Note: This profile originally appeared in Issue 54 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
Socrates held the position that he could not teach a man anything that he did not already know. To oversimplify one of western civilization’s greatest minds, he believed that all knowledge was innate and the act of learning was little more than remembering what one already knew.
Socrates goes on to show his associate Meno that even a young slave who did not have the benefit of an education could solve a relatively complex mathematical problem when posed the right questions.
Eric Marshall; founder of Marshall Brewing Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma; isn’t one of the world’s greatest philosophers, nor does he claim to be one. He is, however, helping Oklahomans to discover knowledge that mankind has known for thousands of years. Mainly, that beer is good, and good beer is better.
No new brewery enters the market without obstacles in front of it. Even in the Meccas and Medinas of the beer world, newcomers are forced to prove their worthiness. A weak IPA or a watered-down Stout could spell doom for a start-up in San Diego.
When he started Marshall Brewing Company in 2008, Marshall had a different challenge ahead of him. As he grew up in the Tulsa area, the 30-year old brewmaster had seen small brewpubs and microbreweries spring up in the 1990s. Then he watched as those same places folded their doors and dusty legers, as the locals clung to their favorite national brands. Oklahoma was a beating heart for the American Adjunct Lager and its producers, and seducing drinkers with hoppy ales and rich lagers was no easy task.
“I don’t’ think people were necessarily ready for it,” Marshall explained of the boom and bust of the 1990s.
It took time for America’s heartland to accept the challenges that small brewers were offering, but Oklahoma eventually warmed to the idea that a local outfit could produce a product as good—if not better—than the big boys could in St. Louis or Milwaukee. As craft beer from the coasts emerged in liquor stores and beer pubs began popping up in Tulsa, Marshall saw a change in Oklahoma and recognized that his home state had finally caught up.
“Oklahoma has always kind of been behind the pack,” Marshall said. “I like to say things start at the coast and work toward the middle. Oklahoma tends to be sort of behind, so now the fact that we’re able to be here and do things that others don’t do, there’s a void in the market that we’re able to step up and fill.”
And MBC continues to educate the thirsty masses of Oklahoma. Marshall rarely passes on an opportunity to speak to his fellow Oklahomans at events and festivals, and the brewery enjoys taking part in “beer universities” hosted at some of the area pubs that aim to educate patrons on the flavors and wide variety in the world of beer.
Enjoying a good book here and there might make somebody an interesting partner for conversation, but does not qualify that person to teach English. Likewise, a brewer needs a strong background and proper credentials if he is going to try and remind his customers of the fundamental truth that beer is good—in other words, he has to know how to make good beer.
Marshall’s brewing career started in a familiar place—his kitchen—but it was in Germany where it truly took root. During his junior year at Tulsa University, where he studied German and international business, Marshall went abroad to Germany and fell in love with the beer culture.
“It really just kind of stuck out at me and I really enjoyed it,” Marshall said. “I just fell in love with the culture behind it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at that point. I came back for my senior year and my dad had actually turned my old bedroom into a home pub, and we convinced my dad if he invested a little money in a nice homebrew system he could serve his own beer at a pub, so he thought that was a great idea.”
Marshall describes the ensuing months as if it were a sickness, as he became obsessed with brewing beer for the home pub. He was thirsty for more, but could not find the knowledge he needed in Oklahoma. As he professed his desire to brew professionally to some family friends, they put him in touch with Munich-based brewmaster Stefan Grauvogl, who in turn helped Marshall turn his dream into reality.
“He basically set me up with some different people (in Germany) and I kind of jumped around,” Marshall said. “A few weeks here, a month here, just getting experience in a bunch of different settings. But also experiencing the different regions and cultures of Germany. Unlike here, there’s different areas that have different tastes and specialties. In Bamburg there’s the Rauchbiers and Smoke Beers, while down in Bavaria they’ve got the Helles and Hefeweizens.”
Marshall honed his craft in old-world breweries while America was undergoing a craft beer revolution of sorts. He received his diploma in Brewing Technology from the World Brewing Academy, and came home to work as a brewer for Victory Brewing in Downington, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, Marshall decided it was time for him to return home, and to bring good beer back to Tulsa.
Ale has been the poster child of the craft beer movement, but Marshall was unafraid to introduce a craft-brewed lager to Tulsa. Marshall’s Old Pavilion Pilsner was inspired by his experiences in Germany, and remains a symbol of the brewery’s dedication to producing quality beer in Oklahoma.
Old Pavilion Pilsner is not a macro clone in a craft beer costume, but a hand-crafted lager that stands out as a testament to just how good old-world styles can be.
“We’re definitely in the bible belt of the US being in Oklahoma, and to be able to bring that celebrated culture and the freshness and the quality associated with the places I studied in Germany—I make a German-style Pilsner, and I tell people we make this beer because I love this beer,” Marshall said. “I love good fresh Pilsners and it’s definitely got a place near and dear to my heart. That’s one of the main reasons why we brew it.
Beyond that, it’s the celebration. Obviously, when designing a beer it’s an art that draws from your experiences and what you’ve learned.”
As Marshall puts what he has learned on display, his students are starting to develop their own tastes and are growing under his tutelage. The easy-drinking Sundown Wheat was introduced as MBC’s main beer, but has been surpassed in sales by the brewery’s Atlas I.P.A.—an English-style IPA that was born during a hop shortage in 2007.
“We had to take a different approach, so we took a more traditional English approach to it where there’s more balance on the IPA side of things, and not over the top with hops,” Marshall said. “A little bit considering what the market will bear and craft something that is approachable and easy to drink.”
As Marshall Brewing grows and the local drinkers grow as well, the brewery hopes to experiment a little more and push the palates of its fans—as it did with El Cacuey (essentially the name for a Latin American boogeyman), a Black IPA debuted last Halloween and the first of Marshall’s Loco Gringo series of limited release beers.
It is summer now, but school is still in session at Marshall Brewing Company, and it will be as long as Oklahomans stay thirsty.
Sean Lewis is a freelance journalist and beer writer, and is currently working on his first book