Canned Beer Week: Talking with Marty Jones of Oskar Blues

Canned Beer WeekToday I spoke with Marty Jones, the "lead singer, publicity/marketing director" for Oskar Blues Grill & Brewery, about the brewery, beer culture and—yes—canned beer. It’s not technically what I’d call an interview because I didn’t transcribe it, it was really more of an informal phone call, but I took copious notes anyway… so let’s call it an informal interview… or maybe blogger chat.

Marty is the "lead singer" quite literally: he’s the lead singer of his own band. (Check out his personal website here.) In fact, he’s currently putting together a new band and was planning on playing later on in the evening at a Belgian beer bar named the Cheeky Monk. He good-naturedly joked that while he loved the Belgian beers, he’d have to take some Dale’s Pale Ale (Oskar Blues’ flagship beer) to get any hops.

The brewery loves hops, and we talked briefly about the effects of the hops shortage on OB and the industry; the most significant effect it has had on them thus far is they’ve raised prices $1 per case with their distributors (which isn’t bad, really). They’ve no plans to change their beers or their hopping, though—last year, they increased production by 55% and are going strong.

So strong, in fact, that they’ve been setting up a new brewery, which should be producing beer in as little as three to four weeks. This second location should push them toward the 30,000 barrels per year mark (last year they produced approximately 13,000 barrels).

On Canning

Oskar Blues started canning their beer in 2002, and was the first American microbrewer to do so—there were a few, Marty tells me, who actually had some beers contract brewed and canned prior to that, but OB was the first to do it all in-house.

The reason they started canning? "Why not?" In fact, they had received an unsolicited fax from Cask Brewing Systems out of Canada and instead of tearing up the fax (like everyone else they knew did), they hung on to it. Dale Katechis (founder of OB) wanted to start packaging the as-then on-tap, brewpub-only beers and this offer seemed to dovetail nicely with the fax offering from Cask Systems.

Well, they actually hung on to it to laugh because they thought it was so funny, the thought of craft beer in a can. But after a while they got to, "Why not?"

The original canning system worked on two cans at once, and they’ve since moved to a five-can filling system. While the cans run through the automated filling and seaming system (each can is seamed individually), all six-packs of cans are still hand-packed.

(You can see the canning and packing system in operation in the video on their Beer page.)

Obviously, being the first microbrewer to offer their beer in cans, there was a big education process. (There still is, to an extent.) The cause was helped by winning a blind tasting of 25 beers held by the New York Times in 2005, as well as the high marks their beers earned in the Wall Street Journal that I linked to previously. They’re proud of what they’ve accomplished, and their continued growth speaks for itself.

One last takeaway from our conversation… Marty tells me there are currently 25 microbrewers that are canning their beers, many of whom came to Oskar Blues to learn about the canning process. OB is friendly with them, and glad to help out. This ties into something we talked about at the beginning of our chat, about how the Beer World (my term) is really very congenial, where everyone (mostly) gets along and helps each other out, with no animosity. It’s part of the culture; everyone is friends with everyone else and is happy to see them succeed.

Marty is also very graciously sending me samples of Oskar Blues beers to review; I’ll write about those as I get them (and extend my Theme Week as necessary).

Thanks, Marty, for the time and conversation!