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Interview: Brewer Series #2, Stone Brewing & Mitch Steele (Repost from 2010)

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Articles, Interviews

Second in a series of brewer interviews: Mitch Steele, the head brewer at Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, California.

For “Brewer Series: Interview #2″, I feature Mitch Steele, the head brewer at Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, California.
Stone Brewing was a natural choice as a selection for the “Brewer Series”, not because it’s one of my favorite breweries, but because they put out such great varieties of beer and do it extremely well! Each beer is solidly made and very consistent . It takes true craftsmanship to achieve this and “Mitch Steele” has done a fantastic job. (would you expect any less from a man with that name??)
On with the Interview…

Certain beer, to me, just knocks your socks off and changes your view of beer in general. What beer was “that” beer for you. That really compelled you into the life of a beer brewer?
For me it was either Anchor Steam Beer or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I’m showing my age here, but I was studying enology at UC Davis in the early 1980’s, and Dr. Michael Lewis, the Brewing Professor at Davis at that time, gave a guest lecture in a microbiology class I was taking, and I was instantly compelled to change my study focus from winemaking to brewing science.  I remember a visit to a pub in Davis that poured Anchor Steam on tap and it was just incredible. And later, as  part of the brewing curriculum, we toured the Sierra Nevada Brewery and I was amazed at the intensity and freshness of the hop flavors in their beer. A subsequent visit to the Hopland Brewery Pub (Mendocino Brewing Co) cemented the deal. I wanted to brew in a brewpub. As a side note, after working in a brewpub for four years, and getting a feel for the grind of the restaurant business, I came to my senses and have stuck to production breweries since then.

What is your favorite style to brew?
I guess it’s a good thing that I’m at Stone, because there’s no question that it is IPA. Apart from the fact that I simply love the style, I think I’ve been frustrated career wise until now…this goes back to my previous brewing experiences at the San Andreas Brewing Co. in Hollister and at Anheuser-Busch, where I was never able to brew an IPA, not for lack of trying, neither company wanted one.  Apart from IPA, getting an opportunity to brew any style of beer I’ve never done before, or to brew with a new hop, malt or yeast is always exciting to me.

What beer are you most proud of?
Right now I’d say Stone 11th Anniversary Ale/Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. While we weren’t the first to brew a Black IPA, or India Black Ale, or whatever people want to call the style, we certainly helped bring  the style to the forefront in the craft brewing community, and I absolutely love how the beer came out. It was a difficult beer to create, and it came out exactly how we envisioned it.

How long does it take for you to settle on a recipe before you make it?
It really depends on the beer. A beer like the Stone 11th Anniversary Ale took quite a few prototypes and about 6 months to dial in the recipe where I thought it needed to be. Other beers come together with 1or 2 pilot batches, some without any sort of prototype, and collaboration beer recipes can change on the fly, as we’re brewing them! We don’t have a standard procedure for developing new beers, we take inspirations from everywhere and from anyone. Some beers come together quickly, and some take a bit more work.

Do you get a lot of fluctuation from batch to batch?
We hope not! One of our goals is to make sure our beers are consistent batch to batch, it is hugely important to us. We want fans of our beer to know what to expect when they buy our beer, and if a fan ever has a consistency or quality concern, we investigate it  very seriously. I think for a brewpub or smaller brewery, where the brewer can discuss batch to batch variations with their customers in a fun way, some batch variation can be ok (for example, experimenting with changing malt or hops a bit), but when you get as big as we are, and we’re sending our beer across the country, we need to be consistent to keep people coming back to our beer. We have invested a lot over the last few years in additional  analytical instruments in our lab so we can measure the critical items like alcohol, bitterness and color, to ensure our brewing process and beers are consistent.

