Fort Smith Brewing Company looks to Fort Smith’s future while celebrating its past. Located in a World War II-era warehouse in Chaffee Crossing in anticipation of further area growth, the company works with small businesses to spur growth in the city, guided by a 100-year plan that seeks to return brewing to its small-town roots.
The company names its beers after historical figures and occurrences in Fort Smith, and it prizes and relies on the blue-collar work ethic that has defined this community for two centuries.
At the center of the company is owner Quentin Willard, assistant professor of military science at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. A West Point graduate and Van Buren native, Willard traveled the world during his time in the Army before returning to western Arkansas to care for his family.
When he came back, he wanted to start a business that would champion the city’s hard-working culture while also helping to grow Fort Smith’s economy.
“People say we’re a blue-collar town with negativity,” he said. “We don’t see it as a negativity at all. There’s merit and longevity and sustainability in hard work. So all these other places who are putting their money into office jobs, at the end of the day, you’re going to need boots on the ground and hard workers.”
It didn’t take long for Willard to realize beer was the perfect opportunity to accomplish that vision. Originally Willard did not see a future in the brewing industry – mostly because he didn’t like beer, as his conception of it had been reduced to the typical domestic brands like Budweiser and Miller Light.
It wasn’t until he was stationed in Rhode Island in 2013 that he saw the beverage’s potential.
“Everybody was drinking beer up there,” he said. “I was never much of a beer guy, but anywhere I go I try to do what the locals do. It wasn’t long before I found a beer I actually liked. I tried more and more, and before you know it, there’s actually a lot of beers out there that are delicious, no matter what your taste buds are.”
“I really fell in love with beer when I was there,” he continued. “We’ve always thought about beer as just Budweiser and brands like that, but it’s not the case at all. Those brands are over marketed, and that’s all we thought was available. So once you start digging into it, you realize it’s an amazing product.”
For Willard beer signified an economic opportunity, as Fort Smith Brewing Company is the only brewery currently in Fort Smith. But it also signified a vehicle to help Fort Smith return to a homegrown business culture centered around locally made products.
“Businesses can come in, use us and abuse us, and get out, and it doesn’t help us long term,” he said. “So the way I see it, we need to make products here, and we need to make longevity products here. I think that’s going to make us a more robust society, and beer seemed like a perfect opportunity to help build that culture. It’s been around since 10,000 B.C., and it will still be around years after we die."
Willard’s vision came about easily, but taking the company from conception to reality was another matter. With the help of friends, Willard built all the furniture in the brewery’s storefront by hand – the bar, tables and chairs were all crafted over a six-month period. And since it was the first brewery in Fort Smith, Willard had to work with the city to change zoning policies so the business could operate within commercially zoned properties.
"The way I see it, we need to make products here, and we need to make longevity products here. I think that’s going to make us a more robust society, and beer seemed like a perfect opportunity to help build that culture.”
In 2016 they purchased their current location at 7500 Fort Chaffee Boulevard while Willard honed his brewing recipes. His beers are all named as a reflection of Fort Smith – names like Trailblazer, Pearl Starr Saison, 1817 Pale Ale and Dat Nguyen Stout, named after the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker who, Willard said, embodies Fort Smith’s work ethic.
“He’s a political refugee, and he’s undersized, undervalued – he’s one of those guys who gets overlooked, and he’s kind of like Fort Smith,” Willard said. “This unassuming Asian American tries out for football where there’s no Asian Americans playing football for the most part and goes on to be one of the best linebackers of all time. I mean, it’s really incredible. He came from even more meager roots than most of us.”
As a sign of Willard’s commitment to the community, he reached out to UAFS for employees. All 17 of his workers are UAFS students or graduates, working in positions from cicerone to photographer to brewer.
“It thrills me so much to see the talent coming out of UAFS,” he said. “They’re highly qualified students. A lot of them are multifaceted, and that’s something unique I’ve noticed. A lot of them study multiple disciplines. I don’t see that as much at other universities as I do with UAFS students.”
The brewery opened in October of 2017, and Willard said it was everything he thought it would be.
“This community wants good beer,” he said. “It wants a good product, and it wants a business that’s about the community. And these things are happening. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of. And it’s pretty cool to see it happening.”