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When I was growing up in Oklahoma, there was no beer scene to speak of. Sure, it was the early 1990s and there wasn’t a beer scene to speak of in most American states -- but Oklahoma was particularly bad.
Its laws were worse. No alcohol would be sold on Sundays; most beer couldn’t be sold refrigerated; and supermarkets couldn’t sell beer any stronger than 4% ABV (yes, big brands like Budweiser actually had to make even lighter “lite” beer specifically for Oklahoma).
Of course, back then, as a high-schooler, I didn’t particularly care about such draconian laws (pass the Mountain Dew Code Red!). But I certainly do now -- and returning to Oklahoma for the first time in half-a-decade last month, I was excited to see just how much had changed since the state’s alcohol regulations had loosened up.
My designated drivers -- I mean, parents -- pick me up at Will Rogers World Airport around noon on Thursday. Even if Oklahoma City has added an NBA team since I last lived there, the airport is still rinky-dink: just one lonely bar advertising turquoise blue cocktails. My father is able to park in the pick-up lane, send Mom in to meet me outside of security, and walk us back to the car -- all without getting a ticket or being told “Move your ass!” as would happen in any other major city.
While this may be my first time home in five years, I already want to leave and head to Tulsa, which reigns supreme as the best beer city in Oklahoma. That’s all pretty much thanks to one man: Chase Healey. Healey has had a strange career that has made him a bit of a Zelig of the Oklahoma beer scene. He was the founding brewer at COOP Ale Works in Oklahoma City, developing some of their initial flagship recipes. But by the first time I interviewed him in 2011, he had just started Redbud Brewing Co. (while still working a day job as a social worker).
Back then, his beers like Cuvee Four -- a Belgian-style ale fermented with with Belgian Drie Fonteinen yeast and aged in whiskey barrels -- clearly showed an ambition that most other in-state breweries lacked at the time. By the late-summer of 2012, he was done with Redbud, too, heading to Dallas to help out a new outfit that needed a brewmaster. He may have been a brewing wunderkind, but I’d also assumed he was an unfocused flake who would never quite make it big.
Of course, he would soon prove me wildly wrong.
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Dad is taking an interminably long time to feed the high-tech digital meter on North Main Street in the Brady District of downtown Tulsa, while my mom yells at him for his incompetence. I decide to simply cross the street and head inside Prairie Brewpub by myself. After all, it’s nearly 100 degrees outside, and I know this could take awhile.
The brewpub is majestic in scope. A large, die-cut, brushed metal sign is attached to a wooden planter box at the entrance. It’s spacious inside, with works of art all over the walls; a neophyte would just think they’re modern dada, but a keen beer fan would recognize them as Prairie’s off-beat label art. The centerpiece of the brewpub is the bar itself, with seating in the half-round, facing a tap wall made of what appears to be a giant foudre, draught lines coming directly out of the staves. (“Is there actually beer in that barrel?” my dad will cutely ask when he and mom finally arrive ten minutes later.)
Though the brewpub only opened at 4 P.M., it’s already packed when I enter a quarter after the hour. It’s no geek scene: in attendance are office workers and happy-hour-heroes from the nearby university, museums, or hospital. Many are drinking rum and Cokes or margaritas. Before I’ve even bellied up, one gent in a pharma-branded golf shirt tucked into pleated Dockers will have marched up to the bartender to try and get a refund for the mixed fermentation saison, a beer that has “gone sour,” in his estimation.
Prairie Artisan Ales isn’t just one of the biggest successes in Oklahoma beer -- it’s one of the most meteoric successes in recent American brewing. Founded in 2012 after Healey’s sabbatical in Texas, the itinerant brewmaster began contract brewing out of the small town of Krebs, Oklahoma. He decided to focus initially on farmhouse ales -- and why not? Oklahoma is farm country. Healey cleverly enlisted his talented younger brother Colin to design those offbeat labels which stood out on store shelves next to other by-the-book bottle designs.
With Prairie, Healey had finally put all of the parts together—and early beers like Prairie Standard (a farmhouse ale) were immediately celebrated by the cognoscenti. A distribution contract with the powerful Shelton Brothers meant his beers were quickly being shipped to major markets on the coasts and even abroad. Almost immediately, he was more famous in Boston or San Francisco or even Brussels than in his home state. I remember a Prairie tap takeover at Tørst in 2014: a completely packed house with Brooklyn beer fans angling to get their picture taken with the shy and humble Healey. Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma, most of my friends had yet to try any one of his “expensive” beers.
