With a name like MITCH STEELE (I feel compelled to put his full name in caps), this man was destined for a life of badassery (hey, if it is considered a word on Twitter, it should be legit). And what could be more bad-ass than being the brewmaster of one of the most bad-ass breweries in the country — Stone Brewing Co.?
The answer, my friends, is nothing.
I have the honor and privilege of being able to call Mitch a friend (well, technically he has never confirmed or denied this claim … BUT, he did friend me on Facebook, so I am totally legit). And like any good friend, I put the pressure on Mitch to subject himself to my extremely lengthy brewer interview. Surprisingly enough, Mitch not only complied, he went all out and provided me with my most in-depth interview to date! ROCK ON!
Drum roll please…
THE MITCH STEELE INTERVIEW
Full name: Mitch Steele
Current location: Stone Brewing Co. , Escondido, CA
Twitter account (if applicable): I don’t tweet. I am on Facebook though.
1. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Ohio, but grew up in Walnut Creek, Ca. I still consider the Diablo Valley “home”.
2. What sports if any did you play growing up, through college and beyond?
I was a swimmer. I haven’t swam competitively since high school, but I still enjoy jumping in the pool and swimming a mile or so. Played a little baseball too, intramural in college, nothing too serious. And I bowled.
3. How old were you when you had your first beer?
I think I was seven or eight when I first tasted beer.
4. If you can recall, what is the story of your first beer? Where did you have it? What style and brand was it?
It was Olympia in a can. Gawd I thought it was awful. I was with a Father/Son organization called “Indian Guides” (kind of like Cub Scouts) and we were on a camping trip. The Dads drank beer and played poker while we hiked, ran around and created mischief. So I tasted my Dad’s beer there for the first time (all of us were tasting our fathers’ beers, it wasn’t a big deal, we thought we were being cool, and I think the dads were amused by it). I never did acquire a taste for Oly, we always had it around the house, but my father wasn’t a big beer drinker. My first “good” beer was when I was 16 and went to Europe, and we were drinking English ale on a tour boat on the Thames. That was a very different experience.
5. Where, if applicable, did you go to college? What did you study? What additional activities, organizations, sports did you partake in during college?
I went to UC Davis, and studied Fermentation Science, with an emphasis on winemaking and brewing. I was pretty focused on studying, partying, and listening to a lot of Pink Floyd. I did do a lot of beer research in my spare time!
Craft Beer Epiphany
Every craft beer enthusiast has at least one pinnacle craft beer experience that completely changes ones perspective on beer. I refer to this mind-blowing moment as a “craft beer epiphany.”
1. What was your first craft beer epiphany? Recall as many details about it as you can:
I’m dating myself here, but when I started drinking beer, most of the “good” beers available were imports, and I sought them out. The first real craft beer experience I had was at UC Davis. Brewing Professor Michael Lewis would often meet his students at a pub on Friday afternoons, and one of the first times I went, we went to a place called “The Pub” in downtown Davis, and they were selling Anchor Steam on draft. I still remember how malty and bitter I thought that beer was. It was sublime, I could have sat there drinking fresh Anchor Steam all day and into the evening and been very happy.
2. Have you have additional craft beer epiphanies since the first? Detail as many of them as you wish:
-Chewing on a kernel of crystal malt in the pilot brewery at UC Davis, and realizing that crystal malt was the flavor I was trying to identify in Bass Ale and other amber beers. Plus it tasted like GrapeNuts!
-Realizing that the “odd, spicy taste” in Henry Weinhards Private Reserve was Cascade hops.
-First visit to Sierra Nevada in 1984. I think that’s when I really decided that brewing was what I wanted to do. I was amazed by their beers and how they made them.
-Research for my first brews at San Andreas included a trip to Triple Rock, and I was totally blown away by Red Rock Ale and a Wheat ale they had.
-Lyons Brewery in Dublin CA. Judy Ashworth was the first person to ever put a beer of mine on tap. Plus she also served the beer I made with Bill Millar at San Andreas for my wedding.
