Beers and bikes. Bikes and beers. The two worlds come together through a variety of circumstances; midway through a ride, in the parking lot after a race, on a lift, wrenching with friends, at local bike shops around the world, or even while editing photos and writing stories about bikes...and beer. There are certainly those who choose not to make the consumption of these malty brews a part of their lifestyle, as well as those not yet old enough to make it a choice. But for many, mountain biking and beer wouldn't be the same without the other's company.
Perhaps no other company understands this connection better than Oskar Blues Brewery. Founded as a brewpub by Dale Katechis 18 years ago in Lyons, Colorado, the company famous for its craft beer in a can approach has deep roots in mountain biking. So deep, in fact, that mountain biking has affected the direction of the brand and has influenced many of the logistical decisions made by Dale and his management team over the years. One such example was the decision to open up their second brewery location in Brevard, North Carolina, a place that 25 years ago proved to be the provenance of Dale's lifelong obsession with riding bikes in the woods.
From Oskar Blues was born REEB, a selection of hand built, American mountain bikes from their Cyclhops Bike Cantina in Colorado. Oskar Blues was also the official beer sponsor for the 2014 Windham World Cup event. Their beers can be found at numerous events and races throughout the country, including their own Wednesday night rides that start and end at their brewery located at the mouth of Pisgah National Forest. This year, you'll even find them on the helmet of one of the world's fastest riders, Neko Mulally. Neko's home in Brevard is a mere 3 minute pedal to the brewery, making this hometown connection a natural fit and one that both are looking forward to in the upcoming season.
Pinkbike was recently granted the opportunity to tour their facilities in Brevard and speak with a few key members of the company to discuss their brewing philosophy, their obsession with bikes and the intrinsic connection between the two worlds. The mountain bike community will certainly be seeing more of them this year than ever before, so kick back, crack the can open and learn a bit more about Oskar Blues.
Anne-Fitten Glenn, Marketing/Beer Communicatrix What exactly is a craft brewery?The brewers association has a definition that they change pretty regularly. The basics of it are traditional methods under 6 millions barrels. No one is even close to that. I think that the closest craft brewery to those numbers are Boston Brewing (Sam Adams) and they’re at around 2 million or so. Sierra Nevada was number 2 at a million and New Belgium was number 3 at 875 thousand. (Note: Oskar Blues packaged 149,000 barrels in 2014 to 36 different states and Washington, DC. As of late January of 2015, they are distributing to 41 states plus DC). The production number has been set pretty high. It’s small, traditional methods and a significant portion of the business must be independently owned.
In my mind, it’s really about quality. We work really hard to make a high quality food item. It’s not about the alcoholic content, it’s about the ingredients and the control. We want to make sure our product is consistently good. We make sure that all of our craft beer is shipped in refrigerated trucks because it degrades faster as the temp rises. Fresh beer is a lot like fresh bread, it tastes better when you consume it closer to the source. What is behind the surge of mid level and major breweries popping up in western North Carolina?I wrote a book that was published just over two years ago called Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing. It’s about the beer scene in western North Carolina. We were one of the first to open up an expansion brewery on the east coast. We moved pretty quickly; we bought this property and were able to just move our stuff in and get to work. What Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are doing is much more intensive as they have much larger facilities. But I think a lot of it has to do with quality of life. We didn’t apply for any of the permit incentives that are place down here. Dale just wanted to be here. It’s close to some intersecting highways: I-40, I-85, so from a distribution standpoint its great plus the water quality down here is really good. There’s already a thriving beer culture. In my mind, good breweries are a lot like drug stores: you can have 5 of them right next to each other and they’ll all thrive if you’re making good beer. We see that in downtown Asheville. This is already a spot for beer tourism and once Sierra Nevada opens up it’ll be even better. It’s good for all of the craft beer world to be in a place like this, especially a place where the beer consumer base is so educated. How did you guys end up supporting Neko Mulally?We’ve known Neko for a while. He moved to Brevard a little over a year ago. Obviously we’re obsessed with mountain biking. When Neko moved here, he immediately was involved in the mountain bike community as were we. Our paths just kept crossing and it seemed like a natural fit. He really wanted a helmet sponsor and something that was a little different from your typical corporate sponsor. We’re kind of the home town brewery here. It was interesting because when we first started talking, he was only 20. We were like, “You have to be at least 21 before you can wear the logo” (laughs). So luckily he did turn 21 and we kept an eye on him and what he was doing. We were the exclusive beer sponsor at the Windham World Cup, so I went up there and hung out with a lot of those guys and got a better feel for the scene. It was an awesome experience to get a feel for it. We continued to talk to Neko after seeing that there was a really strong response from the event to our presence. With the two of us being in this area and our purchasing of the REEB Ranch last year, it just seemed