Take two engineers, a linguist, a surveyor, a school administrator, a mycologist, an entomologist, and a historian. Add a dash of homebrewing expertise, BJCP judging experience, Scotch connoisseurship, and a general love of hops and malt. Mix all of this together with a beer-laden table on a Sunday night shortly after Halloween, and what do you get?
The task: Choose six favourites in a blind tasting of some one-and-a-half dozen Oklahoma beers.
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Rewind back about a year. I was just getting Tempest up and running and had come across Bryan Roth’s This Is Why I’m Drunk, an informative and entertaining beer blog that quickly became one of my regular reads. I found one of Bryan’s category listings particularly intriguing: the Six-Pack Project. Bryan’s aim with his Six-Pack Project is to have beer writers from far-flung places highlight the best of their local beer culture. “If someone is coming to visit,” Bryan asks, “what bottles or cans would we want to share?” I noticed that Oklahoma wasn’t on the list. I sent Bryan a note and embarked on a few months’ worth of drinking my way through virtually the entire gamut of Oklahoma beer offerings.
Now, Oklahoma isn’t exactly a craft beer mecca, so drinking my way through the state was not as Herculean a task as it may sound. This isn’t Colorado, after all. According to the most recent Brewers’ Association stats from 2013, Oklahoma ranks forty-fourth in the U.S. in terms of breweries per capita. Along with a smattering of brewpubs that serve up low-point 3.2 ABW beer on premises, only a small handful of breweries package beer at their own production facilities or under contract with one of those operations.
Even if the number of craft breweries in Oklahoma is of a Lilliputian order, quality is generally high. Some breweries, such as Prairie Artisan Ales, have garnered a national following for their beers, and within the Oklahoma craft beer scene just about every brewery has at least one beer in their year-round or seasonal lineup that commands legions of fans. Thirsty Oklahomans are nothing if not loyal to their local breweries, something that portends very well for the future of craft beer in the state.
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One of Bryan’s guidelines for the broader Six-Pack Project reads as follows: “This isn’t simply a ‘best of’ list. The goal is to pick a collection of six beers that represents your state and/or state’s beer culture.” With these sentiments in mind, I narrowed down the field to a selection of styles both appealing to a range of drinkers and appropriate to the different seasons. But I did bend Bryan’s guidelines a tad, leaving the results up to the group of convivial imbibers gathered around the table for our blind tasting.
Beers were divided into seven flights, each flight containing two to three beers. Flight One eased us in with session beers and wheat beers, Flight Two was a walk on the farmhouse wild side, and Flights Three and Four hopped up the tasting with American pale ales, ambers, and IPAs. Flight Five featured the richer end of the Belgian-style beer spectrum, Flight Six left us contemplating the depths of the stout abyss staring back at us, and Flight Seven induced vertigo with high-octane seasonals that included an imperial porter, a double ESB, and an imperial black IPA.
Without the influence that a brand name or a label can exert, we came up with a six-pack that surprised many of us when the list was unveiled, and that will likely surprise many Oklahoman craft beer drinkers. One among us exclaimed that he had always held XXYY to be his favourite Oklahoman beer. To everyone’s amusement, the beer didn’t even make it into his six-pack selection.
How It All Shook Out
Sixth Place: F5 (COOP Aleworks)
F5 pays wary tribute to a sublimely destructive force that all too often tears across the Southern Plains. “A straightforward malt body supports the distinctive bouquet of Columbus and Falconer’s Flight hops that impart citrus, grapefruit and pine notes characteristic of the West Coast style. F5 is a belligerent hop reckoning.” For those not conversant with tornado lore, an F5 is the strongest on the Fujita scale, with estimated wind speeds between 261 and 318 miles per hour (419-512 km/h). Though crisply bitter, this IPA is actually a bit more nuanced than a tornado, with a clean and lightly honeyed malt profile forming the backdrop to clearly delineated, resinous hop notes of tropical fruit (mango and pineapple), citrus (grapefruit zest and tangerine), and pine.
