The guy responsible for perhaps the most iconic beer to come out of Oklahoma was doing social work at the state Department of Human Services just a few years ago.
A little more than two years ago, the man who dreamed up the recipes that took this year’s Oklahoma Craft Beer Festival by storm was editing videos for a local nonprofit.
And one of the state’s most well-regarded India pale ales is crafted by a person who was managing the Guitar Center in northwest Oklahoma City last year.
These homebrewers-turned-professional-brewers find themselves on the leading edge of the Oklahoma craft beer movement — a movement picking up steam seemingly by the day, with new start-ups clamoring to join the fray.
In fact, Oklahoma has nine brick-and-mortar breweries making full-strength beer — up from just two at the start of 2008 — with several additional brewers contracting to make their beer in-state, and a handful more in the planning stages.
If you ask the brewers, they’ll tell you the only thing separating Oklahoma from becoming a legitimate beer destination is a key legislative tweak — a move that could open the flood gates for those already in business to become more profitable and for those who want a piece of the pie to make the leap into the professional ranks.
But what about those who already have made that leap? How did they get where they are? How is it that their beers are crowding old standards out of liquor store shelves and pub tap handles? Their stories are diverse, but share a common thread.
‘I could screw it all up again’
On the western outskirts of Tulsa, tucked between a shaggy, overgrown disc golf course and row after row of towering oil refinery storage tanks, sits arguably Oklahoma’s most renowned brewery.
The metal building that houses Prairie Artisan Ales is not much to look at — it’s nondescript from the outside. It’s relatively small for a commercial brewery. You certainly wouldn’t guess the beer that’s made there is sought in faraway markets like Europe, Australia and South America.
Despite its inauspicious facade, no brewery better illustrates to upward curve of the Oklahoma craft beer scene than Prairie. And perhaps no brewer has grown up within the movement more than Prairie brewmaster Chase Healey.
Healey got his first professional beer gig with Oklahoma City brewery COOP Ale Works, which opened for business in 2009. An avid homebrewer while in school at the University of Oklahoma, he started brewing for COOP full time before graduation — skipping his turn to walk across the stage at OU so he could focus on recipes and day-to-day operations.
The relationship didn’t last. When Healey and COOP parted ways, it became the state’s first case of beer industry soap-opera drama. COOP declined to site specific reasons for the change, but rumors abounded.
“I was really immature and just not a good employee, I don’t think,” Healey said, leaning against a shiny metal table in his brewery, surrounded by towering steel brewing tanks and wooden barrels of aging beer. “I was just like a young kid that kind of was left to this brewery ... and I don’t know that I was ready for it.”
He didn’t stay out of work long. He fell back on his degree and took a job at DHS. Then, a small group of investors looking to start a brewing cooperative in Oklahoma City brought Healey on as the brewer of a new label — Redbud Brewing Co.
Now a moonlighting Healey started to flex his creative muscles, dreaming up recipes unlike any made in the state to that point. He poured his beer at festivals and got bottles into liquor stores. But it didn’t last.
“There were a lot of mistakes in that deal,” Healey said. “But, the biggest one is that I just wasn’t all-in on it.”
Healey left Redbud abruptly, heading to the Dallas area with his wife, Erica. She had sisters and a good job offer there, and Healey had lined up another brewing job — as a worker-bee-type brewer. That, too, wouldn’t last.
Working for someone who “knew way less about running a brewery than I did” caused Healey to realize, “I just needed to suck it up and open a brewery. So we did.”
Healey and his brother, Colin, founded Prairie in the summer of 2012. Chase provided the brewing know-how while Colin schemed the company’s off-the-wall bottle labels. They started out by brewing their beers under a contract at Choc Beer Co. in Krebs. During his time at Redbud, Healey had cultivated a relationship with international beer distributor Shelton Bros., and he called on Shelton when he was ready to hit the market with Prairie. That move put his beer in front of consumers around the country and world — a reach far greater than any Oklahoma brewer had seen.
And then came Bomb!
“We brewed the first batch of Bomb! on a whim, because I just wanted to try it,” Healey said of the dark, thick stout, with its hints of coffee and vanilla beans, chili peppers and cocoa nibs. “Zach (Prichard) at Choc was like, ‘Well, this is the most expensive thing we’ve ever brewed, but just one batch, OK, no big deal.’
“It blew up,” Healey said.
The brew became a national phenomenon. Craft fans from out of state would offer trades of four or five rare beers in exchange for just one 12 oz. bottle of Bomb!
“Bomb! has helped grow our business in a big way,” Healey, 29, said. “We’re making big moves and probably a lot of credit is to what Bomb! has been able to do for our brewery.”
The moves included securing his own brewery building in west Tulsa, where he brews anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of Prairie’s beer — the rest is still made at Choc. And he acquired land in Glenpool that will become Prairie Farm. It’s Healey’s vision of a massive brewery expansion combined with a tourist destination and functioning farm.
“It’s fun to see this thing start to slowly become kind of bigger than just me,” he said. “People bring some really great input into what we’re doing. I had a hard time accepting that at first, that I couldn’t just make it all about me. We’re changing and maturing, I suppose.”
The early struggles — and the arrival of his son, Denver, this summer — have seemed to ground Healey.
“There was a point where I was really struggling and wasn’t sure that I should stay in brewing,” he said. “I try not to forget that part. (There’s) the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and I could screw it all up again still.”
‘It would have just completely killed him’
If you’re a homebrewer trying to break into the professional craft beer scene, nearly crushing someone with 500 pounds of grain on one of your first commercial brew days is a bad first step.
Making beer that tastes like bologna is a close second in the bad-step pantheon.
Having to toss out an entire batch of beer that you just spent a miserable 18 hours trying to make?
Maybe it’s time to consider a new line of work.
