On May 17th, 2018 I arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma one year after the last time I had visited Tulsa or TUL as it’s proudly proclaimed on baseball hats, stickers on the back of pickup trucks, and cans of Hanson Bros. beer. There’s a good chance you just cracked a smile upon reading the letters that formed the words Hanson Bros. Probably because when you saw them you thought of three little brothers with hair as long as a girls dancing in front of a green screen while singing a song with lyrics that make precisely zero sense. Well, those three men are the reason I have been to Tulsa, Oklahoma two times.
My wife has been a fan of Hanson what seems like her entire life. It doesn’t really matter when she started liking Hanson she does now and has for as long as anyone can remember. I married this woman, we have two children, she still likes Hanson. Last year she decided that she had, had enough. We were traveling 11 hours Southwest to the Sooner State so she could attend H.day. That’s Hanson Day and if you think that Hanson Day is just one day you haven’t checked my bank statements because it is actually three days. This all culminates in a fourth day called The Hop Jam. Where Hanson’s love of music, beer, and keeping all of their fans in one place for maximum value comes together.
When I went on this trip last year I brought an enormous chip on my shoulder with me. I figured that everyone there would be uneducated and unsophisticated. I treated people I met poorly. I regretted the entire trip. While I was there I bounced between three places. Prairie Brewpub (a Tulsa outpost of one of my favorite breweries in the whole word Prairie Artisan Ales), Valkyrie (a cocktail bar who’s ambiance and drinks rivals Chicago’s The Violet Hour), and American Solera (the newish brewery started by Chase Healey the former brewmaster of the aforementioned Prairie Artisan Ales). In all my research I could not find another place I thought was worth a visit.
When I started researching this second trip desperate to find something new to do I stumbled upon a number of breweries that had either just opened, were about to open, or in the planning stages. With a pass to The Hop Jam secured I decided to shoot an email over to the brewery that seemed most interesting to me Heirloom Rustic Ales. Pretty quickly I got a response from Jake Miller. After a few emails we agreed that I should stop by shortly before opening on Friday.
After banging on a few doors and a couple windows I finally spotted Jake toiling away in the brewery. One more terse knock on the window and I got his attention. He let me into the brewery, a space that was quite a bit bigger than I was expecting but that this growing operation was already making feel much more compact than it actually is. One of the first things Jake wanted to show me was a new foeder and a set of new tanks. He proclaimed “this was our two year expansion plan”. Heirloom Rustic Ales has been open for six months.
With a “who do you think you are” attitude I began to politely grill Jake about the audacity of opening a brewery that’s focusing on open fermentation and “Slavic style peasant beers” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It appears that thanks to breweries like Prairie and American Solera the craft beer drinker’s palate in Tulsa is expanding. Jake told me that of beer drinkers in Tulsa only 2% are drinking craft. So there’s plenty of room to grow in a city of 400,000.
After squeezing between some tanks and checking out some of the open fermented beers Heirloom is working on we walked a long dark hallway into the taproom. At first glance the taproom seems to be following the Chipotleization of most brewery taprooms. The ceilings are exposed, there’s subway tile but take a closer look and you’ll see some thoughtful touches. There’s some oversized chairs and a run in one spot, a communal table around a corner that feels almost isolated, and the seats at the bar have backs. You should post up and stay a while.
In the taproom I was invited to try plenty of beer. One of the beers Jake was most proud of is Agrarian Lights the first ever all Oklahoma beer. It is a crisp, lemony, tart Weiss style beer perfect for the 90 degree, 100 percent humidity days the locals get to enjoy beginning right around the time I roll into town. I also tried Sticky Bottles the brewery’s “flagship” Pale Ale. This is the beer that people would hunt every bottle shop for, if it ever left the brewery. It is fruity, sweet, and reminded me of the first time I tried any of my favorite Pale Ales.
Another stunner was Plains an open fermented Saison that unfolded beautifully across my palate. Three hundred bottles of Plains we’re meant to last a few weeks in the taproom. Come by whenever, grab a bottle. It took less than a week for every one of them to get sold.
