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Strange brew

Choc beer’s wild history reflects Okie paradoxes of race, immigration, politics and good times

Like any good Oklahoma yarn, the story of choc beer revolves around Indigenous folkways, race-baiting politicians, gruesome mine accidents and wanton drunkenness. Choc beer was an elixir for generations of white musicians and dancers in Greenwood nightclubs in Tulsa, but it was also the “devil’s brew” for puritanical civic leaders who feared race mixing and Mexican immigration.

Choc beer’s origins reside in the ancestral home of the Choctaw Nation, in what is today Mississippi and Alabama. At some point, a traditional Choctaw drink involving mildly poisonous fishberries, corn, and tobacco became hybridized with European beer. By the early 19th century, many Choctaw people had created their own frothy version of beer that involved barley, hops, and wheat, but came out quite different than European beer because of the mixture with these (and other) Native American ingredients.

Fishberries, in particular, made choc beer an altogether different proposition than its European cousin. The berries contain picrotoxin, which can be poisonous to humans in high doses. The Choctaw used fishberries to stun fish. Like tobacco, small doses of fishberries could provide a pleasant buzz to humans while large doses could provoke intense sickness.

After removal to Indian Territory, the Choctaw Nation deployed its lighthorse forces to battle whiskey runners. The matter of choc beer, however, caused internal debates. Nationalists, who opposed assimilation with white ways, thought choc beer should be classified with other spirits as a tool of white invaders. “Progressives”—the name given to Choctaws in favor of some degree of accommodation with whites—thought the beer, which could be low in alcohol (more on that later) deserved a special status within the Nation. The legal status of choc was in flux while its consumption was omnipresent.

With the advent of coal mining in the Choctaw Nation came the first waves of immigrants, many of them from Italy and eastern Europe. The coal miners quickly discovered choc beer. Not only was it a boozy alternative to wine, which the Italians could not find in the Nation, but it was also free of pathogens found in the muddy waters of Indian Territory. Choc beer was the miners’ tonic. Some doctors in the Territory prescribed it as a remedy for the many illnesses the miners contracted. It was the CBD of the late 19th century.

The status of choc beer was thrown into a legal limbo as judges from Texas and Arkansas tried to impose U.S. federal law on white settlers, while allowing the Choctaws to mete out their own punishments. Choctaw traditionalists, fed up with the drunkenness and lawlessness that came in the wake of the opening of choc saloons, had enough. They raided the saloons and smashed barrels of choc beer and whiskey.

By the time of statehood, however, the beverage had acquired the status of the unofficial drink of Oklahoma, spreading well beyond the borders of the Choctaw Nation. In cities as far away as Austin, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas, newspapers complained of an influx of choc beer, most of it provided by black brewers and distributors from Oklahoma.

Oklahoma entered the Union as a dry state, but it was an open secret that choc beer flowed at social gatherings. Embattled former Oklahoma governor David Boren remarked in the documentary Blue Smoke that, “a lot of important decisions and important political meetings in the history of the state have been carried out while the participants were drinking choc beer.”

One choc beer provider stood out above the rest. Pete’s Place, a Krebs restaurant started by an Italian immigrant named Pietro Piegari, became an institution by the 1930s. Piegari changed his name to Pete after landing at Ellis Island. As a young man, he was nearly crushed to death in a mining accident, and so turned his attention to brewing and cooking. A who’s who of Oklahoma politicians—Carl Albert, Gene Stipe, David Boren—have talked shop and sipped choc beer at Pete’s Place.

Depending on the recipe, choc beer could come out anywhere between 4 and 14 percent alcohol by volume, above Oklahoma’s 3.2 percent legal limit from 1933 until 1959. But everyone recognized the gentlemen’s agreement between Pete’s Place and the state’s politicos.

In the cups of politicians, choc beer lubricated deals between rivals. In the possession of people of color, however, choc beer was seen as a scourge. The brew had always been associated with the criminal underworld. Before Oklahoma’s most famous outlaw, Charles Floyd, adopted the moniker of Pretty Boy, he was known simply as “Choc,” because of his affinity for the brew.

As recipes caught on in the rest of the state, a veritable panic broke out. African Americans in small Oklahoma towns proved themselves to be excellent brewmasters and they attracted customers from across the color line. This, in the minds of the authorities, was a genuine problem. In 1915, The Daily Oklahoman opined that black people who drank choc beer acquired a newfound confidence. “A few drinks of the beer with make a common negro (sic) feel like a Jack Johnson.”

Newspapers throughout the state reported on raids of black speakeasies serving choc and playing a nefarious new sound called jazz. On the day following Tulsa Race Massacre, The Tulsa Daily World reported that city police had raided locations in “Little Africa” suspected of making choc beer. One police report argued that choc beer may have fueled a lot of the violence. Police officer Henry Peck said that, before the pivotal confrontation between armed blacks and whites at the Tulsa courthouse, the black men “soaked themselves in choc beer and whiskey until they became crazed with the drink and cared nothing for their lives or the lives of anyone else.”

The perceived threat of black, Native or Mexican control of the choc trade made for explosive headlines. Almost every week during the 1910s and 1920s, The Tulsa Daily World ran stories about a raid on choc brewer. One particularly colorful story involved a place called the Coffee House Restaurant on Admiral Boulevard, where Mexican and black women served as brewmasters until a Spanish-speaking Tulsa police officer overheard a conversation about their choc beer. He sent them all to jail. Another Mexican on the west side was said to be flooding white Tulsa with the booze.

Meanwhile, one McAlester judge ruled that a personal stash for private consumption was perfectly legal. The hypocrisy of the situation continued unabated until Oklahoma finally legalized the sale of packaged liquor in 1959.

Despite white fears, choc beer continued to fuel Tulsa’s nightlife for many more years. Old time Tulsa Sound musicians remember it being a major draw to the blues and jazz clubs in Greenwood before the era of urban renewal hollowed out the neighborhood. The Flamingo Club was one spot in Greenwood were white and black musicians could jam together and sip a frothy choc beer until it was razed to make way for the Inner Dispersal Loop.

There are still many mysteries surrounding choc beer. Many beer bloggers and historians have disputed the notion that “choc” is a shortening of “Choctaw.” One blogger postulated that “choc” was a corruption of “Czech.” Another offered the opinion that choc beer’s milky-white consistency meant that it was actually “chalk” beer. Still another theory ties choc beer to chicha, a pre-Hispanic beverage based on fermented corn.

The last theory is compelling, especially since the off-white color of some chicha and choc is virtually identical. Chicha’s origins come from the Taino, a Caribbean indigenous group that would have traded with the Five Tribes before European contact. Mvskoke and Cherokee people were also known to have some form of fermented drinks made from berries, often for use in ceremony. (Because the use is ceremonial, there are no written records available to outsiders.) So it is possible that choc beer is both a shortening of Choctaw beer while also a distant cousin to pre-European fermented drinks originating in the Caribbean and flowing northward into the U.S. Southeast.

The French critic Roland Barthes famously wrote that food and drink are not simple vehicles for caloric intake. Foodways, Barthes says, are “systems of communication,” vectors for more deeply held social, moral and economic values. Barthes thought a lot about coffee, how it informed a French sensibility for relaxation and social contact, rather than—as in the case of Americans—stimulation for increased productivity.

I’m sure Roland Barthes never sipped a choc beer or gave Oklahoma a second thought. But he could have written an entire dissertation on how choc beer reflects Okie paradoxes of race, immigration, politics, and good times.