Tracing the DIY-or-die tale of American Solera and Prairie Artisan Ales
Colin and Chase Healey weren't that close when they were kids, largely due to their age difference, but the brothers—Tulsa natives who are now 33 and 28—have always looked out for each other. Take the time Chase tried to stop a couple bullies from stealing Colin's bus seat on the way home from school.
"Chase stood in the middle of the aisle and told the kids they'd have to go through him first," says Colin. "They pushed him out of the way and proceeded to bang my head against the window, but at least he stood up for me."
The pair's paths merged in a much different manner a decade later when Chase decided to channel his love of homebrewing into Prairie Artisan Ales and hired Colin as its art director. Launched in 2012 with the help of Oklahoma's nearly century-old Krebs Brewing Co. (best known for its Choc Beer line), it didn't take long for the craft beer company to eclipse Chase's last gig (tackling the tanks at COOP Ale Works) and make its presence known on a regional level.
A lot of that has to do with how the Healeys realized their restless vision. With Krebs in place to handle manufacturing—bottling and brewing everything the way a record label presses and packages LPs—Colin and Chase were able to focus on the left-field label designs and complex recipes that instantly resonated with consumers and critics.
"My goal for Prairie was to create a creative outlet for myself and Colin," explains Chase. "I wanted to sell beer in unique places, and have fun along the way…. We were lucky to be working with the Krebs crew the whole time. Their brewing team is very talented, and [president] Zach [Prichard] is a natural leader. All I had to do was develop things I was excited about and they executed it. It really helped me stay focused."
"We were very proud of our long heritage before Prairie," adds Prichard, "but we struggled to create a beer that resonated with drinkers. It was clear within the first few months that Prairie was something special."
Between Colin's one-of-a-kind drawings—psychedelic scribbles that could pass for panels in a really peculiar comic book—and Chase's winning streak with saisons and stouts, Prairie was able to score an expansive distro deal with Shelton Brothers at the tail end of 2012. This profile-raising move, along with a handful of Evil Twin collabs and heady in-house hits (Prairie's stellar Bomb! series of imperial stouts has earned nearly perfect marks on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate every year), suddenly put the Healeys' small operation on the same level as new-schoolers like Mikkeller, To Øl, and Omnipollo. It also earned Prairie a cult following despite Chase's decision to relinquish his head brewer role and sell Prairie to Krebs in 2016.
"I wasn't surprised [by their offer]," explains Chase. "They're some of my best friends. We've been working on Prairie together since day one, so there was never really another option."
As for why he stepped away from his full-time gig less than five years after founding Prairie, Chase says, "I think I realized my limitations as a manager more than anything, and knew a change needed to happen for Prairie to keep moving forward. I basically had to get out of the way…. By the time we did the deal, the guys were so dialed in and creating new projects, it was mostly a relief to know Prairie was in good hands and continuing to go in an exciting direction."
"Honestly, I don't think a lot has changed," adds Colin. "At least, not for me. I don’t think we could ever replace Chase; he's incredible. It just meant we all have to step it up a bit and fill those gaps."
This is where Prairie's expansion plans differ from its competitors. Unlike the many craft brewers that have fielded million, or even billion, dollar takeover deals from the parent companies of Budweiser, Corona, and Stella Artois, Prairie remains an Oklahoma business through and through. The folks in charge of its continued growth—including a brewpub in downtown Tulsa and taproom in nearby Oklahoma City—have merely changed, bringing their business acumen to the table in ways creatives often cannot.
And herein lies the best part of Prairie 2.0: Chase is still around for brainstorming sessions and special events like tap takeovers and dinners, but he doesn't have to worry about the company's bottom line. Not that he has the time, anyway; last summer marked the one-year anniversary of American Solera, an even more experimental second act from Chase and his wife Erica. Despite limiting its sales to customers at its two small taprooms, the DIY-or-die affair was named the second best new brewery in the world at the annual RateBeer Best awards last January.
In other words, the increasingly competitive, and often fickle, craft-beer community has already recognized American Solera for what it is: a celebration of the sour and spontaneous ales that Chase is constantly blending, aging, and bottling for local customers that consider themselves close friends. Or as he puts it, "I like being small and indie. I feel like we have a lot to figure out as a brand, so doing that while fewer people know what's going on is helpful."
Chase also feels like he "can get out there from time to time" in terms of flavor profiles and beer styles now. "We currently have a Cherry Limeade double IPA as an homage to Sonic Drive-In," he says, "but it's made with organic juices, nothing artificial. I like the challenge of creating bold flavors. It can even be out of balance at times; that's typically the point."
As the day-to-day manager of American Solera's business dealings, Erica is quick to laugh at a question about a "typical day in the office," saying, "That makes it sound so official, but really it's just a crappy room in the back of the brewery. Or more often for me, a desk in our bedroom. I often work from home as we have [two kids] who are my other 'job'.
She continues, "Multitasking is what I do best; on any given day, you can find me keeping the books, doing accounting, filling orders, labeling bottles, or performing random tasks. It's typically all-hands-on-deck at the brewery, with multiple projects being tackled by our small staff and family. Everyday looks a little different; that's part of what we love about it."
American Solera also brings Chase's life full circle in many ways, from getting to work alongside his high school sweetheart to bringing an old friend on board for branding initiatives and whimsical bottle designs. Not just any design or art major, either; Joe Cappa grew up with Chase, and the duo often worked on drama and video projects together. They even won an acting competition in middle school where Chase was tapped to play a female character.
"Our drama teacher told us it was a terrible idea and urged us to both play male characters," says Cappa. "We performed the duet and won first place. Our drama teacher wrote us an apology card.
He continues, "Our friendship has always been rooted in art," explains Cappa. We probably didn't see any point in hanging out if it wasn't for making something together. I've always trusted his taste, and he seems to trust mine. It's interesting because I think the underlying message behind Prairie and American Solera is to celebrate camaraderie. Our relationship is a lifelong one."