Back in the brewery Jake showed me the new 16oz cans they couldn’t wait to fill. The labels have beautiful, stark drawings of an owl or a fox. 6 inch tall works of art that I wold love to decorate my fridge with. After some more pleasantries and a hope that we would see each other on Sunday at The Hop Jam I departed. Every seat at the bar was taken, there were people sitting at tables, and the parking lot was almost full. Heirloom Rustic Ales had been open for forty five minutes.
Going on the advice of Chris Koentz of Pollyanna Brewing here in the suburbs of Chicago I headed to Cabin Boys Brewery. My Lyft pulled up to a large industrial building. If it wasn’t for the walls of the building being painted with Cabin Boys whimsical aesthetic I would have assumed it was a machine shop. And for all I know it probably was at some point. As I approached the door I heard some people chatting outside and I started to wonder just how this place might be laid out.
The taproom is modestly sized but doesn’t feel cramped. All the trappings are there, the communal table in the back, the rail along a wall, and plenty of seats at the bar. I took a seat and ordered my first beer. I was enjoying Cast-a-Line the brewery’s very refreshing Kolsch when I caught my first whiff of the uphill battle Tulsa’s new breweries are facing. Two men seated next to me were working their way through a flight. Three tasters in one man turned to the other and said “Do they make all the beer here?”. To this man’s left are two giant windows showing off Cabin Boys generous amount of stainless steel. Yes sir, all the beer is made here.
It was then that I noticed a sign on a door that encouraged visitors to bring their beer through it. I opened the door and was greeted by a cavernous space. There were round plastic tables with metal folding chairs haphazardly arranged around them. One wall had a massive screen with a baseball game being projected on to it and a lone dart board. An open door led to the outdoor area where I had heard some people chatting earlier. A few more tables were outside they were lined up across from a food truck that proudly boasted its 6lbs Hot Dogs for sale. Cabin Boys Brewery is an impressive space to drink their well crafted beers in. Besides the Kolsch I also had Huntman a very solid American IPA, and Cornerstone a peppery, dry, and tasty Saison.
I walked back into the taproom and who should be standing along the rail? Mr. Jake Miller of Heirloom Rustic Ales was chatting with someone. Not knowing anyone else in the building I figured I should rudely insert myself into their conversation. I was rewarded with being introduced to Andrew Jolly of Doubleshot Coffee Company. He and Jake were discussing what kind of hops they should put in a cascara tea. I was among my people. Jake had to get back to the brewery and that left Andrew and I have to have a rousing conversation about everything from Hanson to the coffee shop and roaster he works at. We agreed that I should stop by in the morning, paid our tabs, and went our separate ways. Tulsa was finally starting to click for me.
Bright and early the next morning and by bright and early I mean 10:30am (what I was on vacation) I took a Lyft down to Doubleshot. Shortly after ordering a mug of coffee “to stay” Andrew noticed I had come in. He hopped out from behind the bar to give me a tour. Now it could just be the caffeine but Andrew’s enthusiasm for not just coffee but Tulsa and Doubleshot is for lack of a better word uplifting. This dude loves coffee and he loves that he’s serving people in this community. He’s like a Doubleshot cheerleader. And this is where things like Heirloom, Doubleshot, and Valkyrie all started to make sense. Jake was so proud that they had built a brewery in the part of town that Heirloom is in. The bartenders at Valkyrie seem so grateful to make sophisticated cocktails for a crowd that they were probably told wouldn’t come. And Andrew seemed so happy to show me the roaster where every bean is manually brought to life to be brewed and drank around Tulsa and in their inviting coffee shop.
After the tour Andrew pulled me a shot of their house espresso Ambergris. Words can’t really do it justice but it was like drinking a slow melting expensive bar of chocolate. Buttery, rich, quite honestly one of the better shots of espresso I’ve ever had. After that I was treated to a pour over of the Panama Hartmann Natural. The cup was sweet with a red fruit finish. When the barista asked me if she had done a good job I was literally speechless. I eventually stammered out a “yeah…you did good….”.
