Toasting Tulsa

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Issue 00 | pp 42-49 | 01.04.2019

Toasting Tulsa

Zoom in on a smaller city like Tulsa, and you find cooperation, support, and mutual admiration between disparate parts of the beverage community.

Attend any number of the alcoholic beverage trade’s market presentations—the Wine Market Council’s annual research report, for example—and you could be forgiven for thinking that spirits, wine, and beer (and cider) are in a death match, ruthlessly grappling for the same pool of American drinkers and fighting for each percentage point of the market. There’s some truth to this as I know from direct experience. When I was a sommelier at Megu, I ran a full court press to get wine on every table rather than sake, the default beverage at a Japanese restaurant (my commission was only on sales of fermented grape juice, after all). But not everything is so cutthroat, so black and white, so us-versus-them. Zoom in on a smaller city like Tulsa, and you find cooperation, support, and mutual admiration between disparate parts of the bever- age community.

Tulsa’s culinary scene is relatively new. Not that there haven’t been restaurants and bars there, as indicated by the longevity of Orpha’s Lounge, one of the city’s best-known dive bars, which is in its fifth decade. However, until relatively recently, there was no destination dining and drinking, and few young urban professionals looking for entertainment. The city’s 400,000 residents are largely commuters; as in many U.S. cities that grew up after the rise of the auto industry, down- town sees the bustle of business during the day, but car culture means a return to the suburbs in the evening. That’s changed during the past decade. The robust health of the oil and gas industry has helped, and the city has become home to strong businesses like Arena Resources (an energy company), and AAON (heating and air conditioning), with up-and-comers like Hogan Assessments (consulting services) moving their headquarters to downtown Tulsa in recent years.

Healthy companies are vital to any city’s economy, of course, but expansion, especially expansion that brings in younger hires, like Hogan’s, creates opportunities for the hospitality industry. A younger population makes different demands on the city: great nightlife, not just good schools; short commutes, rather than big yards. Tulsa’s bars and restaurants are taking advantage of this influx in creative and collaborative ways.

Or is it the other way ‘round: “If you build it, they will come?” There’s a “chicken-or-the-egg” polarity between the customers and proprietors in Tulsa’s culinary story. In an interview with the Tulsa World newspaper, Hogan’s COO, Aaron Tracy, explains that Tulsa won the headquarters’ location decision because it already had amenities that would appeal to the corporation’s young workforce, comparing Tulsa as a leading contender in the class of Dallas, Denver, and Chicago in that regard. Perhaps Tracy was just flattering his new neighbors, but I favor this assessment of Tulsa’s growth in the hospitality sector, which credits the creative people in the drinking scene with leading rather than following.

In many parts of the U.S., chain restaurants are often the dominant option, and previously Tulsa was no exception to this rule. Nevertheless, chains gave many of Tulsa’s leading figures their first taste of the hospitality business. The local outpost of Fleming’s Steakhouse was once home to many of today’s leaders: T.C. Leroy, now General Manager and Operating Partner at PRHYME and Juniper; Aaron Post, today owner of Valkyrie, a leading cocktail bar; Amelia Eesley, General Manager at the Stonehorse Café, and others as well.

That starting point doesn’t necessarily mean their stories are much different from those of passionate wine or restaurant people elsewhere in the U.S.A. Leroy, for example, started as a busboy while still a student, and worked through a variety of front-of-house positions to pay the bills. He left the industry for a while in favor of a “real” job, but returned when he realized that the restaurant industry was, for him, not just an income enhancer but where he actually wanted to build his career. Now, with PRHYME and Juniper, he’s part of the JTR restaurant group, which also has two other locations. Juniper was the first, established in 2011; founder and chef Justin Thompson and his father built the place themselves, from the ground up.

Once he had come home to his preferred industry, Leroy’s interests eventually became more specific. “I was interested in service and operating and owning my own restaurant,” he notes, “but in the past couple of years I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into wine and beverages in general.” He attained Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas in 2013. He’s recently taken over the wine programs at PRHYME and Juniper, and while his titles don’t show it, the beverage programs, and wine training in particular, are the focus of his work these days. Juniper is in the midst of transforming the list from all-California to something much more international; PRHYME’s list is already quite expansive, embracing more than 200 selections from around the world.

