Written by Tom Becham
In years past, I have made several visits to see family in Arkansas. Until just two years ago, what greeted me in the central portion of that state – around Little Rock and Hot Springs – was what I call a Beer Desert. That has changed. While the northwest corner of the state, home to Fayetteville and the huge University of Arkansas campus, has been fully aboard the craft beer train for awhile now, the rest of the state seems to have caught up with it.
The first indication I received was the availability of craft beer at grocery stores and small liquor stores. Formerly a bastion of such fine selections (note sarcasm) as Budweiser and Milwaukee’s Best, Prairie and Founders are just about everywhere now. Those are both from outside Arkansas, but are hallmark breweries in craft beer. (As an aside, I must note that my first, very negative experience with Founders’ Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale was with a skunked bottle nine years ago. I tried it again during this trip and it did *almost* live up to the hype of its Beer Advocate and Rate Beer reviews…).
Even better, Arkansas is now producing its own craft brew.
Diamond Bear has been around in Little Rock for some years now. While I was not impressed with their beer at first encounter, I must apply some qualifying statements. First, I was VERY new to beer geekdom at that time, and had not developed much appreciation for hops yet. Second, it was during the height of the Arkansas summer, which meant very hot weather, and very light-bodied, hoppy brews. Subsequently, I wasn’t able to appreciate their efforts as much as I can now.
In the intervening years, I have had cause to try bottled versions of their Presidential IPA, and Two Term Double IPA. The former came across as a subtler, English version of IPA with skillful use of gentler hops (including some Noble hops, if memory serves), while the latter was an in-your-face DIPA as good as many made in California.
On this visit, I was able to sample Diamond Bear’s Dogtown Brown Lager, and Paradise Porter. (Lagers will be the new trend in the next year or so among craft breweries. It’s much tougher to hide flaws in lagers, and they will showcase brewers’ true skills in their trade.)
Dogtown is a real eye-opener. It possesses the nose of a brown ale, with all the bready, caramel aromas one would expect of a brown ale, with the graininess of a lager. On the palate, the bread and caramel show, along with some faint hints of chocolate. While it is clean like a lager, it also has layers of flavor like a brown ale. Diamond Bear has definitely found their stride with this beer. Arkansas brewing has reached adulthood.
Paradise Porter was somewhat less spectacular, though no less well made. It is a classic spot-on rendition of porter. It pours thinner than a stout, and is barely perceptible as being slightly lighter in color. It smells of roasty goodness, coffee, baking chocolate, burnt raisins. It quite properly lacks the overall burnt, acrid aroma of a stout. The flavors match the aroma, with a malt character completely knocked-down from potential sweetness and moderated by the roast qualities. The finish is short, and drops completely away in seconds. A session porter? It certainly is easy drinking, and appropriate for the cooler – but not cold – weather in Arkansas at this time of year. Quite good.
On the same visit, I was able to visit Superior Bathhouse Brewery in Hot Springs. For those who don’t know, the City of Hot Springs is, indeed, built over a large natural hot spring. In the late 1800s through the 1950s, the town was a lively resort, hosting the wealthy, famous and infamous (it has quite a past of sheltering notorious gangsters). A portion of the old downtown area is part of a National Park. The old bathhouses are mostly empty now (only two still operate in their original function), but one has been turned into a craft brewery. At my last visit, Superior was only serving the beer of other brewers. This time, they had 18 taps of their own stuff.
Superior is on the right track, but they have some significant wrinkles to iron out in their production routines.
I only sampled four of the eighteen available Superior Bathhouse brews, so perhaps my impressions are somewhat unfair. However, I found some “off” flavors in two of the four I tried. I later was told that the brewery uses the local spring mineral water for brewing, which may be part of the issue. Not all beer styles call for hard water, and those that don’t can miss style guidelines by a wide margin. (That being said, unfortunately I had finished my tasting when I found that out about the water; the English-style Pale Ale would likely have been perfect.)
The Hitchcock Springs Kolsch is 4.9% abv and clocks in at 25 IBUs, rather higher than one would expect for the style. Even so, the hop presence was very subdued, and the malt came off a bit too sweet. The color and appearance was perfect: a straw yellow brew with a moderate, short-lived head. Very little other than grain on the nose. Not a match to a German product of the same style, but still much better than most American efforts. No off flavors. Well made. Just needs a bit of adjustment.
Whittington Park Wheat is, well…..
I’m not quite sure what to think of it. Superior states they’re going for a classic hefeweizen with this. At 5% ABV and 19 IBUs, it’s a promising start. And the large, pillowy head and cloudy dark yellow appearance also are good signs. The aroma is also classic hef, with banana and clove in abundance. The problem is too much carbonation, which makes the banana flavors overpowering. The mouthfeel is rich and thick, dead-on for the style. As it warms a bit, the carbonation makes the beer more and more like a macro lager in character. This one needs work.
Fouke-Ness Monster, Superior’s Scottish Ale, makes a much better impression. It is 7.2% ABV and 16 IBUs, fairly ideal for the style. It is a nice reddish-brown with a small head, and semi-translucent. The aroma is dark, bready malt and caramel, with caramel, pumpernickel and molasses flavors, with a slight hint of bitter chocolate. The hops are naturally subdued and subtle, but do a good job of preventing the beer from becoming sweet. Perfect balance for the style. Superior got this one very, very right.
Chaudfontaine Trente-Trois is Superior’s attempt at a Belgian Tripel. I use the word “attempt” fully aware of all the connotations. It is 10% ABV and 12 IBUs. First, most tripels should be more bitter. Second, the beer list mentions this one contains coriander, and bitter and sweet orange peel as a tribute to Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde, one of craft beer’s classic “big beers”. The appearance and aroma for this one are quite nice, and it starts off tasting like a somewhat stronger clone of Duvel. But after fairly minimal warming, everything goes to Hell like a rocket sled on rails. Some very nasty phenols appear and start altering the flavor towards solvents. I’m not sure what happened here, but Superior needs to seriously tweak the recipe on this one, or pay much closer attention to fermentation. If I were Unibroue, I’d be insulted by this “tribute”.
So, Arkansas has caught up with craft beer. But being without a craft beer culture, similar to places like California, Colorado and the Northeast, it still has a lot of things to figure out on its own. Diamond Bear has done so. Hopefully, Superior Bathhouse Brewing can also find its way through the woods.
Tom Becham lives in Oxnard, CA. Tom Becham has written reviews for brews and breweries as far away as Hawaii. Tom Becham is actually living in the professor’s computer. He’s only let out, occasionally, to write an article. That, of course, would surprise those who work with his clone, made out of vegetable matter. Soon clones of Tom Becham will multiply and rule the world. So consider yourself lucky you can read his masterpieces here at PGA. You are blessed