There is something special happening in Siloam Springs. Downtown has come alive. Main Street has begun to thrive. People are investing time and money and energy and dreams into this renewal. It could easily be argued that the heart of this gentrification is 28 Springs.
Set on the corner of the downtown crossroads, this former car dealership, former vacant building; now shines as an example of how to make a casual upscale, reasonably priced venture work in a small community. With award winning Chef Miles James at the menu helm, the food is simple and elegant, with the appearance of fine dining at a price that won't break the bank. The Simmons family, locals who've partnered with Chef James, have created a venue where you feel comfortable walking in with shorts on to grab lunch after some time at Bob Henry Park or dressed to the nines, celebrating a 50th Anniversary.
It would be easy to reason then that if 28 is the heart of Siloam Springs, then the magnificent, elevated bar is the heartbeat. With an extensive cocktail menu, spirits galore, a robust wine selection and a beer list that is tops in the region, this horseshoe shaped bar is the place to be most evenings. There is casual seating surrounding it, and a stage above it, where on any Tuesday or Thursday you can can catch local live music, such as the bluegrass and harmonies of Sons of Otis Malone. The decor hearkens back to the roots of Siloam, with black and white pictures of the town from the turn of the century and a sense of the old car dealership garage doors, all done in a modern, sleek look, all wrapped in a curved wall of windows.
As I walk in to meet with bar manager Casey, I opt for a seat at the lovely, lacquered bar. There I am confronted by 16 taps boasting new local beer such as Ozark Pale Ale and Cream Stout, and Core ESB. Alongside these Northwest Arkansas brews are giants of the industry like Old Rasputin and Guinness. There's even those upstarts from Oklahoma who've set the beer world afire. That's the direction I decide to go, ordering a Prairie Artisan Ales Birra while I wait for my meeting. Its a nice little session ale coming in at 4.5% ABV. Tart and dry, the wine yeast seems to change its flavor every time I enjoy one.
Grabbing a bar menu, I run through it, looking for updates since my last visit...all of three days ago. Alas, and shockingly, nothing new. Shocking because there is a constant drive for new and fresh here, and it isn't surprising to come in on Tuesday for music, come back Thursday for more and be confronted with an array of new beers. A good problem to have, in my most humble, beer loving opinion. There are over 100 craft bottles here, of all varieties and hailing from all over the world. Its quite impressive, and for a beer, ahem enthusiast, such as myself, a welcome sight. Then it hits me, I know what my first question will be.
Just then, Casey comes around the corner. We're already buddies, and this is no formal exercise; we're here to talk beer. A smile and a handshake later, and I'm outlining just what is going on. He listens politely as as I ramble through, then pauses before responding. He measure his words, as I've come to understand, and its a trait I quite enjoy. Maybe because I should do it more often. Much more often.
Casey is a thoughtful guy. A transplant from Minnesota, he came here for school, and save a couple years in England for a job at an NPO, this is his home. In his own words, he comes from 'dry stock' and didn't even drink beer until post college. For him, his journey started from coffee, the progression from there to a Boulevard Bully Porter as his first beer seems natural and fitting then. The chocolate and bitter finding a kinship and familiar place on a palate primed for such flavors. It just made sense.
Like many of us who truly LOVED their first beer, he took the 'beer nerd' path, becoming passionate about all things beer, wanting to share that passion. He quickly began home brewing, learning to 'unpack the flavors' in beer, growing in knowledge. Starting with high gravity beers to fill the void in the heavily lacking Arkansas market at the time. He transitioned to small, session beers, testing himself, playing with the science. Moving to England then further pushed the passion, influencing his brewing, expanding his palate, widening his beer horizons, and deepening his passion for all things beer.
Some of this I knew, some I'm being filled in today, but after the opening chat, I get to that first question I had. How can the average person, the occasional beer drinker, the person who drinks macro and light, look at this impressive menu and not be overwhelmed? How has that impacted, affected sales, and further has their been a need for education of staff to help with suggestions? Smiling and taking a drink of his water--poor guy is on duty--he nods. He knew this menu, this concept was a challenge and it still is and will be. That is the enjoyment then, pushing the envelope, expanding perception. He explains how he has seen in a little less than two years, he has seen the macro drinker 'transition to a craft Pilsner, such as Scrimshaw from North Coast, and then (open to a little more flavor) to a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and so on.'
