This week we feature a special guest writer Chris Butler from Siloam Springs AR. He is kicking off a special “Arkansas Spotlight” series, featuring local establishments, breweries, watering holes and even hole-in-the-walls.
There is something special in Siloam Springs. A gentrification of Main Street is alive and well. People are investing time and money and energy and dreams into this renewal. The heart of this renewal is 28 Springs. A former car dealership and vacant building sets on the corner of the downtown crossroads; now a shining example of how to make a casual upscale, reasonably priced venture work in a small community. With award winning Chef Miles James at the menu helm, the food is simple and elegant, with the appearance of fine dining at a price that won’t break the bank.
It would be easy to reason then that if 28 Springs is the heart of Siloam Springs, then the magnificent elevated bar is the heartbeat. With an extensive cocktail menu, spirits galore, a robust wine selection and a beer list that is tops in the region, this horseshoe shaped bar is the place to be most evenings. There is casual seating surrounding it, and a stage above it, where on any Tuesday or Thursday you can can catch local live music, such as the bluegrass and harmonies of Sons of Otis Malone. The decor hearkens back to the roots of Siloam, with black and white pictures of the town from the turn of the century and a sense of the old car dealership garage doors, all done in a modern, sleek look, and wrapped in a curved wall of windows.
As I walk in to meet with bar manager Casey, I opt for a seat at the lovely, lacquered bar. There I am confronted by 16 taps boasting new local beer such as Ozark Pale Ale and Cream Stout, and Core ESB. Alongside these Northwest Arkansas brews are giants of the industry like Old Rasputin and Guinness. There’s even those upstarts from Oklahoma who’ve set the beer world afire. That’s the direction I decide to go, ordering a Prairie Artisan Ales Birra while I wait for my meeting. Its a nice little session ale coming in at 4.5% ABV. Tart and dry, the wine yeast seems to change its flavor every time I enjoy one.
Grabbing a bar menu, I run through it, looking for updates since my last visit…all of three days ago. There are over 100 craft bottles here, of all varieties and hailing from all over the world. It is quite an impressive and heart-melting sight for a beer geek.
Just then, Casey comes around the corner. We’re already buddies, and this is no formal exercise; we’re here to talk beer. A smile and a handshake later, and I’m outlining just what is going on. Casey is a thoughtful guy. A transplant from Minnesota, he came here for school, and save a couple years in England for a job at an NPO, this is his home. In his own words, he comes from ‘dry stock’ and didn’t even drink beer until post college. For him, his journey started from coffee, the progression from there to a Boulevard Bully Porter as his first beer seems natural and fitting then. Like many of us who truly loved their first craft beer, he took the ‘beer nerd’ path and became passionate about all things beer. He quickly began home brewing, learning to ‘unpack the flavors’ in beer, growing in knowledge. He then moved to England and further pushed the passion, which in turn influenced his brewing, expanded his palate, widened his beer horizons and solidified his passion for all things beer.
I ask Casey; “How can the average person, the occasional beer drinker, the person who drinks macro and light, look at this impressive menu and not be overwhelmed? How has that impacted, affected sales, and further, has their been a need for education of staff to help with suggestions?” Smiling and taking a drink of his water (poor guy is on duty) Casey nods. He responds that “This concept was a challenge and it still is and will be. That is the enjoyment- pushing the envelope, expanding perception.” He explains how he has seen the macro drinker “Transition to a craft Pilsner, such as Scrimshaw from North Coast, and then (open to a little more flavor) to a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and so on.” He continues by saying that the staff has been educated towards which beers or beer styles with go with which meals best, both for contrast and complimentary pairings. Some of the more enthusiastic staff have begun learning outside of work, coming back with beer to share and questions to ask. Casey points out that he takes his role in Siloam very seriously, as 28′s ambassador to a town with a not so close relationship with alcohol. Only last year did Benton County go wet, and Siloam was assuredly one of the hold outs. Yet, business here is thriving. The bar too, with its monthly food and drink pairings, stays busy. Casey attributes this to his very English sensibilities, not rewarding over consumption but encouraging exploration. All seven–yes, seven–different beer glasses are featured, keeping in line with this thought, alongside consistent pours, high ABV coming in a proper glass, and a smaller pour.
When 28 opened, there was an adjustment period. There was a reluctance by many to support a bar. By many others, they felt they didn’t fit at a ‘fancy’ place. These are complaints from the community I personally heard repeatedly. But the patience and concept has been rewarded. Its working. I ask Casey if it would’ve worked 5 years ago? Why didn’t it work when Chef James tried several years ago at James at the Mill. As Casey pauses to continue his answer, I decide to order a second beer, and get a half pint of the local gem, Ozark Beer Company Pale Ale. Bright and crisp, refreshing and aromatic; it hits the spot after the bone dry Birra. Casey decides “The concept itself in Siloam would not have worked. For many reasons, including the licensing, the culture, the mindset. In my nearly eight years here, I have seen a culture shift, and lessening of the strict tone. I think that James at the Mill is geared towards wine, and they do that so well, but they had no one to really push beer and be knowledgeable about it. I can see that. Too many people think fine dining must equal wine. Only recently, with this boom of the last twenty years are people beginning to consider beer as more than a tailgating drink.”
We chat about the boom for a minute, both agreeing that its scope and arc are pretty crazy. And fairly unsustainable. In time we’ll see closings, and mergers, and buyouts. That said we also agree that the boom is transitioning more people towards quality beer, as opposed to quantity of beer. This new passion for beer amongst the legion of drinkers, is filtering down to a new generation of people who enjoy beer. Newly legal people are choosing two or three craft beers instead of a case of macro imitation pilsner. As we wind up our chat we talk about what is coming in the months and weeks ahead for 28 Springs. Casey says that the average keg turnover is around two weeks, though they’ve kicked some sooner, and some hang around longer. He mentions that they have a Gose beer coming soon, which is an excitingly rare style of sour, salt and spice. He also mentions that Prairie Bomb! is coming on as soon as the Old Rasputin moves on. This is really exciting.
It won’t be long until Casey takes his homebrewing skills, his keen eye, and all his ideas and opens his own place. You can just feel it talking with him. For now, however, he is pouring it all into 28 Springs’ bar. All that passion for beer, for sharing it, talking about it, and growing it is evident when you step into 28. Its a warm and comfortable and relaxed. A feeling not unlike a village pub. Except that this place sits square in the middle of downtown Siloam Springs, not some rolling English hills. I, for one, am very thankful for that.
Chris Butler became a beer nerd as soon as he could afford to. Cursed with a taste for fine ales from the first sip, only a college budget kept him down. Years later, having moved from Texas to Arkansas, he realized how rare a quality beer is and how difficult it can be to acquire. Traveling and trading extensively, Chris now is on a mission to find and enjoy the best beverages that brewmasters are making. With the support of his family, he is tackling the craft beer world one, sometimes, two bottles at a time.
You can read Chris’s blog here: http://astonesthrowandacenturyago.blogspot.com/