Oklahoma Breweries May Start Offering Free Samples

Nov 1, 2013

Eric Marshall holds his 1-year-old daughter while Taylor Owens (left) and Garrick Ritzky (background) tend to their duties at Marshall Brewing Company. Marshall was heavily involved in the push to get a law passed allowing the state's breweries to offer samples.
Credit Matt Trotter / KWGS

It's Wednesday morning, and Garrick Ritzky has a plastic graduated cylinder in front of him.

"Everything is measured," he said. "Your temperatures have to be spot-on, your volumes have to be spot-on. There's a lot of science behind it all."

Except he's not in a laboratory.

"Today we're brewing Big Jamoke, which is our next seasonal to be released," Ritzky said. "It's a robust porter, so a lot of chocolate, a little roasted undertones, still quite a bit of hops to balance it out, though. A decent amount of alcohol as well, so a good cooler-weather beer."

Ritzky works at Marshall Brewing Company, Tulsa's first — and for now, only — strong-beer brewery. Today is one owner Eric Marshall has been looking forward to since the brewery opened in mid-2008: The day he can start offering samples of his beers, something Oklahoma wineries have been able to do with their products for years.

"When we started, we were kind of told, 'Yeah, that's great, but you're going to have to get the law changed before you can do that,'" said Marshall. "So we've pretty much been sitting here with a little tasting room, tasting bar from the beginning and haven't been able to use it."

Changing the law hasn't been easy for Marshall, even with having a brother who's an attorney to draft the legislation. State Rep. Seneca Scott (D-Tulsa) introduced a version last year. It got through committee on a 13-1 vote, but House leaders didn't bring it to the floor.

This year, Marshall found an unlikely ally to introduce the legislation, which became House Bill 1341.

Rep. Glen Mulready (R-Tulsa) says he's "not a big beer guy." His campaign website describes him as a church and family man who's 100-percent pro-life and supports Arizona's tough approach to immigration. That seems like a recipe for stiff opposition to beer samples, but to him, HB 1341 isn't about alcohol.

"To me, it just seemed like a common-sense business bill," said Mulready. "It was more of a business and economic development issue than anything."

According to the Beer Institute, a lobbying organization for the beer industry, Oklahoma had 13 active breweries in 2012. Those 13 breweries supported 70 jobs, paid more than $2 million in wages and contributed $12.5 million to the state's economy.

Mulready also has his eye on tourism dollars.

"The foodies, is what that group is called, where they travel for food items, but as well, they travel to, you know, some of the different breweries," he said.

While it's difficult to attribute specific numbers to beer tourism, research suggests it's alive and well. A study last year out of the University of North Carolina found 38 percent of that state's brewery visitors were tourists, most of them college-educated with full-time jobs. Half of those tourists made $80,000 a year or more.

Still, this year's bill had its opponents. It came to the House floor on Feb. 26, where Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) spoke against the seemingly incongruous legislation.

"People that have three DUIs will lose their vehicle," he said. "Now we're putting hard beer available to people to go out and potentially drive."

Rep. Todd Russ, a Republican representing Beckham, Greer, Kiowa and Washita counties, opposed the bill in 2012 and did again this year, saying alcohol is an extreme danger to society.

"One out of 10 people in, in, in society today have a, uh, have a, uh unique chemical makeup in their body, and they have a predisposed likelihood of the reaction alcohol has in their body," he said.

But a little bipartisan support got the job done. Rep. Wade Rousselot, a Democrat representing parts of Wagoner County, put it into terms even the most God-fearing legislator might understand.

"It was good enough for Jesus to take six very large containers, somewhere around 30 gallons each, and turn from water to wine after his mom got his attention and told him to do it," he said. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"I do agree," Mulready said in February, "And as I understand the story, there were then free samples after that."

Which brings us back to today, where in a few hours, Marshall can start offering up to 12 ounces of samples per customer at the custom-built wood bar in his brewery's tasting room.

"We're excited that people get to come take a tour, see where the beer is made, meet the brewers and really have the experience with the product that they're drinking," he said.

And those brewers, including Ritzky, are eager to tell you about what they consider the best job they could have.