Small Brewery, Big Splash

Small Brewery, Big Splash

Brewmaster mixes different, meaningful beers


For Leigh Nogy, two-time, U.S. Open Beer Champion and founder of Dark Hills Brewery, beer brewing involves deep emotion. Like any art, brewing a good beer requires creativity, innovation, a dash of courage and a whole lot of heart.

Consider the special mead Nogy lovingly concocted nearly a decade ago with strawberries from her beloved father’s large strawberry patch — she lost him years ago, but she keeps the mead close at hand for special celebrations. Or consider the time and effort Nogy put into recreating a beer that Whistling Springs’ owner, Richard Davis, drank throughout his years stationed in Vietnam as a Marine.

Nogy’s creations don’t just quench thirst. They are expressions of Nogy’s own love, affection and nostalgia.

“She’s been working with the materials for close to 20 years now,” said Nogy’s husband and brewing partner Chris Nogy. “She’s developed very strong instincts as to what makes one of these recipes work. She’s always had a natural knack for it, but she’s also trained for it.”

Nogy has worked at a few different breweries in the area — including a stint at Core Brewing & Distilling — but she seems to have found a real niche as brewmaster at Whistling Springs Brewing Co., outside of Pea Ridge, just over the Missouri state border.

Getting to the brewery is half of the experience: The road is twisty and turning, overlooking rolling, verdant hills and valleys dotted with grazing cows. As one turns into the driveway for Whistling Springs, he drives past a picturesque green barn that houses friendly rescue horses. The interior of the brewery is all dark wood and cozy vibes — it is, one can imagine, what drinking in a country Irish pub must be like.

The Nogys first heard of the brewery when their friend Bruce Arnold drove past it on his motorcycle one day. When the trio heard the establishment’s brewer left, Chris proposed to Richard that Nogy take over “until he found someone else.” That was November of last year, and the partnership might just be permanent.

Nogy’s interest in brewing beer started young: As a teenager, she and her family used to tour the Coors brewery in Golden, Colo., while visiting a sister who was in school there.

“When I would step into town, I just loved the way the factory made that town smell,” Nogy said.

That early fascination came to fruition during Nogy’s involvement in the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization that celebrates the art, culture and life of the pre-17th century era. Eschewing modern techniques, Nogy trained herself to create beer the way a brewer in that era would have.

“Medieval people did everything we do today — they were brilliant, to be able to do what they could back then,” she said. “I started researching how they made beer and got into malting grains. Soon, I was guilding malt houses in small scale.”

(Nogy’s vocabulary is peppered with specialized brewery terms — like “malt houses,” “wort” and “sparge” — that will send one straight to the Internet.)

“We want our beers to be different and exciting,” Nogy continued.” We traditionally brew in the German method … the Germans are very conscientious about their grain and getting everything out of that they can.”

It was Nogy’s quest to create “different,” meaningful beers that guided her creation of a gluten-free beer in 2003 — she was ahead of the curve, before “gluten free” was all the rage as it is now. Nogy was motivated by a friend and fellow SCA member who was diagnosed with celiac disease, as well as a friend-of-a-friend who posted a call for a gluten-free beer to serve at her upcoming wedding.

“It’s hard to make a gluten free beer,” Nogy said. “The first ones we made turned out like mud. So I set out on this great quest to find grains that are nearly equivalent to barley. You can’t just buy malted anything, so I set out malting all of these grains from all over the world to see if I could figure it out. Sorghum works, but it doesn’t taste very good. The best substitute I’ve found is buckwheat.”

In a painstakingly careful game of trial-and-error, Nogy finally landed on a recipe she decided was wedding-worthy.

“I was watching people at the reception, and I was like, ‘There’s something terribly wrong here — people are crying,’” Nogy remembered. “I went over to Connie [Rieper-Estes, the bride] and said, ‘I’m sorry they don’t like the beer!’ She said, ‘What are you talking about? They love it!’ I said, ‘But they’re crying,’ and she said, ‘Those are tears of joy — they haven’t had beer for years. All of my friends are celiacs.’”

The beer was so successful that Rieper-Estes and Nogy combined forces to create Dark Hills Brewery and continue to perfect Nogy’s gluten-free recipes.

In fact, Nogy’s recipe was successful enough to nab the U.S. Open Beer Championship gold medal in 2013 and 2018. This competition attracts more than 6,000 beers from all over the world, most of them with big, internationally known breweries attached to their names.

“There’s only one other brewery around here that’s tied with her in the number of golds, and they’ve submitted many, many more beers than she has,” Chris noted.

But being a small beer brewer is not easy. Nogy said that just bottling the beer costs a dollar a bottle, and all kinds of laws serve to restrict the small business owner in the beer industry.

“I’ve written a lot of letters,” she said. “It’s getting better in Arkansas for the small craft brewer. We’re all in this together, trying to protect our rights, trying to open up these lobbyist-type laws that were built by the new breweries to keep the small companies down.”

And now that they’ve been at Whistling Springs Brewery for nearly a year, word is slowing starting to spread about the tiny brewery on the Arkansas-Missouri border.

“As brewing engineer, I’m building the 50-gallon system instead of the 15-gallon system,” Chris said. “We’ll turn around and get some retail sales out there, and we’ll take that money and put it into a four-barrel system and grow our customer base into our supply. Places like Bike Rack [Brewing Co. in Bentonville] started out on a system like this, and now they’re in a great big building with 40 fermenters and 40 barrels. So our hope is to grow it — the word ‘slowly’ gets on our nerves. We would really love to grow it from today to tomorrow to the next day. Enough people have started telling enough of their friends, who have then started coming out, that there aren’t empty chairs now.”

The bar is open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. each Friday and from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturday. A neighbor of the brewery, Joe Stanley, plays guitar most Saturday nights, taking requests from the audience.

“He plays anything and everything,” Nogy said. “He’s wonderful.”

The brewery will host an “Oktoberfest in the Ozarks” celebration Oct. 6 which will feature live German music and Bavarian food from noon to midnight. Customers will find eight taps of Whistling Springs own brews on hand, including a gluten-free, elderberry cider with an apple base that tastes as crisp and fresh as that October Saturday promises to be.

That elderberry cider sold out in a couple of hours the first afternoon Nogy served it at the brewery. It’s obvious Nogy has a huge talent for brewing.

“This is where she’s supposed to be working,” Chris said. “Sometimes, you have a set of natural talents, and you go where you’re supposed to. And she has.”

Whistling Pines Brewing Co. generally has about eight beers on tap on any given night, including Nogy’s award-winning gluten-free options.

The picturesque drive to Whistling Springs Brewery Co. will take one through rolling hills to the outskirts of Pea Ridge, just across the Missouri border.

Leigh Nogy has won two U.S. Open Beer Championship gold medals — one in 2013 and one in 2018 — for her gluten-free beer.

“She’s been working with the materials and the techniques for close to 20 years now, and she’s developed very strong instincts about what works,” said Chris Nogy of wife and brewing partner Leigh.



Oktoberfest in the Ozarks

WHEN — 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. Oct. 6

WHERE — Whistling Springs Brewery Co., 246 Whistling Springs Lane, Seligman, Mo.

COST — Free

INFO — 531-1186

Categories: Maker Space