On May 24, 2006, I belatedly picked up on the story that brewer Mitch Steele had walked away from Anheuser-Busch for a job at Stone Brewing Company:
From the empire of wet air to the arrogant bastard's lair.
… there began a correspondence that eventually led to something earthshaking: A guest appearance at a FOSSILS club meeting by the Anheuser-Busch brewmaster who had been placed in charge of the mockrobrewing program by virtue of his previous experience in the microbrewing segment.
He brought A-B mockrobrews to Rich O’s for all to taste, unflinchingly endured the inevitable grilling, answered questions about his take on the eternal conflict between art and commerce, and earned respect from those in attendance even if most continued to nurse contempt for his employer.
The brewmaster was Mitch Steele.
Today, during the course of compiling content for the NABC web site (yes, it's finally undergoing a long overdue and complete revamping), I happily unearthed a few stray zip discs and found my account of Mitch Steele’s visit to Rich O’s Public House for the FOSSILS meeting.
It all happened on November 8, 1998.
"Mitch Steele: A great guy doesn't make a great multi-national corporation."
It shouldn’t be a problem.
There would be plenty of time before the FOSSILS meeting began to run over to Bluegrass Brewing Company with Syd and Cory Lewison. Our guest speaker, Mitch Steele of Anheuser-Busch, had said he would be there, and it would be a good chance to get to know him better in a more relaxed setting.
Predictably, it turned out to be a little too relaxed, a feeling probably exacerbated by the divinely inspired presence on tap of Bearded Pat’s Barley Wine. Three Wort Hog mugs later, we managed to get out of the BBC parking lot with only ten minutes to spare before meeting time.
It was a simple matter to rationalize being late: "Shucks, hardly anyone ever comes on time to a meeting." Everyone knows that a 6:00 p.m. start means that we’re lucky to get going by seven.
With Cory behind the wheel, we roared into the parking lot at Rich O’s by 6:03. To my amazement, people were lined up on both sides of the entrance glaring at the locked front door. Cory and Biscuit had to go behind the bar to satisfy the demand for beer prior to the start of Mitch’s tasting. It was a madhouse.
As it turned out, Mitch Steele’s appearance at the November 8 FOSSILS meeting drew the largest crowd we’ve ever had at a regular FOSSILS meeting at Rich O’s: 75 people. The seven cases of beer he brought were gone quickly. The November 8 meeting produced the year’s biggest raffle prior to the Christmas party, and by executive decree, the raffle provided the heaven-sent opportunity to dispose of the garish red Anheuser-Busch blazer that Michael Truitt donated so long ago.
Many in attendance were anticipating a showdown between myself (billed as the purist in the white hat) and Mitch (the suave representative of the dreaded swillocracy). They were destined to be disappointed. From the beginning, it was not my intention to participate in the question and answer session. Given the sheer number of people crammed into the place, the need to serve as beer steward, and the lingering after effects of the BBC visit, I probably couldn’t have even if I’d wanted to.
What I hoped would occur would be FOSSILS members asking plenty of good questions, and this happily was the case.
We learned of Mitch’s educational background at UC-Davis. We listened as he defended A-B’s foreign policy in the Czech Republic. We were told of the demise of the American Originals line, of Mitch’s new job in the St. Louis brewing plant, and of how he keeps good beer in his refrigerator along with a six-pack of Budweiser. Why? Until he moved to St. Louis, he never really understood the heat and humidity of the American Midwest, and how good Bud is to quench the thirst it brings on.
In short, we witnessed an amazing, courageous attempt at the squaring of a circle. Mitch’s credentials as a lover of good beer were presented, questioned, and ultimately accepted with few reservations by those in attendance.
At the same time, Mitch attempted to portray Anheuser-Busch as an employer that is itself not incompatible with good beer, and thus not incompatible with the good taste in good beer of someone like Mitch Steele.
We may have appreciated Mitch’s efforts, but I think few of us are willing to let A-B off the hook quite so easily.
Mitch brought a case each of seven different beers to the meeting. The first four were commercial releases, and the last three were from experimental batches brewed in-house.
The first four:
Michelob Hefe-Weizen. A forgettable American wheat ale that shouldn’t bear the name of a German style that implies so much more than the Michelob version is designed to deliver.
Pacific Ridge (available only in California.) Everything about it screams the intent for it to be a mild American-style pale ale somewhere in the Sierra Nevada ballpark, but it’s not anywhere near home plate. In this case, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Michelob Porter. Another limited distribution Michelob specialty, and perhaps the best of the commercially released bunch. It was entered into the FOSSILS homebrewed porter contest as a ringer, and came away the winner. It wouldn’t be a bad, inexpensive 6-pack in the absence of other, bolder choices.
