Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Tim Matthews of Oskar Blues

“Hey, creeper!” shouts Oskar Blues Director of Brewing Operations Tim Matthews as I stand outside the brewery's Longmont, CO location and take a photo of the “Anti-Corporate Headquarters” sign above the main entrance.

Matthews has been with Oskar Blues for eight years now, working his way up from the brewery floor to his current position. For a guy that now heads up operations at three different production brewing sites (Brevard, NC and Austin, TX in addition to Longmont), Matthews seems remarkably chill. Oskar Blues is one of the fastest growing breweries in the U.S., and that’s just the beer side of things. The company's expanded into bicycle manufacturing, coffee roasting, restaurants, and more in recent years.

But Matthews is also heavily invested in several projects where he’s working directly with malt and barley farmers, maltsters, and even plant breeders developing new malt varieties. In fact, the morning we chatted, he’d just arrived back in Colorado after visiting hop farmers and hop processing plants in Idaho. So that's exactly where our conversation began. 

You just got back from Idaho where you’re working with some fledgling hop growers. What can you tell me about that?

I was out there with the Hop Quality Group who I recently linked up with. They’re a group of craft brewers who formed the organization about five years ago in order to do stuff like check the quality of the picking facilities, sanitation, stuff like that. Hops are a food product, and these are key processes in hop growing and harvesting. AB InBev used to do all of this stuff itself, but they cut the program, as they like to do, so these guys picked up the slack. We just recently joined the program after doing this work by ourselves for a while. It’s a great resource for us, but we can also share our resources with them.

Idaho was just the place we had decided to go on this trip. We’re trying to hit every single picking facility and hop farm that we can. On this trip we visited four different farms and three picking facilities—each visit takes about two hours. We also went to check on some of the Steiner warehouses.

You’re not just working with hop farmers, you’re working directly with barley growers and maltsters too. How did you become involved in these projects?

It definitely takes a passion for hops and malt! I love having relationships with the people that make our ingredients. It takes resources to make these engagements too, and in the last year and a half, Oskar Blues has come into some resources that let us dig in to the quality of what goes into our beer. We ask our brewers to pay great attention to what goes into our liquid, so it stands to reason that we build a relationship with farmers and maltsters and ask them to pay the same attention to our raw ingredients.

It’s taken me about four years to be literate in malt. I jumped into Dennis Briggs’ book Malt and Malting, John Mallett’s Malt. John himself was a huge resource as was The American Malting Barley Association. Those guys work with everyone from small to macro, and it was interesting seeing everyone’s different objectives with malt. We have our own objectives that are broad right now, but are slowly becoming more clarified.

Malt is all about watching trends. You can’t just look at one malt analysis from one brew. Malt analysis and malt itself is an incredibly complex balance of factors that are symbiotic and influence one another. Over time, acquiring this knowledge has given me the opportunity to go and talk to maltsters both big and small, even down to the genetics level and plant breeding. I travel all over the country, but sometimes stay nearby. I work with Troubadour Maltings in Fort Collins, some of the local farmers and Limagrain, a plant breeder also based in Fort Collins. I’ve even travelled to Norfolk in the UK to work with barley growers and maltsters over there.

Once you figured out that you wanted to work with malt in this way, how did you start the learning process?

Well, shut up and listen is always the best way to start! But you can only listen so much until you need to start bouncing that information back and forth to get your brain churning in a more intense way. It took a couple of years and a lot of questions to get where I am. Eventually those questions became statements and suggestions. Sometimes I’m called a moron and sometimes I’m told I might be on to something, so we try that.

We work directly with maltsters to trial new varieties of malt. We look at how we malt these varieties, so kilning and germination temperatures and times, the drying time and the levels of moisture lost or retained during that process, etc. But we don’t just take a malt and say, “Awesome!” We report this information back to the maltster and not a lot of brewers find the time to do that. But with the resources that I have, I’ve created that time and, in turn, made myself a resource for the maltsters. 

What’s the difference between working with a micro-maltster such as Troubadour in Fort Collins and working with a maltster working on a national scale?

The larger maltster has an incredible ability to not only dig in to the malt on a technical level, but also has vast resources when it comes to barley procurement. Working with the smaller guys requires a different kind of intensification with that relationship and a lot more flexibility from the brewer. We need to consider exactly who we’re working with.

The quality of craft maltsters has definitely risen in a short amount of time. They understand malting a lot more than they did five years ago. The great thing about working with craft maltsters such as Troubadour is that I see craft beer in what they’re doing and I see the seminal stages of craft brewing happening in craft malting. However, working with the guys producing on a smaller scale is not always as easy because there’s not as much instrumentation and measurement involved in production.

