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Better Beer Through Laughter

From American Way.

             Laughter, it seems, is not only the way to better health; it's the path to better beer.

            That's the Tao of selling suds, according to Dale Katechis, the owner of Oskar Blues, makers of Dale's Pale Ale and Old Chub Scottish Ale. If the idea is so ridiculous your sides ache from laughing, go for it. Follow your inner Robin Wiliams.

            "The things that made us laugh the hardest, whether they made any sense or were practical or strategic, that's what ended up doing," he says.

             Example: Hear howls of laughter from your brother, a finance guy at a bank, when you reveal plans to open a brew pub in tiny Lyons, Colorado, population 1,000. Do it anyway. That's how Katechis started Oskar's Blues nine years ago. Today, he says it's the largest brew pub in the country.

            Three years ago, he and his brewmaster, Brian Lutz, got days of chuckles thanks to a junk fax from a Canadian company offering a $10,000 machine that could can his microbrews two at a time. By hand. Great beer in cans? Had the boys up North been shotgunning a few too many that day?

            "We just laughed," Katechis recalls. "We were known for brewing three dimensional, full bodied, lots-of-character beers. Our perception of putting them in cans at that time was the same as the average Joe: We can't do that."

            It would taste metallic, bad. Only boring, mass-produced beers found homes in -- say it derisively out of the side of your mouth -- cans.

            But they kept talking about the idea. And laughing about it. Putting fine craft beer in a can was akin to sipping Dom Perrignon from a disposable paper cup.

            Over time, though, they stopped laughing and started investigating. And they learned something that has them laughing all the way to the bank since: there may be a lot of bad, boring, generic beer sold in cans, but it’s not the cans’ fault. The metal in modern cans doesn't taint the taste of beer. Cans and their lids are lined with a water-based polymer. Beer never touches aluminum. Further, cans protect the delicate elixir from light and oxygen better than bottles. They're lighter, quicker to chill and recyclable.

            And they're disappearing from shelves. Oskar Blues began brewing beer in 1999, it sold 200 barrels in the brew pub. In 2003, the first year of canning -- two cans at a time by hand -- it sold 1,100 barrels. Last year, it sold more than 5,300 barrels.

            In 2002, Oskar Blues had one competitor in the canned craft brew market, Big Sky Brewing Co. of Missoula, Montana, makers of Moose Drool Brown Ale. Now, more than two dozen small brewers are offering their craft beers in cans and the technology has improved so they can five at a time.

            One of the reasons Katechis and his mates wanted to can their beer was so they could take it into the great outdoors. That also motivated David Lambert, the owner of Sherwood Forest Brewers, makers of Archer’s Ale, in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Lambert heard about Oskar’s Brews, paid a visit and decided to can his beer, too. Sales in 2005, were about 3,000 barrels up from 1,200 in 2003.

            But Sherwood Forest decided to offer its beer in bottles as well beginning in early 2005. “We had so many restaurants and hotels that had heard of us and said we can’t serve the can at the corporate function or a bar mitzvah,” Lambert says.

            Warbird Brewing Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, began selling its canned microbrew in November 2004. Dave Holmes, the president and owner, says at a meeting of sales representatives the burning question was when Warbird would begin offering bottles. "I said never, never," Holmes recalls. "There was sort of a long pause and then I explained why. People have a sense that maybe one day we'll come around to bottling and the answer is that ain't going to happen."

            The Ale Street News found the trend worthy of a story and a taste test last fall (2005). "After the tasting was concluded, and the beers’ identities were revealed, panelists passed around the colorful cans to examine, and remarked that all of the samples seemed fresh and drinkable, which again confirmed that canning beer is an idea whose time has come (again)," the trade magazine noted.

            Canned beer once was the considered the ultimate in modern convenience, a marvel, though even at the start brewers were concerned about its image. Krueger Brewery of Newark, New Jersey, sold the first canned beer in January 1935, but it did it in Richmond, Virginia, far from its home base. It was an instant hit. By the end of the month, 84 percent of Richmond distributors were handling it. By June, Krueger was running at 550 percent of its pre-can production and was unable to keep up with demand. At year's end, 37 U.S. breweries were selling canned beer.

            Today: Anheuser-Busch, with half the nation's beer market by volume, says cans account for 48 percent of what it sells, six percent more than bottles (draft beer accounts for the rest). In 2004, 31.8 billion cans were filled with beer or beer-based beverages like Smirnoff Ice, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute in Washington, D.C.

            Still, there is that image problem. "Purists have a hard time believing" that craft beer can be packaged in a can, Katechis says. "We're proving them wrong."

            He's not shy about his views, either. With typical humor, Katechis and his mates at Oskar announced a few years ago that they were the four horsemen of the coming "Canned Beer Apocalypse." They struck back last summer, when James Koch, whose company brews Samuel Adams, announced a Beer Drinkers' Bill of Rights that included the requirement: "Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized with the taste of metal."

            Laughing all the way to the publicist, Katechis and Oskar Blues released a statement wondering if Koch had gone off the reservation -- and the planet. “We think it’s some cloned, alien being that’s running Samuel Adams and spreading this misconception about cans,” Katechis said. “Our industry needs the real Jim Koch back. America’s beer drinkers have a right to the truth about canned beer.”

            Katechis began brewing beer in the basement of his restaurant and bought the property next door to build the brewery in 2002. He acted as the general contractor for the job. "My biggest mistake," he cracks. The project went over budget by a quarter million dollars. "I was tapped out," he says.  

            Digging out of a big hole helps if you make great beer. A panel of suds aficionados convened by The New York Times rated Dale's Pale Ale the best pale ale brew in the land last year. The Wall Street Journal created a similar panel, pitting canned ales against bottled ales. Four of the top five, including Old Chub Scottish Ale, were canned. Celebrator Beer News liked the Dale's Pale Ale's "good malt character and assertive hopping," adding: "From the taste, it is not apparent that it came from a can. Enjoy a can in front of your favorite beer snob.”

            Craft beers in a can are still hard to find. Katechis markets his beer in Colorado, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia with plans to add California. Marketing experts told him the only way to sell a lot of beer was with busty babes.

            So a new marketing campaign for his craft beers was born: a poster with a chicken stuck atop a beer can on a grill. The title reads: "Hot Chicks, Great Beer."  

             "We like pushing the envelope and stretching the boundaries," Katechis says. "We don't know what's next. Something that makes us laugh. Whatever it is, that's what we're going to do."





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