The path that led Mitch Steele to his present space and time is both long and unorthodox. His 31-year brewing career started at a modest, 15-barrel brewpub in the Bay Area where he spent four years learning the ropes before making an interstellar leap, signing on with Anheuser-Busch. Steele spent 14 years in different positions where he relocated several times in order, honing his skills and taking on various management positions along the way, including heading new product development from AB’s St. Louis facility in the late nineties. By 2006, he had ascended to the role of assistant brewmaster, an enviable and comfortable station. And that’s when everything changed. On a whim, he applied to a head brewer job posting advertised by Escondido’s Stone Brewing… and got the job. Such was his admiration for Stone’s beers and bold approach that he accepted it and spent a decade managing brewing operations as the company went from 45,000 barrels per year to nearly 400,000, with locations in California, Virginia, and Berlin, Germany.
And that’s when everything changed again, with Steele departing Stone to be a co-founding brewmaster with Atlanta-based startup New Realm Brewing. Now that he’s been there and acclimated to the East Coast, we felt it was a good time to catch up with the well-traveled vet… over several beers, of course.
What led you to leave a high-profile position as brewmaster at one of the 10 largest craft breweries in the country to take a chance on a brand-new venture?
I think after 10 years at Stone, part of me was ready for a change. I loved my time at Stone and wasn’t at all looking to leave, but [New Realm co-founders] Carey Falcone and Bob Powers came knocking with a fascinating concept that I knew would present new challenges and new experiences. After a long time pondering it, I decided to go for it. Change is scary, but I’ve never regretted making that decision. Though I do miss everyone at Stone tremendously, I’m very grateful that we are all still friends and that they even asked me to brew a collaboration beer with them this year!
What were some of the most challenging and rewarding parts of building New Realm from the ground up?
Designing a brewery that could produce 20,000 barrels in a 10,000-square-foot space was tough, but it was fun to lay it out and work with everyone involved to make sure the process flow made sense. If you haven’t built a brewery before, you quickly realize how much you don’t know. It was very intimidating for me, but ultimately very satisfying that we figured it out and made mostly good decisions. I wanted a brewery that could brew any style of beer. And for the first time, I have a brewery that doesn’t filter its beer. I love how that has positively impacted hop flavor and aroma retention in our beers, and they are plenty clear when they need to be! We brewed a lot of different recipes last year, and we have a five-barrel pilot system that allows everyone on the brewing team to get creative, so we always try to have a really great and varied selection of beers on tap. It’s been really cool for me to be able to brew such a wide range of beers and have an enthusiastic response. It’s been a long time since I could do that… like, forever. This is the first brewery I’ve ever worked at where no beer style is off the table.
What are the New Realm venues like and what are the chances of bumping into you at one of them?
Our original location in Atlanta has a 20,000-square-foot footprint in which 10,000 square feet are dedicated to the production brewing operation. We’ve built additional levels on the restaurant side, so they have a lot more square footage, including the main dining room, two private event rooms, a rooftop bar with a panoramic view of the Atlanta skyline, and a ground level patio and beer garden. The location is on the Atlanta Beltline — a walking, jogging, and biking path that eventually will encircle the entire city — in the heart of Atlanta’s residential area bordering the Old Fourth Ward, Poncey Highlands, and Inman Park neighborhoods. This area is a hotbed of great restaurants and bars, and it’s really cool for us to be part of it. We offer tours, mostly on weekends, so I may not be around, but we have public-accessible catwalks that go out over the brewery our guests can check out any time. Our Virginia Beach location opened with just a taproom and a large outdoor area, but we’ve since added an event space, lots of tables and chairs, and the kitchen to become a full-service restaurant. The brewery operates in a 50,000-square-foot space, so there is a lot of room to expand.
Tell us about the acquisition and future of the Virginia Beach location.
With the Virginia Beach location, we were very fortunate to be able to take a bad, sad situation and make something positive out of it. We had just started getting concerned about overall capacity in Atlanta, and had begun talking about building a production facility somewhere, when Green Flash Brewing’s Virginia Beach brewery closed up and went on the auction block. Our ownership looks at things very long term, and they recognized this as a great opportunity and made a strong, successful effort to get this brewery for us. And we were able to keep on some of the old brewing team, which makes it extra special. It’s a beautiful brewery with almost brand new equipment and an eventual capacity of 100,000 barrels per year. We’ve shifted a lot of our core production to Virginia Beach, which leaves us even more opportunity to get innovative in Atlanta. It’s been a great thing for us.
Atlanta and Virginia Beach are far away. How are you splitting time between coasts?
I’m commuting to the East Coast from San Diego every week. It’s challenging but manageable. My family has been great throughout this. I’m fortunate that I’m able to go home most weekends. I promised my daughter I wouldn’t move the family until she graduated high school, and that will happen this month.
What do you miss about the San Diego beer scene?
