Walking over the white penny tile floor at Superior Bathhouse, a microbrewery in Hot Springs, Ark., it’s hard to imagine that the former hydro-spa sat vacant and in disrepair from 1983 to 2013. Today, Superior Bathhouse has the distinction of being the first brewery located within a national park, and the only in the world to use thermal spring water to brew its beer.
The western slope of Hot Springs Mountain has 47 natural thermal springs that provide the city with approximately 1 million gallons of 143-degree water daily. The local specialty is so well regarded that residents and visitors line up at hot and cold water fountains throughout the city holding 25-gallon jugs to fill.
Bill Clinton grew up in the area. During his presidency, he had Hot Springs water shipped to Washington and made it the official H2O of the White House.
Turns out the water is also ideal for brewing beer.
“It’s pretty neutral, so I can adjust the characteristics of the water according to the flavor profile of the beer I’m brewing,” Rose Schweikhart, owner, Superior Bathhouse Brewery, says. The thermal springs water is high in bicarbonate and is not very chlorinated or fluoridated. It has a high pH and low acidity, and it contains very few minerals that could potentially affect the taste of beer.
Another major bonus: The water is already hot. “The first step in brewing is to heat the water to 160 degrees,” she says. “Starting out with water that’s already at 143 degrees is a huge boon to saving energy.”
Schweikhart learned how to brew beer while living in Illinois, and was considering opening a brewery there when her husband was offered a job in Hot Springs. She immediately started planning something very different. She wanted to use the city’s signature waters to brew beer.
Schweikhart contacted the National Park Service to find out if anyone had thought of opening a brewery in Hot Springs. Within days she was touring the historic bathhouse that would go on to become her brewery. After a lengthy proposal process, Schweikhart became the first person to open a brewery inside a national park and on federal property.
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery occupies one of seven historic bathhouses that were gutted and renovated with congressional funding in 2013. Each got a new roof, new plumbing, HVAC systems, and lead and asbestos removal.
“Right away, I could see where I’d put my brewing equipment and where the seating would be up front,” Schweikhart says. The window frames lining the brick building are painted mint green. Inside, dark wood tables are flanked by metal farmhouse chairs and stools. A white marble bar (part of the original bathhouse) lines one wall, flanked with beer taps.
The real draw is the beer. Schweikhart has 18 rotating styles on tap.
“Arkansas isn’t really known for having lots of craft beer drinkers,” she says. “We have some beers that are ‘flagship’ beers — the ones anyone can drink, like kolsch and stout.” They also have a hazy IPA, a Belgian style made with raisins, an Oktoberfest, and an Irish red, among others.
Schweikhart’s history-making brewery is one of many noteworthy arrivals in Hot Springs. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the town attracted sybarites eager for hydrotherapy treatments. In the 1920s, Al Capone arrived. Residents in the remote woods that surrounded the town had working stills throughout Prohibition. Capone used the town’s Mountain Valley Spring Water bottles to smuggle moonshine to his Chicago speakeasies.
Today, two of the original bathhouse structures remain in operation: The Buckstaff, which has been in continuous operation since 1912, and the Quapaw, which reopened as a family spa in 2008. Other buildings house a museum, cultural center, and administrative buildings, and two remain vacant.
“Brewing beer is an artistic process,” Schweikhart says. Thankfully, it’s a legal one now, too.