Blake Jarolim figured Oklahoma beer drinkers weren’t ready for this.
“This” being F5, a West Coast IPA created in 2010 that would eventually help COOP Ale Works explode from a small craft brewery to a growing empire in Oklahoma City.
At one point, Jarolim wasn’t ready for it either. The schoolteacher turned master brewer hated hoppy beers until he realized they brought flavor instead of just bitterness.
“‘They’re going to taste this and they’re going to think this is so bitter and will dump it out,’” Jarolim recalled thinking. “We were wrong.”
With help from Chase Healey, COOP’s former brewmaster who now runs American Solera in Tulsa, COOP created a spring seasonal that turned into what COOP co-founder Daniel Mercer dubs a behemoth.
“In Oklahoma, F5 is growing in this uncontrollable rate still, which is fascinating and encouraging and really cool to see the beer community in Oklahoma embrace that brand and make it their brand of beer,” Mercer said.
Yet COOP, led by Jarolim, is focused on showing Oklahoma it has more to offer than a boozy, hoppy concoction.
Not just F5
Accounting for about half of COOP’s volume, F5 just enjoyed its biggest dollar month to date in May and its largest packaging month in August.
It took almost three years for F5 to make it to cans, though. Previously located at 51st Street and Western Avenue, COOP simply didn’t have the capacity, or sanity, to can its best-selling beer until 2013.
“We couldn’t keep up with demand. We brewed the other three or four brands and then F5 for the rest of the month until we started to run out of the other ones and start over,” Jarolim said.
It wasn’t efficient, nor did it support a diverse profile or promote creativity.
A move in 2014 to its current and more spacious location at 4745 Council Heights Road in southwest OKC spearheaded massive expansion. COOP went from canning Horny Toad and Native Amber to rounding out its then six-core can rotation of F5, Elevator Wheat, DNR and Gran Sport Porter.
Three years later, COOP will place 20 beers in either cans or bottles for 2017. The profile includes eight year-round brews following the 2015 addition of Negative Split table ale, Briefcase Brown ale and Spare Rib pale ale as three supermarket-friendly low ABV offerings and four seasonal beers via Alpha Hive double IPA, Saturday Siren dry-hopped pilsner, Oktoberfest and Gran Sport. COOP also offers a Territorial Reserve series featuring four barrel-aged beers and a Cask-It DNR series of four Belgian dark ales, including recently released Cask-It aged in rye whiskey barrels.
COOP opened a new taproom last March, expanding its beers to as many as 19. In a separate building on the other side of Council, it has a new space for 1,200 wooden barrels.
“It feels good from a creative standpoint. We’ve had that creativity potential for a while, but to be able to showcase them and get good feedback, it feels we’re falling into a rhythm,” Jarolim said.
Posted up in COOP’s new taproom, Jarolim reflected back on his ascension from a seventh-grade math, science and geography teacher at Hefner Middle School to managing his own brewery operations staff.
“If I knew all of the obstacles I would have to overcome in 2009 to get to 2017 working at COOP, I probably would have stayed a teacher,” he joked.
For the longest time, COOP was in survival mode. Jarolim did just enough to get by, often working 16 hours brewing beer and driving pedicabs downtown during Thunder games to make extra money.
Even after the move, stress levels were high as COOP increased production from 3,464 barrels in 2013 to a projected 15,000 barrels in 2017.
Growth led to more employees, and COOP is up from seven full-time employees in 2015 to 23 full-time employees and five part-time employees. Of the 23, 17 are on-site with six regional sales reps.
There was a time when Jarolim brewed every batch of COOP’s beer, but he has shifted to a more macro approach. The physical aspects of brewing, like maintenance and handling of raw materials, belong to Will Quinlan.
Jarolim estimated 40 percent of his time is spent on back-of-the-house work, like inventory, shipping and receiving and efficiency flow, another 40 percent on planning like barrel purchases and hop contracts and 10 percent dedicated to recipe development.
He spends, on average, one day a week on the brewing stand observing or crafting 30-gallon pilot batches for accounts. This keeps him engaged and satisfies his love of brewing.
“That is important for me as a person but also important for the rest of the team to not see me just sitting in my office all day and telling them what to do,” Jarolim said.
As a seeker of quality fermented beverages, Jarolim doesn’t necessarily have a favorite “style” of beer. He’s simply a flavor-forward kind of guy.
COOP has maintained a well-rounded portfolio to cater to a wide audience. The barrel-aged program is growing, and COOP is finally debuting some of its recipes that have aged for months.
Coming up are two more Cask-It brews, one aged in a tequila barrel and another with chocolate notes. COOP hopes to unveil a new one-off series this year that includes as many as a half-dozen new brews in either cans or bottles for limited release (150 cases).
“The creative outlet is kind of continuing to expand the lines of beer you never thought were possible,” Jarolim said. “I may not have a desire to drink that, but it’s like, ‘Can I execute that well? Can I rise to the challenge?’”
The bigger challenge is if COOP can keep up with demand.
It recently launched in Houston, Austin and San Antonio, bringing its distribution to six states.
Mercer said a $2 million expansion is in the works for a high-speed canning line and an automated keg line. The new canning line is five times faster and will cost around $1 million, while the steam-powered keg line will set COOP back about $500,000.
COOP has the potential to brew as many as 40,000 barrels per year. Three new 240-barrel tanks are on order — two for inside the warehouse and one outside.
Mercer said the conservative plan has COOP reaching 40,000 in five years, which means COOP could relocate.
“The plan was to always get back to the heart of the city, that we custom-build from the ground up and that becomes a social and cultural icon in the city that is easily located and represents our brand in the manner that we expect our home to,” Mercer said.
Print headline: Meet the brewer: COOP Ale Works; A local beer maker will follow its F5 success with a whirlwind of new brews.