There has long been a battle between the large breweries of the world and the smaller craft entities. At stake is millions of dollars and what Anheuser-Busch has called “share of throat.”
As beer has become more broad in its style and flavor offerings and many drinkers have embraced hop-forward ales and lagers, breweries of all sizes have worked hard to keep the competitive edge sharp.
On this episode of the Brewer to Brewer Podcast Shaun O’Sullivan of the 21st Amendment Brewery interviews Mitch Steele of New Realm Brewing.
Steele is a long-time and well respected brewmaster. In the craft beer space he is likely best known for his time at Stone Brewing and as the author of IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale (Brewers Publications, 2013).
In this conversation he talks about his early years in brewing, working for Anheuser-Busch at the dawn of craft beer and the movements made inside of the large brewery to address and combat the upstarts. This includes the creation of Pacific Ridge, a cloned pale ale specifically designed to compete with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Budweiser, Bud Light, IPA
Mitch Steele: Anheuser Busch had a 10 barrel pilot system. And we were given one slot a week to brew a batch of beer. We had marching orders from the marketing department. And that was how Anheuser-Busch worked. Anything that was a brewers idea never even got off the ground. But if you were a marketing [person] or say you’re running the specialty brewing group on the marketing side, which was what it was called back, then you fed the brewers, the ideas. Then the Brewers executed it.
If somebody said, “hey, we want a beer that’s kind of like this”, or “has this alcohol content” or whatever the case was, and usually, it was pretty loosey goosey the direction we got, unless it was to specifically brew something like somebody else was already doing. We would come up with a recipe and we would review it with a person who managed the pilot brewery.
We tried to make an IPA and it was 65 IBUs. And it had Columbus and Cascade hops in it. And it was absolutely marvelous. And somehow, I got people convinced that we should serve this beer at the Great American Beer Festival in 1997 or 1998. We had this lineup of Budweiser and Bud Light and all this other stuff. And then we have this IPA. And there people were lined up for this beer. It was cool.
I was like, “Oh my God, this means we’re going to be able to go back to St. Louis and brew an IPA as part of this special specialty brewing group.”
And that didn’t happen. I went into a meeting and I started saying, “Hey, what are we going to do about this IPA?” And the response? I just got crickets.
Finally somebody said, “we’re not going to do anything with this. “And I’m like, “What are you talking about? What are you talking about? This beer was a huge hit. This could give us instant credibility.”
A lot of what we were doing was trying to get Anheuser-Busch credibility, because craft brewers at the time, really didn’t respect Anheuser Busch. There were people that understood it but the whole marketing side and sales side of things with Anheuser-Busch created a lot of bad, bad will.
I’m sitting in this meeting, and I’m just confused as all get out. I didn’t understand why were weren’t talking about htis this beer. And finally, one person told me: “you know, we’re not trying to grow this category. We don’t want this category to keep growing. We’re in it because we need to compete and be competitive. But we don’t want to be a the company that actually grows this category.”
I was so deflated, I was so bad. That was when the mask came off.
Taking on Pale Ale
Shaun O’Sullivan: Did you come up with Pacific Ridge? Was that your baby?
Mitch Steele: Unfortunately. Yeah. I will tell you that [the beer] was another thing that really, really made me want to get out of [Anheuser-Busch]. This whole idea that we had to clone somebody else’s beer to be competitive? I love Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I still do. I drink it all the time. I was really conflicted with that whole project. And I thought it was bordering unethical.
When I started saying stuff about it, I pretty quickly got told to zip my lips.
I went into that whole project saying, let’s just do the best freakin pale ale we can, bro. And Sierra Nevada is a great inspiration, a great model for that, but I wasn’t looking to copy Sierra Nevada. But in the end, that’s where the direction went with that beer.
A few years ago, I was sitting down with Steve Wagner (of Stone Brewing) and Ken Grossman (of Sierra Nevada) having lunch at a Craft Brewers Conference and Ken said “Hey, let’s talk about Pacific Ridge.”
You know what, I apologized to him because I never wanted to be at a brewery or that brewer brewer that copied anybody else’s beer.
I learned a heck of a lot about brewing pale ales through that whole process, which was great. But there were some other projects like that, that I just really felt very uneasy about.
I know that’s kind of corporate culture, but I didn’t want any part of it.
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The above transcript was condensed and edited for clarity.