A couple weeks ago, I was helping a few other River Valley Ale Raisers out when the Glidewell Distributing truck rolled in to drop off some beers for the fifth annual Ale on the Border beer festival at Chaffee Crossing Historic District.
One of the few cases that was already cold was Diamond Bear Brewing Co.’s Strawberry Blonde, aptly described on the rim of the can as a “crisp golden lager beer with strawberries.” I’d found my perfect summer beer, and I was glad to know that Diamond Bear was making it. The only problem now is finding it around here. Apparently it's become a hot commodity. As soon as it hits the shelves, it's picked up by some other thirsty beer lover.
It had been several years since I had this Diamond Bear beer. I used to live in Little Rock and occasionally went down to Cross Street to lend a hand as a “Helga’s Helper,” popping crates and pushing bottles on the finicky bottling line with then-head brewer Jesse Melton.
By 2 p.m. May 19, it was well into the 80s and sticky at Chaffee Crossing. Throw in some minor physical labor — tossing around about 50 cases of beer — and it’s time for a refreshment. After one long, very refreshing pull from this wonderful little beer that day before the festival I was cooled, revived, relaxed and ready to take on some more administrative duties, like taping down the bottoms of the cardboard trash boxes kindly donated by Alpha Packaging in Greenwood.
Me and Andy Deal, past president and now treasurer of the Ale Raisers, raised our beers to Diamond Bear for making a great beer to get us through that day. My wife, Sarah, came up later for the festival with about 650 others. And after she tried a few other beers, she came back around to the Diamond Bear Strawberry Blonde. It was the best beer both of us had tried at the festival. Maybe we were just in the mood for strawberry lager beer. Whatever the reasons, it satisfied us and we wanted more.
“Strawberry Blonde, when it’s properly presented, is one of our best sellers, if not our best seller,” Diamond Bear President Russ Melton said in a phone call earlier this week. “We’re making more, better and more consistent beer than ever.”
They also make mouth-watering jalapeno burgers at the brewery’s pub on North Broadway in North Little Rock. The brewery moved from Cross Street in 2014. They now have a 5-gallon keg for a mailbox. The head brewer there at Diamond Bear, Jay Ragsdale, works with Mike Green. Melton touted them both as "excellent brewers." And starting Monday, Greg Burbusse will join them at the brewhouse.
Even on a hot day, I’ve rarely been much of a fruit beer drinker. Several years ago though, when visiting friends in Baton Rouge, I’d tried some of Abita Brewing’s Strawberry Lager and taken a particular liking to it. With most craft beer drinkers, I believe, there is a time and season for all beers. The cold winter months bring on the dark and heavy stouts. With summer, bring on the fruit beers and radlers. Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, is also known to make a pretty good Strawberry Blonde. But have a tendency to lean local as much as possible. Not just for freshness.
Having started brewing in 2000, Diamond Bear is the state’s oldest production microbrewery in operation. There have been so many microbreweries pop up in the past five years in Arkansas that it’s easy to forget what came before. It appears that only Vino's Brewpub in Little Rock is an older Arkansas brewhouse that has been in consistant operation, having kicked up and mashed out in 1993.
Among Diamond Bear’s many awards are gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in 2005 for their Irish Red and 2007 for their Pale Ale. They brought home a bronze for their Honey Weiss that year, too. They also took silver at the GABF for their Pale Ale in 2003, followed by a gold in the World Beer Cup the same year. They’ve gone on to win numerous other national and international awards, including a bronze for the Strawberry Blonde at the Science of Beer in Memphis a couple months ago.
They may not have the flashiest or most modern marketing in comparison to some other state brewers, but their beers have always been solid and highly drinkable. This Strawberry Blonde is no exception to Diamond Bear’s reputation for producing quality beer.
Apparently this latest batch of Diamond Bear Strawberry Blonde was a hit. It has been nearly impossible to find a six pack of it anywhere in Fort Smith this week. Although Glidewell Distributing in Fort Smith recently announced they were getting out of the beer business, and selling off most of their beer labels to Central and Moon Distributors in Little Rock, Glidewell has have kept Diamond Bear for the time being.
A call Thursday to Sodie’s Wine and Spirits in Fort Smith, a big store on my route home, prompted Alex Casado to search for a six pack of the Diamond Bear Strawberry Blonde. He found one under some stuff. Just one. But apparently he didn’t realize I wanted it and he put it on the shelf in the cooler next to the other Diamond Bear beers. Within two hours of our call, that six pack was gone. Someone had just bought it right before I arrived.
A call to several other places around town Friday found little to no Diamond Bear Strawberry Blonde. Cheers was out, but should be getting more next week. Empire Liquor, also on my route home, didn’t have any. Happy Hour on U.S. 71 South next to Grand Savings Bank — Ale on the Border’s first main sponsor — had one six pack and some singles left of Diamond Bear Strawberry Blonde. This time I had it reserved. And I’m asking Kyrie Post to put in an order to Glidewell to get some more.
Paula Glidewell at Glidewell Distributing says they have plenty. You just have to ask your favorite store to put in a request for it. Melton said starting Aug. 1, they will be getting distribution through Glazer's.
Fort Smith Brewing Co. also has fruit beer in its lineup, at least through the summer, on tap at 7500 Fort Chaffee Blvd. John Chaney and Darren Smith, two River Valey Ale Raisers, won the Best Homebrewer in the River Valley homebrew competition at the brewery in March with a watermelon ale that hits the spot.
John Lovett is a courts and business reporter for the Times Record.