Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — Mitch Steele of New Realm Brewing Company

Atlanta's BeltLine has made a lot of headlines in recent years. While the 22 miles of former train tracks that are slowly being converted into a mixed-use trail were recently called "the path to transform Atlanta" by The New York Times, even the man who created the BeltLine as his Georgia Tech master's thesis has admitted to "a frustrating problem: the lack of progress on affordable housing along the project." And the thing is, they're both right.

Photos by Gregory Miller for GBH

Photos by Gregory Miller for GBH

The BeltLine is connecting neighborhoods in ways Georgia's capital has never seen before, and while it's not without its growing pains, the benefits for intown ATLiens are real. A picturesque half hour walk takes you from Piedmont Park in Midtown to Ponce City Market in the Old Fourth Ward. Go another half hour and you're having pizza at Ammazza. All the while, you've been walking over major thoroughfares, taking in exquisite views, perusing street art, and seeing dozens of fantastic dogs—all without an automobile or the maddening traffic that comes with it.

Breweries have taken notice, too. In the city's West End, beer makers like Monday Night Brewing, Banyan Roots Brewing Co., and Wild Heaven Craft Beers are all planning to set up shop, despite the fact that that section of the BeltLine doesn't even connect to the more highly populated eastside portion yet. Then again, this shouldn't surprise. If there's one thing we've learned about the way beer and community intermingle, it's that time and time again, breweries are a consistent, defining characteristic of thriving—and revitalizing—neighborhoods.

That eastside section, by the way? It's where Mitch Steele is about to start brewing. When Carey Falcone and Bob Powers—who each have more than 25 years' worth of beer experience at companies like Anheuser-Busch and Constellation Brands—set out to open a new craft brewery, they reached out to the former Stone brewmaster through mutual friends and former AB coworkers. Steele officially became New Realm Brewing Company's brewmaster on July 1 of last year. Since then, he's been dialing in IPAs and exploring Atlanta.

GBH sat down with him at Decatur's Brick Store Pub to find out why he left one of the world's most celebrated craft breweries, how he balances working 2,000 miles away from his family, and what he has in store for the Peach State beer community.


Your Stone departure was announced last summer, and the thing that struck me was, why leave Stone right as the True Craft thing is happening? What was the thinking?

There was absolutely no interplay there at all.

It seems like True Craft would’ve been an option for you to do your own thing, but you’re saying that wasn’t the case.

 

It’s hard to put into words why I thought it was the right thing to do, but when Bob [Powers, New Realm CCO and co-founder] and Carey [Falcone, New Realm CEO and co-founder] approached me about it, I was really excited about what they envisioned for it, what they wanted to do. And I’m the kind of person that likes to try new things every once in a while, just kind of stir up the pot. That’s really what this was about. I had been at Stone 10 years—had a great run there. Loved my time at Stone, loved the people at Stone. But it was just getting to the point where the idea of doing something a little different was exciting. So that’s really all it was.

You left with a plan, though. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna take a break and decide.” You were like, “This is what I’m going to do.”

I left Thursday, June 30 and started [working for New Realm] on Friday, July 1. There was no break to figure out what I wanted to do. These guys actually approached me back in the winter [of 2015], and we talked for several months before I committed to it.

How did they know that you were the guy that might be needing something new?

Well, Carey has a different story about that. He says I was on their short list. But we have mutual friends who were all at one time [working for] Anheuser-Busch, and those mutual friends hooked us up. That’s really how it happened.

Try and relive the moment where they told you it was going to be in Georgia. What was your reaction? You didn’t have too much experience here until recently.

When Carey and Bob approached me about this they hadn’t decided on Georgia yet. It was going to be in the Southeast. They were looking at North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia—sites all over. Carey is from the Atlanta area, so he found this building here that was just perfect for what we wanted to do. He called up and talked for about 45 minutes just telling me about this building that he had found, and it just sounded great. And when I started, first trip out, we walked through the building and I was like, “Yeah, this is going to be amazing.” 

I’ve lived here 12 years, and I still have people who think it’s weird that I write about Atlanta beer. Like, they’re surprised we have that culture here.

You know what, I think it is a great beer city. Places like here, the Brick Store Pub, all the restaurants that don’t serve anything but craft beer, and locally brewed craft beer. I have to admit I was a little surprised. It was a great surprise. I was like, “Atlanta, really?” I had flown through here a bunch, and when I was with Anheuser-Busch we had several trips to [AB’s Georgia facility an hour north of Atlanta in] Cartersville. And the Craft Brewers Conference was here in the 1990’s, so I had spent a little bit of time here. “This could be interesting,” that was my reaction. And then I was learning about the beer laws, and was like, “OK, this might be kinda tough.” But Carey had been talking with people for a long time and had a pretty good feeling that the laws were going to change.

I saw your blog post about all the different breweries you’ve visited. What did you learn and how will it inform what you’re doing?

That’s a good question. I think the one thing I’m seeing is that everything is fair game for most of these brewers. I mean, there are brewers that are doing great IPAs alongside great sours. And there really isn’t one style that is defining the Atlanta beer scene at this point, I don’t think. Certainly IPAs are the rage, like they are everywhere, but to me, what I take away from that is that it is wide open. If you go into San Diego and you don’t brew an IPA, you aren’t going to do well. Here, I mean, we are going to do IPAs, maybe that was a bad example as a beer style, but I think we can do anything, and as long as it’s good, people will accept it.

It’s very hard to sell a Pale Ale in San Diego right now. People are drinking IPAs, and so there are exceptions, but there is only one Pale Ale that is really doing anything in San Diego right now, and that’s .394 from AleSmith. And it’s a wonderful beer, but it’s very IPA-like. It’s a great beer, you know, but at Stone we had to discontinue our Pale Ale. Stone came out with a new one called Ripper that is very good and I understand it is doing very well. I shouldn’t say it’s very good, because I put it together before I left, but I understand it is doing very well. 

You started with Stone in 2006, so you’ve been doing IPAs now for more than 10 years. You wrote the book, you’re known for this style. But a decade later, it’s kind of insane. It’s not the same game anymore. How do you feel about being part of that, about releasing that havoc into the world?

I guess I can say I’m pretty proud of it. Writing the book, that was probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done professionally. It was a pain in the ass—I’m not a natural writer. I love the research part of it, but when it came time to start putting it on paper? I really struggled with it. And the editing process was brutal. But I did it, and I learned so much doing it, that was immensely gratifying that I got to be able to do that and be part of it. 

The thing about when I was at Stone, we were always trying to recreate the IPA, taking it to a million different directions to see what would happen. I enjoy the hell out of that, because I like hoppy beers and I love exploring the flavors that hops can provide. Trying different hops and different hop combinations. We did the English Double IPA, we did the German IPA. We were just having a lot of fun with it. So from that standpoint, I loved it. I’ve alluded to it already, but I’m a little concerned that IPAs are getting to the point where they are squashing other beer styles. I don’t think that’s healthy.

Right, in a place like [Brick Store], someone will walk in, and it’s not like, “I want the New Realm IPA,” it’s, “Give me your best IPA.” Which is a strange thing. They just know they like IPA, and there’s a lot of them.

It’s a buzzword right now, and people don’t always understand what it really means and that bothers me. The fact that you can’t brew a Pale Ale in San Diego is insane. So that’s one thing that excites me about here is that we can brew a Pale Ale if we want to.

On the other side of it, how do you stay relevant? What in the world kind of IPA do you make when there are so many?

It’s really challenging. Carey was like, “You have 100% control over what beers we brew.” And I said, “OK, so we’re not going to brew any IPAs.” I was joking, but he was like, “OK, there’s going to be some discussion.” [laughs] Honestly, I think what is really happening right now, and what’s going to fuel IPA growth moving forward, is the hop breeding programs and the new hop varieties. I think really there is not much else you can do except use a different hop in it.

