Every homebrewer, on some level, wants to work for a professional brewery. Usually, that desire is little more than a pipe dream, something fun to think about while brewing a five-gallon batch in the garage. It’s rare that an amateur actually joins the professionals; it’s even more unusual that a homebrewer creates some actual buzz when they are hired. But that’s what has happened for Flyway Brewing and the company’s new assistant brewer Mark Sniff. But Sniff wasn’t making just any beer before he came to the North Little Rock brewery. Instead, he was part of a homebrewing team that created what several beer insiders called some of the best beer in the state.
Sniff is a native of the U.S. territory of Guam in the South Pacific Ocean, where he lived until he was 14 years old. After school, Sniff trained competitively in MMA, leading to a job as a referee with the North American Grappling Association. Sniff was also becoming interested in homebrewing, and used his job to help advance his hobby.
“I would go from state-to-state setting up and officiating tournaments,” said Sniff. “While I was there, I would try some of the beer styles popular wherever I was. I would then take those back home and try to recreate them for myself. I learned a lot that way.”
Sniff quit his high-travel job when his daughter was born two years ago and began working at Fermentables in North Little Rock. Fermentables specializes in retail supplies for making fermented goods at home, including cheese, wine and beer. While there, he started Void Cellars with his friend Aaron Wessel, and the two began making wild fermentation beers.
“We were pretty inspired by beers we had from Jester King and Allagash, and also beers that were tied to the place they were made,” said Sniff. “So using everything from local ingredients to local yeast. That caught our attention, and we ended up serving our beers at some festivals, and they caught on.”
It’s a bit of an understatement to say Void Cellars caught on. The beer community was quickly abuzz with praise for the team’s sour brews. Brews like Spineapple made with smoked pineapples and Relocation Swarm brewed with honey meant Void Cellars had long lines wherever they showed up. They were featured here in Rock City Eats and brewed a collaboration Wild Barrels Project with Lost Forty Brewing.
“I really enjoyed the brewing process with Void,” said Sniff. “It’s fun pitching the yeast at different times and seeing what happens. Some of our stuff would start out bad, but you’d try it later on and it had greatly improved. That experimenting was a lot of fun.”
Sniff approached Flyway about the company’s assistant brewing vacancy after the departure of Ryan Frank, and the brewery wasted little time bringing Sniff on board. Owner Jess McMullen and head brewer Tim Berkley have been training Sniff on the commercial system and have put him in charge of a new small batch program. Sniff’s first two small batches, a classic gose and a New England-style IPA, sold out in less than a day. Sniff is also working the new Free Range Origin series, which uses the brewery’s brown ale to feature single-origin coffee beans from around the world.
“I’m still a very new commercial brewer, I’m glad these guys are willing to show me the ropes,” said Sniff. “Eventually, the goal is to run it on my own. I’m getting there, but there are still some holes in my game, and that’s to be expected.”
Sniff has also helped start Flyway’s barrel-aging program, pitching the brewery’s Magdalene Tripel with Brettanomyces in four Chardonnay barrels that will age and sour over the next several months. Even though he’s been a professional brewer for just a couple of months, Flyway has been willing to show Sniff a lot of confidence early on. There aren’t too many homebrewers out there worthy of that much trust, but then again, there aren’t many homebrewers who have showed Sniff’s level of success.