Editor’s note: Steve Shuler is the author of this story, which appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas.
“I love beer.”
That was Ian Beard’s answer for why he and three of his friends decided to open Stone’s Throw Brewing, a nanobrewery which opened August 1 in Little Rock. Indeed, it would be hard to walk around Stone’s Throw without noticing the obvious passion its owners have for brew-making. The well-worn location on 9th and Rock streets houses a small tap room for sampling not only one of Stone’s Throw’s four debut pours, but also other beers from small Arkansas breweries, like Core Brewing Company, Fossil Cove and Arkansas’ king of craft beers, Diamond Bear. It would seem the owners of Stone’s Throw love beer and brewing so much, they don’t care if you’re drinking their beer. As long you are enjoying a lovingly made Arkansas brew, that’s good enough.
“Every home brewer secretly dreams of opening up a brewery,” said Beard. “We’re just all living the dream.”
Arkansas’ love affair with craft beer has a relatively short history. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law a bill allowing Americans to brew their own beer at home free from taxation. This corresponded with a national rise in microbreweries, as companies like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada began growing in popularity.
However, Arkansas craft breweries struggled to stay open. A handful of businesses tried their hand at craft brewing, only to shut down a few short years later. Arkansas’ laws just weren’t friendly toward microbreweries. That would change when Diamond Bear opened its doors in 2001.
“We actually had to work to get a lot of the laws changed,” said John Melton, vice president and son of Diamond Bear founder Russ Melton. “We actually had to work and become friends with politicians and the ABC and everything to get those changes passed.”
The groundwork for those changes was actually laid years before by another Arkansas brewing icon. Henry Lee of Vino’s Brewpub in Little Rock began working with then state Senator Vic Snyder in 1993.
“Every other year, we’d shoot for the sky and take what we could get,” said Lee. “We took the things we had in common with microbreweries and kind of craft two parts of the Native Brewery Act in order to accomplish it all under one umbrella.”
“What that’s allowed us to do over the course of the last 10 years is really come up with some brewpub laws that have been very good for providing our product to the marketplace, through self-distribution and things like that,” Lee said.
With Diamond Bear’s and Vino’s collaboration with legislators, the Arkansas Native Brewery Act became law in 2003. That single piece of legislation has had the greatest impact on Arkansas’ brew scene over the past ten years. Before the act passed, breweries could only sell their beer through a distributor. The Arkansas Native Brewery Act allowed brewers to bottle, sell and distribute their product on their own. It also allowed breweries to sell their beers from taps at the business, and it let Arkansas breweries sell their beer on Sunday, when no other retail alcohol sales can take place.
From that point, Diamond Bear would take off. Its flagship Pale Ale took home the silver medal at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival, and then won gold in 2004 and 2006 at the World Beer Cup. Today, Diamond Bear’s biggest obstacle is that it can’t create beer fast enough to meet the growing demand from bars, restaurants and retail stores. That is changing now that Diamond Bear has moved to its new location on Broadway in North Little Rock.
Diamond Bear’s success and the national rise of craft brewing have opened the door for more Arkansas beer-makers. Steve Rehbock opened Saddlebock brewing in Springdale in 2011. A business owner for most of his career, Rehbock put his knowledge and experience to work in building a brewery. Still, it was a new challenge altogether for him.
“There are so many facets, one of the more difficult things is how many different things there are to start up a brewery,” said Rehbock. “There’s not just one thing.”
Obstacles Rehbock had to clear included getting municipal water to his brewery, setting up a septic system and deciding just how big his brewery needed to be. That’s where his business acumen came in handy.
“You have to have significant financial resources to get one started up, because if you don’t start big enough, it’s not going to be a financially viable business,” said Rehbock. “It will be a hobby, because you won’t create enough income to be self-sustaining. If you have another job and you want to do it that way, that’s ok. But if you want to start a business as a brewery and you want it to be your employment, I generally see about 10 barrels to be a minimum size if you have any hope to be successful.”
Rehbock decided to start out at double the minimum size with a 20-barrel system (a barrel is 31 gallons in the U.S.). That means every batch he can produce at one time will yield 20 barrels of beer. However, he has expanded by adding to his fermentation capacity. Rehbock started with a 140-barrel fermentation system. He is now up to 340 barrels, and plans on doubling that figure in 2014.
“I enjoy good beer,” says Rehbock, when asked why he started a brewery. It’s the common theme that runs all Arkansas breweries. For Rehbock, his love of beer led him to study better means of brewing.
“I think most of the people who enjoy making beers have a bit of a technical background, because it’s a science. It becomes an art after you really understand the science.”
Rehbock started in 2011 with three beers sold only in a handful of Northwest Arkansas businesses. Today, Rehbock fills orders for his 11 beers at more than 100 locations, including The Flying Saucer and Colonial Wine and Spirits in Little Rock. He is also planning on expanding his operation to other states in the future.
Saddlebock and Stone’s Throw both got their starts in homebrewing, which actually is an easy hobby to take up. Any number of Internet retailers sell starter kits, hops and yeasts for amateurs to develop their beer-making skills. Beer supply stores, like Fermentables in North Little Rock and The Home Brewery in Fayetteville, sell supplies, bottles, kegs and ingredients directly to customers. And thousands of videos on YouTube break down every step of the brewing process.
The open access to brew-making in the U.S. is one of the main reasons for the rise in craft brewing. The Brewers Association says 537 craft breweries were open in 1994. Today, it’s more than 2,300, with 1,500 others currently in development nationwide.
At the moment, the American-style lager makers, like Miller, Coors and Anheuser-Busch, are still the dominant forces in the American brewing market. But with the rise of microbreweries, nanobreweries and brewpubs, a big change could be coming soon to the entire culture of beer in Arkansas.