News » Cover Stories

Crafting Suds

Diamond Bear grows along with tastes for real beer.

by

5 comments

It's the end of a long day for Russ Melton, tire salesman. He enters his brewery, Diamond Bear, at Fourth and Cross streets still wearing his Michelin button-down and apologizing for being late — "spent 45 minutes with a guy on some silly tire questions" — but happy to talk beer, his hobby and obsession. This fall will mark a decade of brewing in this one-time car dealership where Melton, his wife, Sue, and three employees have built up Diamond Bear, Arkansas's largest stand-alone brewery, into a regional distributor and maker of award-winning craft beers.

"The reason beer and wine are such a big part of our culture is microbes that'll kill you won't live in alcohol," Melton says. "Plus you boil it, and that kills 'em, too. That's why it's such a big part of Western civilization. By 1000 AD most of the water in Europe was contaminated in some form or fashion, and you'd drink it and get sick or dead. Beer and wine, they felt pretty safe, because they just never got sick from it."

You could make the case that beer is a part of the civilization for a number of other reasons, as well. Its charms are the results of a natural process, fermentation, that requires few ingredients and can be achieved purely by accident; it naturally turns acquaintances into friends, and friends into confidants. It makes televised baseball borderline entertaining, turns wallflowers into stand-up comics and is the only prefix other than "ping" that we've ever managed to pair with "pong."

So the question is posed to Melton: Why, then, do people insist on drinking the wispy American lagers of the world when creative, thoughtful beers are so plentiful these days?

He ignores the question in the most marvelous way possible. "Speaking of beer with flavor," he says. "Would you like a beer?"

Melton scarcely waits for an answer before heading behind the bar and drawing two glasses of golden lager, Diamond Bear's gateway beer for Bud aficionados; one of the glasses is from a tour of the Stiegl Brewery in Salzburg, Austria, a souvenir from his and Sue's honeymoon. "That's the new Southern Blonde," Melton says as he returns to his seat. "I am very, very fond of it. We were trying to make this more of a migration beer. If you think about Budweiser, it's probably 10, 12 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). This is 28. That's a pretty big gap between Budweiser and this beer right here.

"This is, I think, very nice and crisp."

The beers the Meltons keep on tap at their house tend to be the richer, darker varieties. The Southern Blonde is meant to be a mass-appeal beverage, designed to bridge the gap between the beers of habit and the beers Diamond Bear is offering. Drinking it takes Melton back more than 10 years, when he was schlepping his business plan for the brewery to area banks. Few loan officers seemed impressed, but one in particular stuck with Melton, the one who asked him, What makes you think this'll work in Arkansas? Melton produced a document demonstrating that Washington state, with roughly double Arkansas's population, had a mere 31 breweries. "Based on that," Melton recalls saying, "I think Arkansas could support one."

It's clear that what happened next still galls the brewery owner. When Melton reenacts this moment, he turns up the old-man Arkansas twang to imitate the banker. He leans back in his chair and crosses his fingers behind his head, elbows out wide and says, "Yeaaaah, but this is Arkansas. People here drink Bud Light and stuff."

Setting aside the sad state of affairs implied by this statement — that simple tastes will remain so because, well, just because — you have to wonder whether 10 years have yet contradicted the view. Even with Diamond Bear now distributing throughout Arkansas and Mississippi, and eyeing an incursion next into Tennessee, Louisiana or Alabama, craft brewing in Arkansas is still a relatively small-scale experiment. Yet it's growing: From the equivalent of 3,100 cases brewed in 2001, Diamond Bear sold nearly 37,000 in 2009 and is expecting to do 50,000 in 2010.

The Brewers Association, which advocates and lobbies on behalf of small American brewers, counts just five breweries in Arkansas: Diamond Bear, the pizzeria Vino's, the Memphis-based restaurant Boscos and Refined Ale Brewery (a new outfit that will have beer and malt liquor in stores within weeks), all in Little Rock, and Hog Haus Brewing Co., a brewpub in Fayetteville. A sixth, Dark Hills Brewery, is hopeful to open in Springdale this year.

By the association's 2008 count, that gives Arkansas the fourth-least breweries per capita, ahead only of Alabama, Louisiana and (thank God for) Mississippi. "The taste preferences of Arkansans are changing, but it's still a developing market," Melton says. With steady growth, a potential expansion to its first custom-built facility, in North Little Rock, and a steady young hand — Melton's nephew — now in charge of brewing, Diamond Bear is in its best position ever, and uniquely among brewers in the state, to determine what flavor that development will take.

