Photos: Brian Sorensen
Most of the beers made by Arkansas’ craft breweries are ales. Technically this means the beer is made with top-fermenting yeast, but in practical terms it means Arkansans are drinking a lot of IPAs, wheats, and stouts (just to name a few styles of ale).
Although lager beer—which is fermented at lower temperatures by bottom-dwelling yeast—has significant history in the state, examples from Arkansas breweries are currently few and far between.
This is true for at least two reasons.
The palates of American craft beer drinkers have generally moved towards hop-heavy beers and higher ABVs over time, neither of which is common in lager beers.
Natural State Beer Co.
Opening Date: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019
Location: 5214 W. Village Parkway, Suite 140
Rogers, AR 72758
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday & 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
More significantly, lager beer takes significant time to produce. Whereas ales can go from grain to glass in as little as two weeks, lagers require at least twice as much time to properly condition. And since time is money in the beer business, it makes more fiscal sense for craft breweries (which are small businesses at their core) to make and sell ales.
These factors combine to create a lager void in the local beer market.
It’s a void a new Rogers brewery is looking to fill.
According to co-owner Mark Smith, Natural State Beer Co. will focus on making lagers in the German tradition when it opens later this month.
This may seem like a strange concept to those who only know lagers as fizzy-yellow, mass-marketed industrial beers that all taste the same.
But in reality, lagers have much more to offer.
“There is a diverse range of lager beer,” said Smith. “From a schwarzbier that’s really dark to a helles that is straw-colored, there are so many flavors to discover.”
Other examples of German-style lagers that are expected to pour at Natural State include Märzen, bock, dunkel, and pilsner.
These may seem like foreign styles—no pun intended—to beer drinkers whose memories don’t predate the modern craft beer boom. IPAs and other ales dominate the beer landscape now.
“Many lagers are malt-forward, and most are hop-restrained,” said Smith. “People who don’t care for IPAs will find there are some approachable lagers out there.”
Early Arkansas brewers were German and probably made lager beer
Natural State won’t be the first Arkansas brewery influenced by German brewing practices. Immigrants from Deutschland were, in fact, the pioneering force behind early Arkansas beer.
The first known commercial brewery in the state was operated by brothers Alexander and Henry George around 1841 in downtown Little Rock. Originally from Kelsterback, Germany, the brothers produced beer for a beer garden known as Little Rock City Garden. By all accounts the beer was good.
Seven-barrel, two-vessel brewhouse / Photo: Brian Sorensen
So good, in fact, it led the Arkansas Gazette to write the following in its Feb. 3, 1841 edition:
“All we can say, at this early day, of their establishment is that if they continue making as good beer and ale as they do now, it will be one of the most popular, and we hope, profitable establishments in the city.”
In 1848 another German immigrant—Joseph Knoble from Wittenberg—started making beer near the Arkansas River in downtown Fort Smith. His three-story brewery boasted a 525-square-foot cellar underneath an adjacent beer garden. The cool temperatures of the cellar would have been perfect for lagering beer.
Knoble’s brewery operated until his death in 1881. The structure still stands and is currently the home of Doe’s Eat Place.
There are no records of the individual beers brewed by these early Arkansas brewers. But it’s probably safe to say they were making the styles familiar to them back home in Germany. And those styles would have been lagers.
Now fast forward to the present, and Natural State Beer Co. is making those old styles new again.
The Natural State team
Smith is a structural engineer by trade. His business partner is Dan Clous, a local sales and marketing professional and fellow homebrewer. They are both members of local homebrewers club, the Ozarks Zymurgists.
Smith is listed on the brewery’s website as president and Clous is listed as vice-president. Darah Martin, who has experience in the local beer industry, will manage the taproom.
Brewing duties are being handled by Will Sonneman, a Maryland native who previously brewed at Fair Winds Brewing Co. in northern Virginia.
“Will is the guy I needed in order to go pro,” said Smith. “I didn’t know how to use the equipment back there or scale up my recipes properly. He was one of the key pieces to make this jump from homebrewing to professional brewing.”
The brewing facility is brand new and was designed specifically for Natural State. This is an ideal situation for the brewery because the alternative—retrofitting an existing building—usually leads to challenges related to the locations of drains and doors and the placement of equipment.
Crowler / Photo: Brian Sorensen
Natural State’s layout was planned with those things in mind. The walk-in cooler, for example, was placed on the other side of the tap wall.
“We didn’t want people to lug half-barrel kegs all over the place,” said Smith.
Natural State installed a seven-barrel, two-vessel brewhouse from Craft Kettle Brewing Equipment in New Orleans.
“The brew house is pretty much set up,” said Smith. “We have beer in the tanks and they are either lagering or fermenting, depending on the beer.”
Representatives from Craft Kettle assisted with the brewery’s first batch, a schwarzbier that should be available on opening day.
There is still some work to do before opening day arrives. Although state and federal permits are in hand at this point, a few local inspections remain, and some finishing touches need to be made inside the taproom.
“There are a lot of things we’re trying to get across the finish line at the same time,” said Smith.
Natural State has had a presence on social media for nearly two years now, and the brewery has made appearances at events throughout Northwest Arkansas. Suffice to say anticipation has been building for a while.
And since the brewery is located right alongside the Razorback Greenway, plenty of people have been taking notice of the construction.
“It’s crazy,” said Smith. “Two weeks ago, I was hanging TV sets [in the taproom] and it seemed like there were a thousand people from the trail pressing their faces against the glass, just to see if we’re open or not.”
Fear not, citizens of Northwest Arkansas. Lager beer will flow when Natural State Beer Co. finally opens on Saturday, Nov. 23.