A business such as Troubadour is tiny. They can’t even produce 1% of the total malt Oskar Blues will use. Why enter into that partnership?

Because I firmly believe in craft malting and this might be a 15 or 20 year outlook. It’s gotta start somewhere. I think its easier for some of the bigger guys [like us] to buy malt from places like Troubadour, because craft malt comes with a very high overhead due to the economy of scale.

We recently released a beer called Beerito, and I found that an inclusion of malt from Troubadour both enhanced the flavor and was economically feasible. It’s maybe not the best way to make a beer, there’s cheaper malt out there, but when you believe in something then you find a way to bring that into the fold. Who knows, maybe one day these guys will be big enough to compete with the big maltsters and this will start to diversify how everybody sources their malt. Maybe in the future some brewers will use only Troubadour Malt, but it needs to grow in order to meet the scale of demand, both physical and financial, because in terms of the ingredients, malt is the most expensive part of most beer.

Oskar Blues are now operating out of three brewing sites now you’ve opened up in Austin, Texas?

Four if you include our original brewpub down the road in Lyons.

As the Director of Brewing, what are the challenges created by brewing at three sites? How are you keeping core beers like Dale’s Pale Ale consistent at all three?

The toughest part is culture. It’s important to Dale [Katechis, founder] that each brewery has a culture of its own. We’re big, we have capital and Dale could’ve just popped down one megabrewery right here in town and that could’ve done it. But it made financial sense to go east and cut down on shipping costs. Dale visited some bigger breweries five or six years ago and I remember the day he came back and said they were too corporate—that was the term he used. I mean when I hear “corporate,” I envision the 1980s guy from Futurama!

My only regret is that I had boneitis! [laughs]

Yeah, so that or the boss from Office Space, that’s my idea of corporate! I understood what Dale was getting at, though: he wanted to build places where coworkers could see each other all day long and intensify the family aspect of working for the same company. It’s very difficult to move somewhere else and then tell the people that work there, “Now you’re Oskar Blues.” We’ve made sure that we’ve transferred people from here in Longmont to take our vibe with them to the new sites, but have also hired people from within that city's scene. Hopefully in time, with enough resources and communication, these new breweries can become connected to Oskar Blues but also begin to create their own cultures there. And I’m traveling out to both a lot.

At Austin we’re three months in and those guys are already doing incredibly well, they’re hilarious. That’s one side, the other is that obviously you want to make good beer. There are a lot of challenges involved if you want to make a beer like Dale’s Pale Ale somewhere else. But I’m not going to freak out over some subtle differences, because that’s also a fun little thing. It also helps the brewery workers connect with the beer they're making at the same time.

And, I mean, it’s really subtle things. Our sensory panel, which we’ve really expanded over the years so that it’s become a huge tool, gives us quantifiable data of the beer we’re producing at each site. Wort analysis, though, that’s my number one thing. You can really check the differences between the beers by measuring the ion content of the wort, which we can do accurately because we’re using the same raw materials to make our beer at each site.

It’s a variable that a lot of people don’t want to deal with, and it costs us a bit more to do it too. We could get cheaper malt from malthouses closer to those breweries, but it’s not the same malt and it would introduce a variable that we don’t want, so using the same ingredients from the same sources is of the highest priority. 

How are you coping personally with managing brewing at three sites?

I’m getting a lot of airplane miles! It’s a big change for me because I’m not always here. It’s fast-paced in a weird, expansive way. I have a lot more people who are brewing beer and I want to make sure that they’re feeling fulfilled and improving their craft as opposed to being used as a brewing toy. I’m pretty much making myself incredibly expendable by making sure everyone else is helping out with what I’m doing, but that’s OK! I’ve been at Oskar Blues for eight years, I don’t plan on going anywhere else. I can’t really foresee a future that’s going to change from these ideals. 

How are you managing customer expectations now that you’re producing beer in Brevard and in Austin when your brand is marketed as something that is quintessentially Coloradoan? 

We’re not trying to market it as something distinctly Coloradoan, we’re trying to market it as our beer. We have multiple interests that stretch beyond beer—in particular, bikes. I’m a beer and bikes guy, other people that work here are bikes and beer people. Food is huge for us, too. Dale started out as a restaurateur with places such as Old Chicago, he managed the Left Hand brewing tap room for a while, and he started the company as a restaurant back in ’97. He served Left Hand as the house beer until he went and bought a brewkit. The rest is history.