Do you have any processes that are unique to your brewing? What are they?
We have a pretty traditional brewing process. I do think our beers are unique, and the way we use hops differs from what a lot of brewers do. I think since we started in 1996, we’ve set a standard for brewing big, flavorful and creative beers. From a process standpoint, we recently have invested in a wastewater treatment system that will allow us to reclaim the water used in the brewing and cleaning processes, treat it and have it available for us to reuse again. This is so important here in California. Also about 30% of our power comes from solar panels on the roof, so we continue to move towards increasing our own sustainability.

What are your biggest daily struggles as a brewer?
Making sure we have the right beer in proper quantities to meet demand. We’re somewhat unique in that we have 3 beers that sell really well (Stone Pale Ale, Arrogant Bastard Ale, and Stone IPA), and that makes juggling the brewing and packaging plan a bit more difficult than a brewery that has one flagship brand.

What changed my palate to truly appreciate IPA’s was the Ruination. The 100 ibu’s awakened my senses and made me crave more and more hoppy beers! What inspired this beer?
That beer came from our 5th anniversary IPA. I wasn’t with the company at that time, but I do know we have a tradition dating back to our  1st anniversary of brewing IPA’s for our Anniversary Ale. The 5th Anniversary IPA was such a great beer that we started brewing it full time as Stone Ruination IPA. I think Stone Ruination IPA was the first regularly bottled (non-seasonal) Double or Imperial IPA.

I really enjoy your many collaborations. How did this collaboration idea originate?
I’m not entirely sure. I think Greg originally wanted to have us brew a batch with Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, from Mikkeller, and they had discussed that during one of his trips to Europe. As we started discussing the idea here, either Greg or Steve thought it would be great to add another brewer to the mix, so we invited Peter Zien from Alesmith to join us. We liked the three-brewer approach so much that we’ve used it for every collaboration brew since. It’s nice because it allows for a greater flow of ideas and creativity, although it can be challenging to get three brewers together at the start to work on concepts and recipes.

I’ve heard you referred to as the Sierra Nevada of Southern California. Is that a compliment? Ever considered a collaboration strictly between you both?
I’ve never heard that! It absolutely is a compliment. While we brew some different styles of beer, we have definitely looked to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. as an inspiration because of the high quality of their beers and their business model. We love their beers, and I have always admired their contributions to the craft brewing business. It would be an honor to brew something with them some day.

With more and more fresh hopped beers coming out, it makes me look at “bottled on” dates on all of my beers. Stone puts a “best by” date on its bottles. Has this question been brought up and will this change depending on the type of beer?  What are your thoughts on this?
I think beer freshness is really important, and I think it’s crucial that people who buy our beer know that the beer will still taste good and fresh. Our best by date is 3 months or 4 months from the bottling date, this depends on the beer, most of our hop forward beers are assigned a 3 month date. This number didn’t come arbitrarily, it came from many taste sessions tasting our beers as they aged at room temperature, chilled and at hot temperatures. In the end, we assigned code dates where we think the beers will still taste as great as when they were first bottled, when stored at room temperature. We want people to taste the hops when they buy our IPA’s!

I understand you are looking to open a brewery in Europe. How is this coming along?  Have you chosen a location?
We have received quite a few proposals from many countries in Europe and are in the process of reviewing them now. It’s very exciting, we’re all looking forward to seeing where this goes!

What are your future plans/next creations that we, your beer fans, can be looking forward to?
We just released our Stone 14th Anniversary Emperial IPA, and are now working on the Stone 10.10.10 Vertical Epic and this year’s Double Bastard Ale. More collaboration brews are coming, we just brewed the Ballast Point/Kelsey McNair/Stone San Diego Session Ale, and that should be out in mid-August. Homebrewer Kelsey McNair brewed an incredible hoppy ale at only 4.3% abv, and we selected it as the winning beer at recent AHA Rally here at Stone. As such, he brewed it with us and we will enter the beer in the Pro-Am competition at the GABF.Stone brewing Mitch Steele

Stone Brewing Co.
1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, CA 92029
(760) 471-4999
www.stonebrew.com

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