Pull Up A Stool with Brett McCrea
Co-founder of 16 Mile Brewery
Brett McCrea and Chad Campbell founded 16 Mile Brewery in 2009 in Georgetown, DE, a town in the geographic center of the state said to be 16 miles from anywhere. The brewery is sited in a 120 year-old barn on land owned by McCrea’s family.
AAB: This has been a homecoming for both of you.
BMc: That’s correct. Basically, I grew up in a house that’s 300 yards from here. I went to undergraduate in Maryland, and graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. After that, I worked for the federal government for 10 years. I moved back to help my father. Chad also grew up in Georgetown, but I didn’t really know him: we went to the same high school and the same college, although he likes to remind me that I am precisely four years older than he is!
I assume you have to remind him, then, that he was the one looking up to you.
BMc: I’ve never said that, but now I will! We wanted to open up a business in our hometown, because, if you had to put a melting pot together, it’s unique. It’s very small, but arguably the third most powerful court in the United States is a mile up the street.
Really? What is it?
BMc: It’s the Court of Chancery. If you look them up, a lot of the Fortune 500 are incorporated in Delaware, so a lot of the business court decisions are made here. Michael Eisner got sued here, things like that. So there’s prominent judges there, chancellors and vice chancellors. Some of them come here to have a drink, sitting next to dirt farmers. It’s a unique mix of people who come through.
I noticed your connection to Georgetown plays out in the names of your beers.
BMc: To be honest, this company really sucks at naming things. It took an act of God to come up with the name of the brewery. The name 16 Mile is a localism, because Georgetown is said to be 16 miles from anywhere. The town was formed after farmers from the western part of the county petitioned the general assembly to move the county seat from Lewes to somewhere more central. There’s a circle in the middle of Georgetown, and they took an azimuth from there and drew a big circle, and so it would be roughly 16 miles—about a day’s horse ride—from anyplace in the county. That’s how we got the name of the brewery.
Our beers are mostly named for state or local icons. If you look on the label of Blues’ Golden Ale, you’ll see the Delaware Blues Revolutionary War Regiment. It’s a very proud history: they fought in every major battle. They were decimated, because they were known for close-in fighting. That statute on the label is in front of the Legislative Hall in Dover.
Another one is Amber Sun, an amber ale named after our sunsets. There’s really only one place you can see sunset over water in Delaware, and it’s at the Breakwater Lewes Lighthouse.
Old Court is named for the original courthouse in Georgetown. We’re real proud of it, because that’s the beer that made Roger Protz’ new book 300 More Beers to Try Before You Die.
We have nearly 2,400 breweries in this country. How will 16 Mile stand out?
BMc: It’s the reintroduction of the session-based beer. The craft industry by and large has been almost a reflexive movement away from the national brands, understandably so. The further away from them they could get, the better. What you saw was a lot of high-alcohol, highly hopped beers. I’m not knocking anybody, but if you look at the top 50 beers on BeerAdvocate, very few of them are below 7 percent alcohol. There’s this notion that to be the greatest, there has to be an extreme associated with it.
I’ve lived in England and Germany, and Czechoslovakia (when there was one), and Belgium—places where they make good beer. I’ve always had an affinity for English beers because they do so much with low alcohol. We do English-style beers with an American craft twist, so there’s a bit more alcohol than a traditional English beer.
I feel the pendulum is swinging back to session, with a lot of indications in the market. Pete Slosberg, one of the founders of the craft beer movement, opened up Mavericks [line of beers], and most of the beers in their portfolio are below 4 percent alcohol. You’re starting to see the industry titans shifting, and I think that’s where the future of beer is. We feel it’s the simplicity of what we do that makes it great.
I understand you have an unusual collaboration with an English brewery.
BMc: That’s right, our Heraldry series with Copper Dragon in Yorkshire. We came up with this notion of a collaboration with an English brewer, based on events in English history. We started building beers around the stories.
The first one we came up with was the Waterloo brew. We took elements of that battle, and combined it into a beer. To reflect Wellington, we made an 8 percent strong English golden, along the lines of Golden Pride from Fullers. We took hops from the area the Prussian soldiers came from. We took a yeast strain from Belgium to represent Waterloo. Then for the coup de grâce, if you will, we took toasted French oak and soaked it in a case of Napoleon brandy, and put it all together. It came out very well.
What’s the process of collaboration?
BMc: We largely Skype with them. There’s a renaissance in England in craft beer, and what we do is bring the American component to their beers. They wanted to do a beer for Saint George, the patron saint of England. You know on the British flag, the cross in the middle is red? They asked us “We know you do an amber beer. Would you mind giving us the recipe?” They made it and released it in England.
And for us, the real coup, they gave us a recipe for Russian imperial stout with a pedigree back to the time of Catherine the Great. It’s a powerful beer.
That beer will be the base of the next Heraldry beer, which will be the meeting at Yalta. FDR was a big fan of bourbon, so we’re going to soak humidor-quality wood in bourbon, to signify Churchill’s cigar. Then, we may end up using an English hop—although Russian imperial stout is already an English beer.
We just released Made in the Shade, after the Scottish Black Watch, a very famous military unit in Scotland. We made a black IPA, we called it Made in the Shade, because they largely served in the shadow of the British Army, and we added English oak soaked in a case of 12 year-old Scotch.
The beers have been very well received. We don’t pilot-brew them, but we have a beer infusion tube that we’re able to use to test the combination of ingredients before we commit to a large batch. We’ve been working with BeerTubes.com to make a small infusion unit. We can suspend a small mesh bag that infuses an ingredient we want to test.
So you can avoid elements that might be jarring.
BMc: Everybody thinks, hey, bacon’s fantastic. Try it in beer. And this other notion, hey, what about Old Bay in beer? Naw, it’s horrible. So the infusion can solve a lot of misconceptions over what should be in beer. It’s how we can prototype these things.
We bring the idea of American experimentation with flavors, which you’re seeing a little in Britain. It’s a way we can use our experiences to assist them as they adapt to their market. Similarly, they give us insights into the tradition they have.
So you’re never brewing together at the same site. Your collaboration is information.
BMc: Right. All Skype and email on what we do and how we do things. Europe isn’t built on the collaborative traditions of American craft beer. Bringing that part of our tradition is something I believe will benefit everyone.
I understand you do have a restaurant, too.
BMc: We have a tavern here, but we have a new partnership in a restaurant called the 16 Mile Taphouse in Newark, DE. This particular location was the old Stone Balloon, which, since it’s right near the University of Delaware, has a legendary status. It was very well known in the eighties. Major heavyweight acts like Bruce Springsteen would come to this place. It wasn’t a matter of who had played at the Stone Balloon, it was who had not.
In addition to the Heraldry series, do you have other limited edition beers?
BMc: We do Collaboration Brews for a Good Cause. Delaware’s blessed with a solid cadre of chefs, some of which are James Beard finalists. Some have formed associations, like the Rehoboth Inspired Chefs Initiative. Those guys come in and we make beer with them and donate to their charities.
It used to be that wine bars were kind of the beginning of the wine evolution in the United States, and now it’s mainstreamed itself into restaurants. Beer is very similar. Beer started with outstanding beer bars like Blind Tiger or Monk’s, and what’s beginning to happen is craft is evolving into the mainstream of restaurants. We see restaurants as a critical component to the acceptance of craft beer.
We come from this area, and we try to celebrate that. If we’re blessed enough to sell all the beer in this area, we’ll be happy and content to stay where we are.