This week, Chicago’s craft beer universe expands just a little bit more. That’s one more variation on the same headline, but I get to write them a lot these days. That’s because Oskar Blues Brewery of Colorado begins selling their exclusively canned beers in the Chicago market. And they’re kicking off with a series of launch events the week of September 20.
Oskar Blues has gained a strong following here even before they’ve arrived, being one of the many beers on which fans slip out to Wisconsin to stock up. They weren’t just one of the first canning craft brewers, but one of the first to can high-octane “Imperial” styles. The expansion into the Chicago market, through Windy City Distribution is part of an expansion that includes an second brewing facility in North Carolina.
The business started in 1997 as a restaurant, Oskar Blues Cajun Grill, in Lyons, Colorado, north of Boulder. The next year, owner Dale Katechis began brewing beer in the restaurant’s basement, and won a bronze medal at the next year’s Great American Beer festival for “The Reverend Sandi’s Sinful Stout.”
OB’s “Beer Pedaler” (Marketing Director), Chad Melis, explained how they decided on cans when they started retail production in 2002. “We were then in a very seasonal town of Lyons, near the Rocky Mountain National Park. Our idea was to market the beer regionally, and to keep Oskar Blues on people's minds through the winter so they would stop in again during the summer. During that time, we were getting some unsolicited faxes from a Canadian company called Cask (Brewing & Canning Systems), offering their small scale canning systems. That piqued our interest, so we ended up going to visit their partners, the Ball Corp., which had a location near us (headquartered in Denver, with a plant in Golden, CO, amazingly enough). And we saw the benefits of going with cans.
“We also wanted to push some boundaries by using cans. We are in an outdoor-oriented area, and we wanted our customers to take our beer more places, especially where glass might not be allowed. Using Cask, we got a system that let us purchase smaller runs of cans without breaking the bank.”
At this time, manufacturers of food packaging systems simply had no market for canning lines that would fit with smaller craft brewers. As many craft brewers at the time were either expanding or going out of business, it was much easier to source a small, used bottling line. Since Oskar Blues was one of Cask’s first small brewer customers, Melis says they served essentially as Cask’s Research and Development department:
“Our machinery from Cask has gotten better over the past ten years. Sometimes there were problems, which just meant a semi driver would have time for lunch in our restaurant while waiting for us to fill pallets. It did take a lot of work for us to get to our goal of higher quality packaging. But what we have now is a beer with a much longer shelf life of 120 days, while other packages recommend 90 days. You can open a can of our IPA after four months and the hop aroma is just as fresh as the day it left the brewery.” They began shipping their first canned beer, Dale’s Pale Ale, in 2002.
“We say that our canned beer is better three ways: It's better for the beer, because it lets in no light, and the seaming process keeps out oxygen. It's better for the beer drinker, because it's more portable, and it stays fresh longer. And it's better for the environment: besides being recyclable, we can pack 100 cases per pallet for shipping that weigh the same as 60 cases of bottles. So we can ship more beer and use less fuel.”
Chicago represents a homecoming of sorts for Oskar Blues head brewer Dave Chichura, who was the first brewmaster at Rock Bottom Warrenville. Oskar Blues is also opening up in Alabama, which is has also opened up in Alabama, which is owner Dale Katechis' home state. Melis refers to himself as a native of “Chicago National Park,” that is, Wisconsin.
Oskar Blues' Chicago rollout will include its six year round beers, plus a popular winter seasonal. Chad described each beer thusly:
- Dale's Pale Ale is our flagship brand. It's celebrating its anniversary in November. That's ten years as the first craft beer in a can. 6.5% abv, 65 IBU.
- Mama's Little Yella Pils is a Czech style Pilsener with Saaz hops. It just won the Silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival. There was no gold awarded in the category this year, so that was the highest honer. 5.3% abv
- Old Chub is a Scotch Ale at 8% abv. It won a Bronze this year at GABF.
- G'Knight is a dry-hopped Imperial Red Ale which took Gold at the World Beer Cup. 8.7%, 60 IBU.
- Gubna is our Imperial IPA. It has 10% alcohol, and 100 IBU's of 100% Summit hops.
- We are bringing out our first 16 oz. Can: Deviant Dale's IPA. A stronger version of Dale's Pale Ale, at 8% abv (85 IBU). We entered it in the IPA category, which had the most entries at the Great American Beer Fest, and it won a Silver medal."
- Ten FIDY is their seasonal, an Imperial Stout, at 10.5% abv and 98 IBU. As perhaps the first Imperial Stout in a can, it's lived up to its reputation among beer nerds. Although the package looks as flimsy as any aluminum beer can, Chad said it is very cellarable: “I just opened a can from 2009 a month ago, and it was amazing. It had mellowed a bit, and the smoky character had smoothed out a lot. It is a very cellarable beer, which we age in whiskey barrels. Different tastes in it develop over time.”
Like many brewers in Colorado, Oskar Blues has a number of environmental initiatives. The Hops and Heifers Farm near their current headquarters in Longmont, feeds the brewery's spent grain and restaurant compost to Black Angus cattle and Berkshire pigs, which fertilizes the farm's garden and hopyard. And they own Reeb Cycles, a maker of hand-built mountain bikes.