Can It: Dale Katechis and Oskar Blues Brewery
Published on 04/02/2012
By Mallory Ayres
Any respectable beer snob can talk endlessly about beer. They'll talk about its assertiveness, level of hops, fruity and spicy undertones and its smell and color. They'll even critique the vessel and label. Pursuing craft beer isn't just a hobby for some; it's a lifestyle. So you can imagine back in 2002 when Dale Katechis, founder of Oskar Blues Brewery, decided to put his small-batch craft beer in cans, the aficionados were more than skeptical. In fact, they were doubled over laughing. But that didn't stop Katechis, because he had already figured out the benefits of canned beer, some so obvious it's incredible that brewers everywhere didn't acknowledge them. Eventually people got over the odd packaging and tried Katechis' beer, and found it ridiculously delicious. It wooed beer drinkers across the board, and his famous brews, like Dale's Pale Ale, were greeted around the U.S. with much acclaim. In fact, the New York Times said, "The panel [of testers] pretty much swooned."
When we had a chance to talk with Katechis and hear his story, he shared that his mission is more than to just make delicious beer, it's to spread his passion for an active lifestyle. That's why, with the same careful attention he gives his beer, this avid cyclist has started making small batches of high-quality single-gear steel bikes. With his bikes and his beer, Katechis' mission is to bring people together to enjoy life.
But the story starts in '92 when this small-town Alabama boy decided to live his own Manifest Destiny and head out west. He set his sights on Wise River, Montana after he was charmed by a picture of it in Outside Magazine. "It was sort of a surreal scene. I thought it defined where I wanted to spend the rest of my life," he said. So he packed up with his college sweetheart and started driving. However, their trip hit a hiccup when they ran low on funds in Boulder, Colorado. "We knew that 1,000 bucks wasn't going to get us much farther. I also fell in love with this area," he explained. They got jobs, slept on a friend's floor for a while and made Colorado their home.
After a few years of working in quality control at Madden Mountaineering and bartending at Old Chicago, Katechis had a chance to visit his boss's home in Lyons, Colorado. He loved the quirky 1,400-person town and decided to buy a house there. It was then that he started to entertain dreams of opening his own restaurant. "I bartended all through college and had been in the restaurant business, so it was kind of my heart and soul, " he said. In '97 he tapped a few credit cards and a bunch of cash advance checks and opened a small, down-home Cajun themed restaurant in Lyons called Oskar Blues. About a year and a half later they started to brew their own beer and invite live music to attract more customers.
About five years into Oskar Blues' brewing adventure, Katechis decided to start canning the beer. "It was a decision that was met with a great deal of laughter because the idea of putting craft beer in a can was so far fetched, to myself and the beer industry. We just laughed and laughed until we realized that the can was actually superior packaging for fresh craft beer, due to the fact that it eliminates exposure to light, which breaks down the hops. It also allows you to fill the vessel completely with beer and top it with foam, which lowers the total exposure to oxygen so the beer stays fresher than it does in a bottle," he explained. Plus canned beer is more portable and easier to recycle than glass bottles.
However, some barriers were left. They had to convince the consumers and find someone who would agree to package their beer in cans, because they could only do it themselves in small quantities. Eventually they found someone to can their beer, so they started focusing on convincing the consumer. "Once we realized that the can was better packaging, we hit the market as beer educators, not beer salesmen. We put our cans in the truck and drove them to different retailers. We were able to connect with the retailer as a consultant and educator rather than someone who was trying to sell them something." The next step was to put their beer on the shelves in Boulder to attract more people to the restaurant, which in turn, would convince more people to buy it off the shelves. "[Putting it on the shelves] was really a marketing tool to drive people to the restaurant. What happened was we started to make more and more beer." As the beer became more popular both inside and outside the restaurant, they needed another brewery, and then another restaurant.
Now they distribute beer in 26 states and call their style of packaging the "Canned Beer Apocalypse." Katechis explained, "[The term] goes back to what we were originally, the first brewery to put a multi-dimensional full-flavored craft beer in a can. It kind of shocked our industry and our consumer. Now we use that term 'apocalypse' in a kind of tongue in cheek way to describe the unusual nature of our canned beer." Among the brewery's most popular beers are the infamously hoppy Dales Pale Ale (a gold medal winner at the World Beer Championships), the 100% pale malt pilsner Mamma's Little Yella Pils and the "jaw-dropping" Scottish strong ale Old Chub. Right now they also have an experimental beer called Deviant Dales. "It's an aggressively dry hopped IPA," said Katechis. "It's kind of like a double version of the Dales. " The response has been overwhelming, and Deviant Dales has been selling out in every market.
So what's Katechis' favorite brew? "It depends on the time of year, the mood and the setting. After a long bike ride my body craves an Old Chub. It's malty and robust and I love the carbohydrate factor. I also like our double IPA called G'Knight - it's a heavily hopped and malted tribute beer that was named after a brewer who was killed fighting a local fire," he said. As far as seasonal favorites, like everybody else, Katechis can't get enough of the Deviant Dales - "It knocks you over with fresh hops."
Right now Katechis couldn't be happier, because his success has led to some new, exciting ventures. "We're getting to fulfill our passions for food, music, good times and beer. What has happened most recently is that has allowed us to get into some of our other passions, like mountain biking," he said. Reeb Cycles ("beer" spelled backwards) is Katechis' new company that makes high-quality single-gear steel and titanium all-mountain bikes. He explains, "I tend to like my bike a little laid back. Our bikes are our way of expressing simplicity, which is what I love about a single speed. You've only got one gear, and there isn't much to think about except grinding it."
The bike features a Gates Carbon belt drive, consisting of two pulleys and a belt embedded with carbon fiber cords. They decided to use a belt drive because it's clean (requires no greasy lube), quiet (no chain squeak or noise), light (half the weight of a chain drive) and strong (carbon fibers won't stretch - no more snapping chains). The bikes are also simple stylistically - "If you look at any of our bikes they're raw in the sense that they just have a clear coat on the raw steel," he said. The bikes run from $3,700 - 4,300 at www.reebcycles.com.
Dale sees his bike business and his beer business as inherently interconnected. "To me, craft beer is an important and vital part of society, and especially of a small community. We've learned in Lyons that beer brings people together. People come and share beer and talk about the adventures of life. It's simple, it connects people, it's about freedom. That's translated to our bikes, because what's better than being on a bicycle and then afterwards sharing a beer and talking about that adventure? It's a good way to spend a lifetime if you ask me." We couldn't agree more.