- Matthew Schniper
- See those four beer-labeled hot sauces at the top of this pic? They’re a joy to sample.
Beyond being entertaining with naming conventions, they’re also a prolific company: The Brewers Association ranked them the 10th largest craft brewing company in the U.S. earlier this year. They operate four breweries total, plus a bike-themed taco concept called Cyclhops in Longmont, and Denver and Longmont Hotbox coffee spots. Another eatery’s already slated for Denver.
I didn’t know all that before visits to the new Oskar Blues Grill & Brew, which replaces our downtown Old Chicago. I was more familiar with the fine flagship OB cans, with labels like Dale’s Pale Ale and Mama’s Little Yella Pils. You can of course nab these and more OB beers as part of 48 total taps that compose the core of our Grill & Brew’s layout. Three separate dining areas split off from the bar area, and a cavernous basement-level social room holds bocce ball courts and pool tables. Overall the decor reads casual-sharp, with warm pendant lights, lots of brick, and metal and art accents that theme off an arrow shape. My favorite touch: a somehow elegant bicycle wheel and beer can chandelier in the entryway. It all feels Denver-grand in scale and scope, and the energy’s hoppin’.
As we’re talking about a beer-launched brand, let’s do drinks before eats. In a move that undermines the sophistication of our town’s beer drinkers, OB breaks its tap list into “hoppy brews,” “not so hoppy brews,” and “different brews” — an oversimplification that leaves me scouring the offerings for a dark beer. In the “not so hoppy” category you’ll find everything from stouts to blondes, lagers and saisons. My point: This is a pain in the ass. Going by style would be easier.
That aside, it’s a formidable list with many highlights, including Cigar City labels out of Tampa, Florida, and Perrin brews from Comstock Park, Michigan. Why mention those first? Oh, because Oskar Blues owns those breweries too. And because both are strong brands; Cigar City is a perennial long-line leader at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. We revisit their charm with a pint of citrusy, tropical-hop Jai Alai IPA, a 7.5-ABV champ with medium bitterness and, yes, big hop.
A sample sip of a dark ale from Perrin rates nice but not outstanding, especially when followed by a pour of Oskar Blues’ own epic Death by Coconut Irish Porter, one of my all-time favorite seasonals, bursting with cacao and dried coconut essence. Firestone Walker’s Nitro Merlin milk stout is another wise choice from the dark side, and sours are well represented too, with picks like Dogfish Head’s SeaQuench Ale, what I call a “gateway sour” on account of it being a mild stepping stone into more pungent sours.
Location Details Oskar Blues Grill & Brew
Grill & Brew does host a short traditional cocktail list, but we focus on a small beer-cocktail list. Our Oskar’s Beer-itah fuses its Beerito Mexican Lager label with the house margarita, tasting more of the latter, not unpleasant. What is, sadly, is a Mama’s Shandy, which places citrus vodka and fresh lemon juice in the house Pils, which sounds great, but ours lacks balance, finishing strongly lemony and artificial, like a waft of lemon Pine-Sol.
So, Oskar Blues isn’t perfect, which we realize again with a post-meal cappuccino, executed poorly, with scant foam in an overly big pour, doing nothing to highlight the Hotbox roast. I’d stick with the drip.
Around 70 percent of the food menu, reasonably priced, matches that of Home Made Liquids & Solids, courtesy of partner and executive chef Jason Rogers. The other percentage has been entrusted to local chef Eric Bowen, a veteran of several local kitchens. Between them, the list reads distinctly Southern- and barbecue-centric, with a select seafood emphasis.
A smoked ruby trout/artichoke dip tastes rich and creamy, fishy in the best kind of way. A crab cake with fried green tomatoes features ample meat sans filler, a great, caper-piquant remoulade sauce, and a green onion tangle for bite. Though the tomatoes are a bit small and overbreaded here, a later individual order of them shows better execution. Meatball-sized boudin balls wear a crisp jacket that reveals a soft sausage grind with mild Cajun seasoning and a zesty Creole mustard. Pork belly and shishito pepper “nugz” provide all the pleasure of crisped fat layers and earth flavors. But the big app surprise is bacon-wrapped crawdad-stuffed jalapeños, which sound like mere mingle plate fare, but far surpass that — not just rich, fatty and spice-kissed, but taken beyond with a remoulade-spin spiked with blackening spices.
While in Louisiana’s pantry, OB manages a solid muffuletta rendition, with the focaccia-like airy bread yielding to big olive-salad flavor and the classic layering of Italian deli meats and cheeses. The Tom Waits’ Seafood Jambalaya lands less spot-on, overly tomato-y according to one purist co-diner, not spicy enough says another. Still, it’s not bad, with fresh-enough mussels, baby scallops and crawfish bits besting chicken bites, and a nice portion of bright andouille sausage.
Our trout fish and chips arrive over-fried, heavily breaded to the point of masking the fish flavor, though the fries are standard-good. A Trustafarian Burger sings with a fusion of goat cheese tang and honey sweetness, plus arugula and bacon influence. Leave it to the company who legitimized craft beer in cans 15 years ago to put a beer can chicken plate on its menu, achieving the textbook moistened protein via the beer evaporation, though the skin here leaves a little to be desired for crispness. Both a tangy black pepper tomato sauce with a zesty acidic bite and Carolina mustard sauce delight.
Overall, OB excels at saucing, in fact serving their own array of beer-made hot sauces with barbecue plates, smoked with a 70/30 hickory/apple blend (sub pecan for apple on seafood dishes). The Triple Lindy delivers a third rack of lightly barked pork baby backs, beautifully tender, plus perfectly succulent pulled pork, and several nicely charred wings. The Dale’s wing sauce tastes easy-likable like Red Hot, with a mild dose of cayenne and sambol oelek peppers. The Pils honey-sriracha is too cloying for our tastes, and the Deviant Dale’s IPA Mega Hot Meleguta Sauce incorporates several peppers to become an absolute scorcher that’s still flavorful but overpowers food. Test your machismo, or go with our favorite: the Old Chub 3 Chili Chipotle Sauce, with excellent smoke and earth tones, particularly nice on the pulled pork.
For sides, choose a great collard greens rendition, pleasantly porky and not stewed beyond toothsome. Cheddar grits are inconsistent between visits, more and less gooey or dry, but still a treat. At dessert, a bourbon ball tastes nothing of the magical hooch, and a cakey brownie sundae’s good but commercial with Oreo crumbles and both vanilla ice cream and airy whipped cream for some reason called “whippy dip.”
So, maybe Osker Blues isn’t perfect with names either, but that doesn’t detract from its standing pretty bully overall. And if it keeps growing at this rate, it might just be the next Old Chicago. But at some point, the question has to be asked: When does craft become corporate?