map of Arkansas breweries, you’ll notice most of the action takes place in the western half of the state.
The largest cluster of breweries is in the far northwest corner. Nineteen of the state’s 51 breweries operate in Benton and Washington counties. Fayetteville alone has seven.
Fayetteville got its first brewery in 1994, when Ozark Brewing Company opened on Dickson Street. Back then, there were only two others making beer in the state: Weidman’s Old Fort Brew Pub in Fort Smith and Vino’s Brew Pub in Little Rock.
Several years passed before Fayetteville saw its next brewery. West Mountain Brewing Co. started making beer on the downtown square in 2011. Tanglewood Branch Brewing Co. and Fossil Cove Brewing Co. launched the following year. More breweries followed, and the city’s taprooms have been bustling ever since.
Reminiscing about the early days of brewing in Fayetteville has me thinking about the next beer boomtown in Arkansas.
Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale have boomed already. They all have multiple breweries within their city limits. Hot Springs, Little Rock and North Little Rock each have several established breweries as well.
Most Arkansas towns with a brewery, however, have only one.
Is there another Natural State municipality that can support a multitude of beermakers within its boundaries?
For a moment, consider what Jonesboro brings to the table.
Sure, Jonesboro is located in a dry county and has only one brewery to speak of. But the conditions seem right for a surge in local brewing.
First and foremost, a law passed in 2019 made brewing in dry counties possible. Act 681 came with restrictions that brewers in wet counties don’t have to deal with, but something is better than nothing when it comes to brewing beer. That’s why Jonesboro has a brewery (and Mena, too).
Jonesboro’s population exploded in recent years. According to the 2020 census, Jonesboro has 78,576 residents, which represents 16.8% growth since 2010 (67,263 residents) and 41.5% growth since 2000 (55,515). It has become the hub of Northeast Arkansas, drawing new residents by the droves, and attracting people who live elsewhere to eat, drink and shop.
Jonesboro is also home to Arkansas State University, the second-largest college in the state, with 13,772 students. A steady supply of upperclassmen, graduate students, faculty and staff usually means a bevy of taproom customers.
Fayetteville has a higher percentage of its population with bachelor’s degrees (50.3%) than Jonesboro (29.7%), but median household income in Jonesboro is comparable to Fayetteville’s. Both cities have low unemployment and robust service industries. There is at least some disposable income in both places to spend on beer.
There is a homebrew supply shop in Jonesboro, an important ingredient for a healthy beer culture. There’s also a local homebrew club. Hobbyists have a passion for craft beer, which tends to spread throughout the community over time.
Jonesboro seemingly has all the ingredients for a future beer boom. Let’s meet some of the people working to make that happen.
Native Brew Works opened in August 2021, making it the first to operate inside the city of Jonesboro.
Co-owners Dustin and Ellen Hundley and partners Heath Gammill and Jackson Spencer are all in their 30s and native to Jonesboro. They have watched attitudes toward alcohol change as the city’s population swelled.
“When I was young, I remember people talking about private clubs becoming a thing,” Ellen Hundley said. “There was a lot of pushback in those days. Alcohol has become more acceptable over time, though there is still some opposition.”
Although Craighead County is dry — one of 31 counties in the state that prohibits the sale of alcohol at bars or in stores — it could be considered the “wettest dry county in Arkansas” due to the large number of private clubs (that is, restaurants with token membership books that sell alcohol by the drink).
The 2019 law that made brewing beer legal in dry counties served as the spark for Native Brew Works.
“Dustin and I were living in Memphis at the time,” Hundley said. “Jackson had just moved back to Jonesboro. He texted Dustin and said, ‘We should open a brewery.’ A few months later we sold our house in Memphis and moved back home.”
The quartet decided to locate their brewery on Gee Street, in an area of town that had fallen on hard times. Ellen Hundley said it’s common for breweries to locate in such places due to ample space and low rent.
“Historically, brewers go into these kinds of abandoned places because they’re cheaper,” she said. “We hope our presence helps bring revitalization to Gee Street.”
Native Brew Works operates on a five-barrel system, with two 10-barrel fermenters and several five-barrel tanks for conditioning. Dustin Hundley said the brewery is on track to produce 400 barrels of beer this year. Every drop will be sold in the taproom because to-go sales are prohibited, and distribution of packaged beer requires a third-party partner.
“Breweries are a big tourist attraction, and unfortunately, people passing through for work or other reasons can’t take any of our beer home with them,” Ellen Hundley said. “We have to tell a lot of people ‘no’ when they ask if we sell growlers.”
Another challenge for breweries in dry counties is not being able to showcase their beer on social media or through other advertising outlets. You won’t find references to beer on Native Brew Works’ Facebook page. The brewery hides pints of beer in Facebook photos by superimposing the word “censored.”
Even though Jonesboro is the hub of Northeast Arkansas, it is isolated from thriving beer scenes. It’s an hour to Memphis and two hours to Little Rock. The lack of exposure to good beer and local beer culture means educating customers is a part of the Native Brew Works game plan.
“Jonesboro is insulated from what we feel is a true craft experience,” Ellen Hundley said.
“When we opened last August, people came in looking for Michelob. Since then we’ve been able to educate a lot of people about what craft beer is.”
Patty Wilson and her family own and operate Northeast Arkansas Brewers Supply in Jonesboro. They’ve been selling homebrew ingredients and equipment for nearly 10 years.
“Our store was born by accident,” she said. “We opened Kountry Kupboard 22 years ago. It was a specialty food store that carried spices and seasonings, food items for gourmet cooking. Because I didn’t brew at the time I didn’t notice at first, but some of my customers were buying ingredients for brewing.”
