Trail of Beers
Arkansas brewers talk shop on annual trek
By Dwain Hebda
“There was a really awful flood that happened in Albert Pike about 10 years ago or so. You’ve really got to be as careful as you can in that area regarding rain and flooding.” -Mark Sniff
For as easy as most brewers make it look, brewing beer remains hard, physical work. Long hours doing not-always-glamorous things like shoveling wet malt, scrubbing drains and hosing out kegs and other equipment demonstrates the commitment brewers must have for their craft. So it’s no surprise that many in this industry take their recreation time seriously.
Mark Sniff is one of those people. A former beer hobbyist, he’s been a professional brewer for the past two years, first for North Little Rock’s Flyway Brewery and of late for Rebel Kettle Brewing in Little Rock. He’s also the instigator of a 4-year-old, invite-only annual hike that gives him and his fellow brewers a chance to reconnect, recharge and even collaborate.
“I have a few close friends in the brewing industry and some different brewers who have been hiking as friends before we were in the profession,” Sniff said. “We’ve gone on hikes for maybe the last 10 years or so as good friends.
“We kind of pulled in more people from the industry outside of our circle and they became our close friends after the hike, too. It grew from there.”
The as-yet-unnamed annual hike tackles Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita National Forest, the largest loop trail in Arkansas. The 27-mile trail, which was developed along a 100-year-old postal route and old wagon roads, offers amazing topographical diversity ranging from easy to most difficult.
EAGLE ROCK LOOP,
26.8 miles/2-3 days to complete
Athens-Big Fork North:
N34.449757 W093.967144 UTM 83
Little Missouri/Athens-Big Fork Junction:
N34.433377 W093.973624 UTM 83; about 20 miles to Mena
West Trailhead/Blaylock Creek: N34.381914 W093.961959 UTM 83
Athens-Big Fork South:
N34.347103 W093.984343 UTM 83; about 84 miles to Texarkana; about 25 miles to Glenwood.
FR 106 East Trailhead:
N34.365845 W093.901805 UTM 83
Albert Pike Recreation Area: N34.3759722W93.87775 UTM 083; about 6 miles to Langley
Little Missouri Falls Trailhead: N34.422745 W093.919383 UTM 83; about 24 miles to Mt. Ida
“Eagle Rock Loop is an interesting hike, because it’s really scenic. It showcases a lot of what the Ouachitas have to offer,” Sniff said. “Everything from crossing over streams a thousand times to going up really steep mountains, zigzagging up and down them. As much as it is pleasurable, there’s also a lot of hard work involved. It’s kind of like brewing beer, you know? Lot of fun, but a lot of hard work, too.”
Last year, 10 hikers from four breweries showed up for the event. You might think that for as hard as they work at it, participants wouldn’t want to talk about beer on the trail. Or, at least, they would be tight-lipped on the subject, seeing as how they are hiking with their competitors. On both counts, Sniff said, you would be wrong.
“The brewing industry is pretty interesting that way,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most collaborative industries as much as it is one of the most competitive. Behind the scenes, the brewers themselves are really good friends and are really tight-knit here in central Arkansas. That’s something that’s a little different than a lot of other places.
“What’s fun on the hike is, we do actually discuss [beer] a lot, whether it be recipes or new things in brewing, or the techniques involved in brewing. We sometimes even set up future collaborations. We talk about things that we’re going to make. It’s sort of like just get out of the factory, get out in the woods and discuss things and have a good time.”
The group targets a weekend in December and budgets three days to complete the circuit. Mother Nature always has a say in that, however, and doesn’t always concur with those plans.
“Last year there were a lot of forecasts for rain to come down on us. Our window of opportunity shrunk smaller and smaller,” Sniff said. “We all agreed we were going to do it in two days, and it was one of the hardest hikes that we all did. Even those of us who were pretty experienced and do a lot of backpacking trips, it was pretty hard for us. Some of the guys that were on the trip, it was actually their first backpacking trip, so they suffered through it all.”
“It was that type-two fun, where it’s not fun in the moment but fun when you have a couple beers and think about it later.”