EVERYTHING STARTS WITH A SEED. Everything has a point of origin. Everything has to start somewhere. And though those roots can be rather difficult to decipher, the ganglia of connections a fray of misdirection, if you trace them back along the courses they’ve taken, eventually you can find where they started. With Flyway Brewery’s Arkansas Native Beer project, however, a nearly two-year endeavor that’s involved so many different people, places and institutions, it can be especially difficult to find the point of origin. But for the sake of simplicity, perhaps it’s best to start with an email.
Just before 1 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2013, Flyway co-founder Matt Foster sent an email to Jason Kelley, an agronomist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, saying he was interested in a “long-term goal of making a completely locally sourced beer” and that he was looking for some advice on where to get some fresh barley or wheat. Within a few hours, Kelley had responded with his cell number, saying that he’d be “glad to help.”
What followed over the course of the next several months was a conversation that expanded well beyond the fields of Marianna—where they planted about 20 pounds of three strains of barley—to a quartet of local community gardens and farms in central Arkansas planted with additional barley and cascade hops. The idea shifted from the abstract to the concrete, and for a time, it almost seemed as though it might work—as if all the different hands pushing it forward might be enough, as if everything would go as planned. And next year, perhaps it will.
And when considering the various facets involved in taking a beer from garden to growler represented here on this page—and everything that isn’t—it becomes clear just how much nurturing was required to carry the project to where it now stands. Because it didn’t just start in the stainless-steel kitchen leased from Loblolly Creamery, where the folks there laid out the barley on baking sheets and waited for it to germinate. Or in the fields in Marianna or Dunbar Community Garden or in that first communication between Foster and Kelley. It didn’t start from just one seed.
On a brisk afternoon in January 2013, as Dunbar Community Garden played host to a Butcher & Public pig roast, Matt Foster was on hand, pouring glasses of Free Range Brown Ale. On the small table set up for the occasion, he’d placed several glasses of ingredients—including a handful of freshly picked hops. Asked where they came from, he pointed to the ground. At that point, Foster’s brewery was still very much in its nascent stages—though it’d undoubtedly come no small distance since March 2011, when the entire endeavor was still little more than a pipe dream between him and co-owner Jess McMullen. But yet, even then, his focus on local sourcing was well established—something evidenced best by the name Flyway, chosen for its association with “the path of the Mississippi Flyway that funnels right into Arkansas as an inspiration for sourcing all American-grown ingredients.” In a sense, given society’s increased interest in where goods come from, it wasn’t particularly surprising to hear Foster go on at length about the hops. But in the weeks and months that followed, it soon became clear he had no intention of stopping there.
If you were to ask Foster’s young son, Rome, what it’s like to plunge your hands into a tub of waterlogged barley—the first step in the “chitting” part of the malting process—he’d tell you it’s either like feeling a “lot of bugs” or “a swamp.” If you were to ask the elder Foster about that barley, he’d probably be more inclined to refer to it as something along the lines of a relatively precious commodity. After all, the 30 pounds of barley they were steeping on that September morning in Loblolly’s “incubator kitchen,” was about 15 percent of the total yield from the harvest. It should have been 1.5 percent. Of the 2,000 pounds they’d expected, a brutal phenomenon known as pre-harvest sprout, brought on by heavy rains, decimated all but 200. (The phenomenon wasn’t limited to Arkansas—earlier this year, commercial growers in Montana and Idaho lost as much as half of their crop.) But still, they were optimistic. Using this barley, they’d make malt. From there, they’d use hot water to extract the fermentable sugars to make wort. Then they’d add the Dunbar hops, and later a strain of yeast they’d used in previous batches of their Free Range Brown Ale. And then: beer.
When Matt Foster and Jess McMullen opened a bottle of beer for the last of these photos, they could have pointed to the ground and said, “there, that’s where it came from.” It was a beer that used hops that had been grown underfoot there at Dunbar. It was a beer that used the same strain of yeast they’d worked so long to isolate—and are still working to perfect. It was a beer that adhered so well to their vision for what a beer should be—even though it wasn’t the beer they’d hoped to be pouring on that afternoon.
Ultimately, the beer that flowed from the bottle was not the Arkansas Native Beer they’d been chasing for so long. Because while they’d managed to fight off hard luck and the elements, there was one wrench thrown into the works that they simply couldn’t overcome: the “chit” used for the malt had failed to properly germinate. For the time being, they would have to be satisfied with a beer that was almost Arkansas-grown—but not quite. But yet, as Jess and Matt stood there posing for the photos, and talking about everything still to come, having an Arkansas-grown beer didn’t seem quite so important.
They talked about the partnership they’d developed with a farmer in Wynne—a guy who started sending Foster vacuum-sealed packets of hops through the mail, who helped them secure 1,200 pounds of winter malt barley seed, and who’s got 13 acres of fallow land they’ll be planting this coming season. They talked about the senior engineering class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who will be building a micro-malting machine they’ll use when they try again next year. As they stood there, going on and on about the connections they’d made and the bonds they’d formed, it started to become clear that perhaps the native beer project had in fact been successful. They’d sown seeds all across the state—and it was clear those seeds were already growing.