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Breakout Brewer: American Solera

Tulsa’s American Solera began with a serious devotion to coolships and mixed fermentation. It has since leaned with abandon into hazy IPAs, big adjunct stouts, fruited foeder lagers, and ... pumpkin seltzer?

Joe Stange Jun 21, 2021 - 20 min read

Breakout Brewer: American Solera Primary Image

American Solera owners and founders Erica and Chase Healey. Photos: Courtesy American Solera

“So, it all started as a joke.”

That is American Solera head brewer Matt Denham, beginning the story of one of the oddest concoctions of 2020—from any brewery, not just this one. The drink in question is PSS, a bourbon barrel–aged, pumpkin pie puree–flavored hard seltzer that he conceived with brewery founder Chase Healey. It’s available in half-liter bottles, capped with wax that has been infused with pumpkin-spice aromas.

Is this really American Solera? Is this the brewery that Healey started four years ago as a stolid chapel to spontaneous, mixed-fermentation, and barrel-aged beers?

It is—and they still brew those, even if it’s not as often as Healey would like. The beer that made our Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® list of Best 20 Beers of 2020 was Coolship Roadtrip, a collaboration with Jester King in Austin, Texas. Its components are three years’ worth of lambic-inspired spontaneous beer—first brewed in Austin, then driven by truck to Tulsa for barrel-aging and blending. That beer scored a 99 with our blind-tasting panel, showing deep, earthy-funk complexity and finely balanced acidity. (Jester King’s own version of the beer, also excellent, is constructed the other way around: brewed in Oklahoma but aged and blended in Texas.) Wild and half-wild beers remain an important part of the brewery’s DNA.

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These days, however, about 60 percent of American Solera’s production is IPA. They supplement that with a growing number of lagers—including several fermented cleanly in oak foeders—a few coveted, super-thick barrel-aged stouts, and various other oddities—such as that seltzer, or a light rice lager called Bub Heavy.

There’s a story behind that one, too. The nail salon where Healey and Denham like to go get their pedicures offers Bud Light to customers—but its little menu says, “BUB LIGHT.” They found this hilarious, since Denham has a habit of calling people “Bub” or “Bubba,” especially when he can’t remember their names.

“Big shout-out to Bebe Nails, though, for my new Christmas colors,” Denham says.

From Mixed Fermentation to Anything Goes

Chase and Erica Healey own and run American Solera together. They launched the brewery amid some fanfare in 2016, both locally and among beer enthusiasts farther abroad. The fanfare was earned: Chase Healey cofounded two of the country’s best regarded small breweries—first Prairie Artisan Ales in Krebs, Oklahoma, and then American Solera. (Likewise, this is the second time that Healey has appeared in these pages as a breakout brewer. For the first time, see “Breakout Brewer: Prairie Artisan Ales,” beerandbrewing.com.)

Healey launched Prairie with his brother Colin in 2012, in collaboration with century-old local institution Krebs Brewing, makers of Choc Beer. Colin’s role was art director. The beers’ strikingly colorful, cartoonish label art formed an attention-getting synergy with envelope-pushing recipes such as Prairie Bomb, which was influential in the trend toward big, adjunct-laden imperial stouts.

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Four years later, Healey sold Prairie to Krebs and went on to open his dream/side project in Tulsa: a brewery and taproom that would, in theory, focus on coolship beers, mixed fermentation, and barrel aging. The accolades came immediately, when RateBeer users named American Solera the country’s best new brewery in 2016.

“I dove into those styles and got really deep into the whole farmhouse world for a few years,” Healey says. He’s still very much into them, and into the “sour side” of the brewery. “I love all that stuff. But I also like the challenge of trying to make the most excellent version of any style of beer. And I think, as brewers, the challenge for us is, we believe we have the skills and the tools to make the best of any of those styles. We want to pursue that because the challenge is fun.”

There are no flagships at American Solera, but there are some tried-and-true base recipes on which they continually riff. They seem to come up with countless variations of IPAs and double IPAs, employing different hop varieties in various permutations. Then there are the foeder-fermented lagers, dessert stouts—and stranger things, such as a series of fruited lagers with salt and lime called All the Sports. (Slightly less oddball was one of my own favorites of 2020: Loral Roberts, a refreshing Kölsch-style ale single-hopped with lots of lemony Loral.)

“I know that if we wanted to, we could create a flagship,” Healey says. “We could brew thousands of cases a month of it, and we could find a market for it. But it’s just not a world we’re trying to live in.”

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Lager, for the People

Fermenting lagers in foeders—these are clean fermentations, without bugs—is an evolving project that both Denham and Healey are enthusiastic about. The fact that the lagers spend time on oak is interesting to the brewers and some geeks, but to most drinkers, the styles are relatively familiar and available at democratic prices—often $10 for a six-pack.

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“The oak part of it is an interesting element,” Healey says. “But to me, it seems like an area we’re trying to pursue is creating beers that have a degree of interest and uniqueness to them but an overall high approachability, high drinkability, and accessibility price-point-wise. … It’s way more interesting than probably most of our drinkers really are worried about. But for us as brewers, we’re having a lot of fun with it.”