-A field trip with the San Andreas crew to the Anchor Brewery. How beautiful is that brewery! And they poured lots of great beers for us. A wonderful, inspiring visit.
-My first visit to Portland in the late 1980’s. Went for the Oregon Brewers festival and was amazed at Portland’s craft beer culture with Bridgeport, Widmer, McMenamins, and Portland Brewing Co. We found craft beer everywhere, I had never seen anything like it. And everyone was drinking this different looking, milky, cloudy beer with a lemon in it-Widmer Hefeweizen. I felt like I had been transported to this new wonderful world, full of amazing craft brewed beer and nothing else.
-Tasting a Blind Pig IPA at Pizza Port Solana Beach in the mid 1990’s. The hoppiest beer I had ever had.
-Pouring a pilot brewed 70 IBU American IPA at the Anheuser-Busch booth at the GABF. People loved the beer and the AB marketing folks still wouldn’t go for it!
-Tasting Allagash Curieux-the most balanced barrel aged beer ever!
-Tasting the first batch of our Stone 11th Anniversary Ale. I like to refer to nailing a beer recipe as a “homerun”, but this one was, to me, a “grand slam”.
-My first taste of Russian River Consecration. That beer knocked my socks off.
The Professional Side
1. What did you do professionally before you got into the beer industry?
Right out of college I worked in the wine industry, I worked for Almaden Vineyards at their red wine winery just south of Hollister, CA. Our claim to fame was that every drop of Almaden red wine was aged in an oak barrel. Our barrel warehouse was 4 acres-the largest barrel room in the world. I enjoyed making wine, but grew tired of the lack of focus on high quality wines after Almaden was bought by Heublein in 1987.
2. How long have you been working in the beer industry?
Since 1988……..wow, that’s really a long time. Good thing I enjoy it!
3. What was your first “real” job in the beer industry?
I helped Bill Millar start up the San Andreas Brewing Co. in Hollister, CA. We had a 14 bbl system and only brewed between 500 and 1000 bbls per year, so I could brew on weekends and evenings after my day job at Almaden.
4. If applicable, what beer certifications, credentials and/or education do you have?
A BS in Fermentation Science from UC Davis. Anheuser Busch had some great classes that I went to, including a 3 week Technical Brewing Course, and a 2 week Brewing Engineering Course.
5. Who are some of your greatest mentors in the industry?
Dr. Michael Lewis from UC Davis, Mike Meyers, Doug Muhleman, Paul Anderson and John Serbia from Anheuser-Busch, and Steve Wagner from Stone are the people that have taught me personally, and whom I admire greatly. Fritz Maytag and Ken Grossman are definite inspirations. In fact, I’m inspired by creative craft brewers everywhere. There are really too many to name them all.
The Stone Brewing Co. Story
1. How long have you been brewing at Stone?
I celebrate my 4 year anniversary this May.
2. How many different breweries have you worked for before you started brewing at Stone? What are those breweries?
Let’s see, there was San Andreas in Hollister, CA, at Anheuser-Busch I worked in the Ft Collins, CO, St. Louis and Merrimack, NH breweries. So 4 other breweries I guess. I’ve made beer in several other breweries as a guest brewer or on assignment with Anheuser-Busch.
3. What are some of your “signature” beer recipes — recipes that you created while working at Stone that have become staples in the company lineup?
Well the core brands were already formulated by Steve Wagner, but I’ve worked on every Anniversary Ale, Vertical Epic ale, and Collaboration Beer since I’ve been here. They aren’t all 100% my recipes, some are, but we try to make recipe formulation a team effort. We have a good team and have lots of good ideas.
Steve asked me to reformulate Stone Levitation Ale shortly after I arrived, and I think we did some good things to that beer. The only beer that I’ve worked on so far that’s become a regular is the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, which originally was our 11th Anniversary ale.
