Saturday, January 28, 2017

Still Craft After All These Cans?

Last week, Oskar Blues opened a beer bar/restaurant/donut place in Denver. The expansion shouldn't come as a surprise, since the one-time Lyons brewpub has grown already into Longmont (four times), North Carolina, Texas - and soon into Colorado Springs.

But with the multi-state empire, not to mention the two other breweries Oskar Blues has purchased with capital from venture firm that is a part owner of the brewery, one can't help but look at the company that pioneered craft beer in cans and ask: Is Oskar Blues still craft, or has it gone corporate?

The new CHUBurger location at 3490 Larimer Street in the RiNo neighborhood actually presents some good points in pondering this question.

It's the kind of place simple craft breweries don't put up. The burger-heavy restaurant - the same concept the brewery operates in Longmont and at Coors Field - is connected by a walkway and a courtyard to its Hotbox Roasters shop that serves coffee, beer and donuts. When asked why the beer maker started making donuts, Oskar Blues Fooderies executive Jason Rogers, who worked as a baker in college, said it just sounded like something that went well with coffee. That makes sense.

The restaurant opened about 18 blocks west of an 11,000-square-foot restaurant and music venue that the brewery will open in the renovated Market Center development downtown later this year. Two major investments in the same general city area isn't Starbucks-level saturation, but it's not exactly boot-strapping it either.

Then there are the questions that swirl around Fireman Capital Partners, the investment firm that purchased a major share of Oskar Blues in 2015 and then provided the capital for it to buy Perrin Brewing of Michigan and Cigar City Brewing of Florida, the latter of which had been scoped out also by by some major non-craft brewing interests. But before Fireman bought into Oskar Blues, it bought Utah Brewers Cooperative, restructured it and laid off a couple of long-time brewery operators, making some in the industry question if it was just AB-InBev in a craft-brewing disguise.

Then again, I spoke last year with Jarred Sper, co-founder of Perrin Brewing, when the company entered the Colorado market last year about the influence of Oskar Blues. He told me - not surprisingly - that its role with his brewery was the furthest thing he could imagine from an Anheuser-Busch-style takeover. But he laid out some pretty good arguments for why he felt that way.

Oskar Blues and its charismatic founder Dale Katechis changed zero about Perrin's small-brewing culture when it purchased the brewery. Instead, it used its resources to help Perrin scale up and begin distribution outside of Michigan, as Perrin had wanted. It offered its expertise and influence to get into sales channels but didn't change the recipe for beers like its tasty Grapefruit IPA.

"When people talk shit about Fireman Capital, you know what? It's giving us opportunity to do what we were going to do anyway," Sper said. "I really believe Dale has a vision of what he wants to do ... The culture still feels like 'Middle finger up, what the f--k do we want to do?"

And while CHUBurger may be starting to grow like a chain, there are some things that don't resemble any other chain out there.

There are 10 Oskar Blues beers on tap, as you would expect. But there are 20 other taps too - including those from the likes of Call to Arms, Hogshead, Ratio and Wibby, small and local breweries that benefit greatly from the inclusion on a beer list like that.

Rogers said Oskar Blues reached out to beer makers like them because they were in the position it was a decade or so ago - making great beer and looking for their opportunity to get noticed. The restaurant will do burger specials with their beers because they know it will bring in locals who are growing a dedicated following to them.

And while Oskar Blues restaurants may be multiplying like rabbits, it's not an indication of selling out so much as it is a sign of Dale's constantly burning entrepreneurial fire, looking to see what new project or new market he can grow into next, Rogers said. (These are, after all, the folks who became the first craft brewery last year to expand into all 50 states.) The fooderies side of the business has almost 300 employees now, which means more people on a payroll and more opportunities to generate money for charity like its Can'd Aid Foundation that's done things like send pallets of canned water to Flint, Michigan when it was in the depth of its water crisis.

"It hasn't lost that craft spirit. It hasn't," Rogers said emphatically when I asked whether the company had gone corporate. "Obviously, there are efficiencies we have to put on as we grow. But I think we really navigated that and stayed real to who we are."

The venture-fund ownership remains a worry even to those in the industry who are fans of Oskar Blues. But as of now, Fireman Capital has done nothing to change the feel of the brewery and its bold beers - or that of Perrin and Cigar City - and it should be given the benefit of the doubt until it makes a move that runs counter to that.

As far as the growing number of restaurants and breweries and music halls, what they show is that Oskar Blues is no longer the scrappy little craft brewery that it was when people thought it was nuts for putting Dale's Pale Ale in a vessel that was as corporate as the can. And, to be sure, the brewery needs to be cautious as it moves into more and more neighborhoods not only that it doesn't step on the toes of local breweries but that it doesn't step on the toes of the local restaurants and beer bars that have been promoting those breweries since before it came to town.

But a close look at what it's doing at CHUBurger and other locations, I feel, shows you that is hasn't sold out. It's taking full advantage of its increasing resources, maybe in a way that no craft brewery in America other than Stone Brewing has done before. But it's also churning out new beers and doing what it can to give taps at its places to breweries that can reach a wider audience through their association with Oskar Blues.

So, call Oskar Blues the behemoth of the craft-beer industry if you will. But don't call it corporate. There's still too much of the "FIDY" attitude to denigrate it that way. And we can only hope that further growth and success does not change that.  

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