That’s what weighed on Matt Anthony’s mind late one night in May 2012.
“I was just lying in bed thinking, ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life,’” Anthony said.
Less than a week before, Anthony took his passion for homebrewing and left his job of almost 11 years at Feed the Children — where he edited video and worked on motion graphics for the nonprofit — to start up Anthem Brewing Co.
He found himself in the brewhouse at the OK City Brewing Cooperative, trying to make a leap from the size of batches you can brew on your stove top to those that require hundreds of pounds of ingredients.
“Right from the jump, loading in the hopper on the mill, the whole mill on the hopper dumped over, almost killing — I forget who it was helping mill — but it was like 500 pounds of grain. It would have just completely killed him.”
If that weren’t enough, as the beer was fermenting, the unit that regulates its temperature broke down.
“Kinda cooked some of the yeast,” Anthony said. “When you taste it and it tastes like bologna, I said, ‘No, I can’t send this out.’”
Fast forward to this July. Anthony, 35, sits in his office at his spacious brewery in the Farmers Market District just southwest of downtown Oklahoma City. His business survived that early disastrous batch. It survived the May 31, 2013, storm that wrecked the OK City Brewing Cooperative and left him without a place to brew for several months.
“Thankfully my wife is really, really awesome and she’s got a really good job, too,” he said. “She was infinitely patient. That helped us. That’s the only way we survived.”
He’s survived and thrived. His successful launch this summer of three canned offerings — Golden One Belgian ale, Arjuna wit bier and Uroboros stout — has him eying future expansion.
At the annual Oklahoma Craft Beer Festival in May, he turned out 20 different beers that he poured to rave reviews.
It’s a far cry from those first few frenzied days at the brewhouse.
“I can laugh about it now,” he said. “I didn’t laugh about it then.”
Anthony said he feels that not only has he grown up in his beer knowledge, Oklahoma has as well. He describes the change in the state’s craft beer scene from five years ago to today as “Night and day.”
“Five years ago you’d have been hard-pressed to walk in and get a local craft beer anywhere — let alone five or six different breweries,” he said.
To move the state even further forward, Anthony and other brewers recommend a seemingly simple amendment to Oklahoma law: Allow brewers to sell beer by the pint at their breweries.
“It’s so frustrating,” he said. “You go to every other state and you see these breweries that are doing really, really well. And they don’t even have wide distribution. Having your own tap room really helps the business out.”
In the meantime, Anthony is riding the momentum his Belgian-inspired beers have created.
“It’s happened really fast, and I’m extremely grateful for my partners and my investors,” he said. “Without them, this wouldn’t be here. The tornado would have come and that would have been it.”
‘Who in the hell are you?’
If Tony Tielli hadn’t been so good at running Guitar Center stores, we might never have heard of Roughtail IPA, Polar Night Stout or 12th Round Ale.
It was Guitar Center that took Tielli — the brewmaster and co-founder of Roughtail Brewing Co. — from his home of Mansfield, Texas, to Fayetteville, Ark., where he was asked to run a store. And a little more than a year later it was Guitar Center that relocated Tielli to manage the Oklahoma City branch on N May Avenue.
For the up-and-coming homebrewer, “It was kind of the perfect-storm scenario.”
“I had this job where I was kind of in charge of everybody at the store, so I wasn’t really friends with any of them outside of business,” Tielli said. “I didn’t know anybody else in town, and I had all this space at the house we were renting.
“So that’s when I decided, I’ve got room, I can kind of dig into this homebrewing thing.”
So he dug in. Around 2008, Tielli “started getting really intense” about his homebrewing. He got into the competition scene, started bringing home awards and commenced a heavy education in the art of brewing.
A couple years later, he met Blaine Stansel at the inaugural meeting for the Red Earth Brewers homebrew club. In September 2011, Stansel, a progressive homebrewer in his own right, approached Tielli with a business proposition.
“He had this goal of starting a brewery,” Tielli said, “and wanted to see if I would do it with him.”
Following a long planning period and a tumultuous start that involved abandoning the 1920s-era Oklahoma City building they hoped to call home just a week after moving in, Roughtail settled in a Midwest City industrial park.
In April 2013, they welcomed guests into the brewery for a grand-opening party. A little more than a year later, their beers are available in cans and bottles at state liquor stores and on tap at numerous pubs and restaurants. Getting to that point wasn’t easy, though.
Tielli recalls the stress of his first commercial batch, knowing he was operating on a razor-thin margin.
“During those early days ... we were going to zero in the bank account like pretty much all the time,” he said, sitting at a giant wooden spool-turned table in the tasting room at his brewery. “There was no margin for error.”
Add to that the hardship of selling your beer when nobody knows your name.
“In April of 2013, walking into a bar or a liquor store, they were like, ‘Who in the hell are you?’” Tielli said. “It was really, really tough. I’m thankful for some of the early adopters, the guys that came on in the beginning and gave us a chance.”
Like Anthony, Tielli sees increased success hinging on legislative change.
“Breweries have to be able to sell on-premise,” he said. “It’s completely insane that that’s illegal.
“That one rule changing suddenly makes it — I don’t want to say easy — but it makes it less incredibly difficult to turn a profit in this business.”
And Tielli said he feels that one change could trigger a flood of new breweries in the state.
In that scenario, he envisions a state with as many as 50 brewers banded together, making a united push for improvements to Oklahoma’s alcohol laws.
Faced with the legislative hurdles that exist now, Tielli, 30, said he thinks the industry hasn’t come as far as it could. But it has still made strides.
“I think that the industry as a whole is going to continue moving forward,” he said. “There’s enough people out there that want good, quality craft beer. And there’s enough of us that want to make it. So we’re going to move forward, period.
“We’re going to find a way.”