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Root beer can be hit or miss. Let's all just agree to start from here: Most of the stuff you'll find in your local grocery store in blow-molded plastic bottles qualifies as a "miss."
One surprising place that you can get a flavorful, complicated root beer, however, is at North Little Rock's temple of non-root-derived beers, Diamond Bear Brewery. Its Big Rock Root Beer is excellent stuff — spicy, earthy, with lovely foam and chock-full of pure cane sugar. If childhood has a flavor, that's probably it.
The good news for those who have struggled to find Diamond Bear root beer on tap locally is that the brew will be available in bottles in nearly every place Diamond Bear beers are sold by the end of the year. Even better news for grownup fans of their root beer is that Diamond Bear is currently working on the formula for a "hard" version, promising similar flavor and an adult beverage kick.
Jesse Melton is the brewmaster at Diamond Bear. When he started, he was actually below the age when he could legally drink the beer he was brewing. Instead, he tried to drink the bottom out of the root beer supply. He drank gallons of it, to the point he almost burned himself out on the sugary concoction.
"We actually started out doing it as just something to have when parents brought their children in, or so adults who didn't drink beer would have another option when they were at the brewery," Melton said. "Through the years, it has really picked up. It never really picked up enough for us to go into bottles until now."
Melton said the brewery's nonalcoholic root beer will be in bottles at major local retailers such as Walmart, Kroger and Whole Foods within a month and a half to three months. He said the hope is that bars and restaurants that were previously reluctant to dedicate a tap to a nonalcoholic drink will also be willing to keep a few cases of Big Rock Root Beer on hand.
For the past three months, Melton's been working on his hard root beer formulation to lend alcohol content to the flavor fans love, blending a concentrated batch of beer with the Bear's signature root beer recipe. Diamond Bear served its third experimental batch at the brewery last Friday, and the critics were kind. The flavor, he said, is slightly different from the nonalcoholic root beer, but was "spot on" and delicious. He said the process for getting the formula right has been tricky.
"You don't want it to taste like beer," he said. "When people think of a hard root beer, they want it to taste like root beer, but with an alcoholic kick."
Melton said that between formulation and the process of getting a label approved by the government, it could be between four to six months before you can actually buy Diamond Bear's hard root beer, with the product being released first on tap, then in bottles. He said the brewery hopes to release the product within the next six months. For now, it's all about getting the recipe exactly right.
"We've got to be sure we've got the formula," he said. "We don't want to almost get there, release it, and have everybody be like, 'ehhhhh ... .' We want to have it right."