If you grew up thinking all beer tastes like canned piss, thank Gavrilo Princip. The 19-year-old Bosnian assassin put a bullet into the neck of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering a series of events that led to World War I. It so happened that it was German immigrants who had imported the techniques of brewing lagers, a lighter style of beer that suited American climates better than England's ales. Germans therefore ran breweries, which in the 19th century flourished like bakeries and butcher shops, proliferating to a high of 4,131 breweries in 1873. As pasteurization and refrigeration allowed beer to travel, breweries became more regional, and the United States was down to about 1,400 in 1915 when Prohibition — hands-down the most asinine social movement on even the esteemed roster of knuckleheaded American behavior experiments — finally found true purchase. Distillers, wineries and breweries bickered amongst themselves, never putting up a decent opposition to Prohibition, and because of the German Empire's villainy, xenophobic Americans were disinclined to support ze Germans and their breweries. That, combined with grain shortages brought on by the war effort, and then the 18th Amendment, crippled brewing in this country for two generations, with props to one Balkan assassin.

The brewers who survived Prohibition tended to be bulky and far more competitive than innovative, save with the invention of aluminum cans in the 1950s. By the late '70s, the state of American drinking habits was truly Philistine. When Americans again gained the right to homebrew, in 1979, the country was supporting fewer than 100 breweries, and three of them were making 80 percent of the beer. Virtually every American born between 1900 and 1970 was raised on mass-produced, scantly flavored, unimaginative beer, held together by adjunct grains such as rice and wheat. A Bud is a great beer to drink while cleaning a bass, and you probably don't want anything heavier than a Miller Lite after you've mowed your lawn. But for the other 99 percent of activities that deserve to be toasted, Schlitz and Old Milwaukee need a supporting cast.

Enter Sierra Nevada, a craft brewer in Chico, Calif., that began reviving craft brewing with its Sierra Nevada Pale Ale brand in 1979. Smaller brewers, mostly on the coasts, started tinkering again. As journalist Garrett Peck wrote in his book "The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet," the beers that resulted "were not the thin, watery brews that people had tired of, but full-bodied, full-flavored and full of alcohol."

The Brewers Association counts 1,600 breweries in the United States — triple the number in 1994 and 200 times the number in 1980 — producing 13,000 different brands of beer. Craft brewers last year accounted for about $7 billion of the $100 billion U.S. beer market. "The American beer lover has become more advanced as the beer selection has become more advanced," says Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program Director at the Brewers Association. The South, which tends to favor warm-weather beers and traditional macrobrews, is behind the national curve in this regard; in the Arkansas-Oklahoma-Texas-Louisiana region, craft beers account for 5.4 percent of the market — but gross sales were up 14 percent last year, outpacing the national average of 12.5 percent. The thirst is there.

Diamond Bear's tours, every Saturday, are free, they attract beer connoisseurs from around the country and the world, and they include gratis samples. Before a wedding in late 2008 I dragged a handful of friends along for a tour; a solid year and a half later, one of them I was visiting in Boston told me, "You know what I miss? Diamond Bear." Two other Little Rock transplants at the pub table nodded in agreement.

Leading tours of its modest digs — Saturday in, Saturday out, for years — likewise has boosted the brewery's grassroots following. In the same spirit, and in the interest of keeping costs low, Diamond Bear recruits volunteers to help package the beer when it's bottled each week. The brewery sends a blast e-mail early each week to "Helga's Helpers," the laborers named for the cacophonous bottling machine. As new bottles jostle through her chutes, Helga fills them with beer, caps them, washes them, slaps a label on them, and sends them down a final conveyor to Helpers who pluck them and load them into six-pack holders in cases. It's hot work in the summer, a marathon of rote movements to match the machine's blind pace, but at the end you take home a case of the beer you just bottled. A six-pack of Diamond Bear beers sell for between $7.49 and $7.99 before tax.

"We're to the level where we're bursting at the seams at the location we're at now — we can't make the beer fast enough," Sue Melton says. "We were afraid we would be living in a van down by the river. We're still scared of that, going into a large facility. But if you build it, they will come. I think it'll turn into something else."

The new building, optimistically, will accomplish several things. The 2-acre site will allow the brewery to expand its facilities from about 7,000 square feet to 20,000 (with room to double even that total), giving it room for a bona fide event space and better flow for operations and tours. The proposed site, on the Arkansas River a couple of blocks west of Dickey-Stephens Stadium in North Little Rock, puts it closer to other attractions — the ballpark, Verizon Arena, the Arkansas River Trail — that will attract visitors. It will allow the brewers to make more beer and load it more easily from high loading docks. Having just cleared an environmental survey, and pending some final details to sort out with the city of North Little Rock, Diamond Bear could break ground at the site within the year.

Another upside to the new facility: It will allow Diamond Bear to build with water flow meters that will better allow it to track its wastewater use, a source of contention with Little Rock Wastewater since 2005. The brewery — and, recently, Little Rock City Manager Brad Cazort — has questioned Little Rock Wastewater for billing Diamond Bear based solely on its water intake. That rate structure seems guaranteed to overcharge a business that bottles and sells much of the water it draws, rather than sending it back into the sewer system (as a residence would). Melton sure enough says his brewery pays more than five times what the average craft brewery pays for wastewater.

