Starting a Brewery

How in the hell did we get here? Time flies so fast. Starting a brewery has been a crazy experience. We started Skydance Brewing Co. in 2018 and by the last week of that year we were launching our brand at the Brewers Union in Oklahoma City. A year later things have changed drastically.

Even though it seems like the past year has come and gone with the snap of a finger, it has, in other ways, felt like a lifetimes worth of events and changes have occurred. Partners have come and gone multiple times, plans have changed and adjusted multiple times, good ideas became bad ideas and things I thought I’d never do have been done. Some good and some not so good. So goes the pulse of starting a brewery!

HOW IT BEGAN

This dream of starting a brewery started 20 years ago. YES! 20 damn years ago! I know, it seems like a lot of procrastination, but that’s not entirely the case here. Not entirely, at least.

My father brewed beer at home when I was young and I thought it was such a cool thing to watch. I couldn’t help but play around with his fermenting wort when he wasn’t around. After being caught messing with his carboy full of hope, Dad decided he should at least tell me a little bit about what is going on underneath all those bubbles and CO2. His thought was that if I knew what was really going on it would relieve some of my curiosity and I would be educated enough to know not to expose the liquid he labored over to the open air. His plan worked, but it also created a fascination that would not only lead me to my first job working at a brewery, but also to the creation of Oklahoma City’s first Native American owned brewery. 

Years later I would go to work at Coach’s Brewhouse in Norman, OK. I went from server to bartender to manager to guy who liked to bug the head brewer, Mike Groshong, until he’d let me play brewer along with him. Those Coach’s days were some of the most formative days of my life and would end up creating a love for craft beer that has turned into a complete obsession.

My dad worked for the City of Norman in those days. On days that I was working, he would come in for a beer with his co-workers and wait on my shift to end so we could have a beer together. I would give everything I have today to get one more sit down at that bar with him right now. There’s just something about bellying up to a bar and having a good beer with someone, especially if that someone is your father.

One day as we sat down for a beer I told him that I got to help in the brewery for a bit. We started talking about how cool it would be to have our own business similar to Coach’s and all the things we would do to put our own signature on it. We had GRAND ideas! Blues music, cigar room, small food menu using beer as an ingredient in each meal. The more we drank, the bigger the ideas got. So big, in fact, that it really began to feel like just a big dream that wasn’t very attainable.

One day, we decided to have lunch at another location in OKC, TapWerks, so that we could expand our horizons and try some really cool unique beers that weren’t really available at other bars in the area. My dad pointed out to me that there weren’t really any Oklahoma breweries producing beer.

I can remember him saying, “man, how cool would it be to have your own brewery and to be sitting at this bar and see someone ask the bartender for one of your beers?”

This would stick with me for years. Anytime we would sit down and drink craft beer, we’d begin talking about how cool it would be to open a brewery. From time to time he would still brew beer at home and as he did I couldn’t help but dream about my dad and I having a brewery of our own. 

The problem was, Dad was a survivor and a dreamer, but not really an action taker. His biggest concern in life was taking care of his two boys and making sure he had a roof over his head every night. Keeping the lights on and putting food on the table was difficult enough. Actually trying to open a business like a brewery seemed impossible and really something that only the most fortunate could accomplish.

The one time he did take action on a dream was when he moved us to Montana to settle the untamed mountains of the continental divide. In the end, his dependency on his brother and their partnership would prove to be a crushing blow to this dream. It’s my belief that this heart breaking end to his time in Montana in the wild would lead to him losing faith in any hope that dreams could come true or that bigger things could be accomplished.

LIFE IS SHORT

In February of 2008 I got a call from my dad’s neighbor, Pam, who was not only my best friends mom, but served as a second mother to me my entire life as she and her husband Peter would help my dad, who was a single father, with raising my brother and I. She told me she went to check on my dad and that she thinks he’s had a stroke. In a panic, I drove to his house. I found him sitting at his kitchen table just staring into space with one eye leaning to the left. He was showing all the signs of a stroke.

My dad was everything to me. My entire life. A rock. The only thing in my life that I knew I could count on. I was scared!

I took my dad to the hospital where he would stay for a couple weeks. Doctors were baffled. He hadn’t had a stroke. He had something more similar to an autoimmune issue. They tested for cancer, HIV, poisoning, the list goes on. Eventually, they realized he had a rare form of Multiple Sclerosis.

