The Thirsty Beagle: Oklahoma craft beer: You've come a long way, baby

Friday, May 27, 2016

Oklahoma craft beer: You've come a long way, baby

There's a story I like to tell about how far the Oklahoma beer scene has come in the past eight years.

Back in 2008, shortly after starting The Thirsty Beagle blog, I came up with an idea to help spread beer awareness, and I called it the BCS. No, not that BCS. This was the Beer Championship Series, a 64-beer bracket to determine Oklahoma's favorite beer, with blog readers voting their picks on to the next rounds.

The BCS had a good six-year run, but no year was quite as unique as that first bracket in the fall of 2008. For one, that was the only year a non-Oklahoma beer won. Flying Dog Tire Bite was the champion that year, beating out Choc 1919 (now just Choc) in the final.

Of the 64 beers in the bracket, only 16 were from Oklahoma. That's not because I decided to cap it at 16. I'm not kidding, I could barely scrape together 16 beers from Oklahoma to fill out one of the regions. Take a look at those beers -- all from either Choc, Marshall, Bricktown or Belle Isle:

Choc 1919
Belle Isle Blonde Pale Ale
Marshall IPA
Bricktown Copperhead Amber Ale
Choc Pietro Piegari
Belle Isle IPA
Choc Miner Mishap
Belle Isle Power Plant Porter Stout
Bricktown Bison American Wheat
Marshall Sundown Wheat
Bricktown Rock Island Rail Ale
Bricktown Land Run Lager
Bricktown Red Brick Ale
Choc Basement Batch
Marshall McNellie's Pub Ale
Belle Isle Flanagan's Amber Ale

If you've only arrived at Oklahoma craft beer recently, you probably wouldn't even recognize some of those names. And if you know anything about Oklahoma beer now, you know that we could fill an entire 16-beer region with the offerings from just one brewer.

So it was actually pretty awe-inspiring, thinking all the way back to when I started covering Oklahoma beer, to see what happened on Thursday.

Nearly eight years later, the full Oklahoma legislature approved measures to re-write the state constitution and revamp our whole alcohol law system (Senate Joint Resolution 68 and Senate Bill 383) and signed off on a measure that would open the doors to a whole new era of craft brewery profitability (Senate Bill 424).

As one Oklahoma brewer texted me Thursday night: "Wow, just wow!"

Of course, we're not quite at the finish line yet.

The combination of SJR 68 and SB 383 would allow liquor stores to refrigerate beer and wine; allow grocery and convenience stores to sell strong beer (up to 8.99% ABV) and wine; do away with the state's dual-strength system; allow extended hours for liquor stores; allow liquor stores to sell some grocery items; allow brewers to sell their beer at trade shows and festivals; and reorganize our distribution system, among other items. But SB 383 still awaits the governor's signature, and also the passage of SJR 68 by a vote of the people in November. Only with the passage of SJR 68 will SB 383 go into effect. If both receive ultimate approval, they will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2018.

SB 424 stands on its own. Effective Nov. 1 of this year (again, pending the governor's signature), it would allow Oklahoma's small brewers to sell their full-strength beer by the pint, growler, can or bottle to consumers right out of the brewery.

(Blogger's note: The Oklahoman is reporting SB 424 would go into effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, which would put the effective date on or around Aug. 25, instead of Nov. 1. I'm trying to get some clarity on that point.)

(Blogger's note No. 2: When the emergency clause in SB 424 was not passed, it left the bill without an effective date. By rule, any bill with no effective date goes into effect 90 days from the day the legislative session adjourns. So, it appears Aug. 25 is indeed likely the big day for Oklahoma brewers.)

For all the still-kind-of-hard-to-fathom changes that SJR 68/SB 383 could bring, I don't think people really understand the effect that SB 424 will have on Oklahoma's beer landscape.

I've been on the record to say that Oklahoma, within a few years, could have more than 30 brick-and-mortar breweries or brewpubs. It will be a wild time for sure. Breweries will open and close. Some will make great beer. Some will make totally average beer. Brewpubs are coming into the districts -- Plaza, Automobile Alley, Midtown, Uptown -- just watch.

I don't think I can state it clearly enough: Oklahoma is on the verge of a craft beer explosion -- one I never could have imagined in 2008.

And I think there's a good reason we arrived at this point -- with the House voting in favor of all three measures on Thursday. Simply, Oklahoma is ready for this type of change.

How else do you explain the rocket-like ascent of Sen. Stephanie Bice's SB 383? When the bill was filed in 2015, it had one intent: Allow liquor stores to refrigerate beer. You just don't go from there to here unless the landscape, the time, the atmosphere -- everything -- is primed and ready for it.

One brewer even suggested to me that with the passage of SJR 68, Oklahoma would have one of the most progressive and equitable set of alcohol laws in the country. Wow, just wow.

However things shake out, Thursday's news left the state's craft beer fans -- and many in the alcohol industry -- in a celebratory mood. Let's take a look at some of the reaction.

From the Craft Brewers Association of Oklahoma:

"This is a big day for craft beer in Oklahoma. Most importantly, it is a big day for Oklahoma craft beer consumers. Givings fans of local, artisan craft beer more choice is really what modernizing Oklahoma's adult beverage laws is about for our members.

"We thank all the supporting legislators and we want to recognize the courageous leadership of Senators Bice, Jolley and Crain, Representatives Mulready and Williams, as well as Senate Pro Tempore Bingman and Speaker Hickman. 

"Most importantly, we want to recognize and thank the citizens of Oklahoma for their grassroots support of this effort. Since this process started in the 2014-15 legislative session, citizens' support has been active with thousands of calls and emails to legislative leaders. This would not have happened without overwhelming citizen support."

From Tap Oklahoma:

“We applaud the state legislature for heading consumers’ call for increased choice and convenience when it comes to beer and wine. A legislative solution was always our top priority and now we can shift our focus to getting out the vote in November. We’ll be regrouping with our coalition partners in the coming days to formulate a formal campaign rollout.”

From the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma:

"The desire of the citizens of Oklahoma to have the opportunity to vote to modernize Oklahoma's alcohol laws in November is reality now... (SJR 68) is a broad-based, responsible modernization initiative that if approved by voters will bring Oklahoma's alcohol beverage laws into the modern era."

In addition, Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma leader Bryan Kerr told that his group would continue to fight SJR 68 up until the November election, while Anheuser-Busch Sales of Oklahoma spokesman Eric James told NewsOK that his group is confident voters will approve that measure.

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