I miss everything about the San Diego beer scene. I lived 10 years of my life as a San Diego brewer and absolutely loved it. The people are great, the beers we drink in San Diego are great, and the camaraderie is amazing. The scene is just unique and fantastic. And it’s been neat to watch things expand into Orange County, Los Angeles, and even my little town of Temecula. There is so much great beer in SoCal and so many really good people in the business. I miss it and will continue to miss it tremendously. I love it when people from San Diego come here to visit. And when I am home, I try to visit my friends in the business.
What is the beer scene like back east and are there parallels to your old stomping grounds?
The camaraderie is exactly the same. That’s what’s so great about craft beer. We made lots of visits to other brewers in Atlanta when we were designing our place, and just like anywhere, made many good friends very quickly. We got a lot of help from several brewers while working through design issues and permitting issues, and it’s been fun to become part of the scene. Same thing in Virginia Beach, though our head brewer Evan Chamberlain had worked there for a while and already knew everyone. It’s fun to be part of so many different brewing scenes. Atlanta has got a longstanding, passionate beer culture that hardly anyone outside the city seemed to know much about. There are some truly world-class beer bars and breweries in the Atlanta metro area, and now that laws are changing for the better in Georgia, the scene is starting to explode. It’s a very exciting time and there are some amazing beers being brewed here. The Virginia Beach area is starting to take off, as well. It’s actually a very large metropolitan area, but also spread out. But the beer scene in Virginia is cool. The brewers in our area are putting out some really great beers, and there’s room for more.
Where do you see yourself and New Realm heading in the future?
Oh boy, who has a crystal ball? I think we want to be recognized as being a top-quality and innovative brewery in the Southeast, a destination spot for visitors and a perpetual favorite spot for locals. But what path gets us there is so hard to say, as things change very quickly. If all goes well, we’d like to open up a couple more brewery restaurants in other areas of the Southeast, but everything has to be just right, and we just don’t know where those might end up. We’re trying to be patient and look for opportunities while building our existing businesses. We want to be very local. For example, our plan is to only sell our beer in a state where we have an operating brewery, and that means Georgia, and the Hampton Roads and Williamsburg regions in Virginia. We’re taking a patient approach and will expand brewing and distribution only when and if the time is right, but we have no desire to go national or even up and down the East Coast. The Southeast is where we are putting our focus.
New Beers for a New Realm
A rundown of New Realm Brewing’s core and most oft-available brews with descriptions from their creator.
Euphonia Pilsner: An all-German malt traditional North German—i.e., bitter—version, with Hersbrucker and Huell Melon hops. This is a beer I’ve wanted to make for a long time and the brewing team really loves it.
Hoplandia IPA: It’s a West Coast IPA, meaning about 70 IBU (international bittering units), 7.3% ABV (alcohol by volume), dry, bitter and dry-hopped with a great hop combination: Centennial and Simcoe. This is my go-to, everyday beer. I took a lot of what I learned at Stone to put this beer together without copying anything I did there.
Hoptropolis IPA: A more modern version of an IPA with Citra, Mosaic, Azacca and Loral hops, so the hop flavor has tropical elements like pineapple and mango. It’s lower-IBU (50), a bit lower in ABV (6.5%) and fits right in with the kind of IPA that craft beer drinkers in Atlanta seem to really like.
Hazy Like A Fox IPA: This is our New England-style IPA. We use lots of flaked grains, plus El Dorado and Azacca hops in two dry hop sessions. It’s got a great juicy character and is really delicious.
United Craft Lager: A recently released American-style lager that’s incredibly sessionable-slash-crushable, and brewed with three malts and four hops.
Kikimora: An Imperial IPA that is in distribution but draft-only, 8.5% ABV and about 100 IBU with lots of Citra and Mosaic.
Unexpected Turbulence: A hazy pale ale with plenty of Citra hops.
Belga Rose: A lower-ABV Belgian ale with hibiscus, rose hips and orange peel. It’s a delightful summertime beer and the bright pink color gives it a really cool appearance.
Munich Dunkel: This is almost always our best-selling beer in Virginia Beach, which is a very pleasant surprise! We do a German hefeweizen that falls into the same camp as the Dunkel and is very popular at our restaurant.
Commissioner: A Belgian singel that was the first beer we brewed to commission the brewing and packaging equipment. It’s our most popular beer in the Atlanta restaurant, so we’ll keep making it!
Kettle Sours: We have a rotating series that we are just starting to put into cans. We’ve done Lemon Pucker, a Berliner weisse with lemon and Lemondrop hops; a Key Lime Gose; Cranberry Orange Gose; Blueberry Berliner and several others. They are fun to brew.
Brut IPA: Since that became a thing, we’ve brewed several, and now we’re at the point where we will try to always have one on tap.
Other Brut Beers: We’re also brewing some brut beers that aren’t IPAs, and those have been interesting. We often add some fruit purée to get a very dry but intensely fruity beer.