Then, ever the entrepreneur, he thought, “Hey I should get someone to brew for me.” [laughs] He brought on some very talented brewers over the years, but always wanted to expand. In terms of marketing, you want to sell your beer, but at the same time we’re not trying to fit in, we’re simply trying to brew really good beer. I’d take it as an offense if anyone thinks I’m not. I’m just brewing my beer, man. Everybody here is brewing their beer. If you don’t like it, just don’t drink it!

I’m sometimes very tunnel visioned on beer and I can’t think of anything else—my wife calls me out on it all of the time. But there are times when having other passions helps us rest and continue to press on. 

Do you live here in Longmont?

I do. I like being close to the brewery. It takes me back to the days when I was responsible for this brewhouse, when I’d take those calls at three o’clock in the morning. When you go somewhere else and you talk about the culture of beer, we are marketing our passions and where we’re from. But when we are somewhere else, we want to make sure that we’re putting back in to that area. For example, the Can’d Aid Foundation is getting bigger every year.

The Colorado Brewers Guild thing recently was brutal. I don’t even deal with that so I kind of avoided it. I definitely believe in helping out the craft beer community around you, and I feel like we do that. I got into beer 10 years ago and loved the community, still do. There are challenges for the beer community every single day, Facebook’s the number one challenge. [laughs] You see people on there go at it sometimes, and I’ll bet you’ll agree that people would not have these conversations if they sat down and had a beer together. It used to be that you’d talk to your beer friends over a beer, and it was so much nicer back then.

How has Oskar Blues changed in the eight years you’ve been here, and how’s that affected your role?

It’s definitely a lot more intensive in terms of quality. When I got here, we had issues. I remember one day, a couple of months after starting at Oskar Blues, I was on a forum, back when forums were actually a thing, and somebody started a thread about Dale’s Pale Ale. Then somebody just put a picture of someone eating popcorn, and the comments flooded in. Back then, the beer had the wrong kind of reputation. We’ll always listen to critique, but these days we’re our number one critic thanks to our sensory panel and the analysis we do.

Thanks to our processes, we can tell when something’s not OK. The problem that happens 0.1% of the time when you're brewing a small amount is that the more and more you brew, that 0.1% gradually becomes more, and that’s a problem. Take a look at Schlitz back in the '80s—it took a few instances of snowglobe beers and all of a sudden they were out of business. Well, that and an affair and some embezzlement, too, but the quality drop-off was a major aspect of that. It did not take many instances of bad beer to create a disaster, and then all of a sudden they were gone. The biggest brewing company in the U.S. for a long time, and then AB stepped in and took over.

My role has changed into keeping up with that 0.1% and making sure it doesn’t happen. I’m the guy that says we must do this and this and this and this, so I’m kind of the "yes" guy while at the same time being the "no, we can’t continue to do this anymore" guy. If we can get better, and we want to get better, we will, because craft brewing is about your expression. We could easily put tasting panels across the entire country and let a huge amount of the population determine the best thing to brew. If you do that, guess what science will tell you? Light Lager. But that’s not craft beer, [craft beer] is the brewer making an impression using brewing as their art and saying, “Here’s what I make, take it as it is.”

I still personally respond to all the quality issues, I don’t know how much longer that will last if I’m being realistic. Eventually we’re gonna start getting way more than I can handle, but right now that’s still the case. You can’t please ‘em all, but you should never discount somebody’s opinion. 

I’ve been reading how a lot of flagship beers such as Fat Tire and Boston Lager are beginning to wane in popularity. Do you think this same trend could affect Dale’s Pale Ale as the American palate changes?

I think there’s no beer in the world that isn’t susceptible to palate changes, market swings, and things like that. There’s a lot of competition out there for great beer, and there’s a lot of great beer out there. Dale’s Pale Ale does continue to grow. Growth percentages are less and less every year because that’s just the way it goes in growth. We’re still keeping Dale’s Pale Ale in people’s hearts and minds, though.

It’s a challenge—the beer hasn’t changed a lot since I got here eight years ago. I definitely put a lot more work into aspects such as getting hold of the best Centennial, Columbus, and Cascade I can get as well as doing a lot with the malt as I said before too. We’ve also done a lot of work on cleaning up our fermentation so that the yeast does what we want it to do. Yeast is not always cooperative—it lives this secret, private life behind steel curtains and it’s really annoying. The team has really come together on this beer and you’ve just got to keep digging into it. Having the tools and resources that we have now is huge. 

