The Thirsty Beagle: January 2018

Sunday, January 7, 2018

What's in store for OK beer in 2018?

There's no doubt we've had a couple big years for Oklahoma craft beer.

And as we dive into 2018, it's a good time not only to reflect on what we've just seen transpire, but also to look ahead.

Both 2016 and 2017 have been transformational. It's hard to beat what we saw in 2016, when two highly significant pieces of alcohol legislation were passed, and breweries were allowed to start selling beer by the glass for on-site consumption.

And then in 2017, we started to see the immediate impact, with several new brick-and-mortar breweries opening shop and several more announcing plans for new brewery buildings.

But perhaps we haven't seen anything yet.

This next year promises to deliver historic changes to the alcohol industry in Oklahoma. Let's take a look at some predictions for Oklahoma beer in 2018.

The brewery boom is just beginning

By the end of 2018, we should be floating around at least 15 brewery/taprooms in the OKC metro area alone. We've got two breweries in McCurtain County. We've got a brewery in Ponca City and one in Pryor. The freight train that is the taproom business is moving forward at full steam right now. Statewide, we should pretty easily get to 30 brewery/taprooms by the end of 2018, and don't be surprised if by the end of 2019 we're at 50. Of course, the real question will be this: Will the beer be any good? I've shared this sentiment before, but with how restrictive Oklahoma's alcohol laws were, and how much money was required to start a production brewery, only serious players -- and generally really good beermakers -- got involved prior to 2016. Now the barriers to the market are as low as they've ever been. Craft beer history around the U.S. tells us we will see some fly-by-night operators whose beer is average at best.

Who'll join the Brewers Union?

The brewing cooperative formerly known as OK City Brewing appears to be primed for a good run in the first half of 2018, with quality beer coming from Elk Valley, Angry Scotsman and Vanessa House. But with all three brewers looking to move into their own buildings this year, who'll slide in to take their places in the Brewers Union when they leave? Will it be a brewery-in-planning like Frenzy or Skydance? Or someone we haven't heard of yet? There's a chance things may get rocky for the co-op in the latter part of 2018.

The next frontier: Beer and food together

Part of the new law going into effect on Oct. 1 will be a new brewpub license. Think Bricktown Brewery and Belle Isle Brewery, but if they made high-point beer. Think Republic Gastropub, but with a brewhouse in the back. It'll be exciting to see what new concepts will emerge, but you can count on a brewery incorporating high-end pub food for a full food-and-drink experience.

What exactly will grocery stores carry?

Cheap wine. That's the easy part. A liquor store owner once told me that what he feared most about alcohol reform was grocery and convenience stores gaining access to the market for $8 to $15 wine. Well, we know they'll stock plenty of that, but how about beer? I predict we'll be decidedly underwhelmed by the beer selection at grocery and convenience stores come Oct. 1. There will be plenty of BMC mainline stuff, some Sam Adams, probably a little bit of Boulevard and a lot of the crafty brews spun off by the BMC crowd. But for the good stuff, the liquor store will still be a required stop.

Will ABI make a play in Oklahoma?

There's no reason to think Anheuser Busch will curtail its practice of scooping up craft breweries, but can we expect to see that happen in Oklahoma? We saw a few rumors swirl about local buyouts in 2017, but in the end there was no real smoke and certainly no fire. In reality, there are only a couple state breweries that fit the profile of an AB-takeover target. That's mainly based on production volume, and most likely only COOP and Prairie fit that bill. Would either of those companies sign a deal with the craft beer devil? Most likely they won't get the chance in 2018 as AB focuses not only on other, even larger craft breweries, but also on rolling out high-point beer throughout Oklahoma.

Do you have a prediction for Oklahoma beer in 2018? I'd love to hear it -- post in the comments or on my Facebook page.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

New brewery set for opening in northeast Oklahoma

If you subscribe to the theory that these days a taproom could pop up almost anywhere in Oklahoma, then what is happening this Saturday certainly delivers on that theory.

The first modern brewery and taproom in the city of Pryor in northeastern Oklahoma is set to open to the public this weekend.

Fat Toad Brewing will open its doors from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday for its grand opening event. You can see more details on that here.

I was able to catch up with David Miller, a long-time Pryor resident and also the co-owner and director of brewing operations for Fat Toad Brewing, to learn a little bit about his brewing history and his taproom plans.

Check it out...

Thirsty Beagle: Tell all the beer fans out there about your brewing background -- how did you get into beermaking, and why did you decide you wanted to open a brewery and taproom? Why the name Fat Toad? And why Pryor? Are you from there?

