When Chris Arnold moved to Wichita and took over Old Town’s River City Brewery in 1999, he didn’t know anything about craft beer.
He’d been running his own restaurant in a dry county in Arkansas, where it was illegal to serve the stuff.
It was legal to sell beer at River City, but customers weren’t really buying it, Arnold said. Especially not the house-made stuff.
“The only thing I knew about craft beer was that we couldn’t sell it,” he said. “We were struggling to sell it.”
Now, as the flagship Old Town restaurant prepares to celebrate its 20th birthday, River City is more focused on beer than ever. The growing popularity of craft beers – and Arnold’s commitment to perfecting brewing as an art form – has helped the 440-seat, 12,000-square-foot restaurant record its two best sales years since it opened in March 1993.
Old Town wasn’t yet Old Town when 30-year-old Monte Griffin decided to turn his love of visiting breweries on vacation into a vocation. He chose an abandoned warehouse at 150 N. Mosley that was built by Bennett Paint Company in 1905 and held many businesses through the years, including a tannery and a paper company.
At the time, about the only restaurants operating in what is now Wichita’s main entertainment district were Heroes Sports Bar, which opened in 1991, and Larkspur, which opened in 1992.
Griffin ran River City until 1997, when he sold his shares to his partner, businessman Bill Shea. (Griffin died last spring at age 49).
Two years later, a partnership that included several local businessmen bought the restaurant and asked Arnold to come back to his native Wichita to run it. He eventually bought in and now owns the restaurant along with businessman Jeff Johnson, who is president of Flint Hills National Golf Club.
Since then, the brewery has undergone several menu revamps and remodeling. Its biggest change came in 2001, when the partners – hoping to lure some of Old Town’s post-9 p.m. crowd – transformed the upstairs area of the restaurant into Loft 150, a live music venue with a large dance floor.
But the craft beer revolution has been the most significant ingredient in the brewery’s longevity, Arnold said.
Through the years, Arnold has educated himself on the beer-making process and promoted longtime server/home brewer Dan Norton to the position of “brewmaster.”
“He’s an artist, but instead of a canvas, he’s working with grains and hops and yeast,” Arnold said.
Now it’s Norton’s full-time job to make all the beer and come up with new flavors and ideas. Only house-made beer is served at the brewery. No Coors Light, which, Arnold remembers with a chuckle, was a popular seller when he took over.
Back then, craft beer sales represented about 7 percent of total sales, Arnold said. Today, they represent about 21 percent.
The restaurant updated its brewing equipment two years ago, which improved the overall product, Arnold said.
Norton recently has been experimenting with a beer trend called barrel aging. He fills old wine and whiskey barrels with beer and ingredients such as chocolate and vanilla beans. The resulting brew has a complex flavor that takes on the oak the barrel is made out of and the whiskey or wine that originally occupied it.
Norton lets the beer age until it’s ready, usually between two months and a year, and then taps it, to the glee of many local craft beer enthusiasts.
He tapped the first one, a chocolate bock, two weeks ago.
“We announced on Facebook that we were going to tap it at 5 p.m., and at 4:45, there were no seats left,” Arnold said. “People were waiting for us to tap that beer.”
Now the barrel beers remain on tap alongside the brewery’s standard offerings until they’re gone. River City still serves five of the beers Griffin came up with when the restaurant opened, though all the recipes have been updated and improved, Arnold said. The standard five are Harvester Wheat, Rock Island Red, Emerald City Stout, Old Town Brown and Tornado Alley IPA, which replaced Raspberry Wheat several years ago.
The menu, a typical brew pub list of burgers, sandwiches, pizzas and salads, is freshened every spring, Arnold said. He has worked in the past several years to add more dishes that use the restaurant’s beers as an ingredient. The most popular dishes, he said, are the fish and chips, which use beer in the batter, and the homemade macaroni and cheese. River City has five versions of mac and cheese.
The brewery will continue to focus on its beer, and the owners plan to continue building on its success by luring craft beer fans, Arnold said. The goal is to brew 800 barrels this year.
“People love coming in and not knowing what’s going to come out of that barrel,” he said.