Beer Man

Beer Battle: Falling Rock Owner Chris Black Rips Into Oskar Blues

Chris Black’s passion for craft beer and the people who make, sell and drink it dates back more than thirty years, to his time as a salesman and later as the founder of Falling Rock Tap House, which serves not just as Denver’s pre-eminent beer bar, but also as the center of the local craft-industry community.

Dale Katechis's passion is just as strong. Katechis founded Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons in 1997 and has since created a rapidly expanding brand that helps define Colorado’s beer scene — not just because it was the first craft brewery to can its beers, but because of its irreverent outdoor focus and its big, unapologetic beers. Oskar Blues is now the fourteenth largest craft brewer in the nation, distributes its beer in all fifty states and is on the verge of opening a third production facility, this one in Austin, Texas. The company also operates a string of restaurants, a coffee company, a soda company and a bike manufacturing facility.

But those passions collided last week when Oskar Blues, now based in Longmont, announced that it will open a restaurant, beer hall and music venue next year in LoDo, at 16th and Market streets.

Black, who helped to pioneer the craft-beer scene in Denver, has been helpful to many of the bar and restaurant owners who came after him; although they represented competition, they also helped to create more of a demand for craft beer and and helped to educated locals and tourists about beer styles and breweries. But he bristled when one of those breweries, Breckenridge Brewery, opened its own beer bar, the Ale House at Amato's, nearby in 2011, selling not just Breckenridge products, but beer from other craft brewers as well. The way he sees it, breweries should be making and selling their own beer and leave the pouring of pints to bar owners like himself.
Black pulled Breckenridge’s beer off his own lines at that time (Breckenridge has since been acquired by Anheuser Busch InBev). And last Tuesday, he did the same with Oskar Blues, penning what he called an “open letter” to Oskar Blues and Katechis on Facebook. And while the letter, which you can read below, called the brewery out for opening in Denver, Black also brought up a number of other issues that have been bugging some people in the craft-beer industry over the past year so — ever since Oskar Blues sold a majority stake of its business to Boston’s Fireman Capital Partners, a private-equity firm.

“We were their very first handle outside of the Lyons and Boulder area in 1998 or 1999. We had them on here forever,” Black tells Westword. “Their company has been successful, and they got that way with the help of a lot of people in Denver. That’s why I feel like a sucker now,” he adds.

Although Oskar Blues was very much a part of the beer community in the early days, Black says that has changed over the past few years, most recently when Oskar Blues stopped being a member of the Colorado Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of many of the state’s craft breweries in the legislature and elsewhere. Guild spokesman Steve Kurowski confirmed that Oskar Blues is no longer a member; the brewery has likewise declined to become a member of the guilds in North Carolina and Texas, where it also has significant brewing operations.

“Some people say this industry should just be about the beer,” Black says. “But, I say, ‘No, it shouldn’t.’ The industry and the community matters. We’ve tried over the last thirty years to create something different. And it is important to know who owns what, and what decisions are made. I have a lot of passion for this. You know things are going to change — they have to. But you still can still keep some things the same.”

Oskar Blues spokesman Chad Melis says the brewery is actually in the Texas guild and that it dropped out of the Colorado Brewers Guild both because of the cost and because of the organization's direction. He points out that Oskar Blues was one of the Guild's biggest supporters in the past and that it first created its signature event, Burning Can, which takes place next month, as a fundraiser for the group.

But he refuted the notion that Oskar Blues doesn't support the industry or other breweries, saying that the company has always been responsive and helpful, and that it supports the scene with its restaurants.

"Chris has been an early adopter for Oskar Blues, and we want to thank him for playing the role that he did," Melis says. "We will continue to do the things we do. Opening restaurants and matching live music with craft beer is something [Oskar Blues Fooderies] likes to do and is in our DNA."

Read Black's letter below:
An open letter to Dale Katechis & Oskar Blues Brewing:


OK, I guess I should elaborate on that even though if I just left it at that, you’d know what I was saying & why I was saying it. But since this is not the first time these subjects have come up in the industry, I’m just going to rip off the band-aid, say it out loud & let people know about the issues.

First off, to brewers (whether Brewpub or Production), I fully support a Brewers right to a Tap Room. I think it is a vital part of building your brewery & its brand. Another vital part of your business if you have aspirations of growth outside your brewery’s building are Tap Handles & Bottles/Cans in the marketplace.

As the industry has evolved & grown, various breweries have come up with differing methods of financing their growth. Whether by taking on increasing amounts of traditional debt (& the perils that entails), Selling out to the Industrobrewers, Selling out to another Brewer, going public, employee ownership, or allowing Private Equity investment, choices abound. Which way is best, which way(s) is/are still “Craft”? Well we DEFINITELY know one choice, selling to the Industrobrewers, isn’t Craft. If you choose that route, congratulations on being successful, but don’t give me the “nothing’s changed” crap, yes it has, you knew it before hand, no one changed the rules mid-stream. Deal with it. The other ways in the list, I think we have to play a wait-and-see game. I think actions speak louder than Press Releases, it’s pretty much the only method we have at looking under the tent of the new entity.

In your case, some of your Brewery’s recent actions point towards a brewery that I feel ISN’T Craft & therefore I wish to have nothing to do with. In the Craft Beer Industry, it’s either you are WITH it, or you are AGAINST it, there really is no in-between. Starting this year, you have left the Colorado Brewers Guild. This leaves a large hole in the budget of an organization that has helped & fought for your ability to get to where you are today. You don’t belong to the North Carolina Brewers Guild, you informed the Texas Brewers Guild you won’t be joining their organization (the latter was the subject of a recent Austin Chronicle article). I wonder what will happen in Florida. I hear you saying it’s “Craft Buying Craft”. I’d be willing to suspend my disbelief if it weren’t for your actions. That’s not Craft. Yes, I know that not every brewery belongs to the Local and National Trade Organizations, just the ones that care about progressing the industry, want to protect it from the Industrobrewers, & want to be able to protect the small brewer’s access to market.

Another action is your announced Music Venue/Beer Hall in Downtown Denver. With 43 taps. Seriously? 4 years (almost to the day) ago you announced a “letter of intent” on a building in Boulder to open up another Home Made Liquids & Solids. We had an emotional (& very civil) discussion about my opinion on this subject`. When you want to sell your own products, I am a huge supporter, when your primary goal is to sell other people’s beers, I’m not so much in favor. That’s kinda the job for the accounts out in the marketplace. As you might have noticed, there are over 4300 breweries in the US, 300+ in Colorado alone, I have LOTS of choices, & I choose to spend my money on beers brewed by brewers that don’t actively & directly compete with me. Oh, I understand it’s ‘legal’ for you to carry other people’s beers, that doesn’t make it right, or the right thing to do for your brand. You seem to want to be considered a Brewpub when it suits you, and a Brewery when see an advantage in that. Funny, I was always under the impression that there were laws against that here in Colorado (laws designed to keep things from being taken over by the Industrobrewers), but I must be mistaken.

Your actions shout.
Have a terrific life driving your warehouse full of exotic cars.
I was your first account outside of your immediate area of Lyons. I’ve been a loyal supporter & account ever since. I feel like such a sucker.

Chris Black
Falling Rock Tap House

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes