Diamond Bear Brewing Co.

Diamond-Bear-Logo
Address

600 North Broadway Street,
North Little Rock, Arkansas 72114

Phone

(501) 708-2739

Website
First Visited

November 11, 2007

Brewpubs were having some success in Arkansas in the 1990s. Packaged beer, however, had yet to make a full return to the state after Little Rock Brewing & Ice Company stopped bottling beer in 1915. Arkansas Beer Company gave it a go in the ’80s, and Weidman’s converted from brewpub to full-scale brewery in the late ’90s.  But neither was able to gain any momentum, and they both closed after just a short time in operation. Arkansas was still awash in mass-marketed lagers, and the state seemed five to ten years behind beer industries in bigger states. That all changed when a tire salesman returned to his home state.

Russ Melton was born and raised in Malvern, Arkansas. In those days, Malvern was a prototypical small southern town, located about forty-five miles south of Little Rock on Interstate 30. For many years, its claim to fame was being hometown to three Acme brick plants, and it was often referred to as the “Brick Capital of the World.” Many people simply knew it as the closest town to resort town Hot Springs, with its fancy bathhouses, illegal gambling and vacationing movie stars.

After college, Melton joined the United States Army. From 1979 to 1983, he was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany, with the Third Infantry Division. “Schweinfurt was a town the size of Hot Springs, or just a little bigger, with three breweries,” he said. “The beer was always good there.” Melton served as a tank officer while in Germany and fondly remembers drinking the local beer at Brahaus Brewing Company during his time there. While on leave, he traveled to neighboring countries such as Belgium and Austria and sampled beer styles different from those near base. Melton credited his military service for introducing him to flavorful beer.

After returning from Europe, Melton started a career in sales and marketing for Michelin Tire Company. In 1994, Melton while working for Michelin, moved again, this time back to Little Rock. Recently divorced, the move put him closer to his sons, all of whom lived in the city. The state’s two brewpubs—Vino’s and Ozark Brewing Company—were doing well for themselves, but in many people’s minds, they were passing fads destined to fail. Melton, his new wife, Susan, and a few family members pooled their resources and launched Diamond Bear Brewing Company without assistance from the banks. The seven-thousand-square-foot building was the former home of a Lincoln Motor dealership and was just a few blocks from the Arkansas capitol building. It was an appropriate place for Melton to start what he hoped would become the state’s flagship brewery.

Having a place to call home was just part of the equation. Melton quickly launched a search for a brewer. He never really considered handling the brewing duties himself. Melton eventually hired John Templet from out on the West Coast. Templet had spent the previous eight years at Mendocino Brewing Company in Hopland, California.

Diamond Bear brewed on its fifteen-barrel brewhouse for the first time in September 2000. The first keg was tapped a month later at the Flying Saucer in downtown Little Rock. Pretty soon, Diamond Bear was showing up in bars and restaurants all around town. Beer drinkers responded enthusiastically to the product and to the brewery’s brand (which invoked a couple past state nicknames—the Diamond State and the Bear State).

At first, Diamond Bear only produced beer for draft accounts. With very few bottling lines available in the United States at the time, bottling appeared to be a costly proposition. Then a friend at Saint Louis Brewery (brews beer under the Schlafly brand) recommended that Melton look into contract brewing. Increasingly, breweries with excess capacity were willing to brew other people’s beer for a fee. It appeared to be a more cost-effective way for Melton to start packaging, and in early 2002, he chose Gluek Brewing Company in Cold Spring, Minnesota, to bottle for Diamond Bear. Beer destined for draft accounts was still brewed back home in Little Rock.

Sanitation was an ongoing issue, and several batches of beer were destroyed due to infections and other off-flavors. He brought in brewing consultants to help diagnose the problem, but they could never solve it completely. Sensing that his business was at a crossroads, Melton made the difficult decision to change brewers and posted the open position for hire. Charles Kling, a brewer at Abita Brewing Company in Louisiana, saw the advertisement and decided to apply. In 2002, the classically trained Kling (he held a certificate of brewing science from the American Brewer’s Guild) was hired as Diamond Bear’s head brewer.

Brewing output was clearly on the upswing, and things seemed to be going well for Diamond Bear. Despite the success, Melton was still bothered by inconsistent flavor profiles. Melton attributed the variation to the water sources for each version of the beer. He thought that Lake Winona, the source for his Arkansas-produced draft beer, was far superior in quality to what was used in Minnesota. Melton decided it was time to bring the bottling operation home to Arkansas to create consistency. So, in 2003, he purchased a Meyer 40-10 bottling line from a company in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was affectionately named “Helga” in keeping with the tradition of naming the vessels in the brewhouse.

Melton closed on the deal for the Orbea property in June 2013. The move north of the Arkansas River raised a few eyebrows in Little Rock. The move to the bigger facility took place over the summer of 2014. Eventually, Diamond Bear got its new 30-barrel brewhouse from Custom Metal Craft in Springfield, Missouri, up and running. Three 120-barrel fermenters and a 120-barrel bright tank now handle the brewery’s fermentation duties. Several 60-barrel fermenters are in use as well. The 1,500-square-foot Arkansas Alehouse—Melton’s first attempt at the food business—opened alongside the new brewery.

The restaurant, which serves double-duty as the taproom, provides seating for more than 150 people and has a retail space and private party capabilities. Visitors can see Laverne, Shirley, Moe and Larry (other named brewery vessels) through taproom windows. Keeping it in the family, Russ and Sue Melton hired nephew Jesse Melton as their Brew Master, and their son John serves as the Operations Manager. Together, the Meltons have built a very successful brand that honors the heritage of Arkansas.

We brew incredible craft beer. No gimmicks, no tricks. We just brew the way we believe it should: honest and lovingly crafted. Made in Arkansas.

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