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Disaster city defies bombs and prohibition

Brewpubs bring beer relief to Bible belt

From my bedroom window, I looked at the lights of the city, bright but cold. I drew the curtains and went to bed, irrationally guilty for being warm and comfortable while others lay dying or dead.

When I decided to visit Oklahoma City, it was simply to see a state where I had previously entertained no reason to venture.

I had scarcely made the arrangements when this backwater became big news in the worst possible way.

I considered postponing my trip, but there was no point. The city was still functioning, and life was going on. Visitors unconnected with the tragedy might even be a welcome distraction.

Since the disaster, Oklahoma has been depicted as heartland, but this land of hard, shallow, dusty earth is made for cattle drives rather than cornfields.

"Oklahoma" is a Native American name for "red earth", and that feature must have been a familiar sight to the Czech immigrants who came here in the 1800s, no doubt full of plans to start breweries.

They had a hard time. Oklahoma is really the Wild West stretch of the Bible Belt. It had Prohibition until 1958, and there are still considerable restrictions on alcohol.

When national Prohibition was repealed, the new regulations were drafted with a view to discouraging the sale of alcohol.

Breweries were not allowed to own tied houses for example.

In most states, that was interpreted as not permitting brewpubs. One by one, states are now yielding. When Oklahoma did, the deal was that a post-Prohibition ruling would limit the beers to 3.2 per cent alcohol by weight (4 by volume).

Oklahoma City's first brewpub opened in late 1992, and was the object of my visit. It is called the Bricktown Brewery. The name refers to a district of redbrick warehouses by the railroad tracks that skirt the city centre.

As settlement spread west with the railroads, each city developed such a district. Most have seen decades of decline, but several are now being revived, often with a brewpub at their heart.

Bricktown in Oklahoma City has been smartly restored, with new sidewalks and working gas lamps, but it still has the old, white-on-black painted signs across the tops of buildings: Wood and Tin Warehouse, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co, Oklahoma Furniture and Mattress.

A 1907 building that seems to have warehoused farm implements, perhaps feed and seed, as well as grocery and coffee businesses, is now the Bricktown Brewery.

The brick building has a cream trim, with a decorative grain silo above its arched central window. On a Thursday midday, a bustle of people from city-centre offices were at lunch, tucking into fish and chips with ale batter, smoked chicken wings or ribs.

At one end is the brewery, in the middle an island bar, around it a dining area. Round the walls are large reproductions of the logos for each of the house beers, and historical pictures of Oklahoma City.

The walls are of are brick, and the ceiling has open conduits, with hanging plants to relieve the industrial look.

Upstairs are a quieter bar, an area for live music, billiard tables, golf simulators and virtual reality machines. Principal partner Bryan Jester, who has a restaurant background, wants to make his establishment a focal point in Bricktown, and seems to be succeeding.

The brewing consultant is a German-American veteran of the industry, Karl Strauss. He worked for decades in big breweries before becoming involved in the micro movement.

Ex home-brewer Doug Moller, who makes the beer at Bricktown, is of Czech descent.

The beers included the golden, fruity, perfumy, hoppy English Ale (1042; 3.8 per cent), intended as a bitter and perhaps comparable with Boddington's; the spritzy, sweet Rock Island Rail (1040; 3.5), a Pale Ale; the malty, toasty Copperhead Amber Ale (1042; 3.5); and the tawny, lightly toffeeish Red Brick (1044; 4), somewhere between a Brown Ale and an Altbier.

About half an hour's drive from Bricktown, and two or three miles from the small town of Moore, Oklahoma, stands the Royal Bavaria Brewing brewpub. It is housed in a purpose-built, Alpine-style wooden farmhouse, on a country road lined with telegraph poles, running between fields dotted with scrub oaks and hickory.

It all seemed incongruous enough until I noticed an ostrich farm opposite. The hides are used for cowboy boots, I was told.

A former jewelry salesman, Jorg Kuhne from Munich, came here to fulfil two ambitions: he wanted to run a restaurant and to live in the West.

His brewery, fitted by Prince Luitpold of Kaltenberg, gleams in its copper cladding. The beers I sampled were made by the owner's near namesake Bernhard Kuhn, whose family own a Weizenbier brewery at Freilassing, in Upper Bavaria.

He is training a young American to take his place.

I enjoyed a lightly malty, smooth, well-balanced Helles-style lager; a toffeeish, year-round, Oktoberfest; and a spritzy but light-tasting unfiltered Weizen. For dinner, there were locally-made German sausages, red cabbage, and "original Black Forest tart".

Then we strolled in the beer garden, in which a native elm has to substitute for the customary chestnut tree. Jorg has also planted silver maples, mulberry and pistachio.

We had another beer and watched the nodding donkeys pumping black gold from the red earth of Oklahoma.

I wasn't quite 24 hours from Tulsa, but Oklahoma's second city was beyond my schedule. Instead, some of the beers from the town's Cherry Street brewpub were brought to me to sample in Oklahoma City.

Brewer Chris Cauthon told me that he was raised as a Southern Baptist, and had never been to Britain.

I was astonished by the English taste of his Mild (1036; 3.25), ruby to dark brown in colour, light and clean but softly textured and gently chocolatey, with a hint of fruit.

Mild, hard enough to find in some parts of Britain, is a rarity in the United States, yet it is an ideal style for a "3.2 state" like Oklahoma.

Cherry Street also had a good Bitter (1042; 4.0), malt-accented but developing a restrained happiness.

I hope these standards can be maintained; the beers were originally created by consultant Ike Manchester, who has certainly sampled many British ales.

The brewery's Amber drank rather like an English Special Bitter, despite an original gravity of only 1042 (again 4 ABV).

It is named after the state tree, the Redbud. Astonishingly, those litigious brewers from St Louis Missouri have yet to send a solicitor's letter.

Cherry was the original name of 15th Street, where the brewpub stands, in a 1906 school building.

The mesquite-fired pizza oven is said to work wonders, and the neighbourhood is blossoming with restaurants, coffee houses and antique shops.

Home from home for Huddersfield hunter...

Having been raised in Huddersfield, the Beer Hunter could not help but notice this sign from his long-dry local brewery, Hammonds.

The sign is above the bar in the Brooker Creek brewpub in Palm Harbor, a lakeside suburb of Tampa, Florida.

There is another such sign at the Triple Rock brewpub in Berkeley, California.

He is now on the lookout for signs for Benjamin Ainley, John Ainley, Bentley & Shaw, Rottomley, John France, Marsiand and Sons, and Seth Senior and Sons.


Published Online: JUNE 19, 2000
Published in Print: JUNE 1, 1995
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review - Beer Review

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