Ala. Brothers Bring Award-Wining Beer Back Home
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — One of America's best beers began in a bathtub in Auburn, and now, a decade after The New York Times named it the country's best pale ale, it is finally coming home.
Dale and Chris Katechis, whose grandfather Gus founded Chris' Hot Dogs in Montgomery, didn't initially plan on founding one of the country's top breweries.
Dale, who was a student at Auburn University when he first brewed the pale ale in the bathtub of his trailer, only started brewing the beer again to sell it at the Cajun restaurant he'd started in 1999 in the tiny town of Lyons, Colo. But patrons liked the beer so much, the brothers starting taking it around in a 16-foot box truck to distribute to local craft beer sellers.
Then in a blind taste test, New York Times critics chose Dale's Pale Ale as the best pale ale in the country.
That proclamation helped Oskar Blues, which Chris Katechis said he and his brother named after the two hunting dogs they had growing up in Alabama, become one of the country's most prestigious craft breweries.
A long-awaited homecoming
This week, a decade later, Oskar Blues beer is finally in Alabama.
"It's great to be coming home. We've been wanting to bring our beer back to Alabama for so long," said Chris, who will be in Montgomery on Saturday helping to celebrate the beer's arrival in the state.
You'll be able to find the beer in six packs at places such as Filet & Vine and Publix. It will also available on tap or by-the-beer at places such as El Rey, Dreamland and Leroy's. And thanks to the family connection, you'll also find it at a Montgomery institution, Chris' Hot Dogs.
"It's been a long time coming," said Matt Kilpatrick, specialty and import manager with AlaBev, the well-known, Birmingham-based beer and wine distribution company that started in 1907. "All the major distributors in the state have been courting these guys for years. I know I've been in the business for five years, and all five I've been knocking on their door, as have all my competitors."
Gus Katechis, of Chris' Hot Dogs, said the beer has been in Alabama before. It's just been a lot harder to get it.
"We had a keg of Dale's Pale Ale at my brother's wedding, I think that was four years ago," he said. "But we had to go to Atlanta to get it. It's great to finally have it in the state. I know at Chris' Hot Dogs we will be serving all of their beers from now on."
Kilpatrick said getting Oskar Blues to come to Alabama is a big business accomplishment, but more than that it's a big beer accomplishment.
"Their brewery is regarded as one of the top breweries in the nation and they have won plenty of awards, including multiple medals at the Great American Beer Festival," he said. "Anytime you can get brewers like these into your state, it's a huge deal."
Why the delay?
The brothers wanted their beer to come home to Alabama. The state's beer drinkers desperately wanted their beer here. So why did it take so long?
There are two answers. At first, craft beer wasn't popular enough in Alabama; then, the brothers' craft beer was too popular elsewhere.
Initially surrounding states such as Florida and Georgia embraced craft beer and beer culture. Alabama did not. So Oskar Blues expanded into 27 states. The brewers' home state was not one of them.
"We'd been waiting and waiting, saying to each other that as soon as Free the Hops (an Alabama organization that lobbied to change the beer laws) got the laws changed so that Alabama was more craft-beer friendly, we were going into Alabama," Chris said. "Then of course the bills pass, but we are at full capacity and don't really have the beer to sell."
In fact, Oskar Blues beers have been so popular, the brewery has been selling as much as it could brew for a while.
"We've been at full production for at least seven years, and we haven't opened a new state in four years," Chris said.
So the brothers cut distribution to two states, Nevada and Idaho, and made other changes just so they'd have enough beer to bring here.
"It took us having to get more fermentation vessels, more canning lines, more people, and then earlier this year Dale came up to me and said what do you think about going to Alabama now, and I said, 'I thought you'd never ask.'"
Fan of the can
If you noticed the previous quote said "more canning lines," you noticed one of the other things that made Oskar Blues stand out in the world of craft beers.
"We were the first microbrewery in the country to put our full-flavored, three-dimensional, big-bodied beer into a can," Chris said.
Part of the reason they chose cans was because they considered themselves "outdoor people" and felt having craft beer only in bottles made it inconvenient to take it hunting, fishing, camping or other outdoor activities.
But they also felt it just makes for better beer.
They met resistance at first from some sellers and customers who felt cans were associated with cheaper beers, but Chris said both groups eventually realized cans make "a fresher package that keeps out light completely, keeps air out better, is more recyclable and more portable."
Kilpatrick said the brothers didn't just win over distributors and beer drinkers.
"When they first put their beer in cans, I don't want to say they were laughed at, but there were many people who didn't agree with it," he said. "But they stuck to their guns, and it has had a major influence on the other breweries, including a lot of Alabama breweries, such as Good People and Straight to Ale out of Huntsville, who now put their beer in cans themselves."
From humble beginnings
It's clear Oskar Blues beers, cans and all, have caught on.
From selling beers out of a small restaurant more than a decade ago, Oskar Blues now sells about 59,000 barrels in 26 states, and Chris said with the expanded facilities he hopes they will be selling 90,000 barrels by the end of the year. He said they could be selling as many as 150,000 barrels within the next few years as the company gets its North Carolina facility opened and running.
But a few in Montgomery have the rare opportunity to see the original brewing facility.
"What's funny is the trailer that was off of Webster Road in Auburn, where Dale brewed the first makings of Dale's Pale Ale — after Dale left Auburn, his father gave my dad the trailer," said Gus Katechis. "It's not in great shape now, but we still have it on my family's land in west Montgomery County."