Normal in Norman
By Bobby Bush
Demographics for Oklahoma are strange. Of the roughly 3 million inhabitants, one-third can be found in Tulsa. Another third reside in greater Oklahoma City, the state capital and site of the deadly Murrah Federal Building bombing four years ago. The remainder are scattered all over the flat, expansive state. Six of the state's seven brewpubs, all restricted to beers with no more than 3.2% alcohol content., can be found in OKC and the surrounding area. Tulsa Brewing closed last year, leaving Pete's Place, in Krebs - over 100 miles southeast of OKC - as the only non-OKC brewpub.
With that statistical detail out of the way, let's continue our trip in the general vicinity of Oklahoma City. South down I-35 about 20 miles leads to Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma. College towns usually make great locations for brewpubs, even without easy access to fake IDs. (Please note, this writer does not condone underage drinking- that leaves more for us old folks). Right on Main Street in rustic downtown Norman are two, literally across the street from each other.
Just two doors down from homebrew supply house Deja Brew, Coaches Brewery & Restaurant has been in operation since 1993, when it opened as Norman Brewing Company. Brian Smittle is the head brewer. He also runs Deja Brew.
With a dining area and darken bar area to the left, Coaches is well suited to handle the faculty's dining needs. But to the right, airy and brightly lighted, the student body can congregate to shoot pool and suckle beer from a large, room center island bar. Televisions blared sports from every corner. Patrons ordered half-gallon growlers of their favorite Coaches brew and then headed for their table to share its contents with friends. Growlers, at least in this facility, substituted for pitchers. No beer is sold to-go.
Oh, but the beer. Harvest Wheat, served with lemon wedge, was very thin and straw yellow. Its watery body provided little flavor and, consistently, no aftertaste. The orangish Railyard Amber Ale was better. Lightly hopped with an almost hidden sweet sensation, this was a pleasant session ale. Roughneck Porter was dark brown with low viscosity. What little taste it presented was found in the hoppy close. Coaches features three other regulars: Sunset Light Ale, Downtown Brown and Sooner Stout. Although Coaches is a fun place- they just opened up a taproom/restaurant in OKC's Bricktown Ballpark -their beers could use some work. Other area brewpubs have proven that, even with the low alcohol regulation, beer can have flavor. Even college kids will figure that out someday.
Dodging traffic, I rushed over to Interurban Restaurant & Brewpub. This facility, owned by the same folks who owned defunct Tulsa Brewing and still-operational Two Rows Brewing in Dallas, began brewing in 1993. Due to unknown reasons (but we can guess, can't we?), Interurban ceased brewing in late 1998. A failed attempt was made to sell their compact brewing equipment and later that year brewer Mike Eberle, who also serves as head brewer for OKC's Belle Isle Brewing, was enlisted to bring Interurban's brewery back to life. Eberle travels to Norman about once a week for brewing sessions, but most of the beer served from the elongated L-shaped bar is actually brewed at Belle Isle.
According to the bartender, the only original Interurban beer recipe is Steam Roller, so that's what I tried first. Billed as a light rip-off version of Anchor Steam, this medium bodied beer was tasty, featuring just enough mid-swallow bitterness to make it a great session brew. Hidden within the clear gold confines of Honey Blonde Pale Ale, was lilting malt flavor chased by a roof of the mouth hop bite. Other Interurban/Belle brews include Route 66 Amber, Barking Fish Porter, Osage Golden Wheat Ale and Tornado Alley Porter. I asked the friendly bartender what the difference was between the two Porters - Barking Fish and Tornado Alley. His reply: "I don't know. We've never had the Tornado on tap."
All is normal in Norman. But it could get better.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush