Native American tribes like the Caddo called the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas the “Valley of the Vapors,” named after the steam that came off the hot thermal pools. The new nation of America quickly discovered the value of the area, which was included within the Louisiana Purchase. Thirty years later, the area became nationally protected to allow for public access, predating Yellowstone as the oldest federal reserve in the United States. Hot Springs National Park was added to the National Parks System in 1921, in the midst of Prohibition, and encompassed over 5,000 acres.
It was during this time that grand Victorian bath houses were built around the springs, welcoming visitors to “America’s Resort Town.” Various treatments were offered using thermal water from the park, including hydrotherapy. Visitors came from all over the country to soak in the waters of Bathhouse Row, including gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano as well as baseball legend Babe Ruth. Capone also enjoyed drinking bootlegged liquor he brought from Chicago at the various speakeasies, such as the Ohio Club, and betting on horses at Oaklawn Park.
Illegal gambling and prostitution left the frontier town in the 1950s, and the popularity of the bathhouses declined. Many of the once-majestic buildings fell into disrepair and sat vacant for years. Fordyce Bathhouse opened as a national park visitors center in 1989 and marked the beginning of a new era for Bathhouse Row. Quapaw Baths reopened in 2004, while Buckstaff Bathhouse has been in continuous operation since 1912.
The red brick Superior Bathhouse is the smallest of the historic buildings, named for its “superior” service and rates. It opened in 1916 and closed in 1983. In 2011, New Jersey native Rose Schweikhart moved to Hot Springs and began the process of bringing new life to the long-vacant building by turning it into brewery, which is easier said than done when you are talking about a building that sits in the middle of a national park.
It all started with a lengthy process to apply for a pilot leasing program to renovate the ailing structure, which consisted of an 80-page proposal submitted through the National Parks System. After two years of waiting, without any guarantee of success, the 55 year lease was approved.
In 2013, Superior Bathhouse Brewery became the only brewery within a United States national park and the only in the world to use thermal water as the main ingredient. Schweikhart was inspired by the styles of beer she drank at the pubs while getting her masters degree in Manchester, England, especially English-style IPAs.
“They’re not as aggressively bitter as American IPAs, which I also like,” Schweikhart said.
The unique location gave her access to the most important ingredient, spring water, which is the common thread connecting some of the world’s best beers. Superior Bathhouse Brewery uses thermal spring water piped in directly from the national park—custom equipment was created for the unique arrangement. Arriving at 144 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s naturally purified by the high temperatures and regularly tested by the park staff.
In the last few years, the brewery has also doubled in size and now has 18 beers in rotation. In addition to IPAs, the brewpub features a lineup features everything from easy-drinking pale ales and funky tripels. The Superior Pale Ale is nicknamed SPA, as a nod to the Spa City.
“We’re experimenting with a sour program featuring Brettanomyces yeast and barrel aging,” Schweikhart said, referring to the brewery’s Sour Flower Power sour ale. “They’re not for everybody, but it’s like beer art.”
Visitors to Hot Springs can fill up their own jugs of spring water at the free taps near the visitor’s center, while beer lovers can get the growlers filled at Superior Bathhouse to enjoy at home. In addition to distribution of their kegs throughout Arkansas, Superior also started canning in 2018. For now, they are only sold in their taproom because of local demand.
“They’re perfect for the outdoors and taking to the lake,” Schweikhart said.
Hot Springs is located near the Ouachita River, Lake Hamilton, and Lake Ouachita as well as the namesake national park, providing endless opportunities for beer-fueled outdoor excursions. The brewery will soon launch stainless steel growlers, ideal for boats and camping trips.
In addition to its beer operations, the brewery is also a full-service restaurant with pub favorites like beer cheese made with its kolsch and bratwurst sandwiches. The spent grain from the brewery goes to JV Farms, a family-run sustainable pig farm in Bismarck, Arkansas that dates back to the 1800s. Some weeks, the farm receives over 1,000 pounds of grain. In return, JV Farms pork is often featured on the Superior Bathhouse menu alongside local produce.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery is not only the only brewery in Hot Springs, it’s also one of only about 30 in the state of Arkansas, most of which are in the northwest part of the state. Prohibition may be over in America, but it lives on in the counties surrounding Hot Springs. Many are dry or partially dry, so, in a way, the spirit of Al Capone and his band of bootleggers still lives on in Hot Springs.