Do you feel strongly that you’re going to have to get a proprietary hop for your IPA?

Yes and no. I’m looking at my first IPA right now, and it is a pretty classic West Coast IPA. It’s a hop combination that we never did at Stone, but it’s one I like. And I think it going to work out really well.

Very close. I might tweak it a little bit. I think the way that I’m approaching it is that the first [New Realm] IPA, and we’ll probably have a few of them when we open up, but what I’m focusing on is going to be pretty classic—my style—of IPA. But, I think moving forward, as you do other versions of IPAs and things like that, you gotta work in some new hop varieties. You just have to. And some of them work and some of them don’t, but you figure that out pretty quickly. 

The other thing is that you have got to have something else to bring people in. So, if you have a good IPA, you have to have a couple of other good beers too, then you know people will come in. If you are projecting yourself to beer drinkers as somebody who really cares about the quality of their beer, and really wants to do the right thing, and is innovative, people will come. And then you have gotta have a good IPA to back that up.

Is ITP IPA the Refuge one, or is that different?

We haven’t figured out what beer that will be yet, we just thought it was cool.

It’s a great name. You’re the guy coming in from California, and there’s going to be some people here who have a problem that you’re not from Atlanta. ITP IPA is smart—it’s like you’re talking to those people you’re trying to win over.

When I first heard that term, it was very early in my trips out here, and I was like we should call a beer ITP IPA. Every once in a while I come up with something good.

How do you feel about the New England IPA craze?

Thats a tough question. I’m a classically trained brewer. I like my beer clear. It doesn’t have to be filtered, but I like it clear. Here’s my take on it: it may not be something that I lean toward brewing, but it’s a real thing and there are brewers that are doing a great job with it—they’re selling all the beer they can make. And people are genuinely excited about it. So, from that standpoint, I can’t look at it as a negative thing.

It’s like any time someone brews a beer and you’re not sure if they like the style or not, but they’re nailing it. How can you say that’s a bad thing? I’ve had some. I’ve been drinking Heady Topper for years, and if you look at that recipe, and that recipe is in my book, that’s a Double IPA recipe. It a pretty standard West Coast IPA, but it’s unfiltered and that yeast doesn’t floc out very well.

But these guys that are doing it up in Massachusetts, and in the northeast have taken it to another level. I’ll tell you, a year and a half or so ago, I was in Virginia. Stone was building a brewery in Richmond. And every time we went to Richmond, in the evening, we’d go out and try a local brewery. There are a lot of local breweries in Richmond—it’s a great beer town. And I remember talking to a brewer at The Answer Brewpub. They’ve got 100 taps and some really interesting combinations in a wonderful spot. I was in there talking with their brewer, and he was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do a New England IPA.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, is that really a thing?” This was a year and half, two years ago. And he goes, “Yeah, I want it to be unfiltered and cloudy as all get out.” And I thought wow, this is moving pretty quickly.

And not two years later, it’s everywhere. Breweries are making them in Atlanta.

Stone’s yeast settles out like a rock. So any time we did an unfiltered beer, it looked pretty clear. We weren’t trying any of the tricks that are rumored around now, like adding oats and wheat flakes and all that stuff. We weren’t doing any of that, but still, you leave an IPA unfiltered, you expect it to have a fair amount of haze. And it was tough, yeah.

Aside from a couple IPAs and the Lagers you’ve mentioned in recent interviews, what’s the New Realm core lineup looking like at this point?

The beauty about what we’re doing is that not only are we going to have a 20-barrel brewhouse to brew whatever our cores turn out to be, we also have a 5-BBL pilot system. And so we are looking at definitely some standard beer styles for our core lineup, but we haven’t fully decided on them yet. And I’m pushing Bob and Carey to not commit to anything else until we start brewing. Because there might be something we brew on that 5-BBL system that proves to be tremendously popular. In this market, you’ve got to be nimble. You have to be flexible, and you have got to be ready to shift gears on a whim. I want us to be prepared to do that.

I’ve heard you guys call it both, so is New Realm a brewery or a brewpub?

We are classifying ourselves as a brewery, since [the bill tentatively scheduled to become law on Sept. 1 states] we can have a kitchen. What that does, though, is that it doesn’t allow us to sell wine or cocktails or other people’s beers. We can sell beer to-go with the new law. But there’s a [228 ounces, or one case, per person, per day] limit on how much you can sell. We can’t sell kegs, which is kind of a bummer, but that’s not an unworkable thing. I’m excited about the law change! All these brewers in Georgia who worked so hard on this, it’s fantastic.

You can’t be the worst state in the country for beer laws. You can’t be. It’s such a big business right now, and it brings in jobs, and creates revenue and tourist attraction. One of the things I loved about San Diego was that the mayor of San Diego was a big craft beer fan. He promoted craft beer in all the vacation guides, and all the visitors guides and things like that. They had beer maps in there. It was great. Politicians don’t normally get involved at that level, and he was right in the thick of things.

Tell me about what’s going to be happening in that kitchen.

We’re still working on that. We’ve hired a GM for the restaurant. He’s going to be the primary decision maker hiring a chef. We definitely want to focus on local ingredients. It’s probably going to be a fairly varied menu. And we are going to let the chef really kind of play that out. There are certain things we want on the menu. We want to have a really good burger, and we want a really good, I guess, gastropub kind of food list. It’s pretty much going to be American fare with a little bit of a Southern flare to it, you know, depending on who we hire as a chef. We want somebody who understands Atlanta as our chef.

New Realm is a big name to live up to. You’re throwing down the gauntlet a little bit.

We look at it a little more personally. It’s a new realm for all three of us. And that is why we ended up gravitating towards it. Naming the brewery was the absolute hardest thing we’ve done. There are three of us—we all had to agree, and we all come from very different places. And we couldn’t agree on anything. I’ve got a stack of paper that is an inch thick that has just got line after line after line of brewery names. And it was just rejection after rejection. And we had names that were near and dear to us personally, and the other two were like, “No, that doesn’t work for me at all.” And the beautiful thing about our partnership is that we all have veto power with this kind of stuff. So if one of us really absolutely hates something, then we won’t do it. So far that’s worked out really well. We don’t agree on a lot of things.

The three of you have interesting backgrounds. There are some similarities, like AB, and then some differences like Constellation and Stone. What are some of the conflicts that come up from such different sets of experience, and trying to make one vision from three people?

Well, even though I spent 14 years at Anheuser-Busch, I’ve always been a craft guy. And they were both at Anheuser-Busch, but both of them left either right before or right after the buyout. Anheuser-Busch is a completely different company now, so I bring a certain viewpoint to things. I don’t want things too polished, and they’re on board with this. I’m the quickest to call it out. “No, we can’t do that kind of thing.”

What’s an example of something where you said you couldn’t do it because it’s too polished?

Just down to furniture selection, something as basic as that. Beer names that we’ve talked about. And they’ve pointed out some things that I haven’t picked up on. Things that I didn’t think mattered to me. They’re like, “We can’t do it that way—that’s big restaurant stuff. That’s chain-restaurant stuff.” It’s been interesting.

You mentioned the different locations Bob and Carey had been looking at in the Southeast. Carey’s LinkedIn profile mentions being “active members of the craft communities in which we brew our beers.” That sounds like something that starts in Atlanta and then expands elsewhere.

