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Ozark Beer Is a Blue-Collar Business Rooted in the Natural State

Far from any coasts and hours from the nearest big city, Ozark Beer has diligently grown its business in Northwest Arkansas with highly drinkable, reasonably priced beer and a locally rooted ethos.

Joe Stange Oct 14, 2021 - 22 min read

Ozark Beer Is a Blue-Collar Business Rooted in the Natural State Primary Image

Andy Coates and Lacie Bray, founders of Ozark Beer. Photos: Marty Shutter @shutterspictures

Rogers, Arkansas, is a town of about 66,000 people. Its quaint, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown punctuates a flat sprawl of industrial buildings, chain restaurants, and Mexican groceries. An eight-mile slog of traffic lights connects Rogers with nearby Bentonville, best known as Walmart headquarters. Both towns are in Benton County, which was dry for 68 years—no alcohol sales allowed.

Then, after an unlikely petition drive, the county voted overwhelmingly to go wet in 2012. The next year, the county got its first brewery: Ozark Beer.

Founders Lacie Bray and Andy Coates say it was almost by accident that they ended up in Rogers. They were looking at locations around Northwest Arkansas when their first location—an aging warehouse—came up for rent. They might’ve launched in Fayetteville or Bentonville or Springdale. “But I could not have found a better home for us,” says Bray, the brewery’s business manager. “Rogers is blue-collar. We have farmers coming in overalls to drink our beer, and we have construction workers coming in, and they’re sitting alongside VPs from Walmart. That is just the magic of our spot.”

Bray is the one who came up with their slogan: “Hard work, honest beer.” And “that’s pretty much how we’ve been from the start,” says Coates, who oversees the brewing operations. That approach meant working on a tight budget in the early days—they couldn’t afford an auger, so Coates would mill back into the grain bags and dump them into the mash tuns himself.

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That approach also means keeping their beers affordable. The Pale Ale and Lager sell for $8.99 a sixer. Each of their four core beers goes for $4 a pint in the taproom, tax included. “Basically, you can get two pints of beer and leave a $2 tip for 10 bucks,” Coates says. “Obviously we have other selections that cost more, but … everybody should be able to get a decent beer, and it doesn’t have to be an exclusive thing.”

The beers, it must be said, are excellent—whether it’s the bitter, piney, precise American Pale Ale that drinks so easily at 4.3 percent ABV; the Lager that has more in common with proper Bavarian helles than most American beers that claim that style; or the rich, chocolaty, once-a-year-ish cult beer that is BDCS, aka Bourbon Barrel Aged Double Cream Stout.

Yet it’s also that lean, long-hours, locally rooted ethos that has led Ozark Beer to become one of the three largest breweries in Arkansas by volume—and to earn a reputation that is growing well beyond the Ozarks.

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The Nomads

Bray is originally from Rogers, but for years, she and Coates never imagined moving back there. They were too busy blowing around like tumbleweeds on a far-ranging path that took them to both coasts and South America.

They met as outdoorsy types doing seasonal work in Colorado—first as raft guides and later on the slopes and trails of Crested Butte. When they realized they wanted something more stable, they moved to Denver. Finding work wasn’t easy, but one day Coates spotted a Craigslist ad for a job on Great Divide’s bottling line. He got the job.

“There was no taproom yet,” he says. “There was a keg box in the corner. It was basically two guys brewing. I was there when they got their first 100-barrel tank, so I basically saw them in a growth phase. Obviously, working in packaging—especially in 2006—it [was] low pay and long hours. And that didn’t seem to bother me.”

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Bray recalls those days, when problems on the bottling line meant long days for Coates. “He would come home, and he would be soaking wet,” she says. “He had just worked 12, 14 hours. And he was like, ‘I really like this.’”

Their next step was Chicago, after Bray got into grad school and the Teach for America program. By then, Coates knew he wanted to brew, so he enrolled in the American Brewers Guild’s intensive residential program in Vermont. Afterward, he needed a job back in Chicago. “I just got lucky at that point,” he says. Goose Island had hired a couple of fellow ABG grads and been happy with them. They hired Coates too. “I lucked into a really great crew of people there.”

Besides Coates, that Goose Island crew included Phil Wymore, cofounder of Perennial in St. Louis; Matt Lincoln, now head of brewing at Fremont in Seattle; John Wyzkiewicz, now brewmaster at Miskatonic in suburban Chicago; Will Johnston, who helped start 4 Hands in St. Louis and later led brewing at Pipeworks in Chicago; and Brian Taylor, cofounder and brewmaster of Chicago’s Whiner Beer. “I learned a ton,” Coates says of working with that team. “It was pretty wild. I obviously didn’t know how great that was at the time, just the caliber of folks who were there.”

After about two years in Chicago, the couple sensed that they were approaching another turning point. Just after the financial crisis, they were young and willful enough to quit their jobs and take a year off. Each got to choose what they would do for half that year. “I think our families were like, ‘What are they doing?’” Coates says.

