- We chatted with Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis—a.k.a. the Dale behind Dale’s Pale Ale—about pivoting to cannabis after helping revolutionize craft beer
- Katechis discussed being ahead of the curve when it comes to how craft beer is packaged, confirmed a long-standing rumor about a certain symbol on Oskar Blues cans, and discussed his new partnership with the cannabis company Veritas
- Read more about beer here
The craft beer industry headed into the summer of 2020 burdened with a plate overflowing with the heaping servings of crap it was forced to stomach as a result of the pandemic, and in July, another scoop was added to the pile thanks to a nationwide shortage of the 16-ounce cans that have become the standard delivery vehicle for the exponentially hopped IPAs and other trendy brews that have become all the rage in recent years.
It was a particularly wild development when you consider such an issue would’ve been virtually unthinkable less than a decade ago, as the tallboys that have become the default for any brewery that wants to be taken seriously by beer nerds were long reserved for the mass-produced swill that real drinkers scoffed at while drinking microbrews with a pinky raised from the glass bottles that seemed to make them inherently classier.
In hindsight, it’s odd that the debate concerning the merits of cans and bottles raged for as long as it did when you consider all of the factors that make the former objectively superior. While it took the craft beer industry a while to accept that reality, the same cannot be said for the true visionary who deserves the bulk of the credit for turning the tides: Dale Katechis.
Dale Katechis might not be a household name, but if you’ve ever downed a can of Dale’s Pale Ale, you’ve been inadvertently introduced to the man who founded Oskar Blues Brewery. After spending more than 20 years in the industry, Katechis has decided to turn his attention from canned beer to cannabis by investing in Veritas Fine Cannabis, and I recently had the chance to chat with him to get some insight into the fascinating path he’s taken to get where he is today, marijuana’s influence on the rise of Oskar Blues, and how he plans to apply what he learned at the helm of the legendary brewery to the realm of cannabis.
The Oskar Blues Origin Story
It’s been almost three decades since Katechis set up shop in Colorado, but his craft beer journey can be traced back to his time growing up in Alabama, where (as was the case with Firestone Walker’s co-founder) wine served as his initial gateway into the magical world of fermentation:
“My dad used to take us around to these wine festivals. Every closet in our house was filled with five-gallon carboys of wine. I vividly remember all of the bubblers kicking off and smelling the fumes. I was intrigued by his passion for it more than anything.”
His craft beer journey kicked off when he was in college, which is when he technically brewed his first batch of Dale’s Pale Ale—although the name that would eventually lend itself to Oskar Blues’ flagship beer was a bit of a misnomer:
“In 1990, my folks gave me a homebrew kit for Christmas. I was at Auburn. I lived in a trailer, and I started brewing beer in the bathtub. My buddies made fun of me. My best friend jokingly named the beer ‘Dale’s Pale Ale.’ To give you an idea of how much people knew about craft beer at the time, the beer was a dry Irish-style stout. “
Katechis had intended to relocate to Montana after earning his degree, but encountered a small setback that would ultimately change the course of his entire life:
“My wife and I graduated from Auburn and loaded up her Camry. We had a thousand bucks. We ended up in Boulder on our way to Montana and ended up running out of money. We both got jobs in Boulder—living on the floor with a friend of my roommate’s sister—and I joined a local homebrew club. I started bartending at Old Chicago, which had 110 beers on draft, and so I really just started to immerse myself in that culture of craft beer. I was just so fascinated with the whole process and became a student.
I worked as a bartender by night. I also worked for a backpack manufacturing company and would ride my bike back and forth. I kept riding past this storage unit and kept smelling beer. It was Gordon Knight, whose claim to fame at the time was being the only guy to win three gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival. He was brewing beer, I stopped in, and that was when I was like, “Man, people are actually turning this from a hobby into a business and making a life out of it.”
Katechis eventually decided to open up a brewpub in the small town of Lyons in 1997 and commissioned the founder of Left Hand Brewing to whip up Oskar Ale, an Extra Special Bitter to add some variety to a decidedly standard tap list:
“We served all the domestics. We were in a blue-collar town. We weren’t trying to be elitist beer snobs. We were trying to make a living and spread the gospel of craft beer. You had guys coming in drinking Coors Banquet and Bud Light, and we would always give them a sample of the Oskar Ale. That was the beginning of us becoming educators as opposed to salesmen and lights started going off.”
The Birth Of The Real Dale’s Pale Ale
Before long, Katechis decided to start brewing his own beer after realizing there was plenty of room to break in on the local scene, and Oskar Blues managed to do exactly that with the help of an actual pale ale that Dale lent his name to:
“One of my favorite styles at the time was North Coast Red Seal. That helped inspire a beer that I ended up making in college, but once we decided to take it out of my bathtub and commercialize it, I started finding better brewers and smarter guys and gals to refine the recipe. That’s how we got Dale’s Pale Ale.
At the time, a 6.5% ABV, 65 IBU pale ale was off the charts. That’s what really hit a nerve. We were a little more aggressive and a little more irreverent, and that became one of the pillars of our company: doing what we wanted to do for what we thought were the right reasons. To this day, we’ve continued with that philosophy, and that’s been extremely fulfilling.”
