For travelers not already flying over the high plains and open prairie, Oklahoma is often little more than a pit stop on the superslab that has replaced the storied Route 66. But as so many peddlers of Route 66 nostalgia for faded youth and a bygone era of bustling Main Streets are wont to remind us, life begins at the off-ramp.
Oklahoma presents an instructive study in contrasts when lined up next to so many other regions in North America where craft beer culture is burgeoning. When Oklahoma joined the Union in 1907, it was the only state to have done so as a dry state. That unfortunate legacy – amplified by Prohibition’s hangover – still pervades state laws governing the production and sale of liquor. Today, the number of Oklahoman craft breweries would not exhaust the digits of your extremities. Tasting rooms are few and far between. Brewpubs do not abound, for it is illegal for the same entity to own more than one tier of beer distribution above the “low point” (3.2% ABW) level. Brewpubs offering a standard-issue American IPA would be in triple violation of these statutes with their combined roles as producers, distributors, and retailers of their goods.
All of this might tempt the intrepid traveler heading between the relatively greener craft beer pastures of Missouri and Texas (or Illinois and California) to drive on. But thanks to the tenacious efforts of a small but growing band of brewers offering up a well-crafted diversity of beers to an appreciative and growing public, a sea change is in motion. Despite a state-wide ban on homebrewing lifted only in 2010, the Fellowship of Ale Makers, or FOAM, of Tulsa has been going strong for some years now, hosting a yearly competition and nurturing a cadre of beer judges. In November of this year, the state finally gave the green light to brewers to offer up to four 3-ounce samples of their wares. Tasting rooms, long a fixture of other craft beer locales, are now slowly taking root in Oklahoma’s famed red earth. With these and other salutary changes sweepin’ on down the Oklahoma plain, the mantra of the Main Street boosters bears repeating: life begins at the off-ramp.
The off-ramp in question here is the US-62 exit off the I-35 in the northeastern reaches of Oklahoma City. If you drive not too far into the sunrise through a collection of gas stations and industrial parks interspersed with gently rolling hills and wind-scoured prairie, you’ll happen upon Roughtail Brewing Company, one of the newest stars in Oklahoma’s craft beer firmament. Heeding the siren call of many a homebrewer before them, co-owners Blaine Stansel and Tony Tielli (also head brewer) hatched the idea of fleeing the boredom of their day jobs while members of the Red Earth Brewers. Within a short time, their seven-barrel brewery was open for business.
Roughtail’s motto is “Aggressive. Flavor Forward,” and these gents do not have a low-point ABW bone in their bodies. As co-owner and head brewer, Tony Tielli, relates, Roughtail wanted to distinguish itself early on among its craft beer-brewing peers by brewing beers with character. A brewery like COOP Ale Works includes a flavourful F5 IPA in its line-up (F5 is a reference to the strongest category of tornado), and Oklahoma stalwart, Choc Beer Company, ventures into historical styles like Gose and Grätzer. Roughtail takes this flare for both intensity and experimentation a step further, tipping its hat to hop-forward stylistic iterations common to the likes of Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington State. Seasonals like Roughtail’s Pumpkin Porter and their soon-to-be-tapped Weizenbock might occasionally explore the rich potential of malt, but for the most part, Humulus lupulus reigns supreme.
Roughtail is also a prime example of how the nascent craft brew industry is contributing to the economic revival that both Oklahoma state and city have been enjoying in recent years. Roughtail has been brewing at capacity since October, prompting Tielli and Stansel to hire two new sets of brewhouse hands within the past month.
Out-of-state distribution is also on the distant horizon, and a few wine barrels may soon arrive to hold court with Roughtail’s recently-acquired compact canning line. True to character, Tielli speaks about wanting to do something different once the barrels are on hand: white wine barrel-aged Kölsch, anyone?
Apropos of the canning line, Roughtail now has three regulars in 16-ounce tall boys to accompany their limited-edition 750 mL bottlings on the shelves of Oklahoma’s bottle shops. With its grapefruit-citrus aromas layered over earthy toasted malts bearing a trace of licorice, 12th Round is an American strong ale that pays tribute to a particularly arrogant but well-loved beer from San Diego. 12th Round is unique in that it features a high proportion of Victory malt – upwards of 15% – a malt usually as prominent as a viola in a Berlioz symphony. In this case, Victory combines with the hops to give the beer a distinctly hop-toast character and a pleasant dried apricot finish. Polar Night is a dry-hopped American stout that exudes aromas of the Yakima Valley. Crisply defined dry stout notes of roasted barley, fruity dark chocolate, and a touch of espresso slowly emerge from underneath the bed of fresh hops. This beer benefits from serving temperatures on the warm side of cellar, lest the hops inadvertently steal the show. The Roughtail IPA derives its herbal-mint, tropical fruit, and tangerine aromas from a combination of Summit, Columbus, Nugget and Cascade hops, and the dank, resiny flavours are sure to please hop devotees.
Still a work in progress, Roughtail’s tasting room at 1279 N. Airport Blvd, Oklahoma City, welcomes visitors by appointment and conducts the occasional tour of its facilities, usually on a monthly basis. (Check their website or Facebook page for details.) Business is booming at Roughtail, so if you’re in the area and want to volunteer to get your hands dirty in the brewhouse bottling or canning, contact them here.
For more information on Oklahoma’s up-and-coming beer scene, The Thirsty Beagle will satisfy your needs for information served up au courant. Nick Trougakos, the transplanted Torontonian behind the Beagle, has emerged as an expert on, and impassioned proponent of, craft beer in Oklahoma.