Sooner Brewers

Craft breweries are making big headway in Oklahoma.

In 2010, Eric Marshall’s company witnessed 45 percent growth over the previous year despite a struggling economy.

In 2011, in the face of an economy that only wild-eyed optimists and politicians see as improving more than marginally, that percentage growth is expected to be even higher.

Marshall isn’t in the hedge fund business or in some industry that benefits from foreclosures or government spending. Instead, Marshall is the president and brewmaster at Tulsa-based Marshall Brewing Company, manufacturers of popular lines of hand-crafted, full-strength beers.

“Business has been going very well,” Marshall says. “We’re selling more than we can make. We’re expanding our seasonal beers. We’ve only been distributing in Oklahoma, but we are now looking at selling in other states as well.”

After having initially only sold its beer in keg form, Marshall Brewing began producing 12-ounce bottles for sale in liquor stores a little more than a year ago. The company recently nearly doubled the size of its plant.

“In 2010, we did just under 1,700 (31-gallon) barrels,” Marshall says. “We’re set to make 2,500 to 3,000 barrels this year.”

Marshall isn’t the only Oklahoma brewery to make big strides in a short period of time.

JD Merryweather, co-founder and director of sales and marketing for COOP Ale Works in Oklahoma City, says that the sensibilities born of the recession might actually be part of the impetus for the growth of local breweries.

“You’re seeing a lot of interest in hand-made stuff here in Oklahoma City,” Merryweather says. “People are getting away from industrial made things. There are coffee shops roasting and grinding their beans and little bakeries. Those kinds of things are booming.”

Merryweather says that COOP, has doubled production since launching two years ago and is continuing to experience growth statewide.

As is the case with Marshall, COOP has also added a product line by entering the canned beer market in late 2010. Although its products are still primarily sold on draft, they are also available in liquor stores.

Merryweather says it was pure observation that was the catalyst to launch COOP.

“We saw a vacancy in the market,” he says. “No one was really embracing the Oklahoma City market. I know Marshall’s felt the same way about Tulsa.”

Marshall and COOP have another thing in common, a recurring theme in the stories of local breweries: The companies were began not by veteran brewers, but by small businessmen with passion.

“My dad did a little bit of home brewing, which got me interested,” Marshall says. “Then I studied in Germany my junior year of college and it really caught on. I knew this was for me. When I moved back to Tulsa, my dad had built a home pub. That’s where the sickness started…the hobby got out of hand.”

Marshall would go on to study brewing in Germany and briefly work for Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania before returning home to launch his business. Today its draft products are available from more than 300 tap handles statewide.
Merryweather says his only experience in the beverage industry was working in a restaurant, where wine was more his specialty.

“I got into craft beer in the 1990s,” he says.

Tim Schoelen, president and managing partner of Mustang Brewing Company is also a legacy member of the state brewing community.

“I actually worked in health care, but my dad was a home brewer – it seemed like fun,” Schoelen says.

He was also inspired by his love of Choc Beer, the nearly century-old granddaddy of Oklahoma brews. But it was his appreciation of the contemporary business structure of Samuel Adams that prompted the company’s particular approach. Unlike other brewers in the state, Mustang’s beers are created in other states and then shipped for distribution in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Its model has worked for Mustang.

“We projected selling 7,500 case equivalents last year and we ended up selling 12,000,” Schoelen says. “In September 2009 we sold 281 cases; in September 2010, we sold 2,081 cases. We also won two silver medals at the World Beer Championships.”

Despite different business models, all state brewers operate under very old and sometimes arcane laws governing the sale of beer that, among other things, don’t permit full-strength beer to be sold in grocery or convenience stores.

Today’s brewers are leery to complain about the state’s regulations, citing a lengthy history of less-than-congenial relations with the state. But few seem to feel as if regulation is prohibitive of doing business at their particular level, either.
Marshall says that he was fully aware of Oklahoma’s laws and regulations when the company was launched.

“Every state has its own regulations.” Marshall says. “People can say what they want, but we’ve made it work. If you can say you’re business has grown 40 to 45 percent, I’d say you’re doing well.”

The environment remains open for further expansion.

“The thing is, there is plenty of room for more,” Merryweather says. “There’s not a lot of competition.”