The next thing I knew, I was quitting my job and moving in with my dad, because he needed 24-hour care. Eventually, this would become too much for me to manage without putting him in danger. After several trips to the hospital and many visits with his neurologist, my brother and I knew Dad needed to go to a nursing home. He was only 56 years old. How could this really happen? 

Four years later, while still in the nursing home, Dad really started to deteriorate. For months we had been told that he would pass at any time. I really wanted to do something special for him so he could at least experience some sort of life in his last days. After four years in a place like that it can become difficult to remember what real life was like.

Then one day in January of 2013, I found one of my dad’s old books, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charlie Papazian. In this book was a folded up piece of paper with my dad’s handwriting on it. It wasn’t necessarily a recipe, but a shopping list of ingredients like the ones he would hand me as he sent me on my way to buy the things he would need for a brew day. At the top it said “Oatmeal Stout.”

I decided I would brew this beer and sneak some into the nursing home for him to drink one last time before he died. I did just that. He loved it and the nurse caught us. I was asked to leave and take the beer with me, but before they could kick me out, Dad got to enjoy one of his own beers and the smile on his face as it went down brought back all those memories of us drinking beer together and dreaming about opening a brewery. I cried happy tears that day knowing he enjoyed the beer and got a taste of life again. Wow! The power of beer!!

Later that week I would take some of this beer to a Red Earth Brewers meeting. This club was made up of a bunch of people like myself who liked to homebrew and many of which had the same dreams I had to open a brewery. Many actually have!! A few people commented that the beer tasted great and that I should send it to a big homebrew competition that was coming up in Dallas called The Bluebonnet Brew-Off. So I did.

In March my buddy Zach and I loaded up and headed to Dallas to the 3 day event. The problem was that my dad was not doing well at all and I was supposed to be in Phoenix for the National Indian Gaming Associations annual trade show as part of my work obligations. So, we left Dallas the day before the actual awards ceremony.

When I landed in Arizona and turned my phone back on I had a voicemail from Gail White, the owner of the local homebrew shop and founder of the Red Earth Brewers Club. She was excited to tell me that the oatmeal stout had won a medal.

I was so excited that my dad not only got to taste his beer, but also won an award with it before he passed away! I couldn’t wait to take the medal to him in the nursing home and place it around his neck. Unfortunately, I would never see my dad again.

WORST DAY OF MY LIFE

As I arrived to check in at my hotel in Phoenix, I got a call from my brother telling me that Dad had just passed away. While I knew it was coming and thought I was prepared for it, the emotions I felt at that moment were the most painful of my entire life. Still is to this day. Eventually, I decided I needed to grab a beer and have a toast to my dad. I met up with my boss, Stephan and our tribal vice-chairman, Bobby, at a pub. While talking to them and trying to figure out when and how I could get a flight back home, so many thoughts about my dad’s life came to mind.

I mostly thought about all the things he wished he’d done, but never got around to. Mostly because, even at 56 years old, you tend to think you have time to do those things. He had become known for saying, “one of these days.” Now it was all over and there would be “none of those days.” The finality of it all just seemed so unfair to me. Right then I realized that we truly do only have one life. It could all end today.

I thought about some of the days I would spend in the nursing home with my dad. When he got tired and needed a nap I would just go sit in the lobby and talk to the old guys who were sitting out there watching TV. After some time, I started to notice how every single one of them seemed to have one thing in common. REGRET!

They all were like my dad in that they had these dreams or goals they wanted to accomplish “one of these days.” Now they were just sitting and waiting to die and they were going to die having never done those things. They had one life. Just one chance to do the things they REALLY wanted to do. Instead they wasted it. They spent all their days doing the things they were told they HAD to do. Get up. Go to work. Come home. Pay bills. Eat dinner. Watch TV. Go to bed. Rinse and repeat!

It’s sad really. For me it was just scary, because here I was a third of the way through my life and doing the exact same thing. I could die the next day and I’d be dying the same way they did. With my dreams being buried with me. I was still breathing and had a heart beat, but really I was already dead. I wasn’t really living. Not the way we should be living.

So, here I am in a pub in Phoenix talking about my dad and how I wish we could have started that brewery together. In that moment I realized if I didn’t take action, change my idea of what was possible for me and actually take steps towards living a life that I wanted to live, then I would find myself sitting in a nursing home full of regret. That thought alone not only scared the hell out of me, but lit a fire under my ass!