When Melton talks about the state of beer 30 years ago, he likens it to the renaissance in American wine, only 20 years later. "In the '70s and '80s, [breweries] hit the low point," he says. "And people started saying, 'Well, is this all there is to beer? Is this the way it's going to be? We're going to be dominated by two or three breweries, and that's all we're going to drink?' " His own palate was piqued when he was shipped to West Germany as an Army 2nd Lieutenant in the late '70s. Years later, in the early '90s, when his employer transferred him to Kansas City, he began to admire the young Boulevard Brewing Co., now the biggest specialty brewery in the Midwest.

When he moved back to Little Rock he was kicking around the notion of a brewery. When he met Sue, an American Airlines flight attendant and native of Eau Claire, Wis., he was brewing his own beer and subtly nudging his beer snobbery on her. "I was a Coors Light drinker when I met him," she says. Every time she asked him to bring over a six-pack of Coors, he brought something else. Now she's a full convert. "Since we started this brewery, I haven't had a Coors Light since," she continues. "It's like pee water. If I'm going to drink beer, I want the full impact of it."

The Pale Ale is the flagship beer, the signature. During the hops shortage of 2007 that hampered brewers nationwide, Melton says Diamond Bear "protected" the Pale Ale by ensuring it got a full dose of hops. The Pale has earned its Most Favored Ration status. The brewery was still recovering from early quality control issues: Its first brewer, Russ Melton says, was lax on consistency; and the first foray into bottling, through a larger brewery in Minnesota, also begat beer that he says was inferior. The beer hit its stride under its second brewer, Charlie Kling, who arrived from Abita Beer, the south Louisiana brewery. Then the Pale won a gold medal in the 2004 World Beer Cup as the top English-Style Pale Ale, among 20 entrants in the category (including, Kling points out, several actually from England). It matched the feat at the next Cup two years later, among 32 entries, and in 2007 it won gold at the Great American Beer Festival.

"There's a lot of medals given, so to get one medal here and there is not that big a deal," says Kling, who left the brewery in 2006 to pursue a chemical engineering degree and who now works at the U.S. Patent and Trade Office outside Washington, D.C. "But to get the medals consistently and repeatedly, that's what really shows you have a quality product."

The Honey Weiss and the Irish Red both have also garnered competition medals, and the Paradise Porter this year drew a score of 93 (on a 94-point scale) from the beer magazine Draft. One misstep was the introduction of a low-calorie beer they called "Ultra," meant to compete against Michelob Ultra and other light beers. It didn't take long before the brewery pulled the plug. "It seemed like the fad — a low-calorie beer," Sue Melton says. "It didn't last very long. People that want craft beer don't want low-calorie. They want something flavorful."

The current master brewer is Jesse Melton, Russ' 25-year-old nephew, who got his start at the brewery at 18 cleaning kegs and who learned the craft by assisting Kling. Kling says he admired the young man's knack for spatial reasoning and memory, an essential trait when networking vats and tubes. The young Melton has put his stamp on several of the recipes since taking over, including most recently on the Southern Blonde, in which the brewmaster scaled back the malt, and replaced one of the hops varieties with two more in an effort to make the lager a better gateway brew for the Bud Heavy fans of the world. "It's a much better introduction beer, for us," Jesse Melton says. "It still has its craft flavor but it's also not so revolting to someone who drinks Budweiser that they won't drink it."

Diamond Bear was self-financed at its launch. The Meltons decided they were going to buy a houseboat or start a brewery; it's unlikely the houseboat would have been in the black 10 years later, either. Eventually they secured more capital from Twin City Bank of North Little Rock and took on five more investors outside the family. "We didn't grow as fast as we wanted to," Melton says. "It has been a struggle getting to the break-even point. But we've got a solid and growing customer base."

Nick Pierce, who handles Diamond Bear in Little Rock and Morrilton markets for Harbor Distributing, remembers thinking that Melton's projection for his first-year sales seemed too optimistic, as if Melton wasn't taking into account the drinking habits of the crusty bankers of the world, nor the enormous force of big beer advertising.

The early projections did prove too sunny, and the early missteps in production didn't help. Still, Diamond Bear keeps expanding. It's all over Arkansas now, and throughout 80 percent of Mississippi. Sales this year alone are up about 30 percent. Pierce credits Melton with holding the business together.

"He's worked harder than anyone I know in the industry as far as promoting it, getting it off the ground, doing research, calling on customers at night, plus keeping a full time job," Pierce says. "A lot of people probably would have given up, but Russ, he stayed with it and had the heart and the desire to make it work."

A decade in, Pierce says, Diamond Bear is an easy sell in Central Arkansas: It has a good reputation as a local product, the variety of seasonal beers keeps interest piqued, brewery events (including political fund-raisers and home-brewer meetings) have pumped up its word-of-mouth, and it's plenty tasty. "You've got a limited customer that likes that kind of beer," Pierce says. "He's not drinking a case of Diamond Bear every night. He's drinking two or three and enjoying it like a bottle of wine, almost."

Even with the success of national brands such as Samuel Adams, in the state's hinterlands, a heavier, more complex, more expensive beer requires more effort to hawk. You can't blame a poor state for loving cheap beer. It's just nice to know there's a difference.

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Clicky