The Decidedly Traditional Modern Brewer: Stephan Michel of Mahr’s Bräu
Greg Koch isn’t always nice about German brewing, but he makes an exception for Stephan Michel. “He’s a great voice for brewing in Germany,” says the Stone Brewing CEO of the owner of Mahr’s Bräu in Bamberg, Franconia. “He’s extremely knowledgeable and connected. I love Bamberg and his awesome brewery.”
But then Michel is different. Chosen this year by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. as collaborator on the annual Oktoberfest lager, the 45-year-old stands apart even in Franconia, where traditional brewing—and therefore good beer—is still strong. This is Germany’s self-styled rock and roll brewer, a man who can appear in lederhosen for an advert promoting the Reinheitsgebot but also be pals with beer luminaries like Koch and Logan Plant of London’s Beavertown.
“I am Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!” he admits, laughing. “I have the traditional thing and then I have the rock and roll thing on the other side.” Mahr’s Bräu, which is imported into the U.S. by Shelton Brothers, is very traditional: the brewery focuses on two beers, the dark amber Ungespundet (Unbunged, meaning much of the carbon dioxide has been allowed to escape during fermentation, often referred to simply as U) and pale Hell (although others are brewed), while the Wirtshaus, the inn that’s attached to the brewery, is uber-Franconian, boasting long tables and dark wood paneling.
But then there are the snappily-designed t-shirts and rockabilly concerts at the brewery, the 250-mL bottles (“Everybody said: ‘Are you crazy? We need 500-mL!’”) and the suggestion that he might soon start canning his beers. “Logan started with bottles and now he’s using cans and he’s blowing up,” he says. “Why not? People say it’s not good but you can pour it in a glass. It’s easier to recycle. No-one can break it.”
He doesn’t have such fondness for all aspects of modern brewing. Like many of those steeped in tradition (Michel studied brewing at Doemens Academy in Munich), he regards some of the new homebrewers-turned-brewers with suspicion. “It took me eight years to become a brewmaster,” he says. “I had someone come up to me at a beer festival in the U.S. ‘Hey, we’re both brewers!’ I say: ‘Where’s your experience? What do you do when you have this and this problem?’ I’m a little scared that our culture of experience and knowledge is at risk. There’s so much crap out there.”
Michel took over full control of the brewery this year from his father, but he has been the public face since 2009. Production has almost doubled in that time, from 10,500 hectoliters to 20,000, growth that Michel attributes to the focus on just two brands—and brewing beer for women. “My focus is not the guys,” he says. “With a woman, she decides in one sip if she’ll drink more. The guys will drink whatever. We have a lot of young women coming here to drink beer.”
He hasn’t always been so committed to the family business. In his youth he traveled in search of surf, from Biarritz on the French Atlantic coast to California. “There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” he says. “It wasn’t my dream job—I wanted to be a graphic designer. No chance! It was my rebel time, I smoked weed, got a motorhome and took off for three months to Biarritz. All that stuff.”
His philosophy still bears the impact of those freewheeling times, in his concern for environmental issues. The food served at Mahr’s Bräu (some of the best in Bamberg, by the way) is all traceable. “I have a farmer who breeds the pigs, I get beef only from the local area, the bread is local,” he says. “I want to be more transparent, so that people can see where the stuff is from.”
Michel’s blending of tradition and modernity might seem odd when viewed from afar, but it’s a very German approach—and it works. It’s a vision of the future that doesn’t revolve around fruit-flavored IPAs. “People want old-school and tradition,” he says. “Why change anything? I’m fourth-generation. Why change our pub? To make it modern? A lot of younger beer fans love the tradition. They love to go in an old-school pub. We have everything we need here. It’s nice.”
Which brings us back to Koch and his new brewery in Berlin. “I think he needs help for the stuff he wants to do in Germany,” Michel says. “I think he thought it would be way easier! It’s good for him to be close to Scandinavia, but I think [he’ll find it] hard to sell his beer in Germany. We have 5 [million] craft beer fans out of 81 [million] people living here—it’s a tough market.”
A bit like the U.S., although working with Sierra Nevada is good news. “That will help us,” admits Michel. Not that a man with his marketing skills needs too much help.
Will Hawkes is the author of the forthcoming Liquid Education: Beer, a guide to the constantly evolving world of malt and hops.