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
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The polymer-lined cans protect the beer from sunlight and oxygen, which keeps it fresher than bottles, but some still thought it was a gimmick. Besides the naysayers, the can experiment hit some rough patches in the early days, when the beers were “handcanned” two at a time in the old barn across the alley from the restaurant. Oskar Blues had recently started shipping to markets beyond Colorado when disaster struck. The crew was loading a huge truckload of beer bound for Georgia, Katechis remembers.
“The amount of beer on that size of truck could make or break our company,” he said. “As the last pallet is going on the truck, I notice that one of the cans’ seams are leaking. I look and start to see other ones that are leaking. It was 2,000 cases of leaking cans – $40,000 worth, at a time when we weren’t even selling $40,000 a month.”
They had to pull all the cans off the truck and destroy them, missing the shipment and infuriating the company’s distributor. Katechis called it a “fetal position, in your closet crying, going, ‘What have I done?” type of experience. “But we’ve grown by our screw-ups,” he said. After that, you can bet they had quality-control measures to ensure cans are properly sealed.
Major validation for Oskar Blues’ canned-beer revolution came in 2005, when a New York Times blind taste test named Dale’s Pale Ale the best pale ale in the country. And later that year, The Wall Street Journal’s expert beer panel “pretty much swooned” after trying Oskar Blues’ Scottish ale, Old Chub. Also highly regarded is imperial red ale G’Knight, named in memory of Katechis’ old friend Gordon Knight, who died in 2002 when the firefighting helicopter he was piloting crashed while battling the Big Elk Meadows fire near Lyons.
Oskar Blues’ growth has been fast and furious of late. The main brewery operation moved to Longmont in 2008, complete with the Tasty Weasel Taproom, while a second restaurant, Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids & Solids, opened in Longmont the next year. Production has grown from 17,000 barrels a year in 2008 to a projected 95,000 barrels this year. A new brewery and restaurant open this year in North Carolina, to better meet demand on the East Coast. This year also marks the launch of a distillery in Lyons, to be located in the barn that was once home to the original canning operation. And not limiting himself to food and drink, Katechis merged his love of beer and mountain bikes last year with the launch of REEB Cycles – yes, that’s “beer” spelled backwards.
Oskar Blues is expanding all over the map, but its roots remain firmly in Lyons. And it’s gotten bigger, too, annexing an adjacent Subway sandwich shop, redubbed Old Chubway. It serves sandwiches, but also homestyle breakfasts like biscuits and gravy. And there’s ice cream, with flavors like Ballpark, which disturbingly and deliciously mimics the taste of beer and popcorn.
Old Chubway is run by Jeana Johnson, a fifth-generation Lyons resident whose great-grandfather had a sawmill on the site of the shopping center where Oskar Blues is now.
“Now that Oskar’s been here 15 years, they’re considered part of the old town,” Johnson said. “As Dale changed things, the town kind of grew with him.”
It seems like all the local high schoolers work at Oskar Blues at some point, Johnson said – as have many of their parents and siblings, at one time or another.
On a recent afternoon, Laurie Skeie was in Oskar Blues for lunch. She first met Dale and Christi before they opened Oskar Blues, when they were regular customers at a restaurant where she was a waitress.
“They were our neighbors, great fun people and great tippers,” Skeie said. “So when they opened up, of course we had to come here.”
Despite the attention the beer has gotten, hospitality and a personal touch remain the key selling points, said Anita Gray, general manager of the Oskar Blues restaurants. The company has always had a family feel, she says. Dale’s brother Chris is one of the distribution chiefs, and his mother, known by all as Ya Ya, was for years the office manager. Gray points out one of the many bits of memorabilia on the wall: A framed sheet of paper with “I will not spit on Kevin,” written over and over in young Dale’s childish scrawl, which Ya Ya made him write decades ago to atone for an offense against a sibling.
Oskar Blues is a multimillion dollar, multistate operation now, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The sign above the administrative office is Longmont says it all: “Anti-Corporate Headquarters.” Even though the free-spirited Katechis is now technically a businessman whom The Denver Business Journal has named “Entrepreneur of the Year,” his company has the feel of a business that’s somehow been taken over by pirates. He readily agrees with that assessment.
“A big part of my job is making sure the pirates are still running the ship,” he said.