David Miller: I have lived in Pryor for over 25 years (moved here as teenager) and have worked for the school system for many years. Our home is here and I have two teenage sons, so opening a brewery in a bigger city was not an option. Plus we want to support our local economy and give back in some way. We decided to open a brewery/taproom because I’m not able to get into things or even have a hobby without trying to push it as far as I can (see my failed music career years ago and aspirations to play on the senior PGA tour! Ha ha.) Anyway, I had been brewing out of my garage on a homemade 10-barrel system for several years just to see if I could make some of the great beer styles I had enjoyed in Michigan, Kansas City, Tulsa, etc., mostly at professional baseball games.

As the beers improved we started taking them to beer festivals and sharing with friends. Feedback was favorable. About that time my friend and neighbor Chris Harrison kept stopping by the garage and showing interest in what I was doing. He helped me brew a few times and we began to discuss, with our wives, the prospect of starting a small brewery with a taproom in Pryor and possibly distributing later on if things worked out. I started obsessively studying every brewing text I could get my hands on in order to prepare to brew on a bigger scale. Chris is a mechanical genius, which I am not, and also has very good business sense. This was a natural fit. From there, we saw a commercial building come available in rural Pryor, only a couple miles from my house; ordered our one-barrel electric system, along with some 85-gallon fermenters; Chris engineered a big-league chilling system; and we started brewing big batches and working on licensing and approval from ABLE commission and the TTB. Our wives were supportive and took on roles within the business and the rest was history.

As for the Fat Toad name, my wife suggested it over a family meal at Freddy’s Hamburgers after a baseball game a few years ago. I recalled hearing the phrase back in the 90s when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner referred to his Japanese pitcher, the late Hideki Irabu, as a “Fat Toad.” We all smiled and decided right there that was the name. Obviously we don’t take ourselves too seriously, so we felt like a happy image of a Fat Toad would make people smile!

TB: How about beer philosophy and recipes? What should people expect in terms of styles and approach to the beers?

DM: Regarding recipe philosophy, I am a beer fan first and foremost, so brewing what I like to drink is where I start. I want to brew many styles because I enjoy many styles. The smaller brewhouse allows us to do that. I tend to prefer hoppier beers, but I respect the fact that not everyone does, so I brew a variety of styles to accommodate that. My philosophy is that if we don’t think it is an excellent beer, we don’t put it on tap. Simple as that. It may not be your favorite style now, but in the craft beer world, if you keep an open mind, you acquire a taste for different styles over time. People can expect a wide range of styles from light and dark German wheat beer to Saison, to hoppy IPAs and an American Red Ale, which is essentially a hoppy amber or a red IPA, not sure yet. Ha ha! Also I’m a huge brown ale fan and am very proud of our brown ale along with the hazelnut version of the same beer, which was very well received at brewfests this past year.

TB: How about distribution? Will you have beer available outside of the taproom?

DM: As of now we don’t have the keg capacity or large enough brewhouse/fermenters to distribute, but definitely want to do this as we move forward. For now we want people to come inside the taproom and actually talk and visit about beer experiences they’ve had, sports, life, etc. We even have one of the only rural beer gardens in the state complete with trees and cattle in the distance!

TB: Speaking of the taproom, talk a little bit about your building. What kind of vibe are you going for?

DM: Our taproom is really a one-of-a-kind eclectic place that you have to experience for yourself. It is somewhat rural although the Google campus and Walmart are within half a mile from our front door. Pryor is a blue-collar sort of city so we went with rusted tin and stained pallet wood throughout the taproom. Chris handmade many of the tables from commercial telephone line spools and wood he had laying around. Americana might be a good way to describe the atmosphere at the Fat Toad taproom. Our television (retro movies or sports) and music even reflects that: plenty of the late Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Stapleton, Turnpike Troubadours etc.

TB: Lastly, talk about the beer community/culture in northeastern Oklahoma. Do you feel like that is an underserved market? Do you think craft beer resonates in Pryor, Oklahoma?

DM: We feel like this is the most exciting time in our state's history to get involved with craft beer! Green Country is definitely underserved, but no less passionate and knowledgeable than Tulsa, OKC, and the metro areas. We have visited, toured, filled growlers, etc., at all Tulsa and many OKC breweries, as well as northwest Arkansas, which is an excellent brew scene. We are directly between Tulsa and northwest Arkansas and want our community to have the experiences that we enjoyed at these places.