Drink Insider: Sylvia Blain, Executive Director of the Arkansas Brewers Guild

Founded in 2003, the Arkansas Brewers Guild works to promote and protect the craft beer industry in Arkansas. It also offers not just business advice and sharing of trade information between the breweries but lobbying support in the best interest of all its members. Sylvia Blain was hired last year as the Executive Director and is tasked with moving the brewing industry in Arkansas forward.

How did you come to be in this position?

I’m the first executive director for the guild and how it came about was that I kept hearing rumors through my beer friends, brewery owners, that they were in the process of looking to hire an executive director, a part-time position. The Brewer’s Association at the national level is really pushing for all the states to be “legit” and to form their trade associations. So they help with grant funding to move that forward.

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They started a search and it was a very long process, the job description was 3 pages long, and I thought “this is part-time? When you’re the first you’re laying the groundwork, so it becomes a big job. I officially signed on in September of 2018 and by the end of the year had organized a tap takeover and started digging into the meat of what it is I needed to be doing. I’ve got a background in the farm-to-table movement, specifical legislation around farm-to-school, and a board background so I have a lot of non-profit experience in managing boards and building boards and they really needed that. The board is comprised of all small business owners and they don’t have time to focus on these things.

How does the business of the food culture in Arkansas compare to what you’ve seen from the beer culture?

There are several parallels. One, you’re building a local market in a place where industrial food systems and the big domestic breweries are similar in their ability to control markets and to distribute widely. I see a lot of the same issues in independently owned craft breweries as I did in farms and co-ops trying to sell. There’s a lot of similarities in marketing and in building your base and it takes a community to stand up as a single strong voice against larger voices. The other thing I think is similar is that brewers tend to be do-it-yourself. They’ve built their business, they’ve built their bars, and it’s very similar to farms with the way they work. They don’t want to be organized. Farmers are like herding cats and I’m learning brewers are the same.

What do you hope to accomplish in your time leading the guild?

My job is to shore up the events. We have a quarterly tap takeover we’ll host around the state at places that may or may not get a lot of attention. The membership provides the beer so you’re sending beer to other areas where you might not be distributed. It’s a good way to get your name and beer out to other areas of the state. So I need to make sure more breweries are participating and they’re better marketed so that more people are coming out to them. We’re also hosting a conference in July, there was previously one in 2016, and my job is to make it bigger and better. I have a background in hospitality as was an event planner for the city of Little Rock for several years. And finally I want to build awareness. One of my goals is to start a partnership with the state department of tourism. I’m working on a map and also am working to get all the breweries signed up. We have 27 at the moment so we’ve exceeded the previous year’s membership.

When you aren’t working or leading the guild, what else might we find you doing to unwind?

I like being in a kayak on a river. It’s my favorite thing to do. I do it seasonally, I’m not a winter kayaker, but I just like being in the woods and on a river.

Not to put you in any hot water with the brewers in the state, but put together a six-pack of Arkansas beers that you’re really into at the moment.

I need to mention that I haven’t visited all the breweries first off. I live in North Little Rock so Flyway Shadow Hands stout is a go-to. Oat of Sight, Oat of Mind Scotch Ale at Gravity Brewworks is great. Ivory Bill The Regular is just so easy drinking, a gateway beer and great for being on a river. New Province Yeoman is a great coffee porter. Of course Lost Forty Easy Tiger, since I’m a Texan and I’ve been wanting a good Vienna lager. Lastly, I recently stopped by Crisis for the first time and their Major Milk Stout was really good.

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Drink Insider: Sylvia Blain, Executive Director of the Arkansas Brewers Guild