Coates wanted to go to Washington state for the wineries’ crush season. Then they toured around the Northwest—Washington, Oregon, Idaho. “We ended up just stopping in a lot of breweries,” Bray says. Those experiences got their wheels turning. “For me, it was going into all of these taprooms,” she says. “And it was such an intimate window into the communities and into people’s lives in specific places. And it was always so welcoming, and we always ended up talking with people.”

She says her feeling then was: “I think that I would like to create this. And I think that we can do that.”

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The conversations they had with brewers went a long way toward convincing her. “Andy had a lot of knowledge,” Bray says. “I just don’t know that he had a lot of confidence in his knowledge.” (“I didn’t,” he says.)

On this trip, they’d stop at a brewery, and the brewer might find out that Coates worked at Goose. “So for like 30, 45 minutes, the guy just asked Andy questions,” Bray says.

“And he had answers for all of them. I just remember, I felt like that was the turning point.”

The second part of their year off, they traveled to South America. They worked on an organic farm; they traveled around Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia—but they had mostly decided what they were going to do next. Coates searched for brewery jobs, but he was picky, and there wasn’t much to be found. Meanwhile, he was also researching state laws, trying to find the optimal place to start a brewery.

“And I’ll never forget,” Bray says, “we were sitting in a little internet café in someone’s house, in this little surfing town in Peru. And he was just like, ‘Arkansas. It has to be Arkansas.’”

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The Natural State

Even today, 34 of the state’s 75 counties remain dry. There are relatively few breweries, but people drink—driving to the county-line liquor store is an inconvenient yet endearing part of local culture. “At that time, there were three breweries in the entire state, which was one of the reasons to come here,” Coates says. “Just a wide-open market.”

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They settled in the college town Fayetteville—notably, not in a dry county. Coates worked for a year on their business plan, then for another year on securing funding. It was tough to convince investors that a small brewery could succeed there. “A lot of people didn’t really understand it, to be honest,” he says. “I think a lot of people were skeptical it was going to work, just because they had never been exposed to it.” Nobody would even rent them a building; landlords were leery of any alcohol being made on premises.

They also thought a lot about that local drinking culture. “We get one chance at doing this right, in terms of beer,” Bray says, “but also just in public opinion. … We knew that for a lot of people, this was going to be their first interaction with craft beer. So we needed that to be as welcoming as possible.”

They thought about the styles of beer they wanted to brew, “to make sure that they were super approachable,” she says. Drinkability would be paramount. They also thought about how to make their taproom a community space, “so that it’s not just a place that you come and drink,” she says. “It’s a place that you come and interact and talk with people. That there happens to be beer is kind of a bonus.”

They had seen bustling, bare-bones taprooms in the Northwest and elsewhere. When they finally rented that old warehouse in 2013, they filled it with a hodge-podge of furniture donated by family and neighbors. The building was rough, but the locals came—and they kept coming. “When it was hot, it was hot; when it was cold, it was cold,” Coates says. “Most folks didn’t care.”

They stayed there a few years, but they knew they wanted to be in downtown Rogers. They looked at every building bigger than 8,000 square feet within a mile of that district, but there was one in particular they wanted. It wasn’t for sale. Again, Coates says, they got lucky: “We just approached the owner, and he was willing to sell it.”

They bought it in 2016—a 136-year-old downtown building that was originally a flour mill. “If this building was set up in the middle of nowhere, I still would [have] wanted to buy it,” Coates says. “It’s got a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, tall ceilings, and … original everything. All the wood in here is longleaf pine—which is now extinct in Arkansas, but it came from a mill like 13 miles from here. It’s the original floor, three inches thick, like the deck of a pirate ship. It’s just got a cool feel. … There’s a lot of history here, and we’re just fortunate that it’s our home.”

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Opening the Books and Pulling Together

Ozark Beer produced 5,000 barrels in 2019; that dropped to about 4,300 in the pandemic year. This year they’re back on track to produce about 5,600 barrels—near what Coates calls his “sweet spot,” where they can pay their bills and occasionally take a day off.

Getting to that point was a rough ride that taught Bray and Coates a lot about how they wanted to run their business and manage their team.

When the pandemic hit in March and draft beer dried up, they made a hard choice. “I remember driving with Andy,” Bray says, “and all morning, I just couldn’t stop crying. … That’s when I realized: ‘Oh. We have to lay off everyone. I mean, if there is any way we’re getting out of this, it has to happen.’”

Until then, Ozark was selling up to 75 percent of its beer via draft. “It hit us really quickly,” Bray says. “At that point in our business, we were getting checks from a distributor every week. One week, they went to pay bills, and the next week, they went to payroll. And that was all of our money. So I knew that I could make payroll in a week and a half, but I couldn’t make payroll after that. … We knew that if there was going to be something to come back to, we had to hoard cash and save every penny. It was back to zero.”

When the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans kicked in a couple of months later, they hired everyone back—but that period marked a shift in how they would run the business going forward. It led them to a new level of openness with the team. For a while, every two weeks Bray would send them a detailed message. “And having conversations with everybody,” she says. “Just being like, ‘This is the financial situation.’ I had never pulled back the curtain before.”

