It appears Stone Brewing Co. has little chance of gathering any moss. The Escondido, Calif.-based brewing operation continues to roll larger every year — especially in the last three. In 2011, Stone announced plans for an enormous $24 million expansion, which included a new restaurant and brewery in Point Loma, Calif., enlarging its Escondido brewery to a 400,000-to-500,000 barrels (bbls) per year capacity and an 18.7-acre organic farm to supply produce to its current and future restaurants. That’s just for starters folks.
Currently, Stone is working on its second farm-to-table restaurant, Stone World Bistro & Gardens — Liberty Station, the Stone Packaging Hall (ready to launch this year), the Stone Brewing Co. bar and eatery currently being installed in Terminal 2 of the San Diego International Airport and the Stone Hotel and Headquarters (which is still on the horizon). The company has been averaging 43 percent year-to-year growth over the past 15 years, making it the 10th largest craft brewery in the United States in 2012. Most of that growth is fueled by Stone’s impressive portfolio of craft beer, which is currently distributed to 37 states, plus Washington, D.C., as well as exported to the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan and Singapore.
When it comes to planning, making and creating beer, brewmaster Mitch Steele has his hands in all of Stone’s bold craft creations, working beneath president, original brewmaster and co-founder Steve Wagner. Back in 2006, Stone wisely hired Steele from Anheuser-Busch; he was assistant brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch’s Merrimack, N.H., facility. Steele has well over 10 years of mega-production brewing experience and 14 years of craft brewing experience, making him uniquely qualified to guide Stone to the next level of high-production craft beer
With so much in the works, we called on Steele to answer a few questions about working at Stone, his past at Anheuser-Busch and one of Stone’s most popular year-round releases — Stone Levitation Ale — for our Beer of the Month column, which focuses on amber ales in March. Off we go.
Craft Brewing Business: Mitch, thanks for taking the time. We know you’re an extremely busy man. We also know you spent a great deal of time working at Anheuser-Busch. After more than 25 years in the brewing industry, what have you learned or maybe unlearned moving from Anheuser-Busch to Stone? What do you love about craft beer that you couldn’t find at a bigger brewing company?
Steele: Two things stand out in making the move from Anheuser-Busch back to craft brewing. One is that the craft brewing business culture is so different. It’s very much driven by the brewers, the beer itself and innovations in brewing and in beer flavor through the use of unusual ingredients, new hop varieties or different processes. It’s a lot different than working at a large brewing corporation brewing several different versions of what is, basically, the same beer style, then using marketing to target specific audiences with each beer. Secondly, I really enjoy the ability to develop and brew beers that we enjoy drinking ourselves that push boundaries
CBB: Is the job that different from a big Anheuser-Busch brewery?
Steele: The mechanics of the job are very similar, in that in running a brewery you have to make sure that you have ingredients and brewing schedules all lined up so that the team is brewing and packaging the right beer at the right time. The key elements of running a successful brewery are not that different. In many ways you have to be more resourceful in a craft brewing environment because the technical resources and expertise aren’t always there like they were at Anheuser-Busch. I am enjoying the challenge of trying to figure things out for ourselves as opposed to relying on corporate brewing guidelines.
CBB: What advice would you give to other brewers when considering a similar move?
Steele: As far as making the change from a large brewery to a small brewery, first, if you don’t have the overwhelming passion for craft beer, don’t bother. You will have to learn how to do things on your own with industry support, instead of people, corporations or sales telling you how you are going to do things. If you aren’t creative, willing to take risks and enjoy working through challenges, it may not be a good move.
CBB: Arrogant Bastard Ale is probably Stone’s most famous brand, but Stone Levitation Ale might be its most approachable. Can you tell us a little about your great amber ale?
Steele: With Stone Levitation Ale, we wanted to create something with the same flavor impact you would expect from a Stone beer, but with lower alcohol content. Stone Levitation Ale is our American amber ale. It was first brewed in September of 2002 and has an ABV of 4.4 percent. Stone Levitation Ale is one of our year-round releases and comes in 12-ounce bottles, six packs and on draft. We brew between 7,000 and 8,000 bbls of Stone Levitation Ale a year.
CBB: How many awards has it won?
CBB: Can you share some of the main ingredients that give Levitation Ale its big character?
Steele: Our hop profile includes Columbus, Amarillo and Crystal. It’s dry hopped with Amarillo. Our malt profile uses North American two-row pale, crystal and a touch of black malt to add to the red hues and provide very subtle roasted malt flavors. We use our own proprietary ale yeast strain that we’ve used since Stone began brewing.
CBB: What advice would you give an up-and-coming craft brewer when considering how to brew and sell an amber ale product?
Steele: Strive for balance in malt sweetness, hop bitterness and hop flavors. Watch out for brewing a beer that ends up too sweet. Crystal malts can be overused and can result in a cloyingly sweet beer. Brewing a beer that tastes good is the first step. You also have to incorporate a good hop profile and provide something that is different than what is already offered in the marketplace.
CBB: Back in 2006, Stone Brewing was producing 49,883 bbls per year. In 2013, the brewery is projecting over 210,000 bbls for the year. How are you and your crews dealing with such aggressive growth — a 19 percent increase from last year alone? What insights can you share about managing such growing in the brewing process?
Steele: Trying to stay ahead of our growth curve is my major focus. It involves growing the infrastructure of the company as we grow, adding staff and equipment in brewing, packaging, QA and engineering and making sure that we work closely with sales to understand our sales projections. Ingredient management is a huge part of this effort as well. We don’t want to run out of the hops or malt we use in our core brands. Brewing and packaging equipment typically have long lead times, and we need to build project plans far in advance of our need in order to ensure that we will have space, money and time to purchase and implement the operation of the new equipment before brewing capacity becomes a concern.