CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Craft beer in a can?
"It was too far-fetched for anyone to really believe, even in our industry, that someone would put a full-flavored, hoppy beer in a can," said Dale Katechis, recalling the 2002 launch of Dale's Pale Ale. "Some people laughed it off."
They aren't laughing anymore.
The beer, first made as a home brew by Mr. Katechis while in college, is one of the hottest beers in the sizzling craft category.
Mr. Katechis' company, Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery, pumped out 29,500 barrels of beer last year, up from 17,900 the year before, and is on pace to produce 44,000 barrels this year.
Oskar Blues can't make enough of the stuff. The brewer, which sells Dale's Pale Ale along with five other can varieties in 26 states, typically sells out every summer. The company recently invested $1 million in new tanks in hopes of making 70,000 barrels next year to meet surging demand.
It all started in Alabama in the late '80s, when Mr. Katechis began experimenting with home brews while attending Auburn University. He refined Dale's Pale Ale over the years and began selling it in 1999 in a restaurant he opened in tiny Lyons, Colo.
Mr. Katechis began canning it in 2002 -- literally one can at a time -- as a way to publicize his restaurant, Oskar Blues Grill and Brew. "We'd just load up the van or RV or the truck and go to a music festival or go to an outdoor biking event," said Chad Melis, a professional mountain biker whom Mr. Katechis hired as the brewer's marketing director.
Beer enthusiasts, used to drinking sophisticated crafts in bottles, were skeptical. Oskar Blues changed their minds "one can at a time," Mr. Melis said, by emphasizing the can advantage, which he says includes less exposure to light and oxygen, potential taste-ruiners.
The trend caught on and at least 100 craft brewers now sell in cans, said Julia Herz, of the Brewers Association.
The brewer now has 80 distributors, 220 employees and annual revenue of more than $20 million. Its distribution network mostly covers Colorado, the South and the coasts, and includes bars and retailers such as Whole Foods and BevMo.
Mr. Katechis said his biggest challenge is keeping the brewer's rebellious soul while it grows. "We're the scrappy little guy that took a lot of risk," he said. "We kind of did it while we were flipping everybody else off."