Coates sums up that transparency: “Here’s how much is in the bank. Here’s how much everything costs. Here’s the mortgage. Here’s your health insurance. Here’s payroll. And this is where we’re at. So, we’re all in this boat together.”

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The change was positive, in their view, but “the flip side of that is the pressure that we shouldered for so long was now open to everybody,” Bray says. “I feel like every single person took a piece of that with them.”

Ozark’s team is small. There are just two production brewers who get backup support from Coates; visit the brewery, and you might see him unloading a truck, washing kegs, running the canning line, or finishing a batch. “I’m kind of the floater,” he says.

Bray and Coates want to empower their team. “We know we’re not the smartest person in the room,” Coates says. “And we don’t want to be, because then you’ll never get better. Everyone who works with us brings a specific skill set from somewhere else.” On the production side, “we’ve always hired people with experience who have worked in other professional breweries, just because they’re going to learn something different there and bring a different perspective.” One brewer—Teddy Pepper—brought experience with hazy IPAs at Oskar Blues and elsewhere. Another—Brant Bishop—brought lab experience and had worked at Fremont.

“I just think that when you start a business, you understand that your head is going to be down,” Bray says. “You’re no longer looking up as much as you were, and it’s more myopically focused on what you’re doing in your business. So we always want to bring in people who have different backgrounds and then are able to look around. It’s definitely a much more collaborative space than I ever thought starting it up, and I feel like it’s become even more collaborative in the past year.”

“We’re really fortunate, frankly, to have great people,” Coates says.

In Bray’s view, business ownership progresses in stages. At the beginning, all of your energy goes into it. “Right before the pandemic, it switched for me—trying to find my drive,” she says. “You know, you do something for so long, and you put so much energy into it, I think that’s got to change at some point. What are you working for? What do you gain value out of?

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“For me, a lot of it is the people who are around us. The absolute best part of owning a small business is getting to pick your team—like, 100 percent. … These are the people this brewery supports. When you are looking for tangible ways of keeping motivation and understanding, ‘Oh, this supports families. This allows people to buy houses. So, what do we need to do to make sure it can provide that?’”

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Next Phase: Vacation Days?

One recent change for Ozark has been getting beer into Southwest Missouri. It is movement toward a longer-term notion to be a brewery for all of the Ozarks—that hilly, river-ribboned region that stretches from mid-Missouri south through Northwest Arkansas and the corner of Oklahoma. The commonalities aren’t just geographic or geologic, but also cultural. As someone at their distributor put it, “The Ozarks should be its own state.”

Springfield, Missouri, for example, has a lot more in common with Bentonville and Rogers than it does with St. Louis or Kansas City. Likewise, Coates says, “We’re here in Northwest Arkansas, and we are miles different from Little Rock or Pine Bluff or Jonesboro in terms of culture, geography, food—everything.”

The next immediate step: a new 30-barrel brewhouse, due to arrive in September. They’re currently doing two turns a day on their 15-barrel, three-vessel system. But Coates says the goal of adding the bigger system isn’t to increase volume, “but just to have a better day and free ourselves up to do more things that we’d like to do more often. … Basically, how can we make this sustainable for a long time and not have to be here every single day? And not brew on Sunday mornings?”

It’s been years since Bray and Coates took a real trip together—usually, one takes the kids while the other stays with the brewery. When a brewer takes time off, it means running lean. “It’s hard when somebody takes a vacation, which it shouldn’t be,” Coates says. “We’re trying to make it a machine that can drive itself, to some extent.”

Adds Bray: “We have really great people. How do we make sure that they’re not burnt out as well? Because this last year has really just put an extreme amount of pressure on everybody.”

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Ozark Beer has never added capacity just for the sake of it. “Traditionally, we’ve only added cellar space when it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re maxed, let’s buy a tank.’ Then we’ll max that, and we’ll buy another one or two.” For them, it’s never been, “Hey, we’re going to go into seven states in the next three years, let’s buy 500 barrels of fermentation space, even though we don’t need it.”

Bray says that they’ve never counted on projected sales. They don’t want to be one of those breweries that keeps expanding while taking on more and more debt. “Where we’re at is deciding, ‘Okay, is there a point that we take a break and that we catch up on our debt load and we see what that looks like?’”

However, post-pandemic bottlenecks and supply-chain problems have complicated things. “It’s the same amount of work,” Bray says. “It just takes you four times longer now because you have to source raw materials differently. You’re having shipping issues you never thought you were going to have.”

With cans in short supply, packaging costs have been a problem. They buy cans directly from Ball, who told them they could have four truckloads for the year—but they need eight or nine. So they’ve resorted to the secondary market, which essentially means buying more Ball cans from others “at an incredible markup,” Coates says. But they don’t want to raise beer prices, especially in an area like theirs.

In fact, Rogers reminds them of those Colorado towns where they first met, doing low-wage seasonal work. “This feels like a mountain town to us, without a mountain,” Bray says. “What I mean by that is, the people who work in downtown, the people who own businesses here, they live here, and they’re part of the community. And that is so important in just creating this honest idea of authenticity.

“When you sit down with people, you are meeting people who live here and work here and choose to be here,” she says. “And there’s something very gratifying about that.”

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Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].

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