Vanessa House Brewing Company
I was sworn to secrecy when told the name of the first beer to be released from Vanessa House Brewing Co., not because they didn’t want people to find out which beer was going to be the first to hit shelves in Oklahoma, or because their recent partnership with O’Fallon Brewery in Missouri was still super new. No, the reason they wanted my silence is because of the story behind the name for their first beer to be sold in stores.
You see, names mean a lot to the boys of Vanessa House. That name right there is a throwback reference to the house they all lived in together in Norman on Vanessa Dr. It’s where they all spent nights partying and making epic college memories, while also unknowingly learning the very first lessons in their business.
“When we name things we try to look inward for the names already around us,” Zac Smith says. “Usually it means more to us that way and it usually works.”
While I did offer my cooperation to them for the sake of this story and I swore I’d keep their secret safe. I’m afraid once I tell you about the hard work, long hours, and years of dedication it took five friends to get to this point, the name will become perfectly clear.
I met the founders of Vanessa House at their headquarters. Andrew Carrales, followed shortly by Nick White, Justin Wright, and Zac Smith. The fifth member of the team and head brewer of all the beer, Evan Smith (brother to Zac), was on vacation climbing a mountain somewhere. The rest of the team assured me I wasn’t missing much and that they knew just as much as he did.
A tour of Vanessa House Brewing Co., which is housed in the garage of one of their Mesta Park homes, takes only a few minutes. There is one brewing station in the middle of the garage, complete with all the fancy gadgets you need to make some tasty cold ones. There was also a lawn mower and a motorcycle and other regular garage items, but they seemed unnecessary to the beer making process. They all go way back. They’ve been friends since they were kids. The four friends ended up all heading to OU together after high school where they met Nick. The five of them have been inseparable ever since.
The house on Vanessa Dr. ended up being home to everybody but Nick, though he was over there plenty for the numerous parties and hangout sessions with his friends. After college, the five of them went on to work different jobs. Andrew started work as a human resources supervisor, Nick is an architect, Justin started as a manager at Lowes, and Zac is a petroleum engineering supervisor. But they would all come together just about every weekend to hang out and drink beer.
It was at the Mesta Park house and in the garage, where some of the first beer was brewed, that would later inspire the group of friends to make this their permanent gig.
“We jumped in,” Carrales said. “We tend to go full board sometimes so we just started brewing and we were brewing just about every weekend. All five of us would come together and really do that just about every weekend.”
The first few batches turned out… not so good. There was a lemon lime beer that Nick described as “Sprite, if Sprite killed itself.” There was also a pepper beer that would probably make you spit fire.
“I still think the pepper beer could work,” Carrales said while reminiscing with the others about their first few mistakes. “But then Evan really started to get the hang of brewing and things kinda took off from there.”
They’ve worked out recipes for a cream ale, a brown ale, an IPA, a lager, and a blackberry wheat beer. They started sampling them around to friends and toting them to parties. All of their experience as the party house in college came back full force as they were now not only the party house, but the beer house. They would take peoples’ feedback on their creations, ask them what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what absolutely sucked. They made friends with Roughtail Brewing Co. and 405 Brewing Co. They sought advice from local beer leaders like COOP Ale Works and tried their hand at just about every local beer event across the state. Andrew dove deep into the business of beer. He knows all the ends and outs of getting the stuff bottled and into stores.
Justin started taking classes on brewing and became the second brewer to Evan. Nick plans to use his architectural skills to help with an eventual space and brewery while also being the man behind the team’s social media postings. And Zac helped post the money to get things off the ground while also diving into the business side of things with Andrew.
“Everyone just seemingly found their role in the company very quickly,” Nick said. “It was kinda crazy how we all just fit right in.”
They all admit that they aren’t always on the same page. Sometimes they debate different ideas around for a long time before landing on a solution. Sometimes the two brothers seem like they are going to come to blows before a resolution is made. But they keep things lighthearted, teasing each other about firing one another and tossing boxing gloves to Zac and Evan when it looks like things are really going to get heated.
“We tell them to fight it out,” Justin said. “But in the end we almost always come together with the right plan. It’s good to have other opinions, it makes us stronger and more unique.”
The plan is to make the cream ale by Vanessa House Brewing Co. their first release this fall. Starting in either late September or early October, they will hit store shelves across the state.
“This hasn’t been easy and it definitely hasn’t been cheap,” Zac said. “But with all your friends together it’s a pretty fun deal. I still can’t really imagine what it’s going to be like to be able to have our beer in stores.”
Oklahoma is a tough state for trying to break into the alcohol game. Restrictive liquor laws and a crowded marketplace of craft beer make any newcomers entrance a bit of a gamble, but Vanessa House is ready for the challenge. With all the time and money invested in this company, is it any wonder that when trying to name the first beer, the guys eventually settled on the “401K”? This is their investment in the company that was built on friendship and grown from a party house into an up and coming brewery.
“We just hope we can bring people together over a beer,” Zac said. “Kind of philosophical, but not false. We just want everyone to love it.”