This Former Historic Bathhouse Is Now the Only Brewery in a National Park
Suds of a different kind.
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery in Hot Springs, Arkansas, gets some strange calls, but one query stands out. “We had a phone call one time — ‘do you require clothes?’” says Brand Manager Jami Smith, chuckling. “That was the first time I had heard that particular one.”
But to the uninitiated visitor, it’s an understandable mistake. Red-bricked and flat-topped in Classical Revival style, the retro mint green trimming the windows of the Superior Bathhouse Brewery hearkens to the time when the town was nicknamed “Spa City,” its bathhouses a magnet for heavy hitters Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and the weary bones of the players visiting for MLB Spring Training (held in Hot Springs from 1886 to the 1950s). The Superior Bathhouse opened on February 1, 1916, and operated until 1983, the smallest and most-affordable soaking spot on Bathhouse Row, known as “the people’s bathhouse,” offering basic hydrotherapy, mercury, and massage services.
After sitting empty for decades, it reopened with new purpose in 2013 as a brewery, those mint-trimmed windows now streaming sunlight onto dark wood tables and silver farmhouse chairs, which sit on original white-penny tile floors. The marble bar, once the original check-in desk, now holds a cash register. Behind it on the wall are small rectangular lockers, formerly guarding keys and personal belongings of bathers, now just decorative flair. Hanging above the marble bar, beer taps with green levers and, overlooking it all, the original neon Superior sign.
“I think the layout of the [front] room is pretty neat, knowing that where we sit and have food and drinks is where the bathers hung out,” says Smith. “And the back where we brew is where the actual baths were. Where the fermenters now sit was the men's area.”
Today, if you’re looking for somewhere to soak at the Superior, you’re out of luck. But what you will get is something found nowhere else: meticulously crafted beer from the only brewery in the world that uses thermal hot springs water, in the only brewery located in a US national park.
And yeah, if you want that, you gotta be wearing clothes.
Picture a town called Hot Springs, one nestled in the Ouachita Mountains and encompassing a national park of the same name, and you probably envision a steamy paradise, groves of greenery specked with warm natural pools just inviting you to sink in. You’re partially right.
There are lush forests and 47 hot springs (plus a few cold ones), created when rain and melted snow seeps down into the rock, heating up as it gets deeper into the ground, and boiling up, breaking through the surface. Vapors do rise from the ground through grates, creating mystical fog on colder days and inspiring the nickname “Valley of the Vapors.” But try to sink your fanny directly into the 143°F water, and that would make for a much-regretted decision.
Indigenous residents were already utilizing this watery oasis when the early bathhouses were constructed, just canvas tents and wooden shacks built by pilgrims who believed the thermal waters had healing powers. In 1832 President Andrew Jackson signed legislation designating the springs-filled parcel as federal land, technically making it the country’s first national park, predating Yellowstone by forty years, though it wasn't officially declared as such until 1921. In 1876, the US Supreme Court ruled against private land claims on the springs, ensuring that the water would be available to all (well, their narrow definition of “all” back then. The bathhouses were not desegregated until the 1960s).
Eventually, the creek was covered to avoid contamination and underground plumbing was put in, funneling the water to the new steel, fire-resistant bathhouses built in the late 1890s. They were aesthetically pleasing and luxurious, offering hydrotherapy, massages, exercise, and general wellness to the upper echelons. Some, like the Fordyce—now a museum—featured marble fountains and tubs and a gorgeous stained-glass solarium-slash-music room, used for parties or general socializing.
In the 1900s, Hot Springs attracted wellness seekers in droves, promoted as a place “where crutches are thrown away.” If you couldn’t afford a bathhouse, you could at least drink the potable water from the springs—something you can still do today via water fountains about town. Bring your bottles to fill up, or buy your H20 from Mountain Valley Spring Water, bottled in Hot Springs since 1871, a favorite of Elvis and later stocked by Bill Clinton in the White House during his presidency.
Today, there are seven historic bathhouses left on Bathhouse Row. Only one, the Buckstaff, still operates as a traditional bathhouse (if you want to book a soak, book early. Like, book now). For soaking, there’s also the Quapaw, which uses thermal waters but has been revamped into more of a modern day spa. The other bathhouses have been restored for adaptive reuse for things like hotels, tourist shops, and, in the case of the Fordyce, a museum preserving its prosperous past life.
The Superior Bathhouse, the runt of the litter on the end of the row, was sitting empty when beermaker Rose Schweikhart laid eyes on it in 2011. Surprised by the lack of breweries in the area, her intent was to find a location to open one of her own. “I figured a place with a robust tourism industry, a national park, and famous potable thermal spring water would be a perfect location,” she says.
“We had a phone call one time — ‘do you require clothes?’”
In order to use the thermal water for commercial use, she knew she first had to get permission from the national park and have a location on federal property within the park. That meant one of the vacant former bathhouses. She wasn’t the first to have the idea—a few breweries had already tried and failed in the Superior Bathhouse space. But Hot Springs’ superintendent responded to her email within just a couple of hours. “We set up a tour, and from the moment I set foot into the building, I was in love,” says Schweikhart. “I saw so much potential in the space and immediately started the process to earn the lease.”
From the tour to the signing took two years, including a business plan, financial projections and historic renovation plans, as the Superior is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (any new changes have a lengthy approval process). She also had to prove that the beer was an appropriate use of the spring water and ensure that the project was beneficial to the national park.
The lease was signed in March 2013, with a restaurant and tasting room opening shortly after. The on-site brewery took an additional 18 months to complete. In the spring of 2015, they brewed their first beer.
Beyond a pretty good gimmick, there are quite a few benefits to having your beer brewed with thermal groundwater. First, it saves time and energy, an environmental benefit. In Superior’s brewing process, the initial step is to heat 400 gallons of water to 168°F—water that arrives from the springs at 143°F already does much of the work. Says Schweikhart, “The time and cost savings alone are fantastic, but I also love the sustainability angle that we are saving energy by using that heat from the friction of the Earth.”
Then there’s the bonus of the high temperatures killing potentially dangerous microbes, low measures of hardness from the spring water, plus no need to treat the chlorine and other chemicals that would come from a municipal water source. “Many breweries need to filter their water, treat with reverse osmosis, and re-treat the water with appropriate minerals for brewing,” says Schweikhart. “In contrast, a typical batch for us requires a bit of pH adjustment and nothing more.” In other words, the water is a brewer’s blank slate.
Environmental consciousness comes in other ways. The brewery sends mash to feed livestock at JV Farms in Bismarck, Arkansas, to eventually return to their table as “beer-raised and braised” Superior Bratwurst and Superior Frankfurters.
But, of course, you wanna know how the beer tastes. And reader, it’s good. There are 18 rotating styles on tap: experimental sours, IPAs, barrel-aged stouts, blonde ales, and whatever else they fancy. Try a four-ounce sample, opt for a flight of four, or try all 18 in a Beer Bath ($35), a popular option. There’s a full menu to soak it up, and in the future, you may be able to have food utilizing the thermal waters. As Smith says, “We’re experimenting with the stuff.” Keep your clothes on.