GOING WITH THE FLOW
Rebel Kettle Brewing Co.’s John Lee knows better than most that good things come to those who wait
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE John Lee knows well. He’s been at it for three years, after all.
For nearly half the time his brewing operation, Rebel Kettle Brewing Co., has been around, John and his partners, Jason Polk and Matt Morgan, have been anticipating an east Little Rock storefront opening, revising design plan after design plan and awaiting federal after state after city permit. You wouldn’t know it by the way he coolly kicks back in one of the developing brewery’s many bright-silver chairs, but the head brewer and co-owner has been spending the past few weeks putting in 12- to 14-hour days. He’s spent that time perfecting the kind of eccentric beers that have gained Rebel Kettle its following on the local festival circuit and readying its taproom for when doors—hopefully—open sometime this month.
In 2013, while still working as an auto-parts salesman, John christened his near 20-year home-brewing hobby as “Rebel Kettle” and started entering his beers in fests like Little Rocktoberfest and the Arkansas Times Craft Beer Festival. But it was North Little Rock’s 2014 Food & Foam Fest that kick-started his friendship with Jason and Matt, two beer fanatics who had happily swigged John’s brews in the past and had hopes of taking his hobby to a business level, leading to the purchase of the former AC Specialties location on East Sixth Street that October. However, because of the permit waiting game, it took eight months for any building to actually begin on the property. And until the team received its federal license this January, Rebel Kettle couldn’t sell any products, keeping all of its brews home-grown and festival-based for more than a year.
Now, after nearly 17 months of flipping the 6,000-square-foot space, there’s little indication that it ever specialized in anything other than beer. The outdoor area—the amenity that sold the team on the space, John says—is now a spacious, gated patio that’s dotted with chocolate-brown wooden picnic tables and silver bar tables. The sleek interior—a color-blocked setup of red, black, charcoal gray and exposed red brick—has a bar that boasts 16 handles, as well as a few extras for wine lovers. And thanks to the removal of a wall in the middle of it all, patrons have a clear view of the glass-doored brewery fermenting blonde ales and cream stouts in gigantic silver tanks in the back. (If you couldn’t tell by the Rebel Kettle logo, whose punk-rock pompadour-sporting-and-leather-jacket-clad skeleton raises a glass at you with stern encouragement, this trio has been committed to churning out beers that resist all association with convention.)
Though the brews themselves have carved out Rebel Kettle’s spot in the Little Rock craft-beer scene for years, the team’s happy to soon share the place it calls home base. “As we’ve realized in this business, anything can happen at any given moment,” John says.
And if there’s anything he’s learned the past few years, it’s that good locales come to breweries that wait.
In the past few years, breweries such as Lost Forty, Blue Canoe and Stone’s Throw have opened around town. What took Little Rock so long to have a beer community the way it does now?
Craft beer just wasn’t big. You had your bigger craft breweries, Stone Brewing, Sierra Nevada, you know, Lagunitas, guys like that, that were able to do it because they had the numbers. But Diamond Bear was the only one [around Little Rock]. Obviously, you had Vino’s Brewpub, and we had Boscos that was running over there for quite a while. But now you’ve seen Flyway open—and it was smaller than “nano” because they were selling 10-gallon batches at South on Main. And then Stone’s Throw, [which started with] three barrels—they’ve obviously expanded several times now. Lost Forty, Blue Canoe … Damgoode Pies obviously moved into where Boscos was. It’s just taken off.
How does the name “Rebel Kettle” fit into the brewery’s ambitions?
The name essentially means “a rebellion against average beer.” But it also is kind of a nod or a tribute to other breweries, larger breweries, craft breweries, that have forged the way for little guys like us—the rebellion against the macrobreweries, per se. And to those guys that really believed in it, way back in the day. When you see that the large macrobreweries are scared of little guys, it’s pretty cool.
When you think of nanobreweries—five barrels or less—that model wouldn’t have worked 10 years ago. Whereas now, it will. You can almost put a little brewery like Blue Canoe, Stone’s Throw, on almost every corner, and they seem to survive.
What’s aiding the growth around here?
We had heard when we found this location that there were [businesses] possibly looking to move into this area. We had actually found this building before we even knew Lost Forty was coming in over here, but they obviously can’t hurt our business—they’re a great brewery; they’ve got great people. There’s [Cromwell Architects], a big architecture firm putting a building over here with lofts above it, which is going to be amazing.
On a Saturday, I see many people going from here to there, like from Lost Forty to Blue Canoe. I mean, those guys and Stone’s Throw—they’re a stone’s throw away, right around the block. It’s not a far jaunt to go across the river. Flyway’s right there. I guess the Blood Eagle guys are looking at a place on Main, which is also going to house Leap of Faith Brewing, so there’s two more when that happens. Diamond Bear’s obviously right there, as well, so it’s really cool.
So … are there too many breweries here?
I don’t think it’ll ever get to too many, no. If you follow beer like I do, [you know] people love this. People drive, fly to a city like this where you can hit eight breweries, nine breweries, 10 breweries in a day or two. That’s cool. It’s only going to help … bring people downtown. We have a good relationship with most, if not all, the breweries downtown. Everybody helps each other out. It’s got to be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculously fun. The macrobreweries, they have a large chunk of [the industry]. So us sticking together like this, it’s only getting better. We’re all in it together.
How did the local festival circuit help Rebel Kettle?
We realized that craft-beer drinkers now like something a little different. If you look at the trends, this is kind of where beer is going. People don’t want your average beers anymore. They want something that’s going to challenge them [and] challenge their palate, just something that’s going to be new and different. And that’s really what I see. Everybody’s looking for the newest thing, and beer companies are striving to give that to them. There’s so many beers coming out, and here in Little Rock, we were really a beer wasteland for the longest time. We’re so far behind—or we had been—and we’ve caught up really fast.
What sets Rebel Kettle apart?
We wanted a spot that was going to be a destination brewery, and I think we’ve succeeded. We’re going to have some outdoor activities, bocce ball, Baggo, hopefully some live music out there eventually. We’ve got a great food menu, as well. Our chef, Pat Beard, he’s from Louisiana, so everything has a Cajun feel to it, but we kind of wanted to keep it simple: burgers, sandwiches, stuff that’s quick. Stuff that goes well with beer, obviously.
We’re going to be doing things that no one else is doing now in Little Rock—and really in Arkansas. It goes back to using unique ingredients and unique techniques to create beer. You’re going to see a bunch of crazy beers come out of here. We should be moving into a sour production pretty quick, too. You’ll see a lot of barrel-aged stuff. We’ll probably have two to three new ones a week, but I mean, a lot of small-batch stuff. I think that’s going to keep people coming and coming back.
What got you interested in sour beer?
Well, they’re unpredictable. It’s not like these beers that you can keep and expect it to be done in four to 10 days; it doesn’t work that way with your traditional sour beers. The last one I did took 15 months. It’s ready when the beer says it’s ready. But that’s the fun aspect of it. There are a lot of good brewers now that are doing it now. It’s really cool to see it taking off.
Does Little Rock have the ability to be the next big beer city?
We’re creating that right now. If it keeps going the way it’s going, a few special breweries start to get noticed, we can be another one of those cities. I mean, it’s going to be tough to beat Asheville and Denver and all those guys. But if we can keep making quality beer—and everybody seems to be right now—I don’t see it stopping any time soon. A lot of people want to talk about, Oh, it’s just a fad or whatever. I don’t think so. We have some amazing brewers here, and we’re just going to keep pushing each other to do better stuff and help each other, too.
That’s the cool thing. Anything I need, I can genuinely get. Let’s say I need an ingredient: I can make a couple of calls—actually, I can probably walk next door. Matt [Foster] over at Flyway, he didn’t have some yeast that he needed, so he got some from Lost Forty. And they offered that here: If you ever need anything, just let me know.