Winter Brew. An all-malt lager with slightly less than 6% abv. It reminded me of a Dortmunder or export style, and in my ideal brewing world, a beer like this would be the everyday lager, not a seasonal exception to the rice-choked norm. In the world of A-B, it is promoted as a winter specialty.
The final three beers sampled were German-style wheats: Hefeweizen, Dunkel Hefeweizen, and Weizenbock. All were experiments stemming from the Crossroads Hefeweizen that A-B did several years back. All were brewed to style with German wheat yeast. None is likely to see the light of day as an official A-B release, for as Mitch informed us, every effort on the part of his employer to brew something bigger and more interesting has failed to endure one or another test, either internally (within A-B) or externally (the market).
Why? Reading between the lines, Mitch’s testimony admittedly softened my traditional view of A-B as a monolithic entity. It would appear that there are factions at A-B just like there are anywhere else. Some decision-makers in the company want to go into mockrobrews in a big way, while others want to stick with the bread and butter profitability of mass-market swill. When the company has experimented with different products, some have been left alone to be as Mitch and his compatriots have intended, while others have been disfigured by the interference of marketing geniuses. Listening to Mitch, I was left with the impression that not every A-B employee is on the same page at all times.
As for Mitch himself, there can be little doubt that in most significant respects, he is "one of us." It may be true that he’s not a fan of Belgian ales (that infamous UC-Davis training in "balance" peeking through?), but he can be forgiven for that. If I can get him to Belgium some day, he’ll understand. In the meantime, he knows beer, and he likes good beer.
This brings us back to the squaring of the circle, and one of the toughest of eternal questions: How are we to feel about those men of seeming good faith who do work to which we are philosophically opposed?
Make no mistake about it. Mitch works for a company that by virtually every objective standard is the antithesis of all that we as FOSSILS strive to achieve. I’m certain he would argue this point; he’s a good company man, and he understands who signs the checks, but there are some aspects of A-B’s position in our society that are too obvious even for a company man to ignore.
For instance, Mitch has said on more than one occasion that lovers of good beer shouldn’t disparage the choice of the common fellow, who buys the beers that he knows he likes: Bud, Miller, Milwaukee’s Best, and so on.
What Mitch ignores, and what makes A-B (and other corporations like it) our enemy, is that through its size and its financial clout, A-B is able to influence the common fellow’s likes and dislikes in myriad ways that are designed to subvert, not enhance, freedom of choice. A-B can do this through pervasive saturation advertising, and it can do it by strong-arm tactics like seeking to influence the business decisions of its distributors with regard to what they distribute. The aim is to convince the consumer that there is only one choice, and this is repugnant.
Contrast this with the goal of FOSSILS and others like us, which is to educate the consumer and to place the consumer in a position of control, not in a position of susceptibility to mass-market persuasion.
When the last pint has been drained, this saga comes down to money. Money is as much of an answer to the conundrum as we’re likely to get, although it certainly isn’t the only one. It would be easy to say that Mitch is in it for the money -- that if he could get the same money at a micro as he gets at A-B, he’d be doing that instead.
It’s more complicated than that.
What is your chosen profession, and what is your view of what constitutes the pinnacle of your chosen profession? Salary and compensation figure large in any such assessment, yet so do intangibles that have to do with perceptions, self-image and professional pride.
Playing in big league baseball is one thing; playing big league baseball for a storied franchise like the New York Yankees is another. There is a mystique and an aura about the Yankees. As the flip side, there is also enmity on the part of those who are not fans of the Yankees – those who are on the outside. Who bothers to "hate" the Montreal Expos? What would it prove? But millions "hate" the Yankees, and this merely reinforces the club’s mystique in the minds of those who’ve wanted to believe it in the first place.
The fact that the pay is good is icing on the cake.
Mitch Steele knows and loves beer. He has gone to school to learn how to brew beer, he has served his apprenticeship in the minors, and he has worked his way to what he undoubtedly considers to be the top of his profession: Anheuser-Busch, the New York Yankees of the brewing world. It’s the best money, but it’s also the best equipment, the best resources, and the most powerful support apparatus. It’s the chance to devote his talents to the pursuit of "pure" brewing science at the world’s most proficient brewing academy.
If Mitch Steele, beer lover, has indeed made a deal with the devil, at least it’s a devil he knows. We can’t fault him for doing the best he can to support his family, and pursuing his profession to what he considers to be its pinnacle.
At the same time, here’s to the hope that we haven’t lost him forever, that some day he is awakened to the reality that his professional skills are being given over to an advanced technical proficiency that by definition threatens to obliterate the spiritual and artistic natures of his field of endeavor.
Hey, Mitch: It’s never too late. C’mon over to our side.
Photo credit: Stone Brewing Co.