Where will craft beer show up next in Arkansas? There are some mid-sized markets in the state that still don’t have their own brewery for various reasons. West Memphis, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff, Conway – heck, all of Saline County – are without a brewery to call their own. But that’s not true of Amity, a town so small that you’d be forgiven for never having heard of it. The tiny Clark County community is now home to Slate Rock Brewing, the newly opened family brewery that shows good beer can come from unexpected places.
It isn’t just Amity’s size that makes Slate Rock’s existence unlikely. A mere eight years ago, it wasn’t even legal to sell alcohol in Clark County. Voters turned the county wet in 2010, which was only a year before the Burgess family began homebrewing together.
“She liked better beer than I did,” said Shawn. “So for our first anniversary gift, our first year together, we got a homebrew kit. So we’ve been making beer for about seven years now.”
In 2015, Shawn and Orianne decided to go from homebrewers to professionals, but it took more than three years for Slate Rock to arrive. Both Shawn and Orianne had their own jobs, and the couple welcomed their first child while the brewery was under construction. Flying Heart Brewing in Shreveport helped out with brewing equipment. Orianne’s father let the team build on his property behind Trudy’s Restaurant. And the rural Amity community gave Slate Rock their support from day 1.
“We haven’t had any opposition or anything, at least nobody has said anything to our face,” said Orianne with a laugh. “Our first weekend, we had tons of people come in from Little Rock, Arkadelphia, even from Memphis.”
And those crowds have been treated to some surprisingly good beer. Surprising, not because of any lack of talent, but because most breweries can take up to a year to deliver quality brews. Slate Rock has four good ones, including its Hybrid Pale Ale that seems to be the Amity favorite, and its malt-forward Roots Irish Red. My favorites were the Fire Tower Stout, a slightly dry and bitter brew with really good balance, and the Gold Rush IPA, a hop-forward ale that comes in at a higher-than-planned 8.9 percent ABV.
“It was supposed to be around 8 percent,” said Shawn. “But the last beer we made, the pump went down, and it just sat there and lost a lot of water content. We also used whole hops for it, and they kept plugging up the hose. So we lost of a lot of volume due to evaporation, but it turned out really nice.”
But there’s more to all this than just beer. Like many breweries, Slate Rock makes its own root beer, one I overlooked until just before I was about to leave. I’m so glad I asked for a taste, because (and this is no exaggeration) Slate Rock makes the best root beer I’ve ever tasted. Honestly, there isn’t a close second. This root beer has miles of depth, putting spices and herbs to work in a sweet, complex, refreshing soda. There’s no artificial coloring to darken it, just the layers of anise and clove and vanilla that stay in your memory. This is what root beer wants to be when it grows up. If you fancy yourself a craft soda fan, Slate Rock’s root beer is worth the trip all on its own.
Of course, beer fans should get a trip to Slate Rock on their calendars as soon as possible, if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of how Arkansas’ beer scene could develop. There might not be room in the state for many more large-scale brewing operations, but there is room in every town for a small, family brewery. And Slate Rock is family. When I was sitting at the bar, three small children were playing in the taproom, and the half dozen people who dropped in were all welcomed by name. If there is a beer “bubble,” and if it does eventually pop, you know that family breweries like Slate Rock are still going to be just fine.