Natural State Brewing Co. Brian Sorenson

Whether you’re starting 2021 with a Dryuary or toasting the New Year until the fetid smell of 2020 has worn off, January’s become a time to get thoughtful about alcohol — what we love, what we hate and what role it plays in our newly pandemic-stricken social lives. It’s also the month when, in 1919, Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing prohibition in the state and ushering in a formalized relationship between booze and government. So, in January 2021, the Arkansas Times raises a glass to all things boozy with a series we’re calling Drink/Drank/Drunk: our city’s great cocktails and mocktails, the history of temperance in the state, brews to try before you die, a boozy playlist and more. 

German immigrants helped build the U.S. beer industry in the 1800s, producing lager beer that proved popular with American drinkers, but there’s scant evidence of the styles they brewed in Fort Smith and Little Rock during that time period. Presumably, they made lagers typical of their homeland.

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Around the turn of the century, Little Rock Brewing & Ice Co. made a beer known as “extra pale Pilsner,” which could be found in nearly every bar in the city.

Other German immigrants — with names such as Pabst, Schlitz and Busch — built brewing empires around pale Pilsner beer. Theirs were the precursors to today’s light lagers — Bud Light, Coors Light and others —which continue to hold a tight grip on the American beer industry despite the rise of craft beer breweries across the country.

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Still, most modern beer drinkers would struggle to name a traditional German lager other than Pilsner. The homogenization of lager beer over the past two centuries belies the diversity of traditional German brewing. Ever heard of Schwarzbier, Helles or Dopplebock? Probably not, since those styles have been buried in the ash heap of history.

A few Arkansas breweries have tried to remedy this. Stone’s Throw Brewing has made a Dunkel (dark lager), a Roggenbier (lager made with rye) and a Hefeweizen (technically an ale, but German nonetheless). Ozark Beer Co. and Lost Forty Brewing Co. have also flirted with German beer styles.

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There are other Arkansans brewing lagers, though mostly as a supplement to their ale-dominated lineups. Until 2019, there was no post-Prohibition brewery in Arkansas that specialized in lager beer. That is the year Natural State Brewing Co. launched in Rogers, going all in on lagers.

Brian Sorenson
Natural State Brewing Co.

According to co-founder Mark Smith, the decision to focus on German lagers was strategic in nature. “We were looking for a niche in the market,” he said. “And at the time there weren’t many breweries turning out lagers.”

Smith met business partner Dan Clous through a local homebrewing club. They bonded over their shared love of Marzen, a style more commonly known as Oktoberfest. As they scanned the Arkansas beer scene, they could sense the opportunity to create a different kind of brewery.

For those new to beer, the difference between ale and lager is the yeast used in the brewing process. Ales are made with top-fermenting yeast that thrives in warmer temperatures, while lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast that requires cold conditioning. Ales typically have a more robust flavor; lagers tend to be more restrained in their presentation.

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Clous specializes in consumer insights, and he said the popularity of Budweiser, Miller and Coors was part of the pair’s inspiration. “Considering how large those brands are, and how many refrigerators they’re in, you can see that lagers are a preference for many beer consumers,” he said.

Both men were accomplished homebrewers when they started working on the concept for Natural State. But neither wanted to brew on a commercial scale. For that task they hired Will Sonneman.

Sonneman was a production brewer at Fair Winds Brewing Co. in northern Virginia before arriving at Natural State. He didn’t dabble much in lager brewing while at his former brewery, instead focusing on more mainstream craft styles like IPA and other hoppy ales. He said lager’s appeal is its delicate composition and refreshing character. “People kind of forgot the most pleasurable experiences can come from a light-bodied beer,” he said. “That’s why we’ve seen a rekindling of lager beer.”

Brian Sorenson

In this context, light-bodied does not mean uninteresting. Lagers exist in a wide spectrum of colors and flavor profiles, although they tend to be hopped less aggressively than ales and have a crisper, drier finish.

Natural State loosely adheres to the German purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot. This decree was issued in 1516 and restricts beer ingredients to barley, hops and water. Yeast was added after its discovery a few centuries later. “You can bring so much flavor to the table with just four ingredients,” said Smith.

The Reinheitsgebot doesn’t dictate every brewing decision at the Rogers brewery. Natural State has made a coffee version of its Schwarzbier, for example; and chipotle peppers were added to a version of the brewery’s Vienna Lager for a spicy kick.

Natural State produced 317 barrels in 2020. Marzen, India Pale Lager and Greenway Light Lager have thus far been the brewery’s most popular beers.

According to Smith, the highest compliment he and the team can receive is from people who spent time in Germany and say the beer is a perfect match to styles found in Deutschland. “Making them properly is our claim to fame,” Sonneman said. “And sometimes we win.”

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German Beer Style Guide

Bock: A brownish lager that typically weighs in around 6% ABV. Malty sweetness dominates the palate, with relatively low bitterness.

Dopplebock: A very malty beer that is typically dark brown to black in color. Hops are restrained and the flavor is sweet but fully fermented. Notes of chocolate and dark fruit are often detected. The ABV can approach 10% and contributes a warming quality to the beer (though it shouldn’t burn). A “double” Bock, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Dunkel: A dark lager that has hints of chocolate, nuts and toast. Dunkel stops short of black in color, often appearing deep copper or dark brown with a ruby tint. It’s malt forward with low bitterness and less detectable sweetness than a Bock.

Hefeweizen: Technically an ale, or top-fermented beer. Hefeweizen is made with around 50% wheat malt and a yeast strain that creates banana and clove-like character. It’s generally straw colored and somewhat hazy in appearance.

Helles: A pale beer that has a malty backbone. Hovering around 5% ABV, Helles is crisp, clean, and highly quaffable. It’s a step up from Pilsner in terms of flavor and mouthfeel.

Marzen: An amber-colored beer that starts sweet and finishes dry. It was traditionally brewed in March (thus the name), stored in cold caves over the summer months and served during Oktoberfest celebrations that commenced in September.

Pilsner: The quintessential German lager. Pilsners are light in color and crystal clear. They are similar to Helles in their crispness and clean finish. The malt, however, is more restrained and the mouthfeel is less substantial. Pilsners are the baseline for American light lagers, though traditional examples have much more character.

Schwarzbier: A dark lager that drinks like a much lighter beer. Compared to Dunkel, it’s darker in color (Shwarzbier literally means “black beer” in German) and much more mellow in composition. “You can easily drink three or four,” Natural State brewer Will Sonneman said. “It’s not at all like a porter or stout.”

Vienna Lager: Technically Austrian by style, but still sits alongside its German counterparts in terms of presentation. Vienna Lager is similar to Marzen, though it is generally lighter in body and lower in alcohol content. It has a soft bread-like character, moderate bitterness and dry finish.