The Thirsty Beagle: 2016 promises to be a big year for Oklahoma beer

Thursday, January 7, 2016

2016 promises to be a big year for Oklahoma beer

Back around January 2009, about four months after I started this blog (on NewsOK.com), things certainly didn't feel like they feel now on the Oklahoma craft beer scene.

For one thing, we barely had an Oklahoma craft beer scene. Choc -- as we know it now -- was just a few years old, Marshall had just formed a few months prior, and COOP and Mustang were just barely getting off the ground.

Now it's 2016; we have 11 brick-and-mortar, strong-beer brewers licensed with ABLE (as of November), plus several gypsy/contract brewers who call Oklahoma home, and several more breweries-in-planning.

As we dive into the new year, one thing appears certain: Oklahoma is primed for big changes and perhaps even more significant growth as far as craft is concerned.

For example, on Thursday, Oak & Ore announced a series of one-year anniversary celebrations, highlighted by the Craft Brewers Association of Oklahoma's first Oklahoma Craft Beer Summit. The event is scheduled for 3 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 13 at the bar, 1732 NW 16.

Guest speakers are expected to include state Sen. Stephanie Bice and Craft Brewers Association President Zach Prichard, who is also the president of Choc. While Bice is expected to discuss Oklahoma's liquor laws, Prichard is expected to announce a collaboration between Choc, Anthem, COOP, Iron Monk, Marshall, Prairie, Renaissance and 405 Brewing aimed at supporting the organization's goals in the 2016 legislative session.

Clearly, as a craft beer community, we're set to cover new ground this year. So, in the spirit of the new year, how about I share my resolutions and predictions for the upcoming year in Oklahoma craft beer?

-Voters will approve a state question bringing alcohol reform. Everyone in the industry -- from macro to micro -- agrees that it's time for changes to our alcohol laws. (Well, everyone apparently except for the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, which in 2015 argued for and against reform, seemingly switching positions depending on the tone of the latest public policy study released.) Of course the real trick of the matter is everyone agreeing on something else: What will the ballot language look like for the state question? A battle between Anheuser-Busch and the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma is already -- wait for it -- brewing on that point. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

-Oklahoma's craft brewers won't have to pick sides in the fight. Sort of. Both options -- aligning with either AB or BDO -- cause problems for craft brewers. If you pick the wrong side in the skirmish over distribution rules, you could end up compromising your small business if your side loses. So what will craft brewers do? We already know the answer -- they start up their own side. More than one brewer has told me over the years that a key to growing the influence of Oklahoma's craft brewers is simply having more craft brewers. A collaboration of seven or eight Oklahoma craft brewers wasn't even possible a few years ago, so it'll be interesting to see what influence they can ply at the state Capitol.

-Someone will sell out, someone will close up shop. Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but this is what happens in the craft beer business. It's what's happened since the first craft beer boom of the 1980s. In Oklahoma, we've been insulated to a degree from the volatility of the craft beer business because starting and operating a craft beer business in this state is extremely difficult. Those who have the fortitude to even get one off the ground are pretty dedicated and serious about what they're doing. Once things like point-of-production sales are on the up-and-up (and hopefully they will be as part of alcohol reform), there's no doubt that many fly-by-night and less serious operations will spring up. Plus, many more legitimately serious and talented brewers will get into the game. All of that will undoubtedly crowd the market and put pressure on the existing brewers. Most will come through just fine because the quality of what they're doing will win out, but don't be surprised if one or more brewers bows out of the game as the dynamics of Oklahoma's beer landscape change.

-Once the boom arrives, it'll really arrive. This may be more of a prediction for 2017 and beyond, but the passage of reform will send us down a path that I believe will boggle people's minds. I don't think it's unrealistic that by the end of 2020, Oklahoma would have between 30 and 40 brick-and-mortar breweries and/or true brewpubs. The state has a strong homebrew tradition -- some of the best beer I've tasted has been made by hobby brewers here in Oklahoma -- and I know the lure of making a career out of their hobby will make a lot more sense for a lot more people after reform.

-Get ready for corporate craft, too. We're already starting to see an influx of traveling, out-of-state beer festivals make their way into Oklahoma. Often they actually have very little local craft beer. And, organizers of such events typically try to get small, local brewers to donate the beer on the brewer's own dime. We should all resolve to choose first to patronize local events, where proceeds stay in the state, and that are supported by the local craft brewers.

-Oklahoma craft beer will gain more of a foothold in Oklahoma's bar and restaurants. Raise your hand if you're tired of seeing Stella, Blue Moon, Bud Light and Sam Adams Seasonal on tap at every restaurant. I know I am. As people choose more and more to patronize places with a good, local beer selection, I think we'll see more businesses come on line. Heck, not too long ago, I had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at Thai Kitchen in downtown Oklahoma City. If Thai Kitchen can have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, there's no reason every restaurant in the city can't resolve to do better.

-The consumer will win. Maybe I'm just a dreamer. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic. Hey, I realize that big business is all up in our plans for alcohol reform, and knowing that, if you were a betting man, you'd probably feel obligated to bet on big business. But there's just so much about reform that equates to instant wins for the consumer: Point-of-production sales (good for quality and tourism). Refrigerated strong beer (good for quality and convenience). Sunday sales (good for convenience). Being able to pick up strong beer like any other grocery item (great for convenience). Sure, the issue of distribution rules looms, and people will make counterarguments ranging from potential higher beer prices to public safety concerns. Regardless, I think what's clear is that from the perspective of the craft consumer, things are looking up in a way they haven't before. It'll be fascinating to see how 2016 plays out.

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