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Lyons brewer thrives on can-do attitude: Dale's Pale Ale is world's first canned microbrew.

HORDES OF TOURISTS DRIVE THROUGH LYONS, EN ROUTE FROM Boulder to Rocky Mountain National Park, and don't even bother to slow down.

Yet their drive-by misses something the microbrewery industry missed until 2002: distinctive beer in a can.

The whole thing started when Dale Katechis, founder of Lyons-based Oskar Blues Brewery, responded to a "junk fax" in 2002. The fax was from Canadian firm Cask Brewing Systems, hocking a $10,000 canning device that would allow a microbrewery to affordably can beer.

"It seemed like one of those lower-your-mortgage-rate faxes," said Katechis, an avid mountain biker well aware of the superiority of cans on the trail.

After joking about it for months, Katechis bought the Cask gizmo, launching the world's first craft beer in a can.

Distributing Dale's Pale Ale in five states, Oskar Blues is on track to brew 3,000 barrels in 2004, up from 650 in 2001. Beyond outdoor buffs, concert-goers and sports fans are sizable market segments (music and sporting venues often ban glass) as is the airline industry (Frontier carries Dale's on all of its flights).

In March, Celebrator Beer News, a microbrew trade magazine, anointed Dale's Pale Ale "Top Industry Story of the Year." Marty Jones, Oskar Blues' head of publicity (and well-known Denver rockabilly musician), said the canned strategy's "four horsemen" are Katechis, Brewmaster Steve Schott, Director of Sales Wayne Anderson and himself.

Jones noted that bottling microbrew arose out of necessity, not aesthetics, because canning is much more expensive than bottling, and small brewers couldn't afford the canning process.

But over time, the market came to associate bottles with quality microbrews and cans with mediocre mass-market suds. (The irony is that canning is actually superior to bottling when it comes to preserving beer from its nemesis: oxygen.)

Another key to success is that Oskar's elected to make Dale's Ale a stylistic counterpoint to the standard watery canned beer. "It has tons of hops," said Jones, and it features a robust alcohol content of 6.5 percent. "It's a big, badass, ambitious, challenging beer in a can."

Last winter, Oskar Blues launched a second canned brand, the darker, Scottish-style Old Chub. "It's pushing the envelope," said Katechis, noting an alcohol content of 8.0 percent. "It's a big, fat beer--our response to this low-carb nonsense."

But hand canning is incredibly labor-intensive. A pair of employees at Oskar Blues is able to can only 160 cases in an eight-hour shift. So last year, Dale bought an ailing canning machine from a shuttered RC Cola cannery. After a "$30,000 hug," the 1975 machine will allow Oskar Blues to increase canning efficiency by 200 percent and cut labor costs in half.

Regardless, Oskar Blues is already firmly entrenched as Colorado's third biggest beer canner, just a few million cans behind Coors and Budweiser.

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Title Annotation:Attitude at Altitude; beer industry
Author:Peterson, Eric
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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