4. If you were only allowed to brew one style for the rest of your life, what style would you brew and why?
I think I’m a frustrated IPA brewer from way back. Bill at San Andreas would never let me brew one, he didn’t think Hollister was ready for a really hoppy beer. And of course at Anheuser-Busch we never did IPA, although I brewed several nice pilot versions when I was New Products Brewmaster. I was always brewing IPA’s when I home brewed in New Hampshire. So although I’m here at Stone and we brew a lot of IPAs, I think it’s the one style I never get tired of brewing and drinking.
5. What is your all-time favorite beer that you brewed at Stone?
Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale/11th Anniversary Ale. I think Stone IPA is my favorite all time beer, but the 11th Anniversary was really the very first beer where I felt I was able to show my chops as a professional brewer, with no restrictions whatsoever. Plus, I went out on a limb to convince Greg that this concept (Black IPA) was something worth doing.
6. Stone is known for doing a lot of collaborations, what has been your most memorable or favorite collaboration beer, to date?
Well, we’ve done five (six including the just released Dogfish Head/Victory/ Stone Saison du BUFF), and they are all special in some way.
Alesmith/Mikkeller/Stone Belgian Style Triple
This was our first in the current collaboration series, and Mikkel wanted to brew a traditional triple to honor the late Michael Jackson. We did that, up until the hopping anyway-this was during the hop shortage so we ended up using American hops in the beer, and it turned out wonderful. Peter Zien of Alesmith is such an accomplished brewer and taster, and Mikkel was great fun, he really has a unique way of approaching the brewing business.
Jolly Pumpkin/Nøgne-ø/Stone Special Holiday Ale
Working with Ron Jefferies and Kjetil was fantastic. What stands out about this project, not surprisingly, was taking the same recipe to all 3 of our breweries. Going to Michigan and Norway to brew this beer with Ron and Kjetil definitely didn’t suck. But brewing with rye malt here at Stone was pretty rough.
BrewDog/Cambridge/Stone Juxtaposition Black Pilsner
Will Meyers has been a friend for several years, so it was really special to brew with him. And James Watt from BrewDog, what a creative mind. We actually worked also with Martin Dickie at BrewDog to formulate the beer, but James was the one who came over and brewed with us. We’ve since become great friends with both James and Martin. Plus, this was the first lager ever brewed at Stone. This was a fun brew day because the 3 of us changed the hopping recipe several times on the fly while we were brewing. True collaborative brewing!
Ken Schmidt/Maui/Stone Coconut/Macadamia Nut/Kona Coffee Porter
This was our first entry into the GABF Pro-Am festival. It was probably the most challenging of the collaboration beers to brew, because we had a specific beer of Ken’s that we were trying to replicate, and we had to make some ingredient changes to make it work in our brewery. Despite the challenges of steeping hundreds of pounds of fresh toasted coconut, coffee and macadamia nuts in the wort and beer, we did it, and I’m very proud of the beer we turned out. Plus, maybe I get I now get to go to Hawaii and brew with Garrett (?)
21st Amendment/Firestone Walker/Stone El Camino (Un)Real Black Ale
Matt and Shaun are long time friends. Trying to get the three of us together to formulate this beer was like herding cats, but it really came together and turned into a wonderful beer full of really unique ingredients. Has anyone else ever brewed with chia?
And then the collaborations I worked on that weren’t brewed at Stone. Those would include:
The California Double IPA
Brewed with Shepherd-Neame in Kent, England. They are a great group of really talented, experienced brewers, and this was a fun beer to brew- the brewers at Shepherd Neame were both enthusiastic and incredulous at our recipe and the sheer volume of hops we proposed using. We brewed this for the Wetherspoons Pub Chain Real Ale Festival, so all the beer was put into casks. I remember we originally wanted to make it 8.5% and Steve wanted to call the beer a “California Mild” which I thought was hilarious. Wetherspoons balked at the high abv, but we eventually compromised at about 7%. We really got to experience a lot of great English breweries and pubs in the three trips we made to England for this project.
Someone in England dropped the ball on saving a cask of the California Double IPA for us at Stone-so we did the next best thing. I took the recipe up to 21st Amendment in San Francisco, and we brewed the beer again. Shaun O’Sullivan is one of the great people in this business, and I had a great time brewing with him.