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There are twenty beers on tap at the brewpub; more than half are Prairie offerings. The standard and now-famed wide releases like ’merica (a Brett saison) and Bomb! (an imperial stout aged on espresso beans, chocolate, vanilla beans, and ancho chile peppers) are available, but I’m more interested in the brewpub-only releases, produced on-site. I’m not sure how much time my teetotaling parents will want to allot to sitting next to me as I pound pints, so I simply order a four-ounce pour of every single one-off (six in total). I’m particularly impressed by Parabola Rye, a funky saison, while my mom is sated by the “mac ‘n’ Chase” (which is, no hyperbole, the best I’ve ever had—and it should be, made with four kinds of cheese, bacon, and Burn Co. rib tips).
Ultimately though, even if the beers and food are quite good, I don’t feel much need to stay there beyond my flight. The space is a little too “welcoming”; a little too much like a chain-restaurant. The hostess lectern is right in front of a massive gift stand more fit for an amusement park. It’s like they want you to buy tchotkes before you’ve even taken your seat. (Of course I nab an awesome pair of beer socks my wife will totally hate.)
If the brewpub feels a little too slick and mainstream, perhaps that’s because that might be the goal. Almost exactly a year before my visit, Prairie was involved in one of the strangest brewery “sell-outs” in these turbulent times, one that oddly didn’t garner much press coverage back then. In late June of 2016, Healey sold Prairie to his contract brewer, Krebs Brewing Company, which had quietly become the largest brewing operation in the entire state.
“Early on I had been interested in actually owning a part of Prairie,” wrote Krebs’ owner Zach Prichard in announcing the move. “Since I already felt like the beers were a partnership, it only made sense. Last year that opportunity presented itself. Chase agreed to allow Krebs Brewing Company to acquire the Prairie brands. It is a humbling move that shows Chase continues to trust us to innovate, make great beer, and share Prairie across the globe.”
Trust or not, even then I couldn’t help wondering why Healey had sold the keys to a kingdom he had created as full auteur, even down to the labels -- some of which had a caricature of his face on them! What more could he want or possibly need?
Then, a local friend who knows “people,” intimated he had been paid a cool $10 million for it. And, like, do you know how far that will reach in Oklahoma? Why, you could buy NBA MVP Russell Westbrook’s house five times over for that kinda money.
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Healey’s move would make even more sense to me when I’d see his new brewery. If Prairie Artisan Ales was his gateway drug, American Solera is Chase Healey injected straight into your veins.
It would not be all that easy to get to American Solera, though, even if it was just five miles away. And though my wife is now more than accustomed to driving on terrifyingly desolate roads past abandoned warehouses to find coveted beers, my parents are new to this nonsense. As we drive over the Arkansas River and past truck rental lots, fueling stations, and trailer parks, I can sense the growing tension, the confusion every time Siri calls out another shitty service road for them to turn onto.
Luckily, we finally arrive in a beat-up parking lot, lacking much signage, mixed amongst a wrecking company and an oil tools business. There stands a low-slung warehouse with some barrels in front. It’s an oddly beautiful site, and mom even made us get our picture taken by a departing customer lugging a few crowlers.
Inside, just after opening at 5, the brewpub is already buzzing. This is not a place you stumble upon accidentally, nor a place you take your office “team” after work. And, whereas Prairie had plenty of laminated lanyard-wearing office flunkies, American Solera is mostly zoftig bearded guys in Cantillon t-shirts talking about double dry-hopping. My people.
There are no crowd-pleaser beers at American Solera. No beers meant for a wide audience. No training wheel beers for those getting into “craft.” (There’s no decadent mac ‘n’ cheese, either.) American Solera’s beers are wildly ambitious, uniquely labor-intensive, and incredibly expensive to make. You ain’t gonna find “something light and easy” here.
The vast majority of Solera’s beers are blended and barrel-aged sour ales, many spontaneously fermented. Like Terroir Study, an Oklahoma-style farmhouse ale; Bright Black Delight, a sour ale aged in oak with blackberries; and Cranbarrel, a glowing red wild ale. They’re some of the most sophisticated barrel-aged beers in America. At last, refinement has caught up to Healey’s ambition.
