A Foodie's DIY Paradise
When it comes to growing and creating food and drink, Water Buffalo leads the way
By: Michael Roberts Photography: Brian Chilson
As Arkansas’ artisan food boom continues to grow, more people discover the joys of homegrown vegetables and high-quality food and drink made right here in The Natural State. Farmers markets are thriving like never before, and restaurant menus proudly tout the Arkansas farms and producers who provide everything from meats like beef, chicken and pork to aged cheeses, fantastic beer and locally roasted coffee. Ordinary Arkansans are doing extraordinary things with food, combining age-old gardening and food production techniques with the latest innovations modern technology has to offer. Perhaps you’ve had a pint of Arkansas beer or savored a bite of handmade, probiotic-rich sauerkraut and thought, “I want to make this myself.” If so, Nolen Buffalo of the Water Buffalo in Little Rock would like a word.
Nolen calls his shop on Rodney Parham Road a “lifestyle improvement center,” and at first glance, the Water Buffalo’s relatively small size (especially compared to stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot) seems to make that description seem grandiose. A closer look, however, reveals that Nolen has created a do-it-yourself wonderland, stocking products across a range of food-related hobbies. High-tech grow lights shine on a lime tree—which is somehow putting out fruit in the middle of an Arkansas winter. A barrel of goldfish swim lazily about, unaware that the murky water they produce is being used as fertilizer in an aquaponics project the Water Buffalo is conducting with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. And all around, the shelves are loaded with plant foods, organic herbicides, bags of soil, Arkansas-produced worm castings and supplies for making beer, wine, cheese and fermented vegetables. Suddenly, Nolen’s description not only feels apt—it’s clear it doesn’t say quite enough.
The sheer number of products packed into the Water Buffalo can be overwhelming at first, a feeling Nolen strives to dispel. “We want to create a learning center environment,” he says. “We don’t want to act in an intimidating way. It’s important for us to build relationships and help people know what the right or wrong purchases are for whatever they’re trying to do.” He truly believes that making beer, wine or cheese at home is something anyone can do. “You just need a recipe or a friend,” he says. “We can do both.”
From left to right: Citra is just one of the hop varieties for sale; Dark grain gives stouts their characteristic flavor; The Water Buffalo can teach anyone how to use supplies like these malt extract sweeteners.
As part of that philosophy, the store has begun a weekly series of classes on Saturdays geared toward teaching customers how to get into home food and drink production. Topics covered are as varied as the store’s inventory, ranging from cheese-making, vegetable fermentation and the homebrewing of beer and cider, to lessons on soil pH and hydroponic gardening systems. Even better, the hands-on classes are provided to the public free of charge.
In addition to his role as store proprietor and class instructor, Nolen Buffalo also takes on the daunting task of diagnostician and quality assurance tester. “Folks sometimes bring in their homebrewed beer and ask me to help them figure out what went wrong,” he says. His practiced nose, eyes and tongue can often pinpoint where a home brewer’s process needs improvement. “Sometimes you get beers in here that smell like a 12-year-old’s gym bag,” he says with a chuckle. “We teach brewers how to keep things clean and sterile to avoid that.” It’s his opinion that great local food businesses are often born from home hobbyists, and he sees his mission as helping his customers succeed.
Business at the Water Buffalo is brisk, from customers looking to choose the perfect grain or type of hops from dozens of options to backyard gardeners looking for just the right soil and nutrient combo to grow their own prize heirloom tomatoes and peppers. The store even gets the occasional visit from some of the big breweries and bars in town, because the Water Buffalo is the only local store around where a spare tank of CO2 or tap line can be purchased right off the shelf. Like an art supply store that tries to cater to artists using any medium, the Water Buffalo wants to make sure that no homegrown or homemade enthusiast is left out.
Given that desire, it comes as no surprise that Nolen has plans for further expansion. “I see more and more people with backyard beehives,” he says. “So we’ve made space for beekeeping supplies.” Even bigger than that, though, is what the Water Buffalo has planned for the back corner of their store: a brewery, to be called Buffalo Beer. The half-barrel brewing setup is already in place, and Nolen hopes to have an open taproom this year. “We’ll have 15-25 beers from some of the local guys,” he says. “And of course we’ll be making our own.” He also hopes to let his beer-making classes in on things by holding one tap in reserve for exceptional home brews.
It’s clear that Nolen Buffalo considers his shop a place for everyone in the community, from folks making beer, wine or cheese in their garages to Forest Park Elementary student Jessica Lewis, who recently won a science fair with a plant-growth experiment using hydroponic supplies from the Water Buffalo. Like so many local merchants, the greatest value in shopping at the Water Buffalo isn’t the plethora of great supplies—it’s the expertise behind the counter. Buying materials is one thing, but getting a lesson on how to make the most of them is invaluable.