Ozark Beer Company has been officially serving beer since October 2013, but in all reality, it has been a constant work in progress since 2010. We would like to jump in and begin telling you about the brewery and our culture, but it is hard to begin a story from the middle, and so we will start at the beginning – in some tents along the Arkansas River in the great state of Colorado.
This is where Lacie Bray, our business manager, and Andy Coates, our brewer, first met as raft guides for the summer. Little did the girl from Arkansas and the boy from Iowa know that the summer was just the beginning of their adventures and that seven years later, the same river that started it all would lead them home to Arkansas and the Ozark Mountains.
It was an idyllic summer; rafting the river during the day and living in tents along the river at night. It was during their time in Colorado at the rafting company that Andy and Lacie learned to value two very important things: camaraderie in a community, and a hard-work-can-do attitude. When you are living out of a tent for the summer, there is no TV, no electricity, no distractions, and most free time is spent enjoying the company of others. Loyalty and respect grows when you truly get to know people, and the community as a whole benefits. Lacie and Andy had never experienced the true connections formed out of a seemingly random group of people, and the sense of belonging to a community and a deep appreciation for places with strong communities were born.
The hard-work-can-do attitude that is found in the Ozarks was also alive and well at the rafting company. It was a small company, and so all responsibility fell squarely on the employees to do most every task. If a refrigerator quit working, someone would have to figure out how to fix it. If a car wouldn’t start in the morning, someone had to fix it or figure out another solution to get customers to the river. If something didn’t go as planned on the river, you had to be able to think on your feet and figure it out, as there was no going back or hiking out. The whole experience taught Lacie and Andy that if you are willing to work hard, learn and problem solve, you can accomplish anything. This attitude would stick with them through every endeavor they took on in the future.
As with all great things, eventually the rafting came to an end, and so after four years of rafting together, Lacie and Andy decided to move to Denver. This is where Andy started his career in the brewing industry, and took a job on the packaging line at Great Divide Brewing Company for a modest wage and free beer. It was within the large brick walls of Great Divide that Andy realized he loved working in breweries and could see a future there. The work was not glamorous, and he spent many 10-14 hour days working on the line. He would get home tired and wet, yet there was a satisfaction that comes with a hard day’s work, and he always looked forward to going back the next day.
A job opportunity and graduate school for Lacie would lead them to Chicago, and in the months before transitioning to the Midwest, Andy attended the American Brewer’s Guild in Vermont. After completing his coursework, Andy had an apprenticeship with Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago, and was subsequently hired as a full-time brewer. He learned the ins and outs of a large-scale production brewery, and enjoyed cellar work and the finishing process of a beer (carbonating, and filtering the beer, so that it is ready to be packaged), recipe development, barrel aging, and sensory analysis. It was an invaluable experience that gave him the skillset needed to operate a successful brewing operation.
After two years in the city, it was time for a change. Andy and Lacie each took a turn and chose a location for the next few months as their future took shape. Andy chose Walla Walla, Washington, to work during the wine crush when the grapes are picked and winemaking process begins. Like brewing, wine making may seem glamorous, but is one of the wettest and messiest jobs there is. The winter and frost came early that year and Andy’s time more or less ended in a mad rush of frozen grapes and fingers, fitting in the last five weeks of the harvest into just under a week, saving as many grapes as they could.
The early cold afforded Andy and Lacie more of a chance to take off across the Pacific Northwest and explore the craft breweries that are in abundance there. Each day would end at a brewery usually somewhere in a small town, where they saw the community atmosphere they so loved in Colorado mimicked throughout the taprooms and bars of those establishments. Lacie and Andy would drive through a sleepy mountain town, but the moment they opened the doors to the local brewery, they would be greeted with a wave of energy and noise as the small tasting rooms/bars would be crowded with people and served as a central gathering place for much of the area. Conversations would start with strangers and more often then not people would buy them beers when they heard they were from out of town. The brewers would invite them back to take a look at the equipment and their brewing areas, and the evenings would end happily with Andy and Lacie climbing into the back of the truck to sleep. It was during this time that Andy and Lacie seriously started talking about opening a brewery—the seed was planted. They loved the community aspect of the breweries, and knew if they worked hard enough, anything was possible.
Lacie chose their next adventure, and so in January 2010 they turned off their cell phone service at the airport and boarded a plane for South America with one-way tickets. They worked on an organic farm and traveled through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The countless hours walking and riding buses gave them a lot of time to talk about the future. By March, they had decided to open a brewery, and the time to research exactly where the brewery would be began. They were sitting in a small internet café in Huanchaco, Peru, when Andy, researching a list of possible locations, burst out, “Arkansas! The brewery has to be in Arkansas!” So, it was decided. By the end of Spring 2010, they had moved to Arkansas, a homecoming for Lacie and a new home in the Ozarks for Andy.
Arkansas seemed great but it wasn’t until Andy and Lacie settled into the area and met all the awesome folks that call this place home and the amazing community here, that Arkansas became undecidedly perfect for the brewery, and Ozark Beer Company was born.