By Vlad Alforov
The edifice across the street from the Norman Fire Department could barely fit a couple fire trucks.The building’s true history is unclear. Some say it used to be a bank while others claim it hosted many different auto repair shops, a wood working place or a machine shop.
The rumors are evidenced by the great length of supply cables and the beam structures throughout the building.
Now, the property welcomes its visitors with a candid timbered sign that reads “Lazy Circles Brewing.”
Even before you walk in you start wondering whose idea it was to make a craft beer business of this size in this part of the country.
It started as a Sunday activity. Play pool, make beer, drink beer, eat pasta. Just a family thing.
“Let’s just say we didn’t sell any beer and it was within the legal requirements set out by the ABLE commission,” said Stephen Swanson, Lazy Circles’ tap room manager.
Swanson is well-set, thick-bearded and short-spoken, until you touch upon topics close to his heart.
“Bicycles were a passion for me long before I drank beer,” said Swanson. “I’ve always found freedom and joy in riding a bike.”
Before bikes, there was cooking, said Swanson. After the college dropout’s first professional passion — becoming a famous chef — faded, Swanson went back to school.
“I figured I would get a business degree and get a job that could afford what I wanted to do: ride bikes, travel, drink good beer and have a comfortable life,” said Swanson. That job, he said, offered everything he wanted, and so he dropped out of college again.
At the time, Swanson was single, but shortly after accepting a job at the bike shop he met his future wife, Holly. Her brother, Stephen Basey, was retiring after 20 years at the U.S. Navy.
“The three of us decided it was good time to build something for the future,” said Swanson. The rest of the family supported with money and otherwise.
Swanson said that he and his sister come from a large family “with lots of brothers [who] all drink craft beer.” He added that one of his brothers brewed beer before he “ever decided to try it out.”
The future brewery was starting off at Basey’s garage, said Swanson. “At the time, he had a bigger house, a pool table, and a pasta roller.”
And then people started asking whether they can buy some beer for their backyard gathering, their wedding up in Tulsa, someone’s graduation party.
“We brewed together at home, for years before opening, starting off very small,” said Stephen Basey, head brewer at Lazy Circles Brewing. “Then we were cranking out quite a bit of beer. And we got good at it.”
Basey, a tall, jaunty man, inquires about your beer preference before you have time to introduce yourself. He smiles and moves a tad too confidently for a guy who runs a brewery with his sister and brother-in-law.
“At first it was like, hey, let’s brew 10 gallons of beer. You get a keg and I get a keg,” said Swanson. “And so, we got to a point where we could consistently keep two kegs of beer on tap, 10 gallons at a time in our house. From there, it kinda snowballs.”
In November 2017, Basey and the Swansons thought, “Hey, maybe we can take this to market.”
At that time, there was only one brewery in Norman. It seemed like the perfect time.
That first brewery is 405 Brewing. Swanson knew its owners, Trae Carson and Jonathan Stapleton, long before they opened.
“We had a lot of help from Trae and Jonathan,” said Swanson.” Actually, we get even more help from them now that we’re open.”
One of the great things about the craft beer industry, according to Swanson, is breweries helping each other out. He said that Lazy Circles and 405 Brewing try to market their businesses together and offer different products to avoid direct competition.
“It’s a super friendly market,” Swanson remarked. “I could walk into any brewery in Norman or Oklahoma City and talk to somebody in their production facility and they’d give me more information than I care to have, and then they’ll probably give me like two four-packs of beer. It’s just a really interesting industry.”
The timing was also perfect because a year before Lazy Circles Brewing opened, breweries around the state could only sell their beer to distributors. But as Oklahoma was becoming more craft beer friendly, the legislature allowed for tap rooms to serve their own brew.
Swanson said he believes that the fun of craft beer is in the experience of going to a tap room. “It’s in occasionally meeting and talking to the owners, to the people who made the beer you drink,” backed up Basey, looking around the wooden-paneled front room of the brewery.
