How a Band of Brewers Got Together to Change Oklahoma’s Liquor Laws

October 23, 2018

By Diana Hubbell, October 23, 2018

Brewers in Tulsa, Oklahoma have been celebrating since October 1, when critical changes to the state’s liquor laws went into effect. Among numerous other restrictions, gas stations, convenience stores, and grocery stores across Oklahoma were previously only allowed to stock beers with an ABV no higher than 3.2%. As a result, local brewers often found themselves forced to choose between churning out low-point versions of their standard beers or losing out on a major source of revenue. Now, thanks to the new legislation, all kinds of stores across the state will be able to sell refrigerated, full-strength beers, while small breweries will be able to increase their annual production from 25,000 barrels to 65,000.

“We now have about 3,000 more outlets to sell our product,” says Eric Marshall, founder of Marshall Brewing Company. “It’s been pretty crazy over the last few weeks—let’s just say they’re having a hard time keeping cases on the shelves.”

When Marshall first set up shop in town a decade ago, Tulsa’s craft brewing scene lagged behind much of the rest of the nation. Now, the city is home to more than a dozen microbreweries and taprooms, with more in the pipeline. A sizeable percentage of these have cropped up since November 8, 2016, when a ballot initiative passed that would ultimately lead to this month’s regulation reform.

All that didn’t happen overnight. By the time voters even had a chance to decide on the matter, local brewers had been advocating for change for years. Although Marshall decided early on that he wanted to help bring about reforms, he knew that trying to overhaul the whole system would take time.

“Oklahoma is a conservative state, so we knew that it was going to be a tricky fight,” Marshall says. “We knew if we came in with guns blazing and tried to change all the laws at once, it wasn’t going to happen.”

Photos courtesy of Marshall Brewing Company.

Instead, he started with a more modest crusade: to be allowed to offer samples on a brewery tour. What he initially assumed would be a fairly easy task took more than three years and multiple hearings to move forward.

“It took me practically living up at the capital for almost three months and talking to every single legislator I could,” Marshall says. Before long, he realized that it wasn’t a fight he could take on alone. Along with several other locals, he co-founded the Oklahoma Craft Brewers Guild. “I think officials took note of the grassroots support, which led to a conversation about a massive overhaul of the laws.”

Today, Oklahoma’s craft breweries are thriving and making a considerable contribution to the local economy. The Brewers Association states that in 2016, the state’s 20 craft breweries had an estimated $502 million economic impact, a figure that is almost guaranteed to continue to grow. In Tulsa, breweries including American Solera, Dead Armadillo Craft Brewing, and Renaissance Brewing Co. are doing brisk business. Meanwhile, in September, Marshall opened a 3,000-square-foot taproom in a refurbished 1930s building, which he hopes will become a welcoming space for locals of all ages.

“One thing that we fought for with the law change was to be family-friendly, so parents can bring kids into the taproom,“ Marshall says. “We want to be a community gathering space where people can come and responsibly enjoy a beer and play some games with their kids.”

He notes that in Munich, where he learned the finer points of his craft, the city’s beer gardens are crucial to the social fabric of small neighborhoods. There, the emphasis is on creating a communal watering hole rather than on binge drinking. It’s an attitude he hopes to promote in Tulsa’s increasingly diverse brewing scene.

“On the weekends, we’re seeing a lot of visitors who come down to brewery hop,” Marshall says. “It’s definitely added something to Tulsa that wasn’t there before. I think people are really embracing it.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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