One of the places Leroy worked along the way was McNellie’s, now a restaurant group with 15 locations, mostly in the immediate Tulsa area. In fact, several of the restaurants and bars—El Guapo, Dust Bowl, Fassler Hall, and others–are within walking distance of each other, clustered around the very first McNellie’s, which opened in 2004. Leroy and other industry observers say McNellie’s was the first establishment to breathe life back into downtown Tulsa. The change they initiated has accelerated, and the past five years has seen a lot of growth in downtown and the neighboring Brady District, bidding goodbye to the image of a city center that rolls up the sidewalks when the offices shut for the day. The JTR Group, and the cocktail bars MixCo, Valkyrie, and Hodges Bend, are all located in the same area.

Wine cannot be said to have led the way in the rebirth, as the beverage of choice at McNellie’s is beer, perhaps not surprisingly. Currently, the flagship location offers about 55 beers on tap, with a further 300 or more offered by the bottle, including vintage selections. The program is run by Tony Collins, who has been there “forever,” according to the lore among industry colleagues, who give the impression Collins was simply standing there and McNellie’s grew up around him. “We were the first big beer bar in Tulsa,” says Collins. “There was very little craft beer in the market, and no local brews; Boulevard [from Kansas City, four hours north] was the closest we had to local. But the clientele got better educated, and we did well from the start and got lots of press.”

Local breweries are now on hand; Oklahoma has approximately twenty, with about four of them—Prairie Ales, Marshall, Dead Armadillo, and The Willows Family being based in Tulsa. The Willows Family is the youngest, and specializes in sour ales. Founder Heath Glover was a home brewer who began helping out at Prairie Ales for free, mainly to keep himself occupied after being laid off from his job as a pharmaceutical rep. Eventually, he and Prairie Ales’ founder, Chase Healey, began sharing the space and helping one another out with their respective brands.

Since beer was pivotal at the beginning of downtown Tulsa’s rebirth, it provides a perspective for considering what can hold back a budding drinks’ scene. In other parts of the country, legislation has enabled small breweries to get off the ground much more easily than in Oklahoma. In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo has pushed through a number of laws making it easier for breweries, wineries and cideries to thrive. By contrast, laws designed to protect the middle tier of alcohol distribution have hampered growth in Oklahoma.

If you spend a lot of time talking about “low-point” beers, then you probably live in a state with similar challenges. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, feel thankful. Low-point beer means beer at 3.2% alcohol or lower; perhaps a positive spin would be to say they’re “super-sessionable?” (Glover’s take: “The state forces us to innovate on the low-point side.”) These are the only beers that Oklahoma’s craft brewers can sell directly at the brewery, severely limiting the potential for what is normally the most profitable model for a new brewery, the brewpub. Breweries are permitted to make stronger beers, but if they wish to sell them on-site, they need to first sell them to a broker or distributor and then buy them back before they sell to the consumer. This rather farcical process can be performed in conjunction with a distribution facility that can be adjacent to—but physically separated from—the brewery itself. This protects the distributor’s cut, which could be characterized as money for nothing, as the song goes.

That’s just one example, and it’s clearly slowed the craft beer industry. If you chuckled at the idea of a state having only twenty craft breweries (the average among states in the U.S.A. is over 65, according to the Brewers’ Association), you may think that drinkers in Oklahoma are a bit backward or unadventurous. However, the beers in the lineup of The Willows Family are as cutting edge as any in California or Colorado; their Heat Sweat, for example, is a göse (sour wheat ale with coriander and salt added), but primed with brettanomyces yeast and dry-hopped with Chinook hops. It’s out there, to be sure, but enjoyable; its aromas live up to the off-putting name, while tropical fruit notes come through on the palate. And it sells, which indicates that Oklahoma’s drinkers aren’t backward or unreceptive, but rather that the whole beer scene has been constrained by obstructionist legislators.

This factor is evident in the bar and restaurant world as well. High posting fees ($1,000 or more per SKU, annually) have discouraged distributors from bringing in many products. Until recently, this was especially true because wholesalers were required to pay that entire annual fee even for limited-availability products they might only be able to sell for a month or two each year. Say goodbye to allocated or low-production items; they’d have to bear too large a markup to counterbalance those fees. Thankfully, beginning last year, wholesalers need only pay those fees for the quarters in which they have product to sell (at $250 per quarter for wine and spirits), making rarities and seasonal items more viable. But even this improved practice still imposes an added cost that hampers availability of smaller brands.

Tulsa’s venues have responded to that challenge by collaboratively demanding interesting offerings. “We’re actually getting a lot of product in,” says Leroy. “Cocktail bars are getting a lot of portfolios that weren’t here before. We’re telling suppliers, ‘We want this product; all of us will support it.’ Spirits importer Haus Alpenz was never in Oklahoma until two years ago. We pulled together and got twenty bartenders and said, ‘We’ll all order this.’ They brought ten items from their portfolio, and every year they’re adding more.”

At this point, the united progress is more apparent on the spirits’ front than among those hoping to enhance wine availability. Sommeliers pushing for broader access don’t seem to have the pull that the cocktailians do. In part, that may be because the sheer number of wines in existence vastly exceeds that in other beverage categories, which makes it very difficult to exert concerted pressure to get access to any particular wine. Local sommeliers might be able to agree that they want more wines from southwest France or South Africa, for example, but they’d also need to agree on the specific wines they want in order to entice importers and distributors effectively. As a result, classic regions such as Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa are well represented, but more obscure (if somewhat trendy) wines like those from the Jura or Corsica might only be represented in the market by a single brand, if at all. Tulsa’s sommeliers currently have little choice but to work with what’s on hand in this regard.

Nevertheless, Tulsa’s wine community isn’t letting the limited pool of wines narrow its interests. Training sessions are shared across restaurant groups; JTR staff members might turn up to taste when Amelia Eesley conducts a tasting at Stone Horse; Hodges Bend’s staff, too. T.C. Leroy is only one of several Certified Sommeliers, and eight more Tulsans joined their ranks and received their certifications last October. Similarly, in the cocktail community, training and information is growing, whether informal or more formal, as in the order of a Bartenders’ Guild. The informal sort sounds like a lot of fun: Tony Collins moderates a quarterly cocktail competition called “Cockfights.” Top local bartenders are assigned to “make and take”: make three classic cocktails to a set recipe and take a shot to stop the clock and be judged on both speed and execution.

The beverage community extends well beyond alcohol. In fact, one of the most vibrant companies in the scene, Topeca Coffee Roasters, isn’t in alcohol at all; perhaps being free from onerous, byzantine regulations allows them to focus on coffee. They got their start in 2002, when the family coffee plantation in El Salvador moved beyond merely farming coffee beans by investing in milling and roasting equipment, coming to Tulsa in 2005, just as the local beverage scene was heating up. Hodges Bend and others have also begun serving their coffee, and Topeca has made their high-tech training facility, Topeca Instruments Division, available for tastings and classes that go well beyond coffee. “We try to bridge the gap between specialty industries,” says Ian Picco, Director of Coffee Quality.

John “Chip” Gaberino, Topeca’s owner, is also a partner in Hodges Bend, together with Noah Bush. Like Moriarty in Sherlock, albeit much more pleasantly, Bush turns out to have played a role in almost all of the cutting edge drinking establishments in Tulsa. He’s bartended at Vintage 1740, buys beer from The Willows Family Ales, worked alongside T.C. Leroy and Jared Jordan of Mixed Co., and has opened another bar, the Saturn Room, with Gaberino this past year. Known mainly as a bartender, he’s also a Certified Sommelier. So it’s fitting that Hodges Bend might seem a cocktail bar to some, but at other, earlier times of day, feels like a decked out coffee shop. For that matter, beer geeks and wine aficionados don’t feel out of place either.

For industry folks, whatever your drink, you probably pass through Hodges Bend on a regular basis. It’s a microcosm of Tulsa’s drinking scene, where all the components fit together like a well-made cocktail, with each element bringing out the best of the others.

Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 00, pages 42–49