like a natural fit. He’s a super nice guy, he’s very personable and he understands how to talk on camera. Plus he loves the beer. What is the REEB Ranch?It’s a piece of farmland that is family owned in Henderson County. The idea is that’s its more of a lifestyle kind of thing. We have a farm in Longmont, Colorado, that’s also about seven miles from the brewery and its called “Hops and Heifers.” We have hops growing out there, which we use to make a “wet hop” (hops that are freshly picked and added to the brewing process immediately after being pulled from the plant) beer in September. We also have cattle and Berkshire pigs, which we use in the restaurant and food truck out there. We feed them the spent grain from the brewery. We wanted to create a ‘circle of life’ styled farm out here as well, which is what we're doing with the REEB Ranch. Red Bull approached us about doing Dreamline on that property. We saw that as an awesome opportunity in addition to the operations from the folks at the Bike Farm who are leading tours from there into Dupont and Pisgah. Those guys lead our Wednesday Night rides as well. How else will you be involved in the mountain bike community this year?We are planning on being the exclusive beer sponsor of the Windham World Cup again this year. We’re looking for ways to improve the value of that partnership as well and we see ways in which we can do things differently. That’s such an amazing event because it’s mostly run by volunteers. Its amazing how many hours those people put in. So I think we’ll focus on that event and our support of Neko. We’re a medium-sized brewery; we’re not huge, so we need to put our money where our hearts our. A lot of mountain bikers like craft beer, which is big for us, but we’re also just trying to have some fun with how we support the industry in return.
Noah Tuttle, Brevard Brewery Manager Are there any distinct advantages to brewing in Brevard?I would say that the best thing about brewing in this region is just being able to live in Brevard. As far as it goes in terms of correlating to the beer’s flavor, the water is good. But we get the treated water from the city. It’s similar to Colorado in terms of mineral content, so much so that they’re almost identical. But for us, it has a lot to do with the scenery and the outdoors. What does Oskar Blues actively seek to accomplish when you’re brewing beer?We want to make beers that we want to drink. We don’t really tie ourselves to any specific style of beer. If it’s a Czech-style pilsner, we want it to be a little more hoppy while still being clean and crisp. If it’s a Deviant Dale’s, we want some big and intense flavors. Something like Ten Fidy is going to be really intense and is also really hard to make. We basically use twice the amount of grain during the mash process because we want such a concentrated amount of wort to get the intensity we need. That’s why it’s so thick and awesome. You could collect it and boil it down to that concentration, but we don’t believe in overcooking anything. So yeah, it comes down to making the beers we want to drink. Old Chubb is perfect after a big ride. We’re prone to hoppy beers as well. We aim for a high quality. There’s nothing too small throughout the process from start to finish. If you go out into the grain bags, you’ll see signatures on each bag. That means that each bag was inspected by the brewers and that they tasted the grains to make sure everything is up to our standards. We only use the best raw materials. You guys were one of the first breweries to really embrace the craft beer in a can concept. How did that start?It starts with quality control. When Dale made that decision, at the time there just wasn’t any craft beer in a can. He actually got a brochure for a canning system and laughed about the idea of putting his beers in a can initially. But then he looked into it and the brochure spelled out the perks of the can. It’s ideal for someone who likes the outdoors. Aluminum is much more recyclable than glass is. The seal of the can’s seam is much tighter than a bottle cap. it protects the beer from oxidation, which can be very detrimental to a beer. It also protects the beer from light. Freight costs are lower too, because cans are much lighter than bottles. Freight costs and fuel use is about 30% lower. How do you guys determine which ingredients you put into your products?As far as the hops go, this past summer five of us went out to Yakima, Washington, to look at the 2014 crop of hops. We want a lot of opinions and noses on those hops. We do all of the sampling blind and we don’t share our opinions right away. That way, when we all land on the same hop varieties, we feel that much better about the next year. If something is much more aromatic, we’ll set it aside and use it only for dry hopping
As far as the grain goes, we really don’t try to get too tied down to any particular type. If something starts to wane in quality, we assess it and make the necessary changes. So if a particular company just isn’t doing as good a job as they should be, we’re not afraid to make that change. We’re always assessing the raw materials and we try to keep our inventory real tight so we don’t have stuff laying around for too long. Dale’s Pale Ale will be featured on Neko Mulally’s helmet this season. Can you describe to the uninitiated what your flagship beer is like?It’s definitely an intense pale ale. There are a lot of hops in there. We want a lot of citrus flavors and aromas. When that first came out, it was kind of weird seeing this craft beer in a can. I remember when I first saw it and I was like, “Wait, what is in there?” You look at it and the alcohol percentage and you realize it’s a pretty big beer in a can. Same thing with Old Chubb. Now a lot of people use cans so it’s not as shocking. But at the time, it was kind of unheard of having this big and flavorful beer coming from a can. It’s somewhat sessionable and I think it’s just a lot of people’s go-to beer.
