Arkansas man recalls beer production ventures
FORDYCE, Ark. (AP) — Even as a brewer, William Lyon never took a liking to beer, but his distaste for it goes far beyond the palate — it’s a bitter shot to the wallet.
Lyon operated Riley-Lyon Inc., later known as the Arkansas Brewing Co. from 1983 to 1986. It was a venture, and adventure, that nearly sent him into bankruptcy.
“I’ve had a hand in 41 businesses,” Lyon, 80, of Fordyce told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette . “Bear” Bryant Expressway that skirts the town of about 4,500. “Twenty-one were great successes. Twenty went off into the ditch.”
One year, decades ago, he had a pond dug to raise catfish for commercial sale. “No one was buying catfish like that back then,” he said.
Another year, he tried raising rabbits, to sell to meat processors. “The rabbits didn’t breed!” he said. “Whoever heard of rabbits that didn’t breed?”
But the “most complete and utter failure,” he said, was that of his brewery, which he opened in 1983 in a warehouse complex along the Arkansas River, in Little Rock.
Hampered by state laws, Lyon’s brewery lost about $800,000.
“I never did like beer,” Lyon said. “I damn sure still don’t like it now.”
Despite shortcomings in the catfish, rabbit and beer production ventures, Lyon made small fortunes in a career of jobs in banking, construction, wholesale groceries, trucking and manufacturing.
Aside from getting thrashed in a 1982 run for Congress, he succeeded in small-town politics as well, serving two terms in the 1970s as mayor of Fordyce and a few more terms in the 1990s and 2000s. His final act before officially retiring a few years ago was opening Shotgun William’s High-Falutin’ Steak House in downtown Fordyce.
“I’ve lived a good life with few regrets, except maybe for a recipe or two in beer,” he said.
Lyon’s adventure in brewing beer was a forerunner to today’s explosion in Arkansas of brewpubs and microbreweries. The trend was helped along in the early to mid-1990s with the relaxing of laws and regulations on small brewers and brewpub restaurants.
Lyon fought and lost those battles that were eventually won, in large measure, by Henry Lee, owner of Little Rock brewpub Vino’s, and the late Bill Weidman of Fort Smith, founder of the now-defunct Weidman’s Brewing Co. and Old Fort Brew Pub.
Their work helped lead to Russ Melton’s founding in 2000 of Diamond Bear Brewing Co., the oldest of Arkansas’ current crop of microbreweries and winner of seven national and world medals for brewing.
Melton said Lyon’s pioneer efforts came during a time of a “renaissance of small-batch breweries” nationwide.
“But it was a difficult time too,” Melton said. “He was plagued by equipment problems. It was really a challenge. There was just not a lot of small-brewery equipment available.”
In retrospect, Arkansas Brewing Co. might have been star-crossed from the beginning: Lyon took out a $300,000 loan from Madison Guaranty to help start the business.
“So I get ensnared in Whitewater, for crying out loud,” Lyon said, referring to the catch-all title for the mid-1990s investigations into President Bill Clinton’s real estate investment when he was governor of Arkansas.
When Lyon opened his brewery, he had a long-range plan to sell food alongside his ales and lagers, but Arkansas law prohibited such food sales, as well as the sale of alcoholic beverages from the same place where they were manufactured.
Lyon fought to change those laws. The best he could manage was a new regulation allowing free “tastings” of the beers.
Years later, Madison Guaranty’s Jim McDougal alleged that Lyon, who had been appointed by Gov. Clinton in 1980 to the state Banking Board, received favorable treatment from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control for his brewing operation. Lyon was called to testify in Washington, D.C., where he most notably referred to some of the Whitewater investigators as “Gestapo.”
The investigating committee found no wrongdoing by Lyon or Clinton.
In its final report released in June 1996, the committee noted Lyon’s Senate testimony regarding the change in law to allow tastings: “It was less than I had (before). It just allowed me to give the beer away.”
Lyon was born in El Dorado.
He never really knew his father, who died when Lyon was 8 and who had been hospitalized most of the three years before that.
His mother struggled financially in El Dorado while Lyon attended the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he earned a degree in business administration in 1958. He put himself through college, selling sandwiches and washing dishes, and sent an occasional $20 to his mother to help pay bills.
“For graduation, she sent me a suit of clothes C.O.D. — cash on delivery,” he said. “She had a hard time, but somehow she got me raised, and I made it.”
With $84 in borrowed money, Lyon moved to Fordyce in 1960 for a job selling concrete.
“Fordyce was paradise in the 1960s and 1970s,” Lyon said, referring to its job growth and potential.
He said he made a lot of money off contracts to pour concrete at manufacturing plants and sawmills across the piney woods of south and southcentral Arkansas. After a few years, he bought a home in Fordyce for his mother and moved her there.
“When I was 32, they told me I had a million dollars in assets,” Lyon said.
Within a few years, he also was president and majority owner of the Bank of New Edinburg, in Dallas County. “The smallest bank in Arkansas,” Lyon liked to call it over the years. He also started an office-supplies manufacturer that employed up to 90 people in Fordyce.
“Boredom,” he said, led him to starting a brewery. “I also thought a brewpub that, with serving food, would be unique to Arkansas.”
With an employee roster of never more than seven, and aside from state laws of the time, the company ran into problems from the start, Lyon said.
Some batches of beer turned bad before they could be bottled, he said, while other batches were fine. “We had microbiologists from the university (in Fayetteville) come in, and they couldn’t figure it out,” he said.
Sales never took off, or at least not to the point of making a profit.
“We could sell it, but never enough of it,” Lyon said. Production ranged from 500 cases a week to about 3,000.
The brewer made four products — Riley’s Red Lyon, an English-style ale; White Tail and Ten Point, both lagers; and Arkansas Sesquicentennial Beer, brewed in 1986 specifically for Arkansas’ 150th anniversary of statehood.
The company had a few highlights. In 1984, Riley’s Red Lyon finished seventh-best out of 75 entries in the Great American Beer Festival, which is now in its 38th year. The company also won distribution rights in Arkansas to New Orleans’ Dixie beer.
And Lyon had high hopes for the officially sanctioned Arkansas Sesquicentennial Beer — only to see it ordered off the shelves July 3, 1986, by Alcoholic Beverage Control because the beer hadn’t been registered with the state. Losing out on July Fourth holiday sales was a fatal blow to the brewery, and it closed in October 1986.
For all the challenges, Lyon still likes to talk about one incident a few months before closing the brewery.
A script for a commercial Lyon was shooting called for a tame buck with a nice rack to amble by while Lyon was touting the new Ten Point Beer, but the deer was more interested in Lyon than in a bucket of feed nearby.
Take after take, the deer kept encroaching onto the set well before its cue, nuzzling Lyon, sometimes giving chase. It finally attacked.
“I got speared by a deer,” Lyon said.
And waylaid by beer.