I laugh at the mention of one of my gateway beers, good old Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, champion of the Cascade hops. Still my go to grilling beers many times. This notion he mentions makes sense though. You can't take people from bland to bold in one step, they must be nudged and helped along. Well, at least most. Some of us were cursed with expensive tastes from early on. He continues by saying that the staff has been educated towards which beers or beer styles with go with which meals best, both for contrast and complimentary pairings. Adds that, some of the more enthusiastic staff have begun learning outside of work, coming back with beer to share and questions to ask. Perfect. A couple more in the Beer Nerd Brigade. I love hearing this.
Casey points out that he takes his role in Siloam very seriously, as 28's ambassador to a town with a not so close relationship with alcohol. Only last year did Benton County go wet, and Siloam was assuredly one of the hold outs. Yet, business here is thriving. The bar too, with its monthly food and drink pairings, stays busy. Casey attributes this to his very English sensibilities, not rewarding over consumption but encouraging exploration. All seven--yes, seven--different beer glasses are lined, keeping in line with this thought. Consistent pours, high ABV coming in a proper glass, and a smaller pour. He tells me how Chef James balked at the initial request for seven different glasses saying that there were only two wine glasses, until they had their first meeting. Casey's passion for beer and overall salesmanship is to thank for all the lovely glassware, and the overall ambitious concept. Recalling those initial meetings before opening, Casey says he always knew that his vision was 'ambitious, wanting to have everything.' He says there has been very little back off from his ideal, and looking around at all this place encompasses, you can feel that. His thoughts were, 'okay, if i have to give in, how many taps can stay craft? How many bottles can?' As it stands, only one of sixteen taps is macro. And the 100 bottles? That's just craft, the macro is on top of that.
When 28 opened, there was an adjustment period, as with all establishments. There was a reluctance by many to support a bar. By many others, they felt they didn't fit at a 'fancy' place. These are complaints from the community I heard repeatedly. But the patience and concept has been rewarded. Its working. I ask Casey if it would've worked 5 years ago? Why didn't it work when Chef James tried several years ago at James at the Mill? As Casey pauses to answer, I decide to order a second beer, and get a half pint of the local gem, Ozark Beer Company Pale Ale. Bright and crisp, refreshing and aromatic; it hits the spot after the bone dry Birra. Casey decides that the concept itself in Siloam would not have worked. For many reasons, including the licensing, the culture, the mindset. I agree. In my nearly eight years here, I have seen a culture shift, and lessening of the strict tone. He also thinks that James at the Mill 'is geared towards wine, and they do that so well, but they had no one to really push beer, and be knowledgeable about it. I can see that. Too many people think fine dining must equal wine. Only recently, with this boom of the last twenty years are people beginning to consider beer as more than a tailgating drink.
We chat about the boom for a minute, both agreeing that its scope and arc are pretty crazy. And fairly unsustainable. In time we'll see closings, and mergers, and buyouts. That said we also agree that the boom is transitioning more people towards quality beer, as opposed to quantity of beer. This new passion for beer amongst the legion of drinkers, is filtering down to a new generation of people who enjoy beer. Newly legal people are choosing two or three craft beers instead of a case of macro imitation pilsner.
As we wind up our chat we talk about what is coming in the months and weeks ahead for 28 Springs. Casey says that the average keg turnover is around two weeks, though they've kicked some sooner, and some hang around longer. He mentions that they have a gose beer coming soon, which is exciting. A rare style, you don't find these sour, salty, spiced creations often. I am looking forward to the Offcolor Troublesome. He also mentions that Prairie Bomb! is coming on as soon as the Old Rasputin moves on. This is really exciting. Bomb! was one of the top three new beers of 2013. I haven't had it on draft, but you can bet I will be visiting the bar again when it comes on. He also mentions the upcoming food and beer pairing and how much of a success these pairing nights have been. Ive been to one myself, last fall, and the bar and kitchen coordination is sublime.
It won't be long until Casey takes his homebrewing skills, his keen eye, and all his ideas and opens his own place. You can just feel it talking with him. For now, however, he is pouring it all into 28 Springs' bar. All that passion for beer, for sharing it, talking about it, and growing it is evident when you step into 28. Its a warm and comfortable and relaxed feeling, a feeling not unlike a village pub. Except that this place sits square in the middle of downtown Siloam Springs, not some rolling English hills. I, for one, am very thankful for that.