By Bobby Bush
Oskar Blues Grill & Brew is an unassuming little brewpub located in the more
unassuming small town of Lyons, Colorado, a 14-miles-north neighbor of Boulder.
Unpretentious appearances can be misleading. From a music standpoint, Rolling Stone
magazine called Oskar Blues one of the hottest places in America. Though it’s without
major magazine endorsement, Oskar Blues also has some of the best beers in Colorado, a
state known for the quality and quantity of its craft-brewed beer.
Already up and running as a bar and restaurant, this two-story shopping strip
establishment added a brewery in 1997. Brewer Craig Engelhorn’s sort-of-a-seven barrel
systems is shoehorned into three rooms somewhere in the basement catacombs. The
brewhouse is so Rube Goldberg in its layout, it requires manipulations that most brewers
have never dreamed of. During a ten-cent tour, I complimented Engelhorn using a sports
analogy. “If brewing was like golf,” I assessed, “you’d have a 14 handicap.” More in line
with the music theme, we could paraphrase that old motto a bit - “You gotta suffer if you
wanna make the brews” - but let’s not.
In spite of the adversity, Oskar Blues beers are great, extremely drinkable. The
locally quarried sandstone topped bar was full, so we sipped on our sample from a bar
table nearby. Best-selling Dale’s Pale Ale, named after owner Dale Katechis, was medium
bodied, ripe with the glories of Centennial, Cascade and Columbus hops. Brewed four
months previous, seasonal Kolsch was still very nice with a pungent hops kick just a little
stronger than called for in this German ale category. Reddish One Nut Brown rode the
fence between sweet UK and more bitter US brown styles. It was smooth, quaffable and
Oskar’s second biggest seller.
Based on a homebrew recipe, Porter was rich in chocolate malt. Robust yet
smooth, the secret lay in three pounds of Belgian Wheat added to the grain bill. Pushing
7% abv, Dubbel Trouble required 33 pounds of Belgian candi sugar (similar to rock
candy), which boosted alcohol and sweetness, and a strain of Belgian yeast. This big ale
was smooth and decidedly malty. Engelhorn used 120 pounds of fresh sour cherries (he
really is a glutton for punishment) in Lights Out Cherry Stout. This full bodied stout
could not hide the usually faint cherry flavor and aroma. It was a satisfying, dry-finishing
treat. Using a different recipe, Engelhorn brewed a stout in honor of his wife, a minister.
Medium bodied and nitrogenized, Reverend Sandi’s Sinful Stout, blessed with goodness
from flake barley, was silky smooth, an excellent cream stout.
Though they were unavailable during our visit, Engelhorn sometimes brews a sour
mash Berlinner Weiss. Lucky’s Lager, a Vienna-style brew made with Belgian malt, and
Craig’s Wiser Pilsner, a refreshing German-style pils are both served at local restaurants
and sometime on tap at Oskar’s. The brewpub has out-of-town keg accounts as well, with
a delivery route taking in Longmont, Boulder and Denver. Planet Bluegrass, a huge
bluegrass festival, emptied 100 kegs (50 barrels) in two days last year. That took tons of
work from a brewery that produced 500 barrels in 2000.
Craig Engelhorn was once caught up in the corporate world, doing the 9 to 5 for
Bell Labs. A career-oriented article in Men’s Health, was a reawakening. Goodbye lab
coat, hello great beer. He quickly became a hophead at heart, but only to the point that
his beer “doesn’t taste like lawnmower clipping.” His beers have earned Oskar Blues a
reputation as “stout expert” and a Great American Beer Festival 1999 bronze medal for
Sinful Stout. Naturally, Oskar always has at least one stout on tap.
Great. That is: great music, great local following, great food (or so I was told, a
new chef had just started weeks earlier) and - you know where this is going -great, great
beer. Hidden away in the community of Lyons, Craig Engelhorn and Oskar Blues really
For more on Oskar Blues, see www.oskarblues.com.
This article is the second of a four-part Colorado 2001 tale. Follow along at Cheshire Cat
or backspace to Denver North
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush