Beer and Bikes: Oskar Blues and its home-brewed REEBsOriginally posted on December 14, 2015 at 7:00 am
American cyclists know full well that beer and bicycles go as well together as 90-pound European roadies, white Spandex and strong espresso. Along Colorado’s Front Range, one company takes that pairing particularly seriously, building bikes in the same way it brews beer: one at a time, with a guiding ethos of fun, craftsmanship and quality.
Oskar Blues beer started brewing in 1998 in the basement of its namesake grill and bar in Lyons, a small town a few miles north of Boulder, and has since expanded into a nationally known, award-winning brewery.
The founder, Dale Katechis, gained fame in 2002 when Oskar Blues became the first U.S. craft brewer to can its own beer. The beer was Dale’s namesake Pale Ale—a pleasingly bitter, refreshing brew now commonly found in many a cyclists’ backpack from Colorado to North Carolina. Oskar Blues only keeps a few days worth of canned beer in cold storage at a time, rather than a few week’s worth, so that your can of Dale’s Pale Ale, or whatever, is as fresh as possible.
A love of riding bikes was always part of the picture. Katechis explained that the original Oskar Blues restaurant location (in Lyons) was driven in large part by the proximity of great mountain bike trails. That is why Oskar Blue’s first eastward expansion was to North Carolina, adjacent the famous Pisgah trails. “We like riding there, so we decided to build our brewery there,” said Katechis with a wry smile.
Sounds like a good business plan, to me.
Oskar Blues started building bikes in 2011. The now-famous story of why is apparently true. Katechis had his bike stolen and decided he’d like to build himself a new one. He and Chad Melis, a former professional mountain bike racer and the brewery’s original communications guy, had been kicking the idea around for a while. After the theft, “Dale slapped REEB LLC on my desk and told me it was time,” said Melis. “I was REEB’s first employee.”
REEB is “BEER” spelled backward. It built 10, steel singlespeed hardtails with Gates belt drives in the first year. When “Outside” magazine got its hands on one and praised it highly, Melis and Katechis had an “oh shit” moment, realizing they were going to have to figure out how to build a lot more bikes.
The answer was Chris Sulfrian, formerly of Generic Cycles and Black Sheep Bikes. In the beginning, he maintained Generic Cycles while welding the REEB frames in his Denver shop. A couple of years ago, he sold his equipment to Oskar Blues and became an official employee in Longmont, a stone’s throw from the main brewing operation.
Sulfrian now focuses entirely on hand-building and powder-coating each REEB frame from either U.S.-made True Temper steel or Canadian-made titanium. He builds about 17 or 18 frames per month, with each taking three to four hours. The company is up to eight models, including a fat bike, all-mountain hardtail, gravel grinder/touring frame, cyclocross bike and a dirt jumper.
In 2014, REEB partnered with True Temper to create an American-made series of custom steel tubes that would help its frames reflect the modern components seen on many bikes today, from room for a 31.6 mm dropper post to different chainstay bends for plus-size tires and oversized downtube tubing for stiffer front ends.
“Our beer is hand crafted so the frames are, too,” said Melis. “We wanted to maintain the high-quality, American-made vibe from the beer to the bikes.” Even in the company’s Mexican restaurant, CyclHops Cantina, the decorations and most of the furniture are hand-made in Colorado by bike-loving artists from reclaimed materials. For example, the hops logo sign is built from shovels that had been used to help rebuild trails damaged by an historic flood in 2013.
The bikes are sold through The Bike Shop at CyclHops. Tim Moore runs the show and takes your REEB order over the phone. Todd Buck is the main mechanic and sometimes frame painter. Most of the bikes are sold outside of Colorado with a choice of custom or standard builds, and stock frame sizes can roll out of the shop in as little as a week. Yep—you can get an American-made frame in about seven days. And you get to pick the paint color.
The craziest bike the guys said they ever built up was a titanium fat bike—the TyREEBdonkadonk—with a Pinion gearbox, Lauf suspension fork, carbon everything (including rims), 5-inch tires, dropper post and red anodized parts that rang up in the neighborhood of $10,000. It was hanging in the shop while I was there and it drew a great deal of attention.
Earlier this year, in what was described as essentially another “Why the hell not?” moment, Oskar Blues and REEB started building a bike park not far from the brewery, adding to what a local artist had started scratching out on his own. The REEB Ranch West at Hops and Heifers Farm was developed with Alpine Bike Parks to offer a pump track, big jumps, flow course and slopestyle courses. It is private property only for Oskar Blues-hosted showdowns, but a public access membership plan is in the works for 2016, one that likely involves volunteer hours, a tiny bit of cash and lots of beer. The vision is to create not just riders, but a collective of caretakers and feature designers.
I asked Melis the philosophical question about why bikes and beer go so well together. He thought about it for a while, then said, “Craft beer and mountain biking are both creative things. Trail riding and beer brewing have an adventurousness in common.” Both require a personal touch, an individual style.
“Beer is simple; it only has four ingredients and it’s social just like mountain biking; they both draw people together,” said Katechis. “The bike is my way of connecting to the earth in a way that I can feel free.”
I’ll drink to that. More from REEB. Full gallery below.
I’m not going to bother with a review of Oskar Blues beer because it would take forever. They’re all good. Two of their strongest—Old Chub Scotch Ale and G’Knight Imperial Red IPA, each a hair over 8 percent alcohol—are some of my favorite beers in existence. I know that straight-up IPAs are en vogue right now, but when and if you can find either of those beers, put on your big-kid pants and give them a try.