Hamstrung by restrictive liquor laws, Oklahoma brewers used to be largely benchwarmers in the craft beer game.
Now with the playing field leveling, they’re scoring points with consumers and their companies’ bottom line.
“It took 30 years to go from a handful of breweries to 1,500,” says Eric Marshall, founder and brew master of Marshall Brewing Company in Tulsa. “And it took three years to go from 1,500 to 3,000. Then, you start to hit the pace of 1.8 breweries opening per day in the United States.
“That’s a little crazy and unsustainable in a lot of senses. But it’s a great time to be a beer drinker.”
Breweries are popping up like dandelions in Tulsa.
More than a half-dozen such facilities have opened in town since the start of 2017 — Renaissance Brewing Co. opened Thursday — and several more already are on tap for 2018. According to a 2016 statistic by the Brewers Association, 20 craft breweries in Oklahoma had a $502 million economic impact, with 47,847 barrels produced annually.
Laying groundwork for the surge were a pair of new laws: Senate Bill 424 and State Question 792.
Implemented in August 2016, SB 424 allowed for strong beer sales at breweries. With the passage of SQ 792, which takes effect in October, wine and all beer can be sold at grocery and convenience stores. Several other alcohol modernization laws were passed in 2017, including SB 211, which allows a county option for Sunday sales.
Marshall, who began offering beer commercially in 2008, is seizing on the shifting tide. He’s planning an expansion this summer that will include a new 4,000-square-foot taproom, biergarten, event space and off-street parking. He says SB 424 “gave brewers and breweries the ability to have that revenue source of taprooms to be able to really get started. That gave people sort of the kick in the pants to say, ‘Hey, here we go.’”
“It’s something we didn’t have for the first eight years we were in business. … It certainly would have made the cash flow side of things a little bit easier on the front end. Fortunately, we were able to develop some good long-term relationships that obviously will benefit us as the laws change.”
Rep. Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, are among the legislators who have spearheaded liquor law change.
“This has been a strong-armed state when it comes to alcohol,” Mulready says. “There’s a slowness to adapt that comes with that as well. It just made common sense to remove some of restrictions we had in place.”
One by-product of the brewer-friendly atmosphere could be a boost in tourism.
“There are states that are creating beer tours, so you’re encouraging tourism and learning about a product and how it’s made. There’s quite a following with that that wasn’t there previously. It would be helpful to take advantage of that. That just generates economic activity for our state,” Mulready says.
Marshall says he sells about 4,000 barrels of beer annually, roughly 10 times more than he did in his first year. With that production comes a ripple effect — mostly local — created by all brewers. Marshall, for example, buys boxes for packaging from a vendor in Tulsa and beer bottles from facilities in Sapulpa and Henryetta.
The brewery’s spent grain goes to Bristow rancher Cody Beach, who uses it as cattle feed.
“From our standpoint, any time you can pick up some type of bypassed product, like the brewer’s grain, you’re not competing with all the human markets for costs,” says Beach, who operates The Beach House, a farm-to-fork restaurant in Bristow. “You can definitely cut some costs and put a little bit of margins in there, especially when commodities get so high.
“It’s definitely a complementary industry, for sure.”
Chase Healey has been in the craft brewing business for more than a decade. He helped start COOP Ale Works in Oklahoma City in 2006 and started Prairie Artisan Ales with his brother, Colin, in Tulsa in 2012. Four years later, Chase founded the American Solera brewery in west Tulsa.
“It’s something I’ve been working toward my whole professional career,” Healey says of craft brewing reaching its potential. “Every year I’ve been working on it, it’s gotten more and more popular.
“I’ve been in love with it and have a passion for making beer. It’s awesome that it’s really starting to catch on. That’s a good deal when you’re in business on your own.”
Last January, American Solera was named best new brewery in the U.S. and second in the world at the RateBeer Best awards in Sonoma County, California.
“We launched Prairie in 2012,” Chase says. “Each year as we saw that grow, you get this base of fans that come to the festivals, come to the dinners. They support you every chance they get. There are a lot of familiar faces.
“But what’s cool to see, if you go in my tap room on a Saturday afternoon, you might see a few couples who are in their mid- to late 60s and girls that are in their mid-20s and they are all there together. It’s not just a bunch of 25- to 40-year-old fat, bearded guys. To see these types of people trying beer in our town, it’s really exciting.”