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Cheers to the craft beer boom in Oklahoma

Craft beer is in the midst of a boom throughout Oklahoma. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the hottest brewers went from day jobs to dream jobs.
By Nick Trougakos, Staff Writer Published: August 4, 2014

photo - Cans of American Amber Ale at Roughtail Brewing Company in Midwest City, Thursday July  24 , 2014. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman
Cans of American Amber Ale at Roughtail Brewing Company in Midwest City, Thursday July 24 , 2014. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman

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’

Chase Healey, brewmaster and owner of Prairie Artisan Ales brewery in Tulsa, Wednesday July  23 , 2014. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman
Chase Healey, brewmaster and owner of Prairie Artisan Ales brewery in Tulsa, Wednesday July 23 , 2014. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman

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.”

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