Beer doesn’t have to hail from a mega-brewery to be worth your time, and that’s something many brew lovers across Cleveland County are well aware of.
The allure is spreading for craft beer concocted in your own community, by members of your own community—say, a retired firefighter living down the street from you or that nice young man who was in the marching band with your son—and it doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.
So why put down the Michelob Ultra and turn your attention to craft beer made in your own backyard? One visit to a taproom, one conversation with a local brewer, or one down-home brewery tour will drive it home. We did all three and experienced Cleveland County brewers’ passion, knowledge and eagerness to educate, making the craft beer debate a no-brainer.
Passion for the craft
Asl local brewers one question about brewing and it’s apparent they’re crazy about what they do. Look at (405) Brewing Co's (405brewing.com) Trae Carson, for instance. Trae and Jonathan Stapleton, who own the 4-year-old (405), are drawn to the freedom and experimentation a small brewery affords them.
When Trae talks about the process of creating craft beer, and how owning a small brewery lets them call the shots and pursue new recipes whenever they want, it borders on poetry. He recently described his all-time favorite brew, a one-time batch named Jana.
“It started as a boring wheat beer and turned into a beautiful piece of artwork,” all thanks to the fermenting process—a timetable not for the impatient beer consumer.
“It’s a rum barrel-fermented brett hefeweizen that often takes months or years to develop its flavor,” Trae explains. “Sitting in the rum barrel, it’s pulling tannins from the oak, pulling those deep wood flavors and having a chance to expand and contract and send beer deeper into the staves and back out to create all those nuanced flavors.”
Still, Trae recognizes that nothing, especially craft beer, can be replicated perfectly. And that’s only partly due to science. It’s “liquid art,” you’ll hear the (405) owners say, and you’ll see that phrase displayed in beer can art on their taproom wall as well.
“I don’t think it can live up to my expectations again,” he says. “Beer is about the moment, it’s about your feeling. It’s an emotional process no matter where you are or what you’re doing—that beer is intertwined with that moment in time.”
That same passion is evident at the Beer Is Good Brewing Co.(BIGBrew.co), or BIG Brew Co., which opened in April. Two out of three founders discovered their passion for craft beer together in college. Justin Wilson, who owns the brewery with Eric Martin and Shawn Stanford, recalls their humble beginnings.
“Eric and I went to undergrad here together, were in Pride of Oklahoma marching band, grew up and discovered beer together,” Justin says. “We did some homebrewing back in the mid ’90s and made some horrible beer back then, and we made our friends drink it. We basically had a bucket and a ‘Joy of Brewing’ book because there was no internet.”
Red Earth Brewers (RedEarthBrewers.com), a local home-brewing group consisting of all skill levels, provided the BIG team with networking, education and socializing while they learned the ropes of brewing craft beer. Now, the three experiment with new brews and constantly rotate through a 15-tap system, creating something new every time they brew. For them, it’s all about having fun with the process and trying new things.
One look at their menu and it’s apparent these guys are having fun. You’ll see names of beers that harken back to well-known books, movies and songs in pop culture, like a Clockwork Orange Juice, an East Coast-style IPA; Snozzberries, a fruited Berliner weisse with flavors of raspberries, blueberries and blackberries; and El Guapo, a Mexican chocolate stout.
“We have a lot of fun with our menu,” Justin says. “When we name them, it usually starts out with a text message between one of us where we say, ‘Hey, what do you want to name this one?’ and we try to crack each other up. Once we get to the one that makes us laugh the hardest, we usually go with that.”
Educating beer drinkers
Brewing craft beer is a real science, from the molecules involved in the biochemical process to why beers have certain flavors, aromas and colors. That adds to the excitement of creating it, according to local brewers.
Chris Sanders of Black Mesa Brewing Co.(BlackMesaBrewing.com), which was founded in 2012 and celebrated the opening of its new location in October 2018 and taproom in April 2019, is a good example of someone who geeks out over the education aspect of making and distributing craft beer. The retired firefighter owns Black Mesa with Ole Marccussen and says the two, like some other breweries in the county, use local water but go to great lengths to match the water profiles of the geographical regions their beer is inspired from.
“We’re traditional brewers and we like to mimic styles from around the world and put our own take on those styles,” Chris says.
A behind-the-scenes tour will not only lead you around gargantuan shining tanks but also past a reverse osmosis area where the water purification process removes unwanted particles and molecules in order for the brewers to build the correct water profile.
Andy Gmeiner, owner of Royal Bavaria German Restaurant, Brewery and Beergarten (Royal-Bavaria.com) also is a huge proponent of imbibing education. The Munich, Germany, native says when it comes to adding new beers to Royal Bavaria’s menu, it’s dictated by a mix of conversations with customers and pinpointing what German beers have yet to make it to Oklahoma.
“What’s still left from the really traditional German beers—what can we pick up and bring to Oklahoma?” Andy says. “We don’t want to compete with IPAs or any kind of stouts; we just like the different German-style beers.”
He’s quick to tell you about the famous Reinheitsgebot ‘German Beer Purity Law’ of 1516, which dictates you only use four basic ingredients in the beer with no modifications. The beer is brewed exclusively with whole grain malt, German yeast, Hallertauer hops and untreated water from their well.
“All the beers are aged and lagered,” Andy explains. “Basically, all our beers are unfiltered, and most others’ beers are filtered. Aging means everything settles down in the tank, and we take the beer from the top and don’t get the settlement.”
New dawn for local craft beer
Oklahoma’s liquor laws have seen some big changes, most recently with the passing of State Question 792, allowing wine and all beer to be sold at grocery and convenience stores and enabling liquor stores to sell cold beer. That also meant local breweries that distribute could now distribute more high-point beer. In 2016, passage of Senate Bill 424 allowed brewers to sell their high-point beer to consumers on-premise, opening the door for breweries to have thriving taprooms.
Justin of BIG Brew Co. says the small non-distribution, taproom-only brewery couldn’t do what they do today without the law changes.
“Four years ago, to make the model work as a brewery was to have a really large production-scale brewery, which is an over $1 million investment,” he says. “Consumers would have to go to liquor stores and restaurants to get the beer; they couldn’t even buy it at the brewery taproom then. It’s allowed us to sell out of our taproom and look at a slow-growth business model.”
The most recent changes also affected Royal Bavaria, a non-distribution brewery, allowing the restaurant to sell beer above 3.2 ABV and get their brews even closer to German authenticity (most German beers fall between 4.3 and 4.9 ABV), Andy says.
The passage of SQ 792 allowed (405) to have more control of which resellers sold their products. Before, they had to distribute to wholesalers, and liquor stores bought the beer from there.
“Now we’re under self-distribution,” Trae says. “We go out there and establish relationships personally and we find accounts that are going to be great for us and our brand and our product. We’re always expanding our footprint with those relationships. Having that distribution has been the most impactful thing for us.”
Looking for more information on local breweries or want to venture on your own brewery hop? Check out the Oklahoma City Brewery Guide, featuring breweries from Cleveland County, at beerhopokc.com, to see brewery locations, hours and information.