Stone Brewing Company Liberates One of Anheuser-Busch's Finest

by: Todd on 05-04-2006
As recently posted on joesixpack.net, Stone Brewing Company (Escondido, CA) has hired Mitch Steele, Assistant Brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch's Merrimack, NH facility, as their new Head Brewer. Unless you persistently watched Greg Koch's vBlog, attended this past Craft Brewers Conference in Seattle, or were otherwise in the know ... it slipped under the beer radar.

Yes, the brewery that touts most arrogantly that "Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies" has just hired (liberated?) someone who's spent much of his career brewing for one of the largest "fizzy yellow beer" makers on planet Earth. Ironic, perhaps, but this is quite possibly one of the smartest hires we've seen within the craft beer world and perhaps another milestone in the craft brewing industry's ongoing maturity into big business.

How so?

Stone Brewing CompanyFor starters, I find that many beer geeks seem to forget that Stone is first and foremost a business, and their fast paced growth, high demand, and recent brewery expansion, means more production. To meet all of this they need people onboard who understand what it takes to brew at the next level and have the skills to take Stone's beers and vision to that level. Mitch has well over 10 years of mega-production brewing experience at A-B, during which time he spent three years working as their New Products Brewmaster for the American Originals and Michelob Specialty beer lines. While working at the A-B Merrimack facility, he's had a role in the Bare Knuckle Stout release and the recent specialty beers brewed for originalbeers.com under the A-B Specialty Brewing Group.

To boot, anyone who knows him knows that his true passion is craft beer. He actually started his career in the craft-brewing world at San Andreas Brewing Co. in Hollister, CA, is an avid homebrewer, and has acted as the New England District President for the Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA). Mitch is also highly regarded within the craft beer world and has proven plenty of times that he can brew just as good, if not better, than any other craft brewer.

His hire by Stone simply makes sense, on many levels, and it's clearly a major win-win for Stone, Mitch and the craft beer industry.

I had chance to talk with Greg Koch (Chairman & CEO), Steve Wagner (President & Brewmaster) and Mitch Steele (new Head Brewer) to get the 411 on the hire and what it means for Stone.

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Greg KochGreg Koch: Chairman & CEO, Stone

Todd Alström: Man, this is AWESOME news for both of you.

Greg Koch: Yes! I agree.

First, the obvious ... yes, you'll probably get a lot of "Ah!!! The sky is falling!" reactions from loyal beers geeks who hate A-B. So let's address this. To them, what would you say to quell their thoughts, wipe their tears, and ensure they get a good night sleep?

Heh, heh. While I fully understand that the concept seems a bit much to get one's arms around at first, those that might have trouble sleeping should perhaps 1) enjoy a nice Stone Ruination IPA as that's always good waking up the "OK, the sky's probably not REALLY going to fall" brain waves while letting the more worrisome-minded waves get some needed rest, and 2) keep in mind that we're bringing on Mitch Steele, a great guy and a talented brewer, and we're not bringing on his former employer. (We didn't ask, and they didn't offer.)

Never mind the fact that Steve Wagner, my partner in starting Stone Brewing, has always been our Brewmaster here at Stone and will continue to be our Brewmaster here at Stone. And to boot, at Stone, oddly enough, we're all passionate Stone nuts! You think you're a fanatic about what we do? Try paying a visit ... you'll feel right at home. We're totally into what we do. Big time. Anybody that thinks that a single individual, or even a large teaming mob made up of the mediocrity-hungry masses, could get us to waiver even a modicum from our focus on our beers hasn't been paying very good attention over the last ten years!

Why Mitch Steele? We: 1) can guess that he brings large-scale brewing skills to your newly expanded empire, 2) know that he's a great guy, 3) know that he's passionate about craft beer as much as any other brewer, 4) has had a hand in developing many of A-B's specialty beers. But are there any other reasons?

1) When it comes to brewing recipes for our current lineup of beers, they're already written. Long time ago. When it comes to juggling all the moving parts, well that's a constantly moving target. Logistics, raw materials, supply chain, production scheduling, brewery management, technical management, trouble shooting, quality and consistency...those are all areas where Mitch is known to be a superhero.

2) You nailed it.

3) You nailed it again. He recently sent us one of his homebrew Double IPAs. It kicked serious ass. Normally I like to speak in more refined language, but those four words really fit that beer quite well.

4) Ummm. Well, not really. I have not spoken with Mitch specifically on this subject. I can only guess it was like the proverbial golf game with your boss. You hold back, not wanting to show off too much to your superior (in title only). Well, at Stone, if you hold back your game then you're wasting your time and our time. It's "A" game all the way here. No other way to play it.

Who contacted whom first?

