I spent the better part of Saturday touring the Choc brewery in Krebs and chatting with brewmaster Michael Lalli and Zach Prichard, the great-grandson of Pete’s Place founder Pete Prichard and a Jack-of-all-trades around the brewery. The original intent of my trip was to be a guest judge in Choc’s first homebrew competition. While I did get to sample a few of the entries, the preliminary judging took so long that I had to hit the road before the finalists were selected. I was hoping to have some sort of scoop about the winner of the competition to give you today, but alas, not so much. To say that the trip down there was without merit would be way off, though.
I had a great time seeing the brewing operation, learning about the history of Choc beer, talking shop with Michael and Zach and picking the brains of a few beer judges. I’ve posted a photo tour on my Facebook page (become a fan: The Thirsty Beagle). Some highlights of the visit:
-I got to sample the unreleased Wild Brew beer brewed at Choc in collaboration with Marhsall Brewing. The beer is ready — minus the carbonation — and they’re waiting on bottle labels before they bottle it. It’s a Belgian-style IPA. Michael said he was concerned when they decided to make a Belgian IPA that the hops usually associated with an IPA would overpower the traditional Belgian elements of the beer. Never fear! I can report that Choc and Marshall have hit the nail on the head with this one. You get IPA and you get Belgian in appropriate parts. This is a very good beer, people! Be sure to snag a few bottles when it hits the shelves, because only a limited amount will be available.
-I heard a great story about Choc’s Belgian-style Dubbel, which won a gold medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival in the Belgian-Style Abbey Ale category. If you’ve never had the Dubbel, you sir are missing out. Anyway, Michael decided to pull his entire brewing team together one Saturday to brew the Dubbel.
When he got to the brewery, he discovered a problem in the fermenter and an entire batch of Belgian yeast ruined. He had to call a homebrew supply shop in Tulsa to find more Belgian yeast. After a trip to Tulsa to pick up the yeast and a clean-out job on the fermenter, they finally got the Dubbel brewed two days later. The beer started out with little fanfare, but Choc did manage to sell it all. Almost. One distributor (might have been a retailer) said he was having trouble selling a few cases and asked if he could return the beer. Choc obliged and took it back. It was that return that allowed Choc to have enough on hand to enter it into the Great American Beer Festival. And you know the rest of the story. Now it’s Choc’s gold-medal Dubbel, and they can’t stock the shelves fast enough!
-The Choc beer, or 1919, that you enjoy today is really nothing like the beverage that American Indians taught Italian immigrants to make in the early 1900s. The original Choc beer was brewed with techniques that most brewers would consider crude today. Around the McAlester/Krebs area, though, several people still keep that old-world tradition alive at home brew operations. I was fortunate enough to have Michael and Zach crack open a bottle of old-school Choc. It was super-carbonated and very sweet; I felt like it was a beer-cider-champagne hybrid. Almost not really a beer, but I guess if it was the early 1900s and you were sitting around in a coal mine in Krebs, it probably was all right.
-Choc-brand beers can be found in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama and Minnesota, of all places. How did they skip over so many states to sell their beer in Minnesota? A distributor there called the brewery up out of the blue and asked to carry Choc, and the guys figured, why not? Zach told me future plans call for the spread of Choc to even more states.
-The entire Choc Beer Co. operation consists of about five full-time employees. It’s pretty impressive that such a small staff can accomplish so much. And if you had any other thoughts that Choc was some sort of large-scale operation, wrong. The brewing area is probably only a couple thousand square feet. Although they do have a larger warehouse area and adjacent bottling room. But this is a legitimate craft brewery all the way.
-And lastly, Michael pointed out that Choc’s beers are constantly changing. Not just in terms of what products they offer, but more so inside the bottles of beer themselves. All of Choc’s beers are unfiltered, which means all contain that sediment you see at the bottom. And over time, an unfiltered beer will bottle condition as it sits, meaning a Dubbel bottled today will most certainly taste different than a Dubbel bottled a year ago. Simply put, an aged Dubbel will have a more diverse taste, and who can’t get on board with that? So if you find yourself out at a liquor store and happen to spot a bottle of Dubbel without a gold-medal sticker on the neck, grab that puppy and grab it quick. The bottles without stickers are part of the first batch and have been aging for the better part of two years. You’re welcome!
So those were the highlights of the visit. It was a great day and thanks again to Michael and Zach for putting up with me!