Festival idea born as buds had beers

Posted: July 20, 2017 at 1:45 a.m.

What began as an idea between a couple of friends casually sipping beers one night has now turned into one of the largest beer-tasting events in Arkansas.

On Saturday, the fourth annual Great Arkansas Beer Festival will fill the Statehouse Convention Center, featuring roughly 250 beers from 80 different breweries. About 3,000 people are expected to attend, a number that still surprises its founders.

Great Arkansas Beer Festival

5:30 p.m. Saturday, Statehouse Convention Center, 101 E. Markham St., Little Rock

Tickets: $30 in advance; $40 at door; $60 VIP

garbf.com

"With the popularity of beer in Arkansas right now, I think this could turn into a bit of a regional event. We are tucked in between Dallas and Memphis," says Reed Lewallen, one of the founders and organizers of the event.

Lewallen and Bill Puckett threw the idea out there one night over a couple of beers, having no idea what it would eventually grow into.

"We saw the onset of the craft beer boom here several years ago, you had a few guys doing some fun things with festivals, and it was all new and fresh," Lewallen says. "To be honest, it just kind of snowballed from us sitting around here drinking beers and goofing off, to 'Hey, I think we have a real, feasible idea here that we can start getting some legs on.' Once that happened, it just seemed liked things started falling into place."

The two then convinced their friends Eric Shatzer and Trey Jordan to get on board with the idea, and the planning began. They decided on a festival in the summer when the calendar isn't quite as busy. The summer date also spaces far enough apart from a couple of other local festivals in the fall and spring.

The first year's edition drew about 1,400 people and has more than doubled in size since. It outgrew its original home at the Metroplex.

Beer aficionado John Wells, who is known as John the Beer Snob and has written a beer blog and newsletter since 1997, says, "This (festival) is extremely well-organized. They get people in there very efficiently. That is one of those things that is really difficult for a festival that size.

"They always seem to rent enough space, there is room for everything. There is a lot of cool things to buy once you get there. The souvenirs are extraordinary."

As the festival has become more popular, the quality of the beers has expanded. Vendors have started to send only their best.

"Before they were just throwing out any beer they had. Now it is more focused on quality. ... So we get the top-notch beers in the market," Puckett says.

The festival offers a limited number of $60 VIP packages; they include admission an hour early to taste a rare assortment of beers from around the world.

"You pay a little bit extra, but my God, they have brought in beers from all over the world," Wells says. "Some of the rarest, hardest to find beers you can find. In fact, I cannot believe they found them."

The rare collection is obtained through their friend Mark Compton, a military reservist who travels the world. The group gives him a yearly budget to obtain beer during his travels.

Lewallen says, "He is an aficionado. The dude knows beer and is passionate about it, and so he just starts plucking bottles all year long. Last year I think we had like eight of the top 10 beers in the world, which is nuts because you can't even buy those beers in Arkansas, let alone find them in a restaurant."

The festival also includes an after-party on Saturday night, a vendor appreciation dinner the night before and a special hotel rate through a partnership with the Little Rock Marriott.

As the passion for craft beer continues to spread, events such as the Great Arkansas Beer Festival flourish.

"If we can take care of what is going on in Little Rock in the craft beer scene, we are about to have a really nice tourist rate going, because that is the next big thing if it is not already. We have got some really good breweries and they are all really close to each other, and they all make really good beer. I mean we have eight or nine breweries in the downtown area, and most of them are pretty damn good. Some are really good," Wells says.

Weekend on 07/20/2017