Arkansas has a far richer and more extensive beer history than almost anybody realizes, beginning as far back as the 1800s. That history is told in the book Arkansas Beer, which was released in September. The book’s author, Brian Sorensen, discussed his book and the state’s beer history at an event this weekend for the Arkansas Literary Festival. After the session, we got a chance to sit down with Sorensen for a quick interview. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our talk:
When you started researching Arkansas Beer, there wasn’t a whole lot there in terms of the beer scene. Why did you think it was necessary to write a book about it?
It was really by chance that the publisher, who has a series of local beer titles, was looking for someone to write about Arkansas. By virtue of my relationship with the Fayetteville Flyer and having written about the beer scene up there for the last five years, they found me on Google. I’ve always wanted to write a book, I never really determined what I wanted to write about. But this is the crossroads of two of my passions, which is writing and beer. It made sense, seeing the scene growing, it was time to put it on paper and tell everyone’s story.
What did you learn writing this book that really surprised you?
I was surprised at the size of Little Rock Brewing and Ice Company, quite frankly. I had no knowledge of its existence, and I uncovered a number of very nice pictures from the Butler Center that really spoke to the size and scope of the operation, and the amount of money from outside the state that was infused into the brewery. That was really surprising to me. If you think about an industrial-sized large brewery, Arkansas actually had that. There are very few people in the state who know that.
Outside of that, William Lyon’s story related to Arkansas Brewing Company and his background as a person is just as interesting as his brewing endeavor. His political ties, his business ties, you know, he gets mentioned in some of the most notorious reporting in presidential history, the Whitewater scandal. So there are a lot of great stories, but there wasn’t much reporting on it back in the day, so we just lost touch with our history, which is the case in so many areas of life.
We’re in a kind of a golden age of beer right now in Arkansas. But if you look back to what led up to this, what do you think is an interesting story that people don’t really know?
I think the impact of homebrewers was critically important but under the radar for most Arkansans. There are a lot of outsiders who live in Arkansas who brought a love for beer that they couldn’t find here, quite frankly. And so, just as the case was with Dr. John Griffiths, if he wanted to drink classic styles, he had to make them. I think that created the groundwork for people to try it at a professional level. At some point, it caught on, and likeminded people started to come together and realized they weren’t alone.
What is it about beer itself that has contributed to this explosion of growth?
It’s very similar to local food, people like to eat meat grown on local farms and ingredients sourced from local companies. It’s this general movement back to local, I think. People are realizing that beer is an accompaniment to so many things, even perhaps more so than wine. It’s just a return to more of a local mindset, I think.
You’re based in Northwest Arkansas. When people travel there and want to explore the beer scene, what advice to you have for them?
I would recommend getting a driver, because there are a lot of miles in between breweries. I would say, take your time. There are a number of breweries, and it’s hard to fit them all in. Don’t get too caught up in checking all the boxes. Make a point to spend enough time at each brewery to get a feel for what’s going on and the type of people who work and hang out there. If you need to make a second or third trip later on to visit the breweries you missed, then do that. We’re only three hours away, and you really want to dig below the surface, because that’s where the best stories are told.
If you were to write a “part 2” to Arkansas Beer, what would that look like, and where do you see Arkansas beer going?
First of all, my wife said if a sequel is ever to be made, a divorce would need to be had, because this was a project that ate up a lot of my time, and I have children at home. So some sacrifices were made. But if I were to write a sequel, it would highlight the evolution of the brewing model for so many of the breweries in existence today. They’re going, they’re changing, they’re evolving. They don’t necessarily look the same as they did the day they opened. I would probably spend more time highlighting the diversity of business models, because that’s important. And you know, part 2 of the book would spend a lot of time that on the breweries that have come into existence since its publication. We’re growing so fast that it seems like, every month, there’s somebody new opening.