When Vino’s Brewpub began brewing in 1993, the fact that some of the equipment came from a prison auction made for a great story. But it didn’t always make for good beer.
“Our quality control was miserable,” says operating partner Henry Lee.
The Little Rock, Ark., brewpub installed a “real” brewhouse at the end of 1995, so Lee isn’t shy when he talks about those first beers. “About a four,” he says, when asked to rate them on a scale of one to 10. James Robertson wasn’t even that kind in his Beer Taster’s Log (Storey Publishing). He gave Big House Brown Ale a 29 (out of 100), Seventh Street Pale Ale a 27, and Lazy Boy Stout a 24.
Lee must have felt somewhat better after Michael Jackson tasted the beers in the fall of 1996 and gave Rainbow Wheat, a hefe-weizen, three stars (out of four). Jackson wrote the ESB was “yeasty, quite bitter, and tasty,” and the Rainbow Wheat “toffeeish and fruity (bananas, lemon?).”
“We’re still in a new market here for specialty beers,” Lee says. “We’re typically five to 10 years behind the rest of the nation.” That hasn’t stopped him from pushing Arkansas’ beer envelope, however. From the time the bar opened in 1989 until 1997 it had the most tap handles in the state. But when the Bennigan’s restaurant chain began its Copper Clover beer tour program, an outlet in Little Rock passed the brewpub. Vino’s still offers 11 guest beers from 16 handles and was the first place in the state to serve Guinness and Bass on tap.
Nonetheless, the house beers are newcomer friendly. The Six Bridges Cream Ale and Firehouse Pale Ale both have fewer than 20 IBUs, but neither is a simple beer. The pale ale is made with a combination of six malts and two hops. Lazy Boy Stout, the other regular, has seven malts and three hops. It starts at 1.054 original gravity and has 25 IBUs. Both chocolate malt and roasted barley are evident. All are made with the house yeast strain, Wyeast 1056.
“We’re developing a following of hopheads, so we’ve usually got to keep something on for them,” Lee says. He has given brewer Dave Raymond, who came from Bosque Brewing Co. in Waco, Texas, in the fall, free reign on creating specials. The first was an alt beer, the second a Scottish ale, and the third a Belgian strong ale.
“I can be a little bit of an artist here,” Raymond says. “It’s more fun. You can walk out into the brewery and watch everyone enjoying your stuff.” His Scottish ale had five malts: 75 percent two-row, 10 percent Scottish, 5 percent crystal, 4 percent roasted, and 6 percent peated (a medium peat). He used Kent Goldings for bittering and flavoring and added nothing for aroma. The beer had an OG of 1.052 and 18 IBUs.
The alt was the first beer Raymond ever made commercially from one of his own recipes, and he was justifiably proud of it. It was made with five malts, and the three-barrel batch had 15 ounces of Tettnanger for bittering, nine ounces of Hallertauer for flavoring, and 12 ounces of Saaz in the whirlpool. These are recipes a homebrewer can relate to, in part because the system is still relatively small.
Lee says cost was a big factor when it came to selecting a brewing system, and he and his partners chose a three-barrel system from DME. “We didn’t feel we were going to be a place that needed a seven-barrel system,” he says. Space was also a consideration. Vino’s uses pre-crushed grains, because there is no room for a mill.
Lee began to think about enlarging the brewery a year before he did. “It was toward the end of ’94,” he says. “We’d been a year and a half struggling through…”
Before Vino’s got the current system, the beer was brewed above the restaurant in a 30-gallon, jacketed steam kettle acquired in a prison auction and fermented in 50-gallon plastic trash cans. The mash tun was a converted 120-quart ice chest. Initially, exhaust from the kitchen went straight into the brewery. “Pizza yeast didn’t go well with beer yeast,” Lee says. “It consumed two batches of beer.”
The brewery had no temperature control. In the summer it would be 85° F upstairs. “Beer would ferment out in a day,” Lee says, unable to keep from chuckling at the memory. “In the winter it was so cold, we had to put heating blankets around the beer.”
That didn’t stop the customers, though. “We couldn’t keep up, even with not very good beer,” Lee says. “Diacetyl was a big problem. We’d never know from one batch to the next what we’d get. It was driving us all crazy.” Lee spent a lot of time on the phone asking for advice. “The thing I’ve loved about this business is everybody is willing to talk to you,” he says.
He talked often with Chuck Skypeck, then at Bosco’s Pizza Kitchen & Brewery in suburban Memphis and now vice-president and head brewer at the Nashville Bosco’s. Skypeck is also a DME sales representative. By the time Lee attended the 1995 National Craft- Brewers Conference in Austin, Texas, he and his partners had purchased the building next door. “Austin sold me; I knew we had to do it,” Lee says.
The assistance he received from Skypeck helped cement the deal. “That, and the fact it was a turnkey system. At the time I didn’t have a brewer,” Lee says. Lee hired Michael Scheimann, who worked in Colorado before arriving in Little Rock. Scheimann formulated some recipes and reformulated others before he returned to Colorado to take a job at Tabernash Brewing Co. in Denver.
Vino’s originally installed four three-barrel fermenters, then added a seven-barrel fermenter (for the pale ale, which is the best-selling beer by far). The brewery is on display in a window that faces the street, in a non-smoking dining area beside the main dining room.
Sales of beer brewed at Vino’s were up 38 percent for the first year with the new equipment. “We had good beer, and people could see what we were doing,” Lee says. “We didn’t have any fanfare, but as soon as customers tasted the beer, they knew the difference.”
Customers frequent Vino’s for a variety of reasons. They come for pizza and calzones that would make any big-city Italian restaurant proud, and at least four nights a week there’s live music in the back room. Lee, a former construction engineer who built offshore oil platforms, opened the restaurant with two partners, Alan Vennes and Bill Parodi, in 1989. The name came from one of Vennes’ nicknames, Lee said; they wanted something that sounded Italian.
“We’re a little too laid-back, a little too weird for a lot of people,” Lee says. “We get the tattooed and pierced crowd, and a lot of artists. But you come in here at happy hour and you’ll find people in coats and ties sitting at the bar.” Although the partners were told they were crazy to open in the downtown area, employees from surrounding businesses line up at the front counter to order lunch.
Vino’s decor is simple. Some of the flooring is original to the 1909-to-1910-era building, as is the pressed-tin ceiling. Tall shelves are lined with old beer cans donated by local can collectors. Graffiti covers the bathroom walls. The most recent expansion was the addition of a wooden deck out back last summer. The deck is a beer garden complete with picnic tables, a colorful folk mural, and hanging lights.
The all-ages music club emphasizes alternative rock and folk music, including Celtic. Green Day and Better Than Ezra played there before they became famous, and the local folk club hosts regular gatherings. The music room has band posters and neon lights in various shapes on the walls, as well as a pinball machine. The room seats about 90, and 150 or more can fill it on a Friday night.
The atmosphere is non-corporate by design. “We kind of pride ourselves on that,” Lee says.Particularly when they can serve up good beer along with a good story.
Vino’s Brewpub is at 923 W. Chester St., Little Rock, Ark. Call (501) 375-8466. Send e-mail to: vinosbrewpub.com.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.