“In 2002, if you had told me that I’d move back to Oklahoma City, and be excited about it, I would’ve laughed in your face,” Joel Irby says with a wry grin. After all, the Stillwater, Oklahoma native had been brewing beer in Boulder, Colorado for nearly ten years when he returned to his home state. Starting his career at the city’s oldest brewery, Boulder Beer, Joel worked his way up from shipping assistant to packaging, where he labored over bottling and kegging for a year and a half before landing a position brewing beer.
In 2010, world-renowned Avery Brewing began to expand very rapidly and needed outside help. Joel was hired and for four years, he brewed for them and also assisted with their cellar and packaging. It was a hard job to walk away from, but when he had the opportunity to open his own brewery, he grabbed it.
A real estate group was involved in redeveloping the historic Sunshine Laundry and Cleaners’ building in downtown Oklahoma City, and they lured Joel back to his red-dirt roots to start Stonecloud Brewing Company there. Built in 1929, the Sunshine building had been vacant for decades. When the project began, there was no roof, and a tree was growing in the center of the building. Although renovations required a lot of work, much of the historic character was retained. The taproom is located in the former drive-through space with all of the original brick and tile. The rustic frame and modern details make this the most aesthetically pleasing and comfortable place to drink at any brewery in the city.
As impressive as the building is, the beer is what’s most important at Stonecloud. Quality and consistency are at the core of Joel’s philosophy, which is why he is choosing to wait a few months after the taproom opened before distributing elsewhere. This allows Stonecloud to dial in all their recipes and take feedback from their guests. First impressions of a new brewery are crucial, as is each subsequent tasting.
“One of the hardest parts about running a great brewery is consistency. Anyone can make a great beer every once in awhile, but making it that way every single time is really, really tough,” Joel insists. “That’s one of the big lessons I learned at Avery. We did all sorts of wild and crazy stuff, but we were also making these great, everyday beers, and those things were the exact same every time. If they weren’t, then they went down the drain.”
To fulfill this mission right off the bat, Joel hired a microbiologist who also happens to be a talented welder—a skill that came in handy during the brewery’s build-out! Stonecloud boasts an on-site lab, which allows the microbiologist to test each batch of beer. If something comes out inconsistent from the norm, the team is able to figure out exactly what went awry and make adjustments for the next batch.
As seriously as Joel takes all the little details, he also wants Stonecloud to be something of a mad scientist’s laboratory for trying new things. “Our philosophy,” he muses, “is the quality and consistency, but then the other side of that is the experimentation and really having fun, and pushing the boundaries of what beer is.”
One such experiment is a series of beers that will be fermented in the same puncheon barrels. Each puncheon is nearly three times the size of a standard barrel and will only hold beer made with a type of yeast called brettanomyces. “Brett is a really, really tiny cell,” Joel explains. “Just like the beer will soak into the wood, the cells will really get into the fissures and cracks in the wood.”
Since the cells stay inside the barrel unless it’s steam-cleaned at high temperatures, the brett will mutate and change, altering each batch of beer that is fermented in different ways. “That’s experimental in the sense that we don’t know where the yeast and the flavors are going to go, but we know it’s gonna be good. That’s not any guesswork.”
With a mind more focused on making well-crafted and creative beers, Joel’s plan isn’t geared towards becoming the next massive brewery. “We don’t have plans for world domination. I want to be very smart about how we expand in the distribution system off-premise and not just throw beer out anywhere that will buy it. We’ll probably grow slower than we could grow, but do that on purpose. I really like to have as much control over our beer and the quality as possible.”
> Stonecloud Brewing Co., 1012 NW 1st Street, Oklahoma City