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Nov 22, 2014

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American Beer Month
Oklahoma's choc beer

Even in Oklahoma, where the history of legal alcohol sales is pretty short, they've got a romantic beer story.

This one is about a beer called choc. It begins with a homebrew from the Choctaw Nation of Indian Territory. The story is that the Indians taught Italian immigrants, who came to work in the coal mines, how to make the beer.

Pete Prichard was one of those immigrants, traveling to the United States with his family in 1903 and starting work in the coal mines when he was 11 years old. He continued for 10 years before his leg was so badly crushed in a work accident that he could no longer work in the mines.

He then began making and selling choc beer in his home in Krebs, which is south of Tulsa. Soon he was also selling bread, sausage and cheese to those who came for the beer, and next he was cooking meals as well. Things went so well that he opened a restaurant in his home in 1925 and called it Pete's Place. He never added a separate bar, preferring to serve the beer to diners at their tables.

He continued to brew and sell choc beer until 1932, when he was arrested for brewing illegally and send to federal jail in Muskogee.

This came against the backdrop of ongoing Prohibition in Oklahoma. It was the only state to enter the nation, in 1907, officially dry. Yet in 1910, the Vinita Weekly Chieftain reported, "Prohibition in Oklahoma is the rankest farce that ever cursed a state... When there are thousands of bootleggers traveling up and down the country... When the streets of every town smell of whiskey... Prohibition in Oklahoma? Ye Gods, what a farce."

Still, when the rest of the United States ended Prohibition, Oklahoma stuck to it. The sale of beer no stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight was permitted because legislators classified it as a nonintoxicating beverage. The state did not permit other (legal) alcohol sales until 1958.

Yet choc beer continued to be available at Pete's until 1981. The story goes that when Pete ran out he sold choc beer made by neighboring homebrewers. The beer surely included the traditional ingredients of water, yeast, barley and hops - but in local legend homebrewers would also toss in tobacco, fish berries, moonshine and occasionally even a barley sack.

Pete passed the chef's hat to his son, Bill Prichard, in 1964, and Bill developed a "gentleman's agreement" with legal authorities to keep selling the beer. Judges, politicians, sports stars, actors and state officials were all regulars. A front page story in Oklahoma City's Daily Oklahoman ended that in 1981.

Choc beer returned to Pete's in 1995, when the restaurant now run by Bill's son, Joe, became a brewpub. Because Oklahoma only allows brewpubs to make 3.2 beer - "strong beer" is subject to another set of laws and taxes - that's what choc beer is these days.

The original choc was probably stronger, though this is a recipe that was passed down only by word of mouth, and beer drinkers can only guess what it tasted like. Today it is best described as a cloudy pale ale, with its malt character (and sweetness) more dominant than hop bitterness despite its tame 3.2 nature.

And it makes a great story.

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