We spent 3 days with the BrewDog team in Scotland this past summer, and brewed this Black Belgian Double IPA. Martin and I came up with the recipe via email, and the beer came out really nice. We’re waiting to try some of the beer that was aged in Scotch Whiskey barrels that we hand selected while we were there. This trip was detailed out in our Stone Skips Across The Pond video. That team at BrewDog is a great group, they are a lot of fun, and they really like to play practical jokes. So it was a fun time, even if I was the butt of most of their jokes!
1. What is your all time favorite style of beer to drink?
That’s a tough question. I guess I’d have to pick one it would be American IPA, although I have great fondness for British Pale Ales, Bohemian Pilsners and Belgian Triples.
2. What is your all time favorite style of beer to brew?
IPA, definitely. Although I really enjoy brewing any style I’ve never done before.
3. Outside of Stone, what are some of your other favorite breweries?
I could go on forever with this, but off the top of my head, Sierra Nevada, Russian River, Allagash, Fullers, Thornbridge, BrewDog, Firestone Walker, Orval, Boon, New Glarus, Ballast Point, Alesmith, Port, etc etc etc
4. What are your top 3 destination “beer” cities?
Portland OR, San Diego, and London, England.
5. What is your favorite beer and food pairing?
I love tasting beer with artisanal Cheese. Cheese pairs amazingly well with beer.
6. Do you ever cook with beer? If so, what are some of your favorite recipes that use beer?
I do, I love barbecuing and I often marinate meat with a blend of beer and other things. Stone Smoked Porter is a great marinade for pork. Also, in an effort to eat a bit healthier, I’ve been cooking lots of beans. Malty beers and Belgian Beers make a great base to cook beans in.
7. In your opinion, what are some of the best resources (books, websites, programs, institutions etc…) for people learning about beer and brewing?
I’m partial to UC Davis of course, but I think all the brewing schools in the US have something valuable and unique to offer. I think websites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer are great places to see what’s going on the industry and to compare tasting notes on beers you may have tried. There are so many good books and websites now that it really depends on where one’s focus is.
The Personal Side
1. Are you married? Children?
Very happily married with two great kids, a son and daughter.
2. Outside of beer, what are some of your other hobbies?
I started playing guitar after college and it’s become a real passion. I’ve always loved music, and now playing gives me an additional creative release. I play blues and classic rock in a garage band with a very talented group of guys, and we play out 1-2 times per month. I enjoy buying guitars too, but I pretty much gave that up once we had kids. I enjoy spending time with my family, and traveling.
Off The Beaten Path
1. If you were a style of beer, what style would be an why?
I think I’d be something like a Belgian Golden or Triple. On the outside, looks kind of innocent and quiet, but surprisingly complex and fairly strong on the inside. Dangerously drinkable!
2. You were caught smuggling beer illegally, which has now been made punishable by death. Right before you are sent to the executioner, you are offered one last beer. What beer would you chose and why?
A 3L Bottle Of Double Bastard Ale. Delay the inevitable, and be in the right frame of mind (if there is such a thing) for an execution.
3. If I contracted you to brew a beer (or design a beer recipe) called “The Beer Wench” — what style would you chose and what, if any, extra ingredients would you add?
What a loaded question! I think it would have to be a truly unique beer, not a traditional style.
4. If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
X-Ray eyes….no just kidding. Probably the ability to fly.
5. What is one of the craziest things you have ever done and lived to tell the story?
100mph in the back of a pickup after drinking a bunch of beers. I’m not much of a risk taker, but that was really stupid.
6. What are your thoughts on bacon?
Bacon is the one reason I could never be a vegetarian.
SPECIAL THANKS TO MITCH FOR NOT ONLY PROVIDING A VERY INTERESTING AND ENTERTAINING INTERIVEW, BUT FOR ALSO SUBJECTING HIMSELF TO EVERY SINGLE ONE OF MY QUESTIONS! YOU ROCK, STEVE! XOXO!