In a lot of ways, Jonathan Martin is the poster child for the state’s beer industry. Not only is he president of the Arkansas Brewers Guild but his brewery, Bubba Brew’s, experienced significant growth last year, adding a Hot Springs taproom to locations in Bonnerdale and Norris Lake, Tennessee.
So, too, is the beer business booming in the Natural State with new breweries mushrooming from one end of Arkansas to the other.
“Three or four years ago when we started there were like maybe 12 [breweries] in the state. Now we’re up over 30,” Martin said. “Typically, guild membership has been somewhere around 90 percent or so of all the breweries in Arkansas. So, we’ve had really good participation.”
The guild is affiliated with the national Brewers Association and provides its members with a range of benefits, Martin said. Among these are lobbying support, business advice and regulatory know-how.
“We not only have access to resources from all of our individual breweries that have been members and gone through all [these issues], but we have a lot of resources available from the national association,” Martin said. “That relates to everything from training and safety manuals to best procedures and even legislative agendas.”
Working with lawmakers is a two-way street, Martin noted. Not only does the association lobby its interests to legislators but in Arkansas, where the industry is relatively new, the guild is a prime resource for government officials on a whole host of topics.
“That happens regularly,” Martin said. “We’re still a new enough industry that questions come up weekly, if not more often, as to general operating issues that have just never been addressed by the legislature. We’re constantly working with the ABC [state Alcoholic Beverage Control] and the Department of Finance on questions, and they give good guidance. If it’s something that’s a big enough issue, they will revisit it with the legislature during their next session.”
In 2016, breweries produced just under 36,000 barrels of suds – or, half a gallon for every Arkansan of legal drinking age – representing an economic impact of about $406 million. Not every brewery succeeds, of course, but the ones that do are economic darlings in Arkansas, affecting tourism, agriculture, retail and other industries.
“The thing that people don’t realize is that when starting a brewery, you’re employing plumbers, electricians, tradespeople. It affects the packaging industry and the freight industry,” Martin said.
“And, you’re employing people: When we opened our taproom, we hired approximately 25 to 30 employees to work here, half of which are full time. When you think about all that, plus the tax revenues generated both at the local level and the state level, it’s really profound to think about how deep that effect is.”
The industry has grown such that the guild is actively seeking its first paid executive director, but even with its widespread appeal, Arkansas commercial breweries are still relatively meager compared with other states. Martin said hurdles in this business include the high capital costs of start-up and expansion as well as certain social and cultural elements with which the industry is still grappling, including dry counties and limited Sunday sales.
“One thing that we’re overcoming in Arkansas, and the South in general, is we’re still part of the old Bible Belt,” he said. “[Arkansas’] regulations and laws, as far as breweries are concerned, are relatively progressive for this region, but they can always be improved.”
Look for more on Arkansas craft beer and breweries in the March issue of AY Magazine.