Recent examples include pale lager Western Vibes and black lager Diacetyl Rest. Both are foeder-fermented to about 5 percent ABV. A sixer of 12-ounce cans costs $10.

While lagers are a modestly growing trend in the wider world of American independent brewing, Denham and Healey say they’re not seeing much demand yet—though they enjoy drinking it themselves. Healey comes back to that price, which works well for distribution and also at the brewery. “We can sell it all day at that price point because we’re getting all the margin,” he says. “But that’s another piece of it: You can play in this lager world, but you can’t expect people to pay $16 for four-packs of it. They just won’t.”

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IPAs, for Even More People

American Solera evolved in four years from an austere farmhouse brewery—at which Healey had no intention of brewing IPA—to one where almost anything seems possible. Especially if it’s more IPA.

“This is funny,” Healey says. “Matt likes to rag on me for talking about not brewing IPAs and making public statements about it. And, you know, the whole reason we hired Matt and brought him on board is that he’s really excellent at making those. So it kind of speaks to the transition we’ve made.”

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Denham’s previous gig was at Roughtail Brewing in Oklahoma City, where a hazy IPA that he brewed there, Everything Rhymes with Orange, maintains a strong following.

American Solera’s best-selling beer in 2020 was Pals, a hazy dry-hopped pale ale, mostly because they made so many different versions of it—and then people kept buying them. (See our recipe for Pals, page 37.) However, Denham and Healey say the closest thing they have to a core beer is Terpy, which is really a series of hazy double IPAs—usually about 8 percent ABV, and often single-hopped.

“It’s funny,” Healey says about Terpy, “because the first time we ever brewed that, like three years ago, it sucked.” (Denham concurs: “It wasn’t great.”)

“But we dialed it in,” Healey says. “And it found its way, and it didn’t suck. We didn’t quite really know where we were going with it. We just wanted to do it.”

Denham says his goal is to put out at least one new IPA per week. “What keeps people coming in is just having new beers, nonstop,” he says. “IPAs, everyone wants them right now. So, the more we can crank out, the better.” They’re selling virtually all of them out of their taproom.

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“Beyond the new factor, I think there’s a freshness factor that we’re striving for,” Healey says. Translation: They don’t want their IPA to sit on a shelf somewhere. “When people come to our brewery, they should be getting something that’s so fresh. Unless they’re deep into the IPA world, it’s a new experience for them to try beer that’s that fresh, and that new. And I think that that’s something we’re really striving for.”

Their IPAs are primarily the juicy-hazy sort. For his part, Denham says he would like to see West Coast-style IPAs make a comeback—but in the meantime, they’ll keep giving their customers what they keep buying. “Hazy IPAs just seem to be what everyone wants,” he says. “I just don’t see that kind of style going away anytime soon.”

Denham’s IPA-brewing style includes a preference for Vic Secret, which he says he prefers to Galaxy. He’s also fond of Strata. Meanwhile, Citra remains a dynamo for the brewery, even in versions of Terpy (or other beers) that are ostensibly single-hopped with other varieties, such as Mosaic or Galaxy. “It’s always going to have a little Citra in there, to help push that other hop. Because if you just do one hop 100 percent, it’s just weird to me. But if you add another hop to it, certain qualities make it pop, make it a little more interesting.”

Here is the basic framework for American Solera’s IPAs, which Denham describes as “real simple”: The base malt is all pilsner, instead of pale two-row. Layered over that are chit malt, white wheat malt, flaked wheat, and flaked oats. Both Denham and Healey like a paler color, and they avoid any caramel malts in these beers. They typically mash high at 157°F (69°C), for bigger body and residual sweetness.

The hop varieties change constantly, but usually there is a modest whirlpool charge followed by immodest dry-hop quantities. There are no hops in the boil. Denham says the typical whirlpool charge might be two pounds of hops for a 15-barrel batch (or about 0.35 oz/10 g per 5 gallons/19 liters).

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Their preferred yeast for these is Wyeast 1318 London Ale III, a popular strain among hazy-IPA brewers for its fruity profile and relatively low attenuation.

Mixed-Culture, for Certain People

When Healey started American Solera, the market for wild beers was different. “I think people had a high interest in really complex, really high-end, really expensive mixed-culture beer,” he says. “And the IPA culture killed it a little bit.”

The plan always was to be taproom-focused and sell most of American Solera’s beer from the brewery. However, that meant a need to sell the kinds of beers that people were buying—and buying, and buying. “Some of the mixed-culture, and some of the stuff on that side, are slow burners just because people want to crush lagers and IPA.”

Healey’s response to that is pretty straightforward: Take the kinds of mixed-culture beers that he loves and make them more accessible.

For example: One of American Solera’s early hits was Foeder Cerise, a mixed-fermentation, oak-aged sour beer matured on Montmorency cherries. “Now,” Healey says, “we’ve got a mixed-culture beer that’s been aging a year, now fermenting on Montmorency cherries. And we’ll can that into 12-ounce four-packs, and it will be like a $12 or $14 four-pack.” That’s about the same price as a single bottle of Foeder Cerise.

