MIDWEST CITY — It started as a slow trickle, two or three people wandering into the taproom at Roughtail Brewing Co. every 30 minutes or so.
Roughtail co-founder Blaine Stansel admitted he was a little underwhelmed with the turnout the first couple hours Sunday, as the brewery opened its doors for the first public sales of its new 3.2 percent beer.
By the close of business at 8 p.m, however, several dozen customers had made their way to the Midwest City brewery, most buying a pint of Roughtail’s Jaragua Pale Ale or opting to have a larger glass bottle, or growler, filled with the hoppy, low-point beer to take home.
“Pretty good,” Stansel said of the turnout. “It was mainly the hardcore craft beer lovers, but we went through eight kegs of beer.”
Roughtail’s decision to produce and sell a so-called low-point beer — 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, or roughly 4 percent by volume — is evidence of an emerging trend in the Oklahoma beer market.
Instead of simply lamenting the fact that state law prohibits them from selling full-strength beer directly to the public, the state’s brewers are turning out a series of low-point beers that they can sell.
“I don’t see alcohol laws in Oklahoma changing anytime soon,” Stansel said, “so you’ve got to work within what you’ve got.”
Roughtail joins the likes of Choc Beer Co., in Krebs, Prairie Artisan Ales, in Tulsa, and Oklahoma City’s COOP Ale Works and Mustang Brewing Co. as full-strength beermakers that have sold low-point beer in one form or another.
“We can make 3.2 beer that’s really good,” said Tony Tielli, Roughtail’s brewmaster. “We can make something that’s flavorful that you drink. It doesn’t have to be watery American light lager.”
COOP Ale Works co-founder JD Merryweather said producing and selling low-point beer offers the brewery a chance to meet its customers, who normally would see COOP’s full-strength products at a liquor store or bar only.
For two years, COOP has been selling two to three lower-strength beers at the monthly H&8th street festival in Oklahoma City.
“What better way to get your beer in people’s hands than hand it to them directly,” Merryweather said. “It lets me interact with people and it lets me sell beer.”
Store sales coming
And COOP hopes to sell even more of its 3.2 beer. Brewery officials recently announced plans to sell a trio of such beers in four-packs of cans at state grocery and convenience stores, starting as early as October.
That’s an avenue that Mustang Brewing has been down. Brewery President Tim Schoelen said his company sold about 12,000 cases of its Session 33 ale in Oklahoma grocery stores during the company’s first year in the 3.2 market.
Schoelen said that number may seem impressive, but is a drop in the bucket compared to the sales of cases of 3.2 standards like Miller Lite and Bud Light, which reach into the hundreds of thousands.
“(It’s) a tough market for small, craft breweries,” Schoelen said. “Shelf space in retail is dominated by the big brands.”
Although Mustang does not sell 3.2 beer in grocery stores at this time, Schoelen said the company has not given up on the 3.2 idea. He said several new low-point beers are planned for draft-only release in the coming months.
In Tulsa, Prairie Artisan Ales has embraced that approach recently.
Brewmaster Chase Healey opens his brewery to the public on most Fridays to sell pints and bottle fills of his low-point beers.
“We started brewing the 3.2 stuff because we figured we might as well do what we can right now,” Healey said. “We can sit around and be upset about (alcohol laws) and complain, but it’s not going to change until it changes. There’s plenty of good beers that can be 4 percent alcohol.
“I feel like offering these beers gives us a greater connection to our fans and will help to grow the craft beer community as a whole.”
Roughtail’s Tielli echoed that sentiment.
“The main goal is to expand craft beer culture and bring some increased form of brewery awareness to Oklahoma,” he said. “Also to make great session beers that people will want to drink.”
3.2 is the norm
Some brewers in the state have been selling low-point beer for several years. One example is Oklahoma City’s Belle Isle Brewery, 1900 Northwest Expressway. All of the beer made on-premise is 3.2 percent by weight, and is available for sale by the glass or growler. Belle Isle Brewmaster Jack McDonald said they have been filling growlers since the pub opened in 1995, and consider such sales an important part of their business.
“Growlers are the only way people can take our beer home since we are a brewpub and don’t distribute,” McDonald said. “Drinking a couple pints on site at the brewpub is the most popular option, but we do see plenty ... leaving with a half-gallon growler of their favorite brew to enjoy at home.”