The Tale of Oskar Blues Brewery
From small-town restaurant to burgeoning brewing empire, Oskar Blues is a true-blue family establishment known for serving up down-home southern food, music, and brews
Oskar Blues started in Lyons, but in recent years it moved its main brewing operation here to nearby Longmont. It also launched a second restaurant in Longmont, Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids & Solids, which features an old silo that bears a striking resemblance to a giant can of Dale’s Pale Ale.
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(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
LYONS HAS BEEN FAMOUS for more than a century as the gateway to the Rockies, an almost absurdly beautiful town surrounded on three sides by Technicolor red sandstone mountains.
In the last decade, Lyons’ fame has spread even further thanks to Oskar Blues, a funky Cajun restaurant which begat a brewery which has rapidly evolved into an internationally renowned beer empire and epicenter of the “canned-beer apocalypse.”
The original Oskar Blues Grill & Brew in Lyons doesn’t look that impressive from its shopping center exterior, but inside it’s all southern hospitality and bluesy rock’n’roll. The waitstaff serves pulled pork and red beans to customers they’ve come to know by name, the nights are filled with live music by blues luminaries like John Lee Hooker Jr., and the Oskar Blues beer on tap is legendary – particularly the flagship brew, the aggressively hopped Dale’s Pale Ale.
Dale’s Pale Ale is named after Dale Katechis, the man who started Oskar Blues. The way Katechis’ success has played out in Lyons is equal parts accident and inevitability. It was a fluke that brought him to Colorado in the first place, but once here, his restless creativity and energy made it all but assured that he would do something special.
Katechis was born and raised in Alabama, where he met his high school sweetheart, now wife, Christi. When they both graduated from Auburn University 20 years ago, the couple made the fateful decision to move to Wise River, Mont., after seeing an article in Outside magazine about the outdoors lifestyle and mountain biking scene there. They loaded up the van and set out, but they only made it as far as Boulder, where they stopped to visit friends.
“Once we realized that the thousand bucks that we started with ran out in Boulder, we said, ‘You know what? We’d better get some jobs,’” Katechis said. And so they did. In fact, Katechis got two jobs in Boulder, working 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Madden Mountaineering, making high-tech custom backpacks, then riding his bike to his bartending gig at Old Chicago on Pearl Street, which started at 4 p.m.
During his commute on the bike path, he’d occasionally smell the familiar aroma of brewing beer. Katechis, a home brewer in his college days, followed his nose one day to find the source, a guy named Gordon Knight, whose High Country Brewery was on the cutting edge of the now wildly popular big-hopped beers. The two struck up a friendship that helped kindle Katechis’ desire to do more brewing. But when Katechis started his own business in 1997, a brewery wasn’t part of the picture.
“I’d always had a dream of opening a restaurant and brewing on the weekends,” he said. He and Christi maxed out four credit cards to start a southern-style restaurant in Lyons, north of Boulder, where they had just bought a house. Katechis named the restaurant Oskar Blues after two friends he’d met on a bike tour, Oskar and Old Blue. In the early days of Oskar Blues, Katechis sometimes wondered what he had gotten himself into.
“Our first winter up in Lyons was pretty quiet,” he said. “I remember walking through the dining room and there’s no one in there, and waitresses are looking at me like I’m an idiot.” Katechis knew he had to make Oskar Blues a destination.
The first idea, live music, was an instant hit. Lyons has a sizable population of bluegrass musicians, and touring blues artists made sure to put Oskar Blues on their itinerary. Soon the place was rocking almost every night.
The next idea was the real game changer: turn the place into a brewpub. In the late 1990s, Katechis turned his homebrews into beers to serve on tap at the restaurant, transforming the Oskar Blues basement into the first incarnation of the brewery. Soon, people were coming to Lyons just to sample the famous ales, which had begun racking up awards. Knowing he was onto something, Katechis decided to start packaging the beer for sale at retailers.
“Initially, it was a marketing idea to drive people to the restaurant,” Katechis said. “When you’re in a town of 1,400 people (Lyons’ population at the time), you’ve got to do something to drive up traffic. But it created this life of its own and snowballed, more than anything else.”
Katechis stayed true to his spirit of anarchic innovation when it came time to distribute his brews. Back in 2002, small craft breweries always put their beer in bottles; aluminum cans, meanwhile, were only used by the mass-produced corporate lagers reviled by the beer cognoscenti. Katechis did the unthinkable by putting his microbrews in cans, prompting a collective gasp in the beer world.