“There is nothing more American than a small business. Dudes or gals, following their passion, just workin’ and makin’ somethin’ they’re really into. What’s better than that, right?”
Swanson just came back from distributing their canned beers around the retailers. Basey stayed back at the facility, checking on the fermenters, discussing the upcoming supplies with their business partners.
Stephens recalled how years back, in their garage, they would look at four chilling, fermenting kegs and ask each other, “Alright, what are we brewing next?”
“It’s the same exact process now, except we are looking at probably 30-40 kegs,” said Swanson. “We probably need to get some kind of real business person involved to tell us how to actually do it.”
“It’s not that far off from where we started,” added Basey, and the brothers-in-law laughed wholeheartedly. Neither of the two would ever listen to any big business people telling them how to conduct their business.
They managed to render their lifestyle profitable.
“We’re not super unique in what we do,” agreed the Lazy Circles owners.
Anywhere you go, you can now find a small neighborhood brewery with darkling stouts, staple IPAs and daring sour ales. But the beauty of it is in finding different takes on the same beer in brewery after brewery after brewery, sum up the brothers-in-law.
You don’t travel around to just go to liquor stores.
Stronger community — better business
Over 20 tout, frisky individuals were stretching outside the Lazy Circles’ inconspicuous two-story brick box at the eastern end of Norman’s Main Street. The rally appeared surprisingly energetic for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday.
There were people of all stripes: college kids, oldsters, parents with children in jogging strollers.
On that day, they were united there by the two hobbies shared among the crowd — running and drinking beer.
Kevin Kuruc, who joined the Thursday run, said he believes that such events “are hugely helpful.” Kuruc has recently moved to Norman from Austin, to work as an assistant professor at the OU economics department.
It’s much easier to start talking to people when you’re there for a common experience,” Kuruc said. “It’s a great catalyst to start a conversation.”
Currently, Lazy Circles Brewing comprises of a laid-back tap room that’s open every day and an actual brewery with tanks, mills and filters in the back of the building. Additionally, the brewery hosts and endorses various special events, including the Lazy Runners Brew Crew run — a joint initiative with OK Runner.
A 3-mile race starts and ends at the brewery, with every finisher receiving a complimentary beer.
“We got a bunch of people here who like to run and drink beer,” explained Swanson. Basey nodded confirmatively, working his way through a lunch box of pasta.
The Lazy Circles brewers have not given up on their other passions as well, including biking.
“The idea was always to be a brewery that was heavily marketed towards cyclists, runners, people who kayak, go canoeing, hiking, camping — that sort of lifestyle we wanted to go after,” Swanson revealed stoutly, “because that’s what we were into.”
On Wednesdays, the brewery collaborates with Fusion Fitness and Buchanan Bicycles for a “beer and bike ride.”
Fusion Fitness and Lazy Circles Brewing pair up for “stretch ‘n sip beer yoga” sessions, too.
Such relationships between local businesses extend far beyond occasional cooperation. The Norman leisure scene, when explored more in-depth, presents itself with an all-embracing sense of reciprocity that reigns over the town.
The brewery owners said they are “real big into raising money for certain charities.” They had contributed to Food and Shelter as well as Bethesda, a Norman-based charity that provides care for those with childhood sexual abuse trauma.
“If you’re just here to make money, then you’re just another giant corporation,” said Swanson.
Eventually, Norman begins to resemble a single organism, where each building and business is an integral part of the whole.
Swanson acknowledged, “There is certain expectation for small business to be community-oriented.”
However, he said at Lazy Circles they also believe in business serving a purpose beyond making money. “People … support small business when they feel like that business is doing something more than just taking in profit.”
Swanson said he thinks that giving back to the community by helping local charities and investing in own hobbies, be it sports or beer drinking, is the way to raise the overall quality of social and communal life.
“If you like to drink good beer [and] you can support someone you know at the same time, that makes you feel better as a consumer,” Swanson said. “And as a business owner, it makes you feel better knowing that you can help give back to people who give to you.”
By Vlad Alforov