That irreverence extended to the beer’s packaging, as Katechis kicked convention to the curb by opting to sell Oskar Blues brews in cans instead of bottles:
“I think probably one of the reasons that we were successful is that I didn’t have a whole lot to lose. The larger craft breweries at that time had already built a brand. For them to say, “Hey, we’re gonna put our beer in a can” probably would’ve sent shareholders through the roof. I was the only shareholder. I owned 100% of the company. I was always the one to jump off and then ask a question later. Once we decided to do it, we didn’t turn back. It worked for us, and that was a huge part of our success.
I’ll never forget some of the earlier craft beer conferences where people were laughing at me. I didn’t know shit. I was like 27 years old, and I really knew nothing about business. It was pretty intimidating to have people that were leading the industry kind of being rude. Then they all started calling.”
Katechis neglected to take a victory lap when I asked if he felt vindicated for being so ahead of the curve, but he did have this to say:
“It’s been pretty fucking cool; not from a ‘Hey, I told you so’ standpoint, but because there are a lot of people that put a lot of hard work and to a lot of risk of my team to make that a reality.”
The Influence Of Cannabis On Oskar Blues Cans
I was particularly excited to chat with Dale because it gave me the chance to ask him about a longstanding rumor surrounding a tiny symbol emblazoned on Oskar Blues cans that many people have claimed is a directionless tutorial for cutting out a hole and inserting a screen you can use to transform it into a weed pipe.
During our conversation, Katechis confirmed that theory and explained why he was hesitant to advertise that particular Easter egg in the past:
“We’ve always had a love for cannabis and made it a part of our culture. We never talked about the screen that we put on the can. We always just wanted people to figure it out.
I didn’t want the feds to come fuck with me. At the time, there was only one guy who approved all of the labels. We used to go to battle a lot. He’d call me up and be like, ‘Dale, you can’t name your beer ‘Money Shot’, man.’ We did always kind of push the envelope, so we put a screen on the can and decided not to tell anyone about it.
It was inspired by a band called The Supersuckers that had a song called ‘Can Pipe.’ I still tell people that if you want to drink your beer out of bottles, go ahead, but if you’re sitting around a campfire and you forgot your papers or a pipe…I want you to show me how you can smoke out of a bottle.”
Pivoting From Canned Beer To Cannabis
As a resident of Colorado for over 30 years and a self-admitted fan of marijuana for even longer, Katechis says he viewed a venture into the cannabis industry as a natural jump when discussing why he decided to partner with Veritas, which started growing plants shortly after the state legalized recreational sales in 2009 before becoming its first licensed wholesaler five years later:
“Well, I was probably in the sixth grade when I first got interested in cannabis, but it’s been almost two years since I started looking for an opportunity and trying to educate myself to get into the space—primarily to learn more about it. I even contemplated working in a dispensary. I’ve just been intrigued.
With Veritas, the timing was perfect. More importantly, the people that I met from bottom to top were people that I felt like I could really have a good time with and not have to come in and fix things. I felt right at home because of the parallels between how we built Oskar Blues and how Veritas has built their company.”
Katechis knows he still has some catching up to do when it comes to understanding the intricacies of cannabis in the same way he was able to do with beer, but he says the aforementioned parallels between the two spaces will give him plenty of chances to contribute in the hopes Veritas can make the same kind of mark:
“I think the next realm in the cannabis industry is exploring what else could be out there. People ask me all the time if I think cannabis legalization in Colorado has hurt craft beer there and I’m like, ‘No, man. All of my buddies drink craft beer and smoke weed.’ We’ll continue to explore, and I hope I can be helpful in advancing some of those innovative products, whether it’s drinks or something else.
When you talk about the things that were important in building the foundation of Oskar Blues and compare them to what’s happening at Veritas, the number one focus was having a group of people that focused on quality and would not let up on that for any reason at all. When we started brewing, we didn’t make money. No one was getting rich. We were doing it because we loved it and we loved coming to work. It’s the same thing at Veritas.”
While he didn’t get super specific when it came to what’s currently in the works, he did tease what he’s hoping to do in the short and long term:
“At Oskar Blues, we differentiated ourselves initially by using packaging as an entry into the marketplace. I can remember having conversations with our first commercial brewer—a well-respected brewer at the time—who was like, ‘There’s no fucking way we’re going to put our beer in a can.’ Moving forward in the cannabis space, I think there’s gonna be so many things that we can explore from a packaging standpoint that will certainly be not just innovative but better for the consumer experience and for the planet.
I don’t think there’s going to be cannabis-infused beer in the near future. There are obviously a lot of things to be addressed—interstate trade and how the hospitality industry can manage it—that will take some time. However, the exciting part for me is the process of getting there; really exploring research and development and figuring out if the consumer even wants a 6% ABV beer with five or ten milligrams of THC. I mean, I would love that, but I could be in the vast minority.”
Portions of this interview were edited for clarity.