The little can that could
Vail, CO, Colorado
Monster beers in a can. That’s basically the mantra at Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons ” only 12 miles from Boulder, but a world away when it comes to pretense. In 2002, owner Dale Katechis started the “canned beer apocalypse,” now the company’s trademarked marketing slogan. Coffee cup securely in hand, Wayne Anderson, the brewery’s sales manager whose card reads “Rainmaker/ Caretaker, aka Dale’s Pimp,” gave three Vail-ites a tour of the company’s operation last Saturday morning.
Katechis and his wife Christi have owned Oskar Blues Grill and Brew since 1996, but it took one loyal customer’s comments ” “You call yourself a grill and brew but you’re not making any beer. What gives?” ” to prompt Katechis into kicking the “brew” part into gear. When the first brew, Dale’s Pale Ale ” a lively, hop-heavy brew ” started getting noticed by beer afficionados and winning accolades, Katechis and his crew decided to try their hand at bottling and distributing the beer.
That’s when dumb luck struck, Anderson said.
An unsolicited fax from Cask Brewing Company in Canada showed up at the office. They were selling small-scale (two beers at a time) canning operations to small, independent brewers. “We thought they were knuckleheads,” Anderson said. As Katechis tells it in a video on oskarblues.com, he laughed hysterically for six months until one day, he stopped laughing.
Turns out the can, usually associated with cheap sub-par beer in the minds of microbrew converts, wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
“It’s the freshest package for beer,” Anderson said. “No air, no light ” those are the things that kill beer.” Plus cans are portable, chill quickly and are welcomed where bottles aren’t ” at the beach, the swimming pool, on boats, and at the golf course.
And so, two cans at a time, Oskar Blues became the first U.S. microbrewery to can its own beer.
“We’re in this,” Katechis said on the Web site, “to have fun and put some extra joy on the planet. We love the way people’s heads spin around after they try one of our monster canned beers. ‘That came out of a can?’ We hear it all the time.”
The brewery can’t make the beer fast enough ” literally. For the past five years, the brewery has had 100 percent growth, which Anderson and Katechis are quick to attribute to the can. That original two-can by hand canning system is now a five-can automatic endeavor, which produces 70 cans an hour. The facility has expanded five times in four years and they now sell their beer in 17 states.
“This building is not two years old and it’s maxed out,” Anderson said, pointing at the large warehouse building behind the restaurant that houses rows of stainless steel tanks and filters. Last year the brewery produced 8,129 barrels of beer ” this year they’re set to hit 14,500 barrells.
Come January Anderson hopes the beer will be brewed a few miles east of the Lyons location at a new production brewery that’s already in the works.
“Hopefully we’ll be making beer there by the first of the year,” he said.
Stepping inside the actual brew house, brewmaster Dave Chichura was busy knocking out the first brew of the day ” Old Chub, a Scottish strong ale that comes in at one-beer-will-get-you-buzzed 8 percent alcohol by volume. Chichura took over as the head brewmaster two years ago, when the brewery was making 4,000 barrels of beer a year. That number has more than trippled since ” and watching Dave literally run from the mash ton, where sugars are extracted from the barley to make wort, to the cold filter, where a batch of Dale’s Pale Ale was being filtered into the finishing tank for carbonation, it’s clear to see that neither time or production capabilities are seldom, if ever, under used.
Three of the beers Chichura brews are canned and shipped out ” Old Chub, which is brewed with seven different malts; Dale’s Pale Ale, the brewery’s flagship beer, which the Rocky Mountain News deemed the Top Colorado Brewed Beer in Nov. and The New York Times picked as the best pale ale in America in 2005; and Gordon, a hefty 8.7 percent, falls somewhere between an Imperial Red and a Double IPA.
Gordon, Anderson tells us, started as a one time Champagne-bottled brew to honor the late Gordon Knight who died in 2002 while fighting a wild fire outside of Lyons. Knight was a huge “hop head” who had the distinction of winning three gold medals at three Great American Beer Festivals’ for three different microbreweries he founded.
“People went apeshit over the beer,” Anderson said, so Gordon became the third Oskar Blues mainstay brew. And even though while peering into the liquor store’s cooler you might grunt in surprise at the $12.99 price tag for the four-pack of cans, Chichura reminds that at 8.7 percent alcohol by volume, you’re getting nearly twice the bang for your buck ” a true monster, indeed.