Beer Scout: Cigar City partners with Oskar Blues for North Carolina production and distribution

TELLING THE STORY: For the past five weeks, Cigar City el lector Neil Callaghan has called this recreational vehicle home as he's worked to tell the story of the Tampa brewery's new partnership with Brevard's Oskar Blues Brewery.
TELLING THE STORY: For the past five weeks, Cigar City el lector Neil Callaghan has called this recreational vehicle home as he's worked to tell the story of the Tampa brewery's new partnership with Brevard's Oskar Blues Brewery. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

If he’d really wanted to, Cigar City Brewing founder Joey Redner could have built his own brewery in Western North Carolina. Doing so, however, would have meant taking out several million dollars in loans. And even if everything went according to plan, several years would have elapsed before the Tampa-based producer could begin brewing its beer.

Partnering with Oskar Blues Brewery in 2016 to make Cigar City’s flagship Jai Alai IPA (7.5 percent ABV) in Oskar Blues’ Brevard facility — and have it and the rest of its core lineup of beers distributed within Oskar Blues’ established sales network — made far more business sense to the debt-averse CEO, as did the perk of speeding up the brewing process. The area’s water quality, state tax breaks and ease of shipping were likewise enticing. Now, less than a year after closing the deal, the collaboration between two of the most popular purveyors of canned craft beer in the U.S. has moved beyond the brite tanks and into stores and taprooms in North and South Carolina and Tennessee, Cigar City’s first new markets in four years.

A recent expansion at Oskar Blues added 17,000 square feet, room for 24 new 300-barrel tanks — around 15 of which are currently installed — and ample space for Cigar City to brew Jai Alai. Enter Cigar City brewmaster Wayne Wambles, whose first priority was getting the bold, tropical IPA to taste the same whether it’s made in Brevard or Tampa. Aaron Baker, marketing manager of Oskar Blues Brewery North Carolina, notes that his company went through a similar process in brewing its flagship Dale’s Pale Ale in Brevard and at its original Lyons, Colo., facility, making Oskar Blues an empathetic partner.

“We want North Carolinians’ first taste of Jai Alai to be the freshest, most consistent beer possible,” Baker says. “The only way to ensure that was to have [the necessary] equipment in Brevard.”

More specifically, that meant purchasing a centrifuge to clarify Jai Alai exactly the way Wambles does at the Tampa brewery. Though a hefty investment for Oskar Blues, its top brass was so impressed with the superior flavor and increased yields compared with other filtration methods that they quickly signed off on a centrifuge for the North Carolina space.

“And not the Hyundai of centrifuges, but the Rolls Royce,” says Neil Callaghan, Cigar City’s el lector. His duties in that role — which is Spanish for “the reader” — involve telling the story behind Cigar City’s beer through education and events and helping make technical information approachable and accessible to beer lovers.

After four months of tweaking the brewing process — a necessity given that they are working with a new water profile and the tanks are a different shape and size than those at Cigar City’s home facility — and blind tasting the IPA several times a week, Wambles and Callaghan now say they can’t tell the difference between Jai Alai made in Brevard and batches from Tampa.

The implementation of the centrifuge — which Oskar Blues is considering for future use in making Dale’s Pale Ale at all three of its breweries — is one of many ways that the new partners are willing to learn from one another to help put out better products. For packaging, Cigar City had used the hard PakTech plastic handles to keep its six-packs of 12-ounce cans together but now uses the same photodegradable Hi-Cone plastic rings that Oskar Blues employs.

Wambles plans to spend half of his time in Tampa, creating and fine-tuning new recipes, and the other half in North Carolina, making sure Jai Alai is consistent and up to standards. He recently bought a house in Sylva, but when he’s in Florida, someone else from Cigar City will be in Brevard. According to Callaghan, Cigar City made 68,000 barrels of beer in 2016 and expects to produce at least that much Jai Lai in Brevard for 2017. With that volume being brewed in-house, Baker says Jai Alai will always be available on draft in Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel taproom.

Callaghan adds that Jai Alai is the second-most popular six-pack of craft beer cans sold in grocery stores in the U.S., behind only Dale’s Pale Ale. With the Oskar Blues sales team currently working Cigar City beers into its buyers’ accounts, Wambles and Callaghan are curious to see what Cigar City’s No. 2 beer will be in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

Contenders include Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale (5.5 percent ABV), an easy-drinking “beach beer” named for the state’s cowboys; Tampa-style Lager (4.5 percent ABV); and Invasion Pale Ale (5 percent ABV), which has citrus notes similar to that of Jai Alai, but with session beer approachability. Also in the running is Maduro Brown Ale (5.5 percent ABV), the first beer Cigar City brewed on a commercial scale, which Baker is especially excited to have in the joint portfolio. He says it “hits the sweet spot” for Oskar Blues, which doesn’t have a brown ale or a comparable malty beer.

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin is a freelance writer and a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). He also contributes to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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