We don't head hunt. If you want to work at Stone, you need to make the first move.

Some will view this hire as a big FU! to A-B. How do you view it?

I think that would be a bit silly. We hired Mitch because he's a great guy with lots of (latent) talent. We do not make any decisions based upon any other brewer's activities, and I don't imagine that any large brewers make decisions based upon what Stone does.

Do you feel this hire will in anyway impact A-B's current focus on craft beer?

Couldn't guess.

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Steve WagnerSteve Wagner: President & Brewmaster, Stone

Indirectly, Greg brings up a great point. In the past, most beer geeks latched onto former Stone Head Brewer, Lee Chase, not realizing that Steve Wagner is Stone's Brewmaster and responsible for all of Stone's production. Understandable, as Steve seems to be a mellow and quiet guy, but that's simply because he's busy running a company and ensuring that we Stone beer lovers are happy.

Todd Alström: Tell us a bit about your role in the brewery as Stone's Brewmaster.

Steve Wagner: I got into this whole mess because of my love of beer: making it, drinking it, baptizing the kids with it, etc. Nothing has changed on that end, I'm still intimately involved with every beer we make, they have to pass muster with me before they go into production and are released, and I'm extremely proud of every beer with the Stone name on it. As a matter of fact, I'm one of several people on our brewing team who are brewing pilot batches of prospective Stone 10th Anniversary recipes. It's a little internal competition we have to see who can come up with the best idea and beer. (I'd like to apologize in advance to my fellow brewers for the impending hop shortage that will hit this summer, but hey, it's our 10th Anniversary!)

What did you look for when you sought out to hire a new head brewer?

When deciding on how to search for a new head brewer, I looked at our staff including myself and realized we have the expertise to do what we're doing now, at this level. But we know we're going to continue to grow, so we decided to look for someone who understood and appreciated our beers and what makes us unique, but could teach us about how to brew on a larger scale; About how to keep the character and personality of our beers while making more of them; About how to improve the consistency of our beers from batch to batch, how to improve the shelf life, how to reduce our impact on the environment and, well, you get the idea. When conducting this search we realized there was a very small pool of candidates who had larger scale experience and knowledge, but still had serious passion for and understanding of what we, as craft brewers, do. In fact it wasn't so much a pool as a puddle and Mitch was the only one standing in it! We're extremely honored and excited to have him join our team.

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Mitch SteeleMitch Steele: new Head Brewer, Stone

Todd Alström: Why leave A-B? Especially given A-B's new focus on craft beers with campaigns like originalbeers.com, and your role in developing them as part of the A-B Specialty Brewing Group.

Mitch Steele: I've had a great career at A-B. I've had a chance to do some real fun projects, and this latest regional beer project was very fun. The IPA was a beer I thought would have been great for A-B's portfolio for a long time, and I'm glad our team had a chance to put this great beer together.

But my roots are in craft brewing, and that's where my true passion has always been. When I saw the job opening at Stone, I couldn't think of a more exciting place to brew beer. And, at Stone, I'm going to be working for and with people who have such great passion for craft brewing. They believe in it, and they live it. I don't think there's a better place for me to be.

How the hell did you get a job with Stone Brewing Co.?!

They posted an ad on the Brewers Association Beer Forum. As soon as I saw who had posted it, I sent a resume, and we started talking. The more I talked with Steve and Greg, the more convinced I became that it was the right thing for me, and hopefully, for Stone.

Are you ready to brew at Stone Brewing Co.?

I can't wait!

Besides a paycheck and god-like status amongst beer geeks that you'll literally be able to bathe in, what do you hope to achieve personally and professionally while at Stone Brewing Co.?

I want to have fun making beer, I want to learn, and I want to help Steve and Greg continue growing the company. I'm hoping to put the professional skills I've developed in over the past 20 years to good use at Stone Brewing Co.

I'm so excited to be with a company that's growing like Stone is. It presents a new set of challenges for me, and it will be great to work in an environment where the beer is never compromised.

If you could brew an "original beer" for Stone right now, what would it be?

It probably won't have rice in it!

You know me, I like 'em hoppy! I also like the complexity of Belgian beers, and I like big beers. Stone Brewing Co. has a great portfolio already, the brewers here at Stone have a lot of great ideas for new beers, and I'm looking forward to working with the whole team on developing new special releases.

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Thanks for taking the time guys, and congrats on the hire! BeerAdvocate wishes you nothing but success!

For more information on Stone Brewing Company: www.stonebrew.com

Stone's 10 Anniversary Celebration & Invitational Beer Fest is being held on September 9, 2006, and will also be the launch of our 10 Years of BeerAdvocacy Tour. More details to follow ...

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