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Interview with a brewer: Oskar Blues in Lyons, CO

Recently we got a chance to interview Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colorado. Garrett at Maui Brewing introduced us, and I’m glad he did. If Oskar Blues doesn’t ring a bell, Dale’s Pale Ale might. Or Old Chub. Or Gordon. Or Ten FIDY. Oskar Blues is famous for making some amazing beers, but perhaps more famous for canning the amazing beers. They pioneered canning in craft beer, and for that we are forever indebted to them. Sidenote: If you’ve never had an imperial stout in a can, Ten FIDY is a must.

This interview is a little different, in that we asked some of our friends on Twitter to contribute questions. And contribute they did. Marty at Oskar Blues was kind enough to answer all of our questions, even the annoying ones. Which just goes to show you, they’re as nice as their beer is delicious. It also goes to show you how annoying we are.

1) Why craft brew in a can? How does the can affect quality, taste, your brewing process? (via Lauterhaus)

We launched our “Canned Beer Apocalypse” in November of 2002 as a clever way to promote our brewpub/music joint to folks outside of our town of 1200 folks. The move defied the brown-bottles-only mantra of craft beer, and made us the first US craft brewer to brew and can its own beer. We started by hand-canning our Dale?s Pale Ale on a little table-top machine. It sealed one can at a time.

Why cans? I’ll have Dale answer that one:

“We thought the idea of our big, hoppy pale ale in a can was hilarious,” Katechis recalls, “and it made our beer more portable for our fans who have fun outdoors. Cans also deliver the freshest beer possible by fully protecting it from light and oxygen. They?re good for beer.”

“The modern-day aluminum can is lined with a water-based coating so beer and the can never touch. It?s a myth that cans impart metallic flavors,” Katechis says.

“Cans are also the most recycled beverage container and they?re infinitely recyclable,” Katechis says. “Because of their light weight, cans are less fuel-consuming to ship and allow us to shrink our carbon footprint for out-of-state beer by about 40%. That?s big.”

But cans also make for some extremely portable craft beer, and allow folks to enjoy delicious beer in the outdoors more easily. Fishing, camping, beaching, biking, those sorts of things are special times and call for special beer. We hear from folks all the time who tell us how our beers have added much joy to their outdoor fun.

Cans also have an unpretentious, working-class, retro charm that appeals to us and many other folks. When you squeeze a big juicy pale ale or a luscious malty mutha’s milk into those cans, you’ve got something other-worldly and wonderful. And a treat that’s distinctly counter culture and against the grain. Punk rock, if you will.

2) Where should craft breweries interested in canning start and what should they be considering?

You gotta start with Cask Systems, the Canadian outfit that makes the gear we started on, and the gear about 25 other craft breweries now use. Their microcanning equipment made our trailblazing effort possible, they’re real pioneers.

What to consider? One drawback of cans vs. bottles, especially for a startup brewery, is you have to order cans in very large quantities. So you have to really believe in and be committed to that canned beer. And you’re very limited in the selection you can offer. Then again, if you don?t have faith, focus and deep affection for the beer you’re making, you should consider finding another trade.

3) When the hell are you coming to New Orleans? (via The Beer Buddha)

No plans just yet. Though my bass player has a place there and has offered it as a spot for launching some, uh, “research” into the area. Dale and the rest of us are sure big fans of much of the music from there, we book a ton of it in our place, too. Our brewpub menu is loaded with Cajun-style food.

4) If you were to start another brewery from scratch (purely hypothetical), is there anything you would do differently this time around?

Hmm. I’d say try and plan a bit farther out for growth. In our case, we’ve been unable to fill orders for most of our Apocalypse, just now getting caught up. And we’d pick more brains of our successful, more experienced peers. In our early days, Sam Calagione was a big source of help, support and inspiration. So was Greg Koch at Stone. The folks at the Brewers Association gave us giant help and support, too, as did New Belgium and several other craft breweries here in Colorado. But we made some mistakes of our own while learning on the job, extra brain picking may have avoided them.

5) How did you get a black hole into a can? I swear Ten FIDY can absorb light. (via Geistbear)

Well, you’ve gotta have the guts and the sense of humor to make a beer that big and sell it in a can. Most importantly, you need whip-smart brewers like our man Dave Chichura and his crew. Making Ten FIDY is not easy due to its immense grainbill and viscosity. Kinda like making good gravy or uber banana pudding. That’s some beer isn?t it?!

6) There are a lot of breweries in Colorado that make great beer, but Oskar Blues has managed to develop great beer and a successful company. What do you think are the key differentiators of those breweries that have experienced growth and commercial success?

The key factors for us? A rare combination of novel ideas, humor, savvy gospel-spreading, expert sales, and goosebump-inducing beer. And much happy hard work and risk taking.

Dale’s idea to can a big hoppy, American pale ale was way out there, a real rulebreaker. But we and our customers love the blasphemous nature and ridiculousness of it. A hearty sense of humor and “why not?” has also been key. Along with relentless, smiling, informed communication with the press about our beers, mojo, and ideas. From day one we’ve invested much time and effort in educating the media and consumers about cans, our bodacious beers, the fun we have.

We also launched with a one-of-a-kind sales dude, Wayne Anderson, who has that same grinning relentlessness and skill for selling our beer. He rocks. And we’ve had the great blessings of sharp brewers who deeply love our beer, have the skills to make it in primo fashion, and are willing to work long hard hours to brew and package that beer.

We also have a lead cat with grand ideas, the juice and love for driving a runaway train, and a way with bankers.

Most of all, there?s the beer itself. We make elegant-but-assertive beers for a very small but growing slice of beer lovers. Folks like us who crave rich flavors, artful things way beyond the mainstream, the more meaningful things in life. We don?t give a hoot about appealing to the masses.

One more thing: we love what we do. So our appreciation for our “jobs” is pretty obvious and folks can feel that. And the long hours we put in are a pleasure, not a chore. Very, very important.

It’s great fun turning more and more folks on to your beer. But crazy growth also presents some problems and risks and requires much work.

7) What has been the single greatest marketing tactic for you in growing your brand (other than “word-of-mouth”)?

The move to cans instantly set us apart from everybody else, and was living proof that we thought and operated differently. Our decision to make microcanning our focus (instead of some sideline novelty) added to it. But it’s been a combination of the things mentioned above. Without our swing-for-the-fence philosophy, media tickling, ace sales and brewery staff, and delicious, uncompromising beer, we’re not where we are today.

2 thoughts on “Interview with a brewer: Oskar Blues in Lyons, CO

  1. We’ve thought about a podcast, but honestly James at Basic Brewing has things pretty well covered. Plus Joel sounds like a little girl in person.

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