A spirited game of tag wove its way through Oak Highlands Brewery’s first birthday party this past Saturday. Every 20 minutes or so, a gaggle of 8- to-10-year-olds would sprint by, running past the rows of fermenters, weaving through groups of grown-ups congregating in the taproom, even inadvertently interrupting an active cornhole match. The kids’ combination of unflagging enthusiasm and dogged pursuit seems an ideal analogy for Oak Highlands Brewing’s story so far. In a scant 366 days, Lake Highlands’ friendly neighborhood production brewery has earned recognition across North Texas for its extensive and diverse menu and community-centric way of doing things. For founders Brad Mall and Darrin Williams, it's been a beautiful affirmation of their professional (and family) values.
The party on Saturday commemorated Oak Highlands’ first sale — a keg each of Golden Moustache and Derelict IPA, purchased by Capital Pub. That sale, however, was the culmination of three years of preparation by Williams and Mall, longtime homebrewers who left their respective careers in geology and law to pour their energy into Oak Highlands.
Known to lovers of brevity as OHB, Oak Highlands has benefited from its founders’ combination of careful preparation and rapid execution. The brewery initially launched with five regular offerings available only in kegs; by September, the beers were going into cans and by year's end, you could buy local favorites like DFDub and Freaky Deaky from Royse City to Mansfield. And, thanks to Williams’ piloting of OHB’s barrel aging program, no less than 14 beers were on offer at Saturday’s party.
“Brad and I always push the envelope,” Williams says. “A lot of breweries get complacent and they’re happy with their four, five, six beers, whatever it is. That’s not us. We are always pushing forward, always trying new stuff, always doing something different, and we always have something in our back pocket.”
It’s never certain how a beer will fare when it’s all cooped up, but judging by the two barreled representatives we sampled, OHB has a good handle on the margin.
The first was a chardonnay-conditioned version of Freaky Deaky, OHB’s popular Belgian tripel. The barrel stint lent an oaky, vinous sophistication to the base beer, which is already a brewery staple thanks to its marriage of American levels of hops with the estery, elegant profile of Low Country recipes.
Chump Change got the bourbon barrel treatment. A black saison (which, considered alongside Martin House’s Black Camo and Chimera’s Dream Of The Witches’ Sabbath, seems to be the style du jour in North Texas craft), it married a dark roastiness with wild-style yeast permutations, all coated with a strapping, boozy lacquer. The standard edition Chump Change earned OHB a silver medal at World Beer Cup this past May — not bad for a beer that started as a homebrew recipe first brewed in a sweltering parking lot just a few years ago.
This isn't to say that there haven't been a few bumps in OHB's learning curve. Mall and Williams recalled almost losing their very first batch of beer to a missing fitting (a loaner from Lakewood Brewing saved the day), as well as having to dump a completed-but-ruined batch a few months after that. But, on balance, both affirmed that a bad day in the brewhouse still beat a good day in the office.
Both men are married with young children. Some spouses might oppose taking such a risk, however well-calculated, at that stage of life. At Oak Highlands, at least, that necessary endorsement came quickly.
“If it was up to our wives [Leigh Mall and Whitney Williams], we would have been open a year earlier,” Williams says. “Our wives were kicking us in the ass to move forward with opening.”
“When we were out pushing our beer, they saw how happy we were,” Mall adds. “When they saw us on a regular basis when we were doing our regular jobs … not that we were unhappy, they just knew that we were different people when we were doing the things that we both loved. Our two biggest supporters were our wives, without a doubt.”
That love appears to have been passed on to the next generation of Oak Highlanders, too.
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“My oldest son [Hayes] the other day asked me, ‘Can I have a one-year anniversary T-shirt?,’” Mall says. “I’m like, ‘I’m not sure that’s OK to wear to school,’ but he does have OHB stickers all over his binder, so …”
Looking ahead to year two, Mall and Williams intend to keep up the pace. Two 60-barrel tanks were slated for delivery yesterday, and OHB sales reps are busy in new territories like Denton and Fort Worth. Good growth is gospel to any small business, but when asked to describe the clearest picture of OHB’s success, family and community are still at the center of the picture.
“I take my kids to school on a random Thursday in the middle of October and I’m going through the drop-off line,” Mall says, “and I see six different parents with OHB shirts on. And on the next day, there’s four more. And on the next day, there’s five more. The support from where we take our kids to school is great. It’s so humbling to see the groundswell. We hope and pray that it continues on.
“That’s what success looks like — when you run into somebody at the grocery store, and they have on an OHB T-shirt.”