words: Dwain Hebda
Images: courtesy Dwain Hebda, Crossbound Marketing and Flyway Brewery
Like a lot of people, my introduction to beer was inauspicious as far as the quality of suds was concerned. I can still remember my grandfather splitting a can of plain-label beer with me. To illustrate how lowball that drink was, I don’t remember the beverage having any intoxicating effect at all. I came away wondering what all the fuss was about.
My, how times have changed.
Earlier this year, Men’s Journal boldly proclaimed the present era as beer’s new golden age in America. Having for decades played second fiddle to the staid and somber breweries in Europe, this was big news and was due largely to the initiative of the craft beer industry, whose quality and inventiveness of product has catapulted the U.S. to the top of the brew chain.
Breweries of various sizes and persuasions have been popping up all over the place in the Natural State. Central Arkansas alone has more than a dozen of them which, with only a couple of exceptions, weren’t even a twinkle in their brewmaster’s eye a decade ago.
With growing interest from locals and visitors alike, it didn’t take long for the industry to come up with ways to effectively market itself. Northwest Arkansas struck first with its award-winning Fayetteville Ale Trail tour of local breweries. Not to be outdone, the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau unveiled Locally Labeled, which ups the ante by including a couple of area wineries and Little Rock’s Rocktown Distillery to the collection of ten breweries.
The Locally Labeled roster is, safe to say, more than most adults of legal drinking age can or should accommodate in one outing. It also goes without mentioning (but we will anyway) that the tour should be enjoyed in moderation. Most of the stops serve food, and it’s a good idea to have something to eat as you go along, as well as watching your beer intake. Even those little glasses (called tasters; several tasters make a flight) can add up, so pace yourself.
The following gives a sip of each participating brewery to help you get a well-rounded pour of the beer scene for your next visit to the heart of Arkansas.
The granddaddy of breweries in Little Rock, Vino’s is a funky little corner pizzeria that hosts lots of live music, and they’ve been brewing beer here since before it was cool. Be specific about how you order your flights or the help is likely to bring out one of everything, which equals up to a dozen.
Your flight should include: Lazy Boy Stout, Pinnacle IPA
You should try: The calzones, they’re killer.
Diamond Bear Brewing Company
While not as old as Vino’s, Diamond Bear drew the blueprint for many local breweries to follow, from how to manage growth to thinking big on distribution to setting the standard for quality food to go with award-winning beers. A few years ago, the operation relocated to North Little Rock and opened its restaurant/tasting room, Arkansas Ale House.
Your flight should include: Pale Ale, Presidential IPA, Honey Weiss (seasonal)
You should try: A side of the house mac and cheese with your entrée or sandwich. You won’t regret it.
Damgoode Pies Brewpub
Many consider Damgoode’s the best pizza in Little Rock and their beers don’t fail to live up to that billing, either. Brewery operations are located in their huge Rivermarket location, but any of the company’s laid-back spots offer the same great food and drink.
Your flight should include: Arkansas Amber, Damgoode Pale Ale
You should try: The hand-tossed Damgoode Pepperoni; simple and classic.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD JOINTS
Stone’s Throw Brewing
Stone’s Throw is a grown-up’s clubhouse. Small, intimate and very friendly, it is as close to a corner pub as any brewery on this list gets. How else to describe a place that was crowdfunded into existence and that shows its appreciation with a knock-down birthday block party every summer?
Your flight should include: Deadwood Amber Ale, Amadeus Vienna Lager, Shamus Stout
You should try: Getting some culture at the Arkansas Arts Center; it’s right across the street.
Refined Ales Brewing
It doesn’t get more hands-on than at Refined Ales, the first black-owned brewery in Arkansas. Tucked into a small corner space in a south-central Little Rock neighborhood, it’s set apart both in location and in the style of beer they make. Owner-operator Windell Gray learned the art of distilling from his grandfather and now produces four beers and a malt liquor. Sold in bottles only.
THE NEW KIDS
Rebel Kettle Brewing
One of the newer entrants into Little Rock’s beer scene, Rebel Kettle matches a slick look with a big menu and constantly rotating beer selection. Free popcorn is a nice touch, and the merchandise is cool.
Your flight should include: Dirtbag Double Brown Ale, Easy Roller American IPA
You should try: One of three po’boys on the menu; made even better in nice weather, when you can eat out on the deck.
Flyway Brewing Company
Located in the up-and-coming Argenta District of North Little Rock, Flyway prides itself on being as authentically Arkansan as possible, from sourcing ingredients from in-state growers to crafting its menu selections to reflect the Natural State.
Your flight should include: Bluewing Berry Wheat
You should try: Broadening your food horizons – order the wild boar meatball sliders or duck bratwurst already.
Blue Canoe Brewing
Blue Canoe started with an intimate (read “tiny”) space within walking distance of some of the newer hotels abutting the Rivermarket neighborhood. That’s still open, but if you brought a crowd, try their sprawling 20,000-square-foot warehouse space in the East Village District. It can handle you and all your rowdy friends.
Your flight should include: 4×4 Pale Ale
You should try: Cheese dip, the de facto state appetizer of Arkansas.
Core Public House
Well-known Springdale brewer Core invaded central Arkansas a few years back, selecting for itself a choice spot on North Little Rock’s old Main Street, in the heart of Argenta. Their timing could not have been better as major neighborhood developments promise big things for the cozy, relaxed taproom.
Your flight should include: Arkansas Red Ale, Toasted Coconut Brown Ale, Leghound Lager
You should try: People-watching out the big front windows.
Buffalo Brewing Company
Starting out as The Water Buffalo, a retail brewer’s supply store, Buffalo Brewing Company finally decided to get in on the fun, turning part of the retail store over to a taproom. In addition to its own creations, the rotating selections offer a collection of the best the state’s brewers have to offer. If you only have time for one stop, come here and taste what’s going on all across Arkansas.
Your flight should include: Buffalo Root Beer. You’ve had enough, pal.
You should try: Brewing your own; Water Buffalo offers free beermaking classes.
Lost Forty Brewing
In three years, Lost Forty has gone from not existing to the largest-volume Arkansas brewery, thanks to approachable-but-interesting beers, chef-inspired food, and relentless marketing. The taproom has an eclectic bierhall-meets-logging-camp vibe you have to see to appreciate with a brand bent on world domination.
Your flight should include: Love Honey Bock, Crystal State Rockhound IPA, The Hunter Oktoberfest (seasonal)
You should try: Sunday brunch.