A Park with a Brew: Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery
On a breezy Saturday afternoon, a row of faces peers through the oversized windows of the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery—looking out on the magnolia trees and the passersby as they stroll along “Bathhouse Row” in Hot Springs National Park, AR. It’s a familiar scene in Hot Springs’ history and, yet, a completely new one—for the National Park System and, perhaps, the world.
Housed in a historic bathhouse, the Superior is the nation’s first brewery headquartered in a national park, and owner/brewer Rose Schweikhart believes it is the only brewery to use thermal spring water as its main ingredient.
“We are very unique in the world in that our hot spring water is potable,” she says of the park. “Most hot spring water is contaminated with sulfur or bacteria or algae, so you can’t drink it.”
For centuries people have flocked to Hot Springs to “take the waters,” a once-popular treatment that included bathing in and drinking the geothermal waters, which, at the time, were believed to cure a wide range of ailments.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘Is it magical? Does it have healing powers?’” Schweikhart says. “No. The best part about the water is that it created this beautiful town that grew up around it. … It allowed me to be here and do this.”
An added bonus: The thermal waters come through the Superior’s pipes at about 140 degrees, saving both time and energy in the brewing process.
“It’s wonderful,” Schweikhart says. “We have to bring the water up to 175 or 176 when we start a brew day, so we’re already at 140.”
The Superior is one of eight bathhouses lining “Bathhouse Row.” The present-day structure operated from 1916 to 1983, and its patrons similarly sat in the window seats, gazing out on the town as they awaited their spa treatments.
Modern medicine replaced the “water cure,” and, over time, the park could no longer support eight bathhouses. The Superior sat vacant from the time of its closing until Schweikhart breathed new life into the structure, reinventing it as a brewery, restaurant and bar.
“It’s neat to reinvent the purpose of the building,” she says. “I feel like we’re honoring the building. We’ve taken some walls down. We’ve put some walls up. We have to deal with modern health and safety standards, of course, but, generally, the historic fabric of the building has been maintained, and people can still see some of the elements of the original bathhouse.”
The afternoon light flooding in through the windows illuminates the white tile floors and marble fixtures and the buttery-yellow walls, giving the space a bright, airy feel. It’s not a typical bar—it serves root beer (also made with the thermal water) and gelato. Kids play outside on the expansive green lawn.
“Because it’s in a national park and because our primary visitor demographics are families, Rose very smartly created a menu and an atmosphere where there’s a little bit of [something] for everyone,” says park superintendent Josie Fernandez.
The repurposing of the Superior is part of a larger rehabilitation/stabilization project spearheaded by Fernandez. To utilize and protect the bathhouses, the park began soliciting proposals from the private sector to lease the buildings for alternate uses.
“For us in the National Park Service, it was very evident that if there had been a market for bathhouses to be reopened as modern-day spas, that would have already happened a long, long time ago,” Fernandez says. “So we had to realistically look at other potential businesses that would be complementary to the mission of this park and that would be compatible with the kinds of things that happen in national parks.”
The Superior opened as a restaurant and bar in July 2013 with 16 taps, plus pub fare and gelato. This January, Schweikhart introduced Superior’s first beer—Hitchcock Spring Kölsch. True to style, it’s lightly malted and lightly hoppy.
“It showcases the water,” she says. “When I taste it, I taste the qualities of the spring water. That’s important to me.”
Also on the lineup for early 2015 are the Superior Pale Ale, Whittington Park Wheat (a hefeweizen), and the Foul Play Brewlesque (an oatmeal stout). Each beer is named for a person or place in Hot Springs’ history (except for the last, which is named for the local burlesque troupe).
“For me, the magic is the history,” Schweikhart says, “what the water led to, which is the national park, the bathhouse, and here I am making beer. … To me, it’s a big opportunity.”
Leslie Fisher is a writer, photographer and video editor with a passion for great beer. She has covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over eight years and most recently served as a producer for the public television series “Mineral Explorers.”