STARTING A BREWERY

I decided right then that I would open a brewery. I would go home and start brewing at least twice per month until I had a good understanding of what I was really doing and had a lineup of beers that I thought people would actually pay money for. Unlike most homebrewers, I didn’t use each brew day as an opportunity to brew something crazy and unique. I used it to make the previous batch better. I would brew beers over and over until I felt like they were good enough. My buddy Zach was there for 90% of those brew days and with him I literally created the ideas for Skydance Brewing right there in the garage.

I figured it would take two years of serious work on my craft, followed by some serious studying of the craft beer industry, business planning and raising money. The latter two, I had no idea how to do. So some business education was important, which I would get by helping to build and manage our new casino.

It was 2013 and I was nearly 35 years old. I knew that I needed to set a deadline for myself to accomplish this goal. So, I promised myself, my dad and God that I would open this brewery by the time I was 40 years old. I turned 40 in October of 2018. We brewed our first batch of beer that next month and launched our beer into the market December 29th, 2018. With the help of my fiance, Bobbi, and investors, Rod, Julie and Chris, I did it!

Remember that story about my dad telling me at TapWerks how cool it would be to have someone order a beer we made from that bar? Well, Garrett, the manager at TapWerks, was one of the first people to put Skydance beer on tap. On the day he first met with me and said he would put three of our beers on tap I held back tears all the way until I got back out to my car. I still make regular visits there just to sit and order one of our own beers and almost every time I will hear a customer walk up to the bar and order one of my beers. It makes me smile and reflect. I truly believe my dad is there with me every time that happens.

JUST GETTING STARTED

Now it’s 2020 and really the journey is just beginning. For the past year we have been brewing our beer out of a co-op type of facility called the Brewers Union. Now we have signed a lease and are about to begin construction on a building near downtown Oklahoma City in a what is known as the Automobile Alley district.

Skydance Brewing will always owe it’s creation to my dad, but much of our inspiration is drawn from something I got from my mom. My Native American heritage. When you see me you may not see what your idea of Native American is, but I am indeed Native. My mom is full-blood Ioway/Osage/Otoe, which makes me half and we are enrolled members of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma (Ioway.)

OUR PURPOSE

Having worked for my tribe for most of the past decade, I have developed a lot of pride for what my tribe and others have been able to do despite more than two centuries of strife and nearly being wiped off the face of this earth. To this day there are still so many people who have no idea who Native Americans really are and what our culture is really all about. Not only that, but so many of our own people within our tribes have no idea what we are actually capable of accomplishing and how much we are truly able to do in the business world.

Because of this, my goal is to use Skydance as a way to deliver two messages to the world. The first is using our beer to tell stories and to expose the outside world to some of who we are and what we represent as indigenous people. We do this through the names of our beers and thought future events we will hold in our new taproom.

Our second mission is to be an example to other Native Americans, particularly Native youth, of what we are capable of accomplishing through entrepreneurship.

In our native communities I’ve seen the effects from generations of a systematic deterioration of our self-worth. Thanks to broken treaties, the Native American boarding school system, removals, land grabs and just plain racism, many of our youth are raised with the idea that they have a certain place in our society and that success, wealth and the true freedom you gain from entrepreneurship are all outside of their reach.

I believe if they can see other natives creating successful businesses and making a real difference in the world through entrepreneurship, then they will begin to realize that it’s possible for them too. This is the #1 reason why I tell my story. It’s the real reason why I push our business as Oklahoma City’s first Native American owned brewery. It’s absolutely vital that other Native Americans see people like them being successful and capable of positively impacting the world. 

You see…..this was me! I didn’t think this was possible, because I was raised the same way. Once I had a change in mindset, my entire life changed. If one young Native American sees that I as a Native American can build a business and live out my dream and that inspires them to do the same, then this entire idea of being the first Native American owned brewery in Oklahoma City will have been a success. THAT is how we measure success!

NOTE: This is the first entry in what is meant to be a weekly blog as we go on this journey of creating a brewery and wherever that takes us afterwards. My apologies for the length of this post. Future posts will be short and to the point. However, I felt that my initial post should really give all of you an accurate detail of who Skydance is and why we think it’s important that we are Oklahoma City’s first Native owned brewery. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more updates. Cheers!

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email