Getting up at the crack of dawn to board a bus is rarely something one would look forward to. But, on day two of my adventure in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, I was more than willing to roust myself and make my way to the Falling Rock Tap House in downtown Denver. There I was met by a group of folks standing beside a bus emblazoned with the logo of Oskar Blues Brewery awaiting the beginning of the yearly adventure known as the “Oskar Blues Ordeal.”
On the Ordeal, guests are treated to visits to all four Oskar Blues locations and/or holdings in Colorado, each with its own distinct personality and attraction. The first stop was in Lyons, Colo., where Oskar Blues got its start. Then it was off to Longmont to the Hops and Heifers Farm followed by a visit to the Oskar Blues restaurant and, after lunch, the Thirsty Weasel taproom at the brewery.
The Ordeal has become wildly popular with Oskar Blues fans and sold out almost as soon as it was announced. So quickly were tickets snapped up that the brewery decided to add two additional tours this year. On the bus with us were local Coloradoans, visiting brewery staff, and other assorted guests.
At 8:00 a.m. the group filed onto the bus for the drive to Lyons an hour north of Denver. Along the way we were treated to wonderful views of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder, and assorted other roadside attractions. Upon arrival at the Old Chub, Oskar Blues’ sandwich shop/café in Lyons, we were welcomed with a tub full of ice cold Oskar Blues canned beers and several trays of aluminum foil-wrapped breakfast burritos.
The group happily popped cans and munched the spicy, but very tasty burritos and milled around talking all things beer and mountains. The location had a certain funky swagger to it – sort of like a Subway sandwich shop but with more hippie appeal. Picnic benches were arranged outside so that the cool, crisp mountain air could be enjoyed while indulging in the grub provided by the thoughtful folks inside. And, with the sun shining and a wonderful view of the mountains directly up the main street, how could anyone resist sitting outside and simply enjoying the day.
As the group finished its breakfast, we were guided through the original Oskar Blues Grill & Brew restaurant. It turns out that Oskar Blues owner Dale Katechis originally set out to be a restaurateur, but quickly decided he wanted his own beer to serve. So, not long after the 1997 opening of his Lyons restaurant, Dale decided to start a side project and began brewing beer to serve along with his restaurant’s food in 1999.
The beer was an overnight success. By 2002, demand for the brew was so high Dale decided to begin packaging it for distribution. The packaging he decided upon was, well, unconventional in the minds of craft beer brewers. Dale settled on putting his big, hoppy Dale’s Pale Ale in cans.
At the time, that was quite a controversial move. Cans were associated with macro lagers and a tinny taste imparted by the metal. Craft beer drinkers were not sold on his decision originally, but advances in can technology – like the addition of a water-soluble internal coating – proved to make cans an ideal material for beer. The use of cans opened up the places fresh, tasty beer could be taken. Before craft beer cans, if you wanted to take a bike ride in the mountains and drink a beer at the top, you had to settle for macro lagers. But, with the stroke of genius brought on by Dale, outdoor enthusiasts found they could enjoy great beer in unbelievably beautiful surroundings without fear of broken glass or, worse, mediocre beer.
Oskar Blues Grill & Brew restaurant was just as funky and off-beat as Old Chub. But, we did not stay in there long. It was merely en route to our true destination: the original Oskar Blues brewery.
Imagine a space the size of a small two-bedroom house, but with 20 foot ceilings and you have a pretty good idea of how small the original brewery building is. Jammed into this tiny space are a brewhouse, canning line, refrigeration space, and fermentations tanks. But, still, the brewery is used to create specialty brews like the latest collaboration between Oskar Blues and Sun King Brewery, The Deuce and root beer served at the brewery’s restaurants. While we visited we watched as The Deuce was canned in distinctive, cone-topped cans just two at a time. The process is labor-intensive and time consuming. But, the beer is a sublime hopped up brown that is sure to please the hophead while appealing to those who seek the malty sweetness of a brown.
After a while to look around the brewery, we were once again loaded on the bus, headed for our next destination.
The Hops and Heifers Farm is a 50 acres plot of land situated on a plateau just east of the Front Range. As one might guess, the farm is home to the brewery’s experimental hop farm and is the source of all the beef used in their restaurants. Geoff Hess, Oskar Blues farmer and head hop grower greeted the bus at the entrance driveway and a hay wagon equipped with a tub of more iced-down brew. We piled in and enjoyed the ride to the hops-growing area along with provided brews.
At the hop field, a wooden deck with a pop-up canopy had been constructed near a dirt road that divided the hops from the heifers. A group of folks already at the farm were gathered along the fence, feeding the cows that had quickly learned that lunch was being handed out. Hess stood atop the deck and addressed the gathered crowd, speaking about the typed of hops grown and the way Oskar Blues used them in their special brews. He then invited us to grab several cones from the baggies on the table and pour a can of beer over them for our own, hand-made fresh hop beer. The addition of the fresh hops added a vegetal, herbal quality to the already spectacular brews and everyone enjoyed several.
By this time the group was getting hungry and it was time to move on to the next stop and lunch. Everyone loaded onto the hay wagon again and, while drinking a few more cold brews, we made our way to the bus and our next stop on the Ordeal.
Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids restaurant is rather iconic with its towering silo painted to resemble a Dale’s Pale Ale can. Situated along busy Longmont Diagonal Highway, the restaurant was buzzing with activity when we pulled up. Out front were babbling water features built from aluminum beer kegs, inside was a high-ceilinged space with exposed wooden beams, tap handles hanging from a low ceiling over the bar, and more eclectic features that seem to exemplify the brewery and its staff.
Our group was ushered upstairs where more beer and delicious-smelling lunch was waiting. Lunch consisted of chicken wings slathered with sweet, spicy barbeque sauce, pulled pork, and several sides. As we dug in, we learned that dale was not only a whiz with beer, he also had one heck of a good hand with food.
Bellies full and thirst sated, we again piled aboard the bus, this time bound for the Oskar Blues brewery and the Tasty Weasel Taproom. Situated only a few blocks from the restaurant, the outside of the brewery is rather non-descript. It is in a plain warehouse like many others you have seen along the byways of our great country. But, as the bus pulled along the side of the building, it soon became apparent that this was no ordinary warehouse. A deck protruded from the building and there were quite a few happy beer-drinkers already on it enjoying the cool day with a pint or two of cold Oskar Blues beer.
When we walked up the stairs the magnitude of the place began to become more apparent. The tap room was a large room with a bar and ten taps in the back. But, it was what was above the back wall that was impressive. Instead of building a wall blocking the view of the brewery, the wall stopped at about 12 feet allowing partakers to see the huge fermentation tanks their beer had come from.
After filling up some glasses, we were taken behind the wall for a tour of the brewery proper. And an impressive brewery it is! Row upon row of fermenter marches away from a huge brewhouse, staff was bustling around, completing their assigned tasks, and beer was most definitely being brewed.
Back in the tap room, Dale himself was being filmed for a documentary on influential brewers. After he finished his interview, he took time to chat with members of our group. He is a personable and interesting guy, as willing to chat about his love of biking as he is about his ground-breaking beers. And this attitude is pervasive of the staff at Oskar Blues. Everyone there has a passion for good beer, but also is grounded in their love of their surroundings and their acknowledgment of their stewardship to keep it has beautiful as it has always been.
This year Dale’s Pale Ale celebrates 10 years of being in a can. For the group on the bus, filled with beer and still dazzled by the magical journey of the day, that milestone was a rallying cry of sorts. Ten years, we all hoped, is just the beginning.