Fifth Place: Brandy’s Imperial Sundae (Saddlebag Series, Mustang Brewing Company)
The label announces this beer as “a rich, creamy Imperial Vanilla Porter,” and though the vanilla loses its way among the expansive dark fruit, caramel-maple syrup, and roasted aromatics, the vinous quality and malt complexity of this cola-hued ale sealed the deal for most of us. Not quite in Baltic territory, this robust porter is still an impressive seasonal/specialty release from a brewery known more for its workaday year-round offerings. The Saddlebag Series gives free rein to head brewer Gary Shellman’s creative ambitions, so if you find one of these less-widely available beers, it’s worth picking up.
COOP’s tawny-orange Native Amber looks like liquid caramel in a glass––a prelude of good things to come. Native Amber offers as much hop complexity as its IPA cousin, but with a malt complexity that plays well in concert with the hop aromas. Native Amber is the kind of beer you’d want to drink by the fire as the sun is setting on a cool and smoky autumn day. Brown-sugared hops, caramelized citrus zest, and toasted pine needles set the aromatic stage for a richly malty brew that holds up the harmonious hop palate without effort. Less bitter than the F5, the hops are, nonetheless, out in force, lending the beer a smooth, aperitif-like bitterness, and ensuring that the caramel malts don’t steal the show. Native Amber’s 55 IBUs will keep your hophead friends happy while satisfying those who like a stronger dose of malt with their hops.
Third Place: Uroboros Stout (Anthem Brewing Company)
This dense and chewy American stout packed with flavours of darkly-roasted coffee and burnt raisin pushes up against imperial boundaries with its heady 8.5% ABV. In the spirit of regeneration symbolized by the mythological Ouroboros, Anthem describes its stout as one “reborn here as a Belgian-inspired creation. Roasted and chocolate malts, dark candi sugar, oak spirals, and Belgian yeast circle in harmonious union.” This was one of the more polarizing beers of the evening, but satisfied enough of us to land it in the six-pack just ahead of the Native Amber. I enjoyed the mocha and Black Forest cherry character, but found that the notes suggestive of over-roasted coffee lent a slightly astringent bitterness to the beer. That said, one of us described it as “pitch black and bodacious”––an enthusiastic enough endorsement for you to buy this beer when your friends come to town.
Side note: Anthem was one of the brewing companies that was taken out when a tornado hit OKCity Brewing Co. on May 31, 2013. Mustang, which owned the facility, was also affected. So was Black Mesa. Fortunately, no one was in the brewery when the tornado touched down, but the brewhouse was rendered inoperable. The craft beer drinking community rallied behind all three breweries, and after stints of contract brewing elsewhere, Mustang and Anthem are now ensconced in separate new facilities. Black Mesa continues to brew ale “hand-crafted by our tornado recovery team in O’Fallon, MO.” Such are the hazards of brewing beer in Tornado Alley.
Second Place: Signature Dubbel (Choc/Pete’s Place)
Choc (pronounced “chock,” and short for Choctaw beer, a historical style in its own right) traces its roots back to a time when Pete Prichard (né Pietro Piegari) took to slaking the thirst of the English, Irish, Welsh, and Italian immigrants who flocked to the area in search of jobs in the nearby coal mines. Prichard’s prototypical homebrewing operation kept right on trucking through Prohibition at Pete’s Place, his family-style Italian eatery that fast became an institution in southeastern Oklahoma.
Since the dark days of Prohibition, Prichard’s descendents have served their home-brewed beer and home-vinified wine to an impressive roster of state politicians, governors, U.S. senators, athletes, and movie stars, all while home-fermenting was illegal in Oklahoma. Eventually, the Prichards went pro, and were among the first craft breweries in the state. Nowadays, Choc brews much of Prairie Artisan Ale’s beers, has helped Elk Valley get on its feet, and even contributed brewing space to help Mustang weather the storm until its new brewing facility opened. With all that contract brewing going on, Choc is, unfortunately, less ubiquitous than it once was.