Sensing an opportunity, Wilson started researching homebrew supply shops. She visited as many as possible when away from Jonesboro to see what they offered and how they set up their retail spaces. She eventually carved out enough square footage at Kountry Kupboard to start Northeast Arkansas Brewers Supply as a standalone business.
“There were only a few guys brewing when we opened,” Wilson said. “Some of the older people were harvesting fruit and making wine because that’s what their grandparents taught them. But brewing beer wasn’t that common.”
Five years ago, Wilson sold Kountry Kupboard, but the buyer didn’t want the homebrew shop. Wilson and her family decided to keep it, and they recently moved to a new location at 517 Southwest Drive.
“We went into a bigger space,” said Wilson. “But it doesn’t feel bigger because I brought in a lot of new products.”
Wilson said she was cautiously optimistic when she opened Northeast Arkansas Brewers Supply. She didn’t know how the concept would be received in Jonesboro since the city was still somewhat conservative when it came to alcohol.
But the numbers don’t lie. When the shop opened there were only two kinds of hops available. Now there are 113 varieties, and a wide assortment of other ingredients and equipment. The surge in inventory was due in part to shifting attitudes. Simply put, there is growing demand for beer and beer-making products.
“We have a fermentation social that meets once a month at the store,” Wilson said. “The Jonesboro Area Brewers [a local homebrew club] are starting back up, so there is growing interest in the area.”
Jonesboro Area Brewers President Marc Bunnell and his wife, Amber, have been with the club since its founding in 2014. Like many organizations, the club’s meetings went dormant during the pandemic, but they are now meeting in person again.
Marc Bunnell said he’s been brewing beer since a friend gifted him a Mr. Beer kit in 2008.
“We turned it into a monthly get-together,” he said. “We’d bottle a batch, brew another batch, and put some meat on the smoker while we put it all together. We’d drink what we made and pray the next batch turned out just as good.”
There weren’t many homebrewers in Jonesboro at the time, so Bunnell learned more about the hobby through books, podcasts and YouTube. He started buying ingredients from Kountry Kupboard.
“I was having a hard time finding ingredients,” Bunnell said. “I found out about Patty’s store. She had raw barley and oats and other ingredients I needed to make beer.”
After Smith opened the homebrew shop, Bunnell and his wife started teaching homebrewing classes at the store. Native Brew Works brewmaster Dustin Hundley was in one of those early classes. Bunnell said the brewer at the brewpub in Paragould also learned to brew at Northeast Arkansas Brewers Supply.
Eventually the Bunnells and a few other homebrewers decided to form a club. What started out as a handful of hobbyists has turned into about 40 club members, with about half actively involved in meetings and other club events.
Despite the growing homebrew scene, Amber Bunnell feels the county’s dry status is preventing Jonesboro from meeting its full potential.
“Craighead County has to go wet,” she said. “The way the law stands right now, we can’t even have meetings at Native Brew Works because we can’t bring our homebrew onto their property.”
On the other hand, Northeast Arkansas Brewers Supply owner Patty Wilson thinks the legislation that allows breweries to operate in dry counties is the seed that will help Jonesboro become a beer destination of the future.
“When it sprouts, Northeast Arkansas will be completely different,” she said. “It can be a lot like Fayetteville, with a variety of breweries to choose from.”
A second brewery is in the works for Jonesboro.
Former Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives Davy Carter is partnering with Gearhead Outfitters founder Ted Herget to open a yet-to-be-named brewery between the downtown area and the Arkansas State University campus.
“Ted and I are buddies, and this is something that fits with what he has been pushing in Jonesboro,” said Carter, who met Herget while attending Arkansas State in the mid-’90s.
Herget’s retail concept has taken off since the company was founded in 1997. The outdoor clothing and equipment chain now includes 18 stores across the country. Despite this national expansion, the founder’s commitment to his hometown remains strong. He has spearheaded several projects in recent years to help revitalize Jonesboro’s downtown corridor.
The new brewery will be located in the vicinity of Main Street and Cate Avenue. In addition to the brewery, there will be two or three restaurants on the same site, overlooking the nearby railroad tracks.
“I hate to say it, because nobody wants to compete with Northwest Arkansas, but we’ve learned a lot from going back and forth up there,” Carter said. “Jonesboro is a big town and has a lot of momentum. We are at that threshold where people are begging for stuff like this.”
Carter said he and Herget are still working through the project’s planning stages. They are visiting a lot of breweries right now, finding inspiration along the way.
“We travel a lot and we try to find all the local places and experience the best each town has to offer,” he said. “We pay attention to the overall experience, but at the same time, we know we’ll need to serve high-quality beer.”
Carter said Jonesboro is a fast-growing college town, and there’s no doubt a vibrant beer scene is needed. He envisions a fun environment where locals can kick back, relax and talk with one another.
He is no longer front-and-center when it comes to politics, but Carter serves on the board of Common Ground Arkansas, whose mission is to bring people from across the political spectrum together in the “spirit of cooperation and civility.”
For Carter, beer can play a role in bridging the political divide.
“The world needs a lot more people drinking beer together instead of people arguing on social media,” he said.
Jonesboro is not without its challenges, but there are a number of reasons why the city can become the next beer boomtown in Arkansas.
Even though Craighead County remains dry, the new law allows breweries to operate there. The homebrewing community is established and growing. The population is exploding, industry is strong and there’s a college campus to keep a steady flow of beer drinkers in the taprooms.
And just as importantly, there are people in Jonesboro who are willing to be “the first” at what they are doing.
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