Do you think Dale’s Pale Ale could become vulnerable in the wake of the new beers you’re releasing? You recently released a new IPA, for instance.

And IPA is pretty saturated out there right? [laughs] Actually, Brewbound was talking about how if you want to release an IPA you’ve got to make it unique. That’s why I only put Australian hop varieties in ours, and why I made it dryer than a typical IPA. We had an IPA already [Deviant Dale’s], but we wanted something in the 6% ABV range, so we came up with this one.

All beers are susceptible to all beers. Yes, there is market advantage the bigger you are and the more developed your distributor relationships are. There’s a lot of great beer out there. I was just at a little place called Barley Brown's in Oregon the other day and their beer was absolutely stupendous. In fact, I modeled Pinner [Session IPA] on how guys like them and Breakside are making their beer. Everybody’s vulnerable because there are a lot of people making great beer. But because of the way the market works, any decline is not going to happen overnight. 

You’ve got this new partnership with Cigar City—what advantages has that presented you with?

Me and Wayne [Wambles] already knew each other, and combining our resources is huge. We’ve definitely delved in, because one of the resources we want to share is our capacity with their beers, and that’s not easy. When the gavel hits the table, the number one thing people want to know is if we’re changing the beer. I want to make sure that it’s their brewing that’s occurring when they’re brewing using our resources.

There have been mistakes made by others when they’ve all of a sudden come into bigger production resources through new partnerships or ownerships. I think a lot of that is down to not involving the people involved with those new partnerships enough. The Cigar City guys are getting more air miles too, you know! We’ve spent a lot of time in Brevard hanging out.

It’s not going to happen overnight. I feel we’re good brewers, but the reality of it is that beers like Jai Alai or even Dale’s Pale Ale did not occur overnight. It’s something we're hoping that everybody’s patient with, and if they do feel that we’ve changed the beer, it’s something they’ll call us out on immediately. I think it’s important that people don’t do that just because it’s brewed somewhere else, because the same people are going to be brewing it.

Breweries will continue moving to other locations as they grow and there might be subtle changes to the beer as they do, but it doesn’t change who’s brewing it. People make those moves because that’s what they want to do as a brewer. If, as a drinker, you miss a beer from the old days, well, that’s inevitable. If a brewer moves for the right reasons, then so be it. 

Does this partnership give Oskar Blues the chance to take advantage of the emerging Florida market? Because it’s a pretty vibrant one!

Oh, we’ll definitely be doing that. 

And the same for Cigar City in Colorado, I imagine.

Yep, we’ve already got them on tap here at the [Tasty] Weasel, along with Perrin from Michigan. 

How has working with Fireman Capital been for you?

Being able to delve into the quality like I am did not exist before I had the time and the resources that they have given us. We’re definitely focusing on the beer more than we ever have before. Anyone who thinks otherwise should come up and have a beer with me. That’s all it takes—just come up and have a beer.

It solves a lot of problems.

It does, it lets you discuss things. I sometimes end email conversations and pick up the phone. What happened to the phone call, or going to see somebody? Often so little can be done behind emails and text messages. It can be fine with good friends when you really know what they mean, but when it’s out there for the entire world to see, you could be taking a big risk and it might not be worth it. 

From my perspective, we’ve seen a lot more of your beer in the UK. I can drink Dale’s Pale Ale whenever I want and it’s even a decent price. What challenges does attempting to expand within an export market present? 

Freshness. Especially in certainly places in Europe. One of the great things about the UK market is that it has a greater amount of refrigeration than other European countries. I was in a warehouse in the Netherlands recently where it was so warm I was actually sweating, and I was thinking, “If I’m sweating, then what’s the beer doing?” Stone recently opened up in Berlin, and I think that’s a very good move.

Yeah, reports are that the cans coming out of there are tasting great. 

I’ll go out there and party soon. I hear Berlin is a good party town.

I can certainly recommend it. 

In the UK we’re working with Vertical Drinks and Brewdog but it’s tough to know where the UK market’s going to go.

Yeah it’s changing so quickly at the moment.

The price structure’s certainly changed. Overnight, even [because of Brexit].

You guys market yourself as a quintessentially outdoorsy brand. How do you expect to market yourself in the UK when no one in there really cares about "crushing gnarly ridges," stuff like that?

[laughs]

Put another way, how does the Oskar Blues brand translate to the UK market?

Hey, quality beer can sell, too. There are different ways Oskar Blues can show what it's all about. We’re still gonna stay true, that’s who we are, but at the same time, I think people should be drawn to our beer because we’re making really great beer.  

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene.

See more stories from Matthew

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