We are leaving that open right now. We’ll see how it does. We want to get ourselves established and see how we do in Atlanta before we start talking anything else. If we’re a distributing brewer, we’re only going to be able to do, because of space constraints there, maybe only 15,000 barrels a year. So like every other brewery in the world that has started up, we’re going to find ourselves being constrained and not being able to brew enough beer to sell at some point. If things keep going the way that they are. Now, that’s a big question mark obviously. Who knows whats going on in his business. We do think Atlanta is a real viable place to start. And then we’ll see what happens. 

If it were up to you, what is the vision for New Realm besides Atlanta?

Gosh, I’d like to see us have a large production brewery somewhere. It doesn’t matter where. It just hasn't gotten to the point where we’ve started even talking about that yet. We’re not limiting ourselves to Georgia, but we’re not looking anywhere else right now.

The one thing that Carey has said that really resonates with me is that we’ve had some very, very high-level discussions about what we can do with it if we end up selling 15,000 BBLs of beer by year two. Then what do we do? And Carey has always said, if we go somewhere else, we’re not just going to have a restaurant—we are going to brew beer there. And I’m like, ok, yeah, that’s good. We’re not going to be one of those brewpub chains that only a handful of them have actual working breweries. We’re not going to do that. Who knows what’s going to happen. This whole craft beer thing could fall apart.

If you read enough beer blog posts, you might start to think the sky is falling.

I don’t think the sky is falling. You know what I think is happening? There are certain markets in the country that are saturated, and people that don’t have good beer, or don’t have a good marketing plan, which you never really needed up until a few years ago, but, it’s these breweries that don’t know how to sell their beer, or promote their beer, or give themselves an identity with people that resonates, talk about their beer. They are the ones that are going to fail in these saturated markets. And we’re already seeing it. Georgia isn’t one of those markets. How many breweries are there in Atlanta? 

Atlanta is tricky, because of suburbs and the metro area and all. But Georgia on the whole recently topped 70.

San Diego County has 120. Thats too much, but still. You can make the case that there is room for 50 more breweries here in Atlanta. I feel pretty good about our chances of success. If we make good beer and have a great place for people to come visit, we’ll be all right.

What’s it like having a family 2000 miles away? That’s got to be difficult.

It’s a challenge. The idea is, I’ve got a daughter [with two more years of] high school, so I’m not going to move my daughter while she is in high school. So I’m flying out on Mondays and I’m flying home on Fridays. And right now, before the brewery really gets up and running, I’ve been coming out every other week. That will pick up once we get started. It helps that we have an apartment in Inman Park. It’s a five-minute walk our site, so it’s perfect.

In two years, does Atlanta become home?

Yeah. We’ll be looking at relocating once she gets out of high school. I had my family out here a couple of weeks ago, we tooled around, they explored Atlanta while I was working, and we did things together. They like it, so it’s good. They haven’t been here during the summer yet. [laughs

Are you going to be hiring brewers? How involved are you going to be in that process?

That's on me, completely. We are looking at starting the hiring process probably this summer. And the one thing we don’t want to do, and we haven’t really announced this yet, but I feel strongly enough about it that I think I can say it. I don’t want to hire anyone who is working in a local brewery to come work for us. I just don’t want to be coming in here and swiping people out of other breweries. We had kind of an unwritten rule at Stone where we didn’t do that either. It got relaxed. It got to the point where we would never poach anybody, or go after anybody, but if somebody came to us and was having a really bad time at another brewery, then we’d consider it.

So, how will you find talent?

Oh, we’ll find talent. We’re not going to have that big of a staff to start with. I’m going to be looking for a head brewer and probably two or three brewers. We’ll find them. I don’t mind bringing somebody in at entry level and training them, that’s fine.

Q+A by
Austin L. Ray

Austin L. Ray

Austin lives in Atlanta with his wife and two dogs, working for MailChimp by day and other folks by night and weekend. He writes The Georgia Brewsletter, likes weird beer, black t-shirts with white print, stand-up comedy, pit bulls, fancy socks, and nice people.

See more stories from Austin

Critical Drinking™

Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.

See more Critical Drinking™ stories