Superior Bathhouse Brewery does things differently
Words by Nicole Letts
Central Avenue, better known as Scenic 7 Byway, splits Hot Springs, Arkansas in two. On one side of the busy thoroughfare, visitors flock to restaurants, boutiques, and tourist wonders such as the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum and the Gangster Museum of America. On the other side, the noisy road melts into green space where the lush, 5,500-acre Hot Springs National Park peacefully sits. Here, natural mineral springs expunge water from 6,000 to 8,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface. As the water creeps from underground, it cooks to a temperature of 143 degrees, making it ideal for hydrotherapy at one of eight historic bathhouses, but also for brewing Rose Schweikhart’s beer.
Rose is the owner of Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the only brewery in the United States located within a national park, as well as the only one to use thermal spring water for brewing. After moving to Hot Springs in 2011, Rose set her mind to turning Superior Bathhouse, a 9,000-square foot building and formerly operating bathhouse built in 1916, into a functional brewpub. Unfazed by the arduous construction undertaking and having the federal government as her landlord, Rose opened Superior Bathhouse Brewery in 2013. With 18 beers on tap, the brewery draws sud-sipping crowds from across the country to enjoy not only the hot springs, but the beer made from them too.
Tell me about the city of Hot Springs and what it's like to be an entrepreneur here.
I've been here for 10 years, and when I first moved here, it was kind of interesting. People found out about me pretty quickly because I had this quirky idea to put a brewery in a bathhouse. On the one hand, I had this brewery idea. On the other hand, I wanted to rebuild something that they had all seen sitting vacant for 30 years. I’m sure everyone thought, “Who is this crazy girl from New Jersey who’s going to do this?” I had to prove myself.
I can imagine there is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy when it comes to starting a brewery in a national park.
Interestingly, the red tape was more than just the park. It was bringing the institutions together. Everything from lending and licensing to beer production, and then the park and the historic elements. There were certainly times along the way when it seemed like it might not happen. But I had to be confident to show up and say, "Hey, I'm not from around here, but this is what I want to do."
You moved to Hot Springs from New Jersey with your now ex-husband. When you split, why did you decide to stay?
I was the trailing spouse, as they call it. He had his job and his world and his career, and I decided to go all in on Superior and jumped in with both feet. My job was putting together a proposal, which included lots of paperwork and interviews and bank statements. So, when all that was done, well this was my home too. It sucks to go through divorce, of course, and to lose a partner, but this? Superior is me. It was nice to be able to dig in and work and prove that I'm a strong woman and that I don't need a dude. You don't forget those experiences, but somehow over time, the pain is less acute. You get to reflect on where you stand and how far you've come.
Let’s talk about the building. What original bathhouse elements did you keep when you renovated?
The floors are original. The steps are original. The foot rails are original. The sconces came with the building. There's a painting of this building from probably the 1920s, and there's all these little people sitting in the front windows. They're smoking cigars. The baths were a social thing. They would come to these baths and then hang out. They got their treatment, and there were lounges in the building where the guys could smoke and the women would . . . talk about the guys smoking.
What are your philosophies about brewing beer?
I like to say that I'm a beer geek, but I'm not a beer snob. My philosophy about beer is whatever moment you're having and enjoying your beer, that's the perfect beer for that moment. I'm as happy to have a Miller High Life in a dive bar as I am to be in a Trappist brewery in Belgium drinking the finest beer in the world. Both of those are moments that you love, and the beer in that moment makes it better. My philosophy both about beer and about Superior beer, specifically, is that everyone should enjoy it. I want to make beer as inclusive as possible. That's why we have 18 taps. We can make everything. We have lagers. We have ales. We have wilds. We have sours. We have barrel aged. We have a little bit of everything. If you're going to walk into my brewery, I want you to love it.
How long does it take from start to finish to make a batch?
Raw grain into the glass takes about two weeks. But some beers take longer because some yeasts take longer to perform their function. Some styles need more time to condition. We've had beers that we've waited to keg and tap for up to a year. And we have some that we have to make every two weeks.
There are some interesting flavors on the menu such as beers infused with basil and citrus. What does that creative process look like for you?
We try as many beers from other breweries as we can. Once in a while, we'll go on a cross-country road trip and stop at every single brewery. In 2019, we went to the Great American Beer Fest in Colorado, in Denver. The point is to get inspiration and see what's trending. But the beauty of beer is there are so many different ingredients that can go into it. Beer is made with a grain, usually barley, but it could be wheat, rye, rice, corn, buckwheat, anything, and then hops. And hops are kind of the spice of the beer, the herb. The hops can taste like anything from citrus-y and coconut-y to pine-y. They can be super bitter, super smooth, woody, woodsy, tobacco-y. Hops have a lot of variation. And then we can also add things like basil or fruit. You can make any palette possible. You can make a dark beer that's hoppy, or you can make a light beer that's sour. You can make a dark, hoppy, sour beer. Or you can make a fruity, dark, hoppy, sour beer. So as a brewer, you can literally put anything on the canvas that you want. If you can think about it, you can create it.