Where to Drink in Little Rock, Arkansas
Named after a rock formation in the Arkansas River that flows through its downtown, Little Rock has a population of just under 200,000 people. Tourism websites advertise its place in the Civil Rights movement—when the “Little Rock Nine” desegregated public schools in 1957—and as the hometown of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But it’s also a charming Southern town with a renowned foodie scene, and now, a growing beer culture.
Little Rock’s developing beer scene overcame significant obstacles. The city’s location in the center of a state where nearly half of the counties remain dry has left it several years behind other cities when it comes to locally produced ales and lagers, but Little Rock is quickly catching up. In the past year, the number of breweries has more than doubled, ushering in an emphasis on better beer in restaurants and bars.
Before Prohibition, German immigrants who settled in Little Rock brought their brewing traditions to town, most notably Joseph Knoble, who built his brewery in Fort Smith. Constructed in 1848, the brewery closed upon his death 33 years later, and the historic building has since been used as a museum and, now, a restaurant. Little Rock Brewery, the city’s second production brewery, closed in 1920.
Since the end of Prohibition, several breweries opened and closed their doors until Vino’s Pizza-Pub-Brewery began brewing at its pizzeria in 1993, making it the state’s first brewpub. Then, in 2000, Diamond Bear Brewing Company set up shop making German-style beers using only two-row malted barley, hops, yeast and Arkansas water.
Changing locals’ taste for beer was a challenge, but when Diamond Bear won several national awards shortly after opening, Arkansans began taking notice. It remained Little Rock’s only standalone brewery until four friends from local homebrew club Central Arkansas Fermenters opened Stone’s Throw Brewing in 2013.
Since late 2014, three more breweries—Lost Forty Brewing, Blue Canoe Brewing and Damgoode Pies—opened in the state capital, with three more set to launch in the next year. And since most regional beers aren’t widely distributed, the localized approach of Little Rock’s breweries makes the city a destination for beer tourism.
Visitors will find a beer hub downtown that extends just across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock, with all breweries located less than three miles of one another. Everything is within walking distance or a short trolley ride away. Plus, the hop-on, hop-off Little Rock Brew Bus will shuttle drinkers around nine locations in what it has dubbed the city’s “Hop District” for $20.
When touring Little Rock’s beer history, it’s best to start where it all began: Vino’s Pizza-Pub-Brewery, the city’s oldest brewpub. A downtown dive that’s part pizza joint, part live-music venue and part brewery, Vino’s serves a handful of beers brewed on site, including Firehouse Pale Ale and Lazyboy Stout to pair with its hand-tossed, stone-baked, NY-style pizzas.
The Pale Ale at Diamond Bear Brewing Company has remained a Little Rock mainstay since it debuted in 2000. In July 2014, the brewery relocated to North Little Rock and opened its Arkansas Alehouse, serving six year-round and four seasonal beers on draft and a menu of beer-centric foods, like borrelnootjes (a Dutch twist on the classic beer nut) and a selection of hot sandwiches. A few of its 12 taps are saved for guest breweries, local (Stone’s Throw) and not (Victory).
In a renovated building in the MacArthur Park historic district, Stone’s Throw Brewing specializes in small-batch beers. Eight house brews pour from Arkansas-shaped tap handles—expect flagships like Amadeus Vienna Lager (its most popular beer) and seasonals like the Barton Bitter, brewed with locally grown rice. A rotating selection of food trucks offer fare to enjoy with a pint at the outdoor beer garden. Stop by Wednesday nights for $1 off pints and a free movie screening.
Just one mile east of Stone’s Throw, in an industrial neighborhood, Lost Forty Brewery opened in December 2014 and has already doubled its production, twice. The large and open taproom space serves several varieties on draft, like its flagship Pale Ale, Bear Bones Pilsner and Love Honey Bock. Guests enjoy a rustic menu with pairing suggestions (smoked jalapeño pimento cheese with Wandering White Hop Ale or the pulled-pork sandwich and Centennial IPA) at large, communal tables. Lost Forty is owned by Yellow Rocket Concepts, which also owns a handful of popular local restaurants, including gourmet burger joint Big Orange. With locations in midtown and west Little Rock, the fast-casual burger-and-shake joints have eight taps and a selection of bottles. You’ll find offerings from Lost Forty as well as an evolving choice of other options, like Bayou Teche Brewing’s Loup Garou or COOP Ale Works’ F5 IPA.
Just one year old, Blue Canoe Brewing’s cozy, downtown taproom serves six varieties, including the Whittler, a Milk Stout, and Razorback Rye PA, an Imperial IPA. Two blocks away, Damgoode Pies ventured into brewing at its downtown location this past summer with help from Moody Brews, a gypsy brewing operation helmed by Vino’s former brewmaster Josiah Moody. Long known around Little Rock for its giant, hearty pizzas, Damgoode Brews offers a classic lineup including a Pale Ale, a Golden Ale, a Hefeweizen and a Porter.
Those in search of Little Rock’s classic watering holes usually head to Flying Saucer, one of the first places in town to offer a wide range of beers. Part of a 16-location chain, it pours hundreds of local, domestic and imported beers from a penny-tiled tap wall. Cregeen’s Irish Pub in North Little Rock has your typical Irish bar comfort food and décor (think shepherd’s pie and Guinness paraphernalia) with an anything-but-typical beer selection. With 50 draft beers and over 70 bottles, you’ll find the likes of Founders Backwoods Bastard and Springdale’s Core Brewing ESB.
Local beer has also made its way into beloved restaurants like The Pantry [littlerockpantry.com], which has locations in West Little Rock and Midtown. Try the Svickova (Czech roast beef) or Jäger Schnitzel from the Czech and German-inspired menu, paired with Stone’s Throw Sausage Fest Hefeweizen or the iconic Czech import Pilsner Urquell.
Part of Main Street’s revival is Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill, which opened in January with beer as a central pillar of its dining concept. Its more than 30 beers on tap includes many options from breweries in Little Rock and the northwestern part of the state, along with imports and brands from national craft breweries. And at Raduno Brick Oven & Bar Room [radunolr.com], pizzas like the Piccante, made with speck prosciutto, peppers, pineapple, mozzarella and cilantro, complement drafts like Tulsa, Okla.-based Marshall Brewing’s This Machine IPA on the 20-tap list. ■