Choc’s Signature Dubbel is not a looker, but once you take your eyes off of the turbid copper liquid in the glass, it all gets much better very quickly. Many of us liked the raisin, date, and prune aromas and flavours that give the beer its port-like quality. Others praised the beer’s kettle caramelization, hint of herbal hoppiness, and spiced pumpkin earthiness. For me, the beer was like a Spanish chocolate fig cake, and had a subtle but distinct dark cherry acidity that kept the rich malt balanced. Serve this one at 55F or above for maximum aroma impact. And try it with a plate of lamb fries at Pete’s Place.
First Place: OPA (Choc)
After tasting Choc’s Oklahoma Pale Ale blind in one of the elimination round tastings I had done, I was fairly confident that it would make the six-pack when we got around to our evening of tasting. But first place? Ah, the merits of blind tasting––and a reminder that price and quality are not always equivalent values. (A 12-oz single of OPA will set you back a whopping one dollar and sixty one cents.) What we appreciated about this deep golden beer is its complex yet finely balanced hop-forward character. Aromas featured a panoply of tropical fruit, citrus zest, and fir tree needles on a bed of clean and subdued toasty, honeyed malt. Crisply bitter, the beer manages a pas de deux between smoothness and peppery spiciness.
Taking Stock … And a Few Substitutions Thrown In
*Among the surprises that greeted us when all was said and done, two breweries getting their share of positive press these days weren’t among the breweries represented in our blind-tasted six-pack. That doesn’t mean that these breweries don’t produce beers worth searching out. I’ll pick up this thread again shortly.
*In tasting my way through Oklahoma’s many compelling offerings, I was struck by how few good porters or brown ales there are in this state. The same goes for lower-ABV stouts.
*I found myself wishing that Choc would produce their Signature Series in more quantity. Bring on the Gose and Grätzer!
*Our blind-tasted sixer is light on session beers. Unfortunately, Oklahoma doesn’t really excel in this category. Some of the high-point breweries have taken note of this deficiency, with COOP, Prairie, and Roughtail having just begun to roll out lines of 3.2 beers within the past few months. Honourable Mention in our tasting goes to McNellie’s Pub Ale from Marshall in Tulsa.
*If I had visitors coming to stay with me during the height of a scorching Oklahoma summer, I’d want something in my fridge capable of quelling the heat while we’re waiting for our food to cook on the grill. Prairie, famous for high-ABV stouts like Prairie Bomb! and its numerous spin-offs, does a better job, in my opinion, of turning out excellent lower ABV farmhouse ales like Prairie Standard or Birra. Both are reliably crisp, refreshing, and quaffable. But if you must, knock yourself out with a Bomb.
*Roughtail was also among the surprise no-shows in our six-pack. But even if the popular brewery placed no beers in the blind-tasted sixer, its Roughtail IPA and Polar Night Stout each hold the distinction of having garnered as many top-six votes as two of the beers that made the cut. You can’t go wrong subbing either of these beers for others in the six-pack.
*Last but not least, a doff of the ole hat to Nick Trougakos (aka The Thirsty Beagle) and to Tom Gilbert of What the Ale fame. Both have done an immense service to the Oklahoma craft beer scene with their writing.
If you’ve made it this far, don’t forget to check out Bryan Roth’s writing over at This Is Why I’m Drunk. Not only is he a master of “beertography,” but he has also put together some insightful analyses of all things craft beer. His recent “Beer Advocate and the United States of Beer” is a series that probes the connection between ratings and ABV.
Related Tempest Articles
Beer Is OK. You can even order the real deal at Etsy. Hefty enough to double as a meat cleaver in a pinch.
The Six-Pack Project Logo: Courtesy of Bryan Roth
Near the Kansas border: F.D. Hofer
Brandy’s Imperial Sundae: Mustang Brewing Co.
Native Amber: COOP Aleworks
Uroboros Stout: Anthem Brewing Co.
Choc Signature Belgian-Style Dubbel (750mL label): beerstreetjournal.com
Prairie Birra: http://prairieales.com
Roughtail Polar Night Stout: www.roughtailbeer.com
Tall Grass Prairie Preserve: F.D. Hofer
© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.