Of late, Healey has even begun dipping his toes into the juicy IPA craze. Yet even in that well-trodden lane he chooses to be unique. Though he has a “milkshake” IPA like Simcoe Moments, made with lactose, the brewery is also pouring something called Vanilla Yuzu Free Dion. An IPA conditioned on vanilla and yuzu, a Korean citrus fruit, it tastes like hoppy mint chocolate chip ice cream. Extraordinary.
These beers are served in a paddle shaped like my oddly-demarcated former state, grabbable by the pan-handle. Staring down at it as I sip, I can’t believe how much great beer is now being served within the state’s borders.
Later that night, back in Oklahoma City, I finally ditch my parents and meet up with my friend Kyle, a partial owner of COOP Alewerks. If COOP was the first “good” brewery in Oklahoma history, I’ve become less interested in it these days. Back when COOP opened in 2009, they were the only spot in the state really focusing on of-the-moment styles. They had a west coast IPA (F5), a way-boozy yeast-driven beer (DNR), and even barrel-aged options in their Territorial Reserve series. This was a big deal back then.
But when I stumbled upon their booth at GABF in 2015, I was disheartened to see that they hadn’t really changed with the times; no new beers that could be considered state-of-the-art. Of course, when COOP first opened, Oklahoma was still stuck in the dark ages of liquor laws. Remember, this is a state that didn’t repeal Prohibition until 1959; homebrewing wasn’t allowed until 2010! (Yes, Chase, you were a scofflaw.) Thus, the brewery wasn’t allowed to serve anything more than samples at their first tasting room, and no one could take beer to go.
But with the passing of SB 424, a new law which went into effect on August 26, 2016, COOP was entirely revitalized. They could now sell anything they wanted. To boot, the new brewery and tasting room COOP moved into in 2014 is stunning (all the more so when the beer you’re imbibing is heftier than a pathetic 4% ABV). The small black box of a room has a captivating back wall with blackboard tiles listing each tap offering, displayed in front of neatly organized rows of old-timey beer cans. It makes for a great Instagram shot, I must say.
I’m most excited, though, to see numerous beers listed I’ve never tried, or even heard of before. There’s now a dry-hopped pilsner, Saturday Siren. There are kettle-hopped Berliner weisses loaded with tropical fruits. There’s even an insanely complex wheat wine, aged with honey for fourteen months in both whiskey and red wine barrels.
COOP has stormed back with a vengeance and it’s great to see. It’s even better to taste.
Tomorrow, there will be an honest-to-god New England IPA limited can release—just like in Brooklyn or Boston or LA—and geeks will line up at Roughtail Brewing Co. to get their hands on Kodachrome. I’m unable to make it, but I will try their Hoptometrist DIPA, which is delightful, while their Everything Rhymes With Orange IPA is often hailed as the “Julius” of Oklahoma.
Nearby, there’s also Anthem Brewing Company, making some gorgeous Belgian-style brews. Prairie, too, is about to spread its wings to Oklahoma City; recently they broke ground on a second brewpub location there.
But the hottest brewery in Oklahoma City at the moment may be Elk Valley Brewing Co. Though they’re currently “in between” breweries as they build their first space, I’m able to hunt down their latest NEIPA, Magic Juice, which sells out almost as quickly as it’s released. Owner and brewmaster John Elkins has already gotten a ton of buzz for a variety of boozier offerings, like his Whiskey Barrel Nemesis, an imperial stout brewed with cocoa nibs, vanilla, and coconut. Though not easy to find, bottles have begun trading fervently across the country. Beer geeks actually want Oklahoma-brewed beer!
Look, I’m not going to try to convince you that Oklahoma has become a mecca; some beer oasis in middle America; a place every beer drinker needs to add to their bucket list. There are still only fifteen breweries -- total -- in the state. That’s less than the number in 70-square-mile Brooklyn, where I currently live.
Yet, as a former resident of the Sooner State, I can’t help but be excited about the quality of Oklahoma beer today, and the bright future, too. Whereas once, a visit home to see my parents meant a weekend of sipping nothing but macro-beer longnecks and well gin and tonics, there’s now more locally-brewed beer than I can possibly enjoy.
At least I can finally say, with unwavering confidence, that Oklahoma beer is most definitely OK.
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