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“People have gone away from a willingness to pay top-dollar for those types of beers because of all the accessibility of kettle-sour beers and IPAs and whatnot,” he says. “We still pursue those beers because I think they they’re still interesting and special to us. But we’ve had to be flexible and change the way we package them, and how we sell them.”

Healey says he still wants people to drink those beers. “And if it’s at the cost of them being not quite as profitable, I think it’s still worth it. … You know, we just can’t make $35 750s of two-year-old spontaneous. I mean, we can, but at the end of the day, we need to make the beers more accessible because that’s just where beer drinkers are right now. And I’m okay with that.”

Meanwhile, the solera system is still in effect at American Solera. Healey still brews what he calls his mixed-culture base of beer—about 5.5 percent ABV, with plenty of wheat in the grist—to top off foeders from which mature beer has been pulled for other beers. For example, they might pull seven barrels each of mature, mixed-fermentation beer out of two 20-barrel foeders, then replace it with freshly brewed base beer. Rarely are those foeders fully emptied—thus the beer, much like the brewery, continues to evolve.

It’s plain that Healey would like to spend more time with those foeders and mixed-fermentation projects. Some days, he says, it feels like his main jobs are developing the brand and sourcing ingredients. Getting involved in the brewhouse can be tricky.

There’s a separation in the brewery between the “clean side” and the “sour side.” On the clean side—with the necessary timings of fermentations, dry-hop additions, and so on, and the need to keep churning out IPAs—operations need to run like a digital watch. But things tick-tock slower over on the sour side. “The mixed-culture side is maybe an area where I can still play a little bit,” Healey says. “You know, put the rubber boots on and sling tri clamps.”

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Big Stouts, for Far Fewer People

American Solera’s imperial stouts are well regarded among the fiends and collectors, but there is not a lot to go around. They don’t brew much of it, and most tends to go straight to members of their American Solera Society. Joining the club costs $400, which includes 12 half-liter bottles of various barrel-aged stouts (or other strong, special ales), two 750 ml bottles of unusual mixed-fermentation beers, plus assorted perks and first-purchase rights on some releases.

Those stouts tend to win high Untappd ratings (often 4.5-plus) and high interest among traders tuned in to that heady world of the secondary market.

Much like other breweries known for these super-thick imperial stouts, American Solera embraces some extreme ends of the brewing process: “We just do these insanely inefficient double mashes,” Denham says. The idea is to “get as much grain as you can get into the kettle, until it starts spilling out, and then no sparge. It’s just first runnings, and we’ll boil anywhere from four to six hours.”

Healey explains how they sometimes produce a more “sessionable” imperial stout of 10 percent ABV using a single mash. The starting gravity of that beer might be 29°P (1.124)—plenty high. By doubling the mash, they can push it to maybe 39°P (1.174)—which is higher, but not a huge increase in gravity considering the doubling of malt.

“From a cost perspective, they’re incredibly inefficient and expensive,” Healey says. “It’s a lot of sugar going down the drain.”

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Keeping It Fun, for Themselves

American Solera may not have a core range of brands, but Healey and Denham do have a core range of styles that they like to have available. “We are still trying to hit parameters that give us a spectrum of drinking experiences,” Healey says.

Great brewers often aim to perfect a single recipe by brewing it over and over, tweaking here and there, and testing their skills at fine-tuning and mastering small details. Although Denham rarely brews exactly the same recipe twice at American Solera, he says he still gets to enjoy that challenge.

“As someone who came from a brewery that had a super-popular IPA that took off, and that’s all I made all the time—this is way more exciting,” he says. “It’s fun to experiment. It’s fun to joke around with Chase and have silly ideas. I mean, things here just flip on a dime.”

For example: When a joke between Denham and Healey becomes an actual barrel-aged, pumpkin-pie-puree hard seltzer.

Why bourbon barrel-aged? Because they could. “Chase always orders a gazillion barrels because he wants me to just crank out barrel-aged stout like nobody’s business.”

Just to take the joke further, the wax that seals this very special seltzer’s half-liter bottle is infused with pumpkin-pie spices, for an extra aromatic hit when you open the drink. The initial idea, Denham says, was candy-corn wax. “That was a bad idea on my part. It didn’t really work out.”

However, the idea of adding an essential oil to the wax for an extra aroma hit was something they had done on a couple of barrel-aged stouts.

“It’s gimmicky, but it’s fun,” Healey says. “We do a vanilla-bean, bourbon-barrel-aged stout, and if the wax is covered in vanilla oil, and then you’re using your hands to grab hold of the bottle and get that wax off. Then, as you’re going to drink the beer, those vanilla essences are also all over your hands. It kind of messes with your mind. … It’s just kind of funny to think about how that could influence someone who’s drinking a beer. “It’s a funny idea. Nothing groundbreaking, but kind of funny.”

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