Nice and caffeinated I left Doubleshot ready to tackle the rest of my day. I told Andrew I had hoped I would see him the next day at The Hop Jam or at least around town for one more drink before I headed out of town. It was time for the next stop on my epic quest. So, I walked two minutes down the street to American Solera’s new location. Ok, so not a very epic journey. But what awaited me at AM SO SOBO would have been worth a hike.
I approached 10 minutes before opening and there was already a large group of people. They were also bottle sharing which I didn’t even think about as I had lugged a lot of stuff with me to Tulsa from Chicago. I’m sure I could have offloaded quite a few beers had I known. The reason for such a large crowd was that Sons of Darkness was going on tap. A 16% Imperial Stout aged in Woodford Reserve barrels in collaboration with Indiana’s 18th Street Brewery. However that is not why I was there. It seems that in the time between my visits to Tulsa brewer Sam Regan has become a sort of hazy IPA whisperer. And I was eager to get my hands on Pole made in collaboration with UK hazy IPA overlords Cloudwater Brew Co. I ordered my pour (after being mistakenly poured a Sons of Darkness because that is literally what all 30 people in front of me had ordered) and the beer is soft, citrusy, and well just one of the best hazy IPAs I’ve ever had.
Inside this SoBo location of American Solera you’ll find a charming taproom. It feels like maybe you’re inside a mom and pop bakery. Except you’re drinking a pastry stout instead of pastries. But, it is the outside space where this location really shines. Over a half dozen communal tables sit under an awning that protects a bit from the sun but does almost nothing to stave off the humidity. Outside of those tables are barrels lots of barrels. Post up next to one of those and drink Someone Loves You in Copenhagen a foeder aged ale that was then aged for six months in cherry wine barrels and then refermented with cherries. Lots of cherries. A few sips of this tart refresher and you’ll forget about the sunburn you have going.
And what of Sons of Darkness? I of course had to round out my visit with a taste. Silky, smooth, the right amount of burn, Sons of Darkness is one of the best barrel-aged stouts I have ever had. The stouts Chase was making at Prairie were no accident and this beer proves he’s one of the best in the world at making them and then barrel aging them.
I got in my Lyft back to the hotel a bag full of crowlers, bottles, and coffee heavy on my lap. I reflected on what a great time I had in Tulsa this year and the passionate, incredible people I talked to. I hope to see you again next year, and make some new friends as well. Thank you to Jake at Heirloom Rustic Ales for opening the doors for me and being so kind and generous, same goes for Andrew Jolly at Doubleshot Coffee Roasters. Until next year…..
Oh. You’re probably wondering how The Hop Jam went. Well…..it didn’t. This happened instead…
This is the hallway leading to the waiting room of the emergency room at Oklahoma State University Medical Center. Saturday night I was having dinner with the always charming Dave Riddile of The Fervent Few and Collective Brewing Project, one of his co-workers Mike, Fred Hillenbrand of Upland Brewing, and their distributor rep for Tulsa. It was a great time and everything I always hope hanging out with beer people will be like. You’re drinking cool things, making inside jokes, and eating delicious food in the first five minutes of meeting. After dinner we went over to Valkyrie for a cocktail. And as I was sipping on my improved whiskey cocktail I started getting texts from my wife saying she was back at the hotel and not feeling very well. I finished my drink to go check on her and told everyone I hoped I would be back. I would not be back.
At 12am on a rainy Sunday morning I drove my wife to the emergency room. After three hours of testing it was determined that her appendix needed to be removed. And soon. Due to surgery scheduling and the lack of surgeons on Sunday it wasn’t until 3pm that they finally wheeled my wife down to surgery. By 5pm she was in recovery and we were almost ready to head back to the hotel. I spent the night watching her sleep off the anesthesia and drinking a Modern Times Fruitlands. I had missed my second Hop Jam and being able to see one of my favorite bands. But my wife was no longer in intense pain. In the morning we packed up the car and hit the road for a horrendous 12 hour journey home. Maybe next year we’ll have a completely enjoyable trip to Tulsa. As much as I wanted to say I’ll never go back because of all our bad luck in Oklahoma seeds have been planted and I very much would like to see how they grow.