Mitch Steele: The Godfather of the IPA

Mitch Steele Stone Brewing Company
Mitch Steele, Head Brewer at Stone Brewing Company. Photo Credit: Stone Brewing Company
Mitch Steele Stone Brewing Company
Mitch Steele, Head Brewer at Stone Brewing Company. Photo Credit: Stone Brewing Company

A person’s job can be highly unpleasant if they don’t enjoy their fellow employees. For Mitch Steele, the head brewer for Stone Brewing Company, it couldn’t have been more important.

Although Steele had spent many years as a brewer and had a strong knowledge of brewing when he was hired at Stone, he felt that with his experience it was imperative that he earned his fellow employees trust from day one.

See, Steele hadn’t learned how to brew coming up through the ranks of smaller craft breweries. Instead, when Steele decided he wanted to get into brewing full time, he took a job in Colorado with Anheuser-Busch (AB). And, though he learned a lot, he knew coming back to craft beer — his one true passion — he would still have to prove himself.

“I spent 14 years at Anheuser-Busch,” said Steele. “I did new products for a little bit, which was kind of fun. Basically I was the brewing manager at several different breweries for AB, and then I joined Stone in 2006 and it’s been a crazy ride.”

On the first day, walking into Stone, Steele said, “I was nervous, there’s no doubt about that. I wanted to make sure that the team knew what I was all about pretty early on. I didn’t want to come in and start making changes because I didn’t see a need to do that. The beers they were making here were really good and they had a really talented group.”

Steele told the team at Stone that his focus was to learn how they operated and then make the processes a little easier. “I certainly didn’t come in with any expectations of having to revamp things, that wasn’t necessary,” he said. “It was a fun transition, a challenge for me, which was something I was probably looking for at the time. It got me back into a situation of brewing beers that I really love to drink, and that’s always a nice thing.”

Stone Brewing Company
Photo Credit: Stone Brewing Company

When Steele started at Stone, it wasn’t quite the brewing company that it is today. “When I first got here there were less than 100 team members,” he said. “I think we were at about 80 and now we are pushing 700 or so. The growth has been exponential.”

In 2006, when Steele started everyone that worked at Stone was located in one building. Now, only the people — the brewers — that have to work in the building are in the brew house. “We have three facilities that we are running the business out of, which is kind of different and certainly wasn’t expected,” explained Steele. “We ran out of room very quickly in building that we built in 2005.

“On the other hand, on the brewing side, we’ve just grown tremendously. In 2006 we did 48,000 barrels, last year we did 177,000 barrels and we are looking at 215,000 barrels this year (2013). So, we are growing tremendously which means we’ve had to revamp the way we’ve done some things and look at the way the brewery is design. We actually put up a new building next door, it’s a packaging hall, so we moved our bottling line down there and our brite tanks down there. We’re still moving into that building but it’s freed up a lot of space at the main building for more fermenters, which we were in desperate need of.”

Over the years Stone has transformed from a small “mom and pop” brewery to one of the largest craft breweries in America. And, with each large company, it has to put its stamp on one thing. For Stone, it decided to put its stamp on the IPA, which is what Steele will be speaking about at the University of Kentucky Symposium in February.

“The Brewers Association approached us about writing [IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes, and the Evolution of India Pale Ale], and we’re pretty known for being IPA brewers,” said Steele. “Stone IPA is our best selling beer, we have a lot of fun brewing IPAs. Almost every year we do some sort IPA for our anniversary beer, which I think is a ton of fun. Also we came out with the ‘Enjoy By IPA’ a little more than a year ago, and that beer which has the shortest code length of any beer out there. It’s all about making sure that people understand that drinking an IPA fresh is a totally different experience, and a better experience, than one that’s been sitting around for six months.”

According the Steele, the first thing to fade in an IPA is the hop character. “We just wanted to have a kick ass IPA people weren’t going to ever have to drink when it was past its prime,” he said. “Apart from formulating the beer, which was a lot of fun for me, the logistics of making this beer work is a real challenge. We work directly with our wholesalers and retailers to make sure they understand that when that beer is coming into their market they need to move it and it needs to be off the shelves in 35 days or whatever the code length is by the time they get it.

“So far it’s been a great success. It’s a fun beer and we really like how the beer came out.”

Stone Brewing Company
Photo Credit: Stone Brewing Company

Like other brewers Stone ensures that retailers receive the code length of each beer they distribute, so that the consumer has that fresh taste in each beer. However, Steele believes that a lot of people, if they don’t receive direct instructions to remove the beer after the code length expires, will let it sit on a shelf longer than Stone desires.

This understanding that bothers Steele was a certain aspect that helped him to pursue the book. The research that went into its writing included several travels to Europe and other states throughout the U.S. to learn more about the IPA’s heritage.

If you haven’t had a chance to truly learn why you actually love a quality IPA, find time to pick up the book, or come see Steele live at the University of Kentucky to hear him discuss the history and evolution of a great tasting beer style — the IPA.



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