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The Brewhouse finds new ways to stay ahead after 25 years

January 20, 2019
In this Dec. 30, 2018 photo, The Brewhouse co-owners John Howell and Jack Hooper said the brewpub worked hard to brew high point beer as Oklahoma liquor laws changed Oct. 1 in Norman, Okla. Now, three months later, the last of the transition process is complete. The Brewhouse is one of only a handful of brewpubs in the entire state. (Caleb Slinkard/The Norman Transcript via AP)

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — When Oklahomans passed updated liquor laws in 2016, many rejoiced at more freedom to purchase cold wine and full-strength beer at a wider variety of retail locations. But it meant tens of thousands of businesses needed to get ready for the new world of alcohol in Oklahoma.

For some, it was even more complicated. The Brewhouse is one of only a handful of brewpubs in the entire state, The Norman Transcript reported . The difference between a brewpub and production breweries is that brewpubs, prior to the liquor law changes, could have a mixed beverage license and sell liquor by the drink, have a kitchen, be all ages and be open until 2 a.m.

But with the incredible volume of new permit applications flowing into the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE), and no additional funding for the state legislature to accommodate the influx in applications, brewpubs were the last thing ABLE was worried about. Which meant Brewhouse management didn’t know what they were in for until August, a few months before the new liquor laws would take effect.

“They had 30,000 applications from Walmart alone to process,” co-owner John Howell said. “They had stacks of applications covering each desk, you couldn’t see people behind them. We were begging them for information. They were honest with us: we were the last things on their minds. The state didn’t give them a penny for more staffing.”

The Brewhouse wasn’t sure what the law changes meant for their kitchen and their mixed beverage license. The ABLE Commission reached out in August, and Howell was told they were going to be able to keep all of their current licenses and permits, and would be able to apply to brew high point beer and distribute it themselves.

“For those six brewpubs out there, that was a giant opportunity for us,” Howell. “Production breweries had to add everything: we just needed to figure out how to brew high point beer.”

But that was just one challenge overcome. September is a big month for The Brewhouse: they provide beer at the state fair and with four home OU football games, the demand was high.

“It was like the seven plagues of Revelation,” Howell said. “It was one thing after another. We’d have a mechanical failure, and nothing back there is sitting on a shelf at Lowe’s. They’re making it for you in Canada and strapping it the back of a turtle and they’re pointing that turtle toward Oklahoma and you’re hoping for the best.”

Beer isn’t brewed overnight. It’s a complex process that begins with the master brewer creating the wort that is then mixed with water and hops. The mixture is then quickly cooled as yeast is added, and then the fermentation process begins. When the beer has fermented long enough, the yeast is removed and the beer is stored in a refrigerated room for several weeks before it is ready to be served. In order to brew high point beer to be ready for Oct. 1, they had to start in July.

“I remember, one of our partners told me, ‘It’s not so great right now. We have no beer,’” co-owner Jack Hooper said. “I said you’re telling me we’re a brewery, and we have no beer? But we figured it out. We got caught up, and they’re beautiful beers.”

The Brewhouse regularly produces three different beers: wheat, amber and IPA. There’s an 80-day IPA (aged for two-and-a-half months) available now, and Howell said they would begin the process of brewing a smaller batch of their stout in the near future.

“We took our flagship beers and we reimagined the recipes pursuing ABVs that we think are more in line with what people are interested in from their craft beer,” Howell said, thanks to the work of brewmaster Benjamin Rickman.

The Brewhouse has a 30-barrel system, one of the largest, if not the largest, in the state, and is one of the largest beer producers in Oklahoma.

“We were the second brewery in Oklahoma, and we haven’t sold,” Hooper said. “We feel like kind of the godfather for craft beer in the state.”

“Recently, one of the COOP owners mentioned to us at one of our restaurants ’Hey, we finally overtook you as the highest volume producer in the state,” Howell added. “We were just wiping off a counter and were like, ‘excuse me?’”

Howell said The Brewhouse sells roughly the same volume of all of its beers, except for the stout, which they brew in smaller 10-barrel batches. Recently, its IPA has become more popular, tracking with increased popularity for the hoppy beverage across the country.

Over the years, Howell and Hooper, along with two other partners, have worked to keep The Brewhouse ahead of competitors. They’ve tried a bunch of different things — live music, different food, even bingo — and have settled on the sports pub setup. That doesn’t mean they’re not done innovating: a recent renovation of the store front makes the restaurant more inviting and lets in more natural light.

Right now, The Brewhouse provides beer to its patrons and the three other GL Dining locations in Norman: The Library, Blackbird and Blu. Howell said there’s been some discussions about potentially canning and distributing Brewhouse beers, but there are space and manufacturing concerns that would need to be figured out first. Besides, he added, The Brewhouse has always focused on maintaining a level of excellence.

“An old expression of Jack’s is to protect what you have,” Howell said. “We don’t want to get too cute. Let’s not screw up what we have, then we’ll see what the future holds.”

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Information from: The Norman Transcript, http://www.normantranscript.com

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