Dale Katechis, Founder How did Oskar Blues get started?It basically involved me maxing out a bunch of credit cards to get my first restaurant opened in 1997. We didn’t start brewing until ‘99. That year, we bought a little glorified homebrew system and put it in the basement of the restaurant. I was already homebrewing at the time, so I took my hobby and tried to translate those efforts into how I was going to earn a living one day. All of our moves, even to this day, from REEB to our breweries, they all revolve around not wanting to “just fill space”. We want to do things that we’re genuinely inspired by and give us joy. I hope that translates into the authenticity of our brand and attracts people who are likeminded. We try to go through this life with some fulfillment, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t apply that to your work. In 1999, we started brewing beer. In 2002, we started canning as a joke. No one else was really doing it at the time. We learned that cans were a better vessel for fresh beer, so we decided to challenge the industry and the consumer and put a bold, three dimensional craft beer in a can. That beer (Dale's Pale Ale) is now the bulk of our business these days. When did you start riding bikes?I grew up on a BMX bike, like most of us. I didn’t fall in love with mountain biking until college, around 1991. I took a trip up to western North Carolina and rode a trail called Tsali. I still remember that feeling; what it felt and smelled like. The connection was instantaneous. That’s ultimately what brought us to North Carolina where we built our second brewery. It was all centered around mountain biking in that region. I didn’t want to put a brewery somewhere if it wasn’t going to add to my quality of life. Bikes are now a bigger part of my life than ever before. How did REEB get started?Chad Melis was basically hired because I met him on one of our favorite trails in Colorado. We basically started loading him up with a bunch of beers to take to different mountain bike events. REEB is pretty much all him. It’s really kind of an example of how our company culture at Oskar Blues works. We try to inspire people to live out their own entrepreneurial dreams. I’m a firm believer that no one really wants a boss. Everyone here is given a great deal of bandwidth to add value to our company, so there isn’t really anyone handing out marching orders. Chad was a pro mountain biker and he took things that he and all of us enjoyed doing and brought them into our culture at Oskar Blues.
He’s much more of a tech guy when it comes to bikes than I am. We were all riding Spot singlespeed bikes at the time and they were starting to focus on their overseas operations. We’d been doing some cross marketing with them and I remember I had a titanium bike with a belt drive on it. We were their guinea pigs and pals with them. So I had my ride stolen and while I was thinking about replacing it, the light went off. Why not start making our own f*cking bikes? That’s what we did. We found a welder, Chris Sulfrian, who’s still with us. Eventually we were able to purchase some equipment and bring him on full time. We now source our own titanium and steel, we have our own custom tubing and it’s just a blast. We’ll probably sell 250 bikes this year, so it’s small but it’s very passion-driven and it's a huge part of the Oskar Blues culture. How do you explain the prominent role of beer in the mountain bike community?I don’t think it’s a chicken or the egg thing. I can get fairly philosophical on the importance of beer in our society, but really a lot of things are done around beer. It’s a social elixir. In any circle, it seems like beer should have its place and for us it's trail side. We can discuss the beer and the qualities of it. Why mountain bikers, though? I guess we’re all basically a bunch of dirtbags. For me, mountain biking is a connection where I feel most alive. There’s nothing I like more than sharing that connection with a beer and a buddy. It’s one of the things I enjoy the most about the sport; a beer and a ride.
To learn more about Oskar Blues and the Brevard operations, click HERE
offers up handmade steel and titanium bikes for those wanting something different and American made.
Want to learn more about the beer scene in Western North Carolina? Be sure to check out Anne's book