John Mallett, the longtime director of operations for Michigan’s thriving Bell’s Brewery, has been a major figure in the craft brewing trade since its still-formative days in the late 1980s. As a recent college graduate, he rose quickly to the position of head brewer at Boston’s Commonwealth brewery. After taking a break to obtain a diploma in brewing technology from Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, he did a four-year stint as brewmaster at Virginia’s Dominion craft brewery, and then was president of a brewing equipment company.
He took his current position at Bell’s when he was hired in 2001 by owner Larry Bell, who founded Michigan’s groundbreaking craft brewery in 1983. Mallett since has overseen the operation during its rapid rise to its stature, as of 2011, as the 7th biggest craft brewery in the United States by production volume and the 13th biggest brewery of any kind in the U.S.
Under his watch, many of Bell’s varieties became household names among craft beer fans, and seasonal specialties such as Oberon and Hopslam have developed cult followings, not only in Michigan but also in the 17 other states and the District of Columbia to which its distribution has expanded. The annual release of Oberon on March 25 was so widely anticipated by craft beer drinkers that Bell’s installed a countdown clock on its website home page. He was on the job as Bell’s outgrew its original brewery in downtown Kalamazoo and opened a production facility in nearby Galesburg that has since undergone two major expansions, the latest of which was completed just last year.
So when my friends at Hop Head Farms — who last year sold hops from their first harvest to Bell’s — facilitated the opportunity for me to interview Mallett, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I looked forward greatly to gaining Mallett’s perspectives on Bell’s, his own career and the past, present and future of the craft brewing revolution.
It turns out, though, that I’d actually learned personally from Mallett many years ago. It just took some connecting the dots to figure that out.
In the early 1990s, during my long stretch as a resident of Washington, D.C., I attended a lecture put on by the Smithsonian Institution that featured a brilliant young beermaker. It simply was one of the best, smartest, deepest discussions of craft beer that I attended, before or since, and I remembered many details about it, including the fact that the speaker was the brewmaster at Dominion brewery and that he had attended a beer institute in Chicago. But there was one major detail I could not remember: the speaker’s name.
But when I was preparing for my interview with Mallett, I reviewed the resume on his LinkedIn profile, and a couple of details jumped out at me. His past employment as brewmaster at Dominion. The fact that he graduated (and ultimately has taught for many years) at Siebel Institute.
So I asked Mallett if he was my mystery lecturer. He responded that indeed he was, a bit surprised, perhaps, that he had crossed paths with someone who remembered hearing him speak far away around 20 years ago.
The interview, which took place at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo on March 19, underscores the breadth and depth of Mallett’s knowledge and experience in the craft beer world. It is presented here, nearly in its entirety.
Benenson: You were young when you started out in the business! What was your first acquaintance with craft beer? How did you come to know about it, enjoy it, decide you wanted to be involved in it?
Mallett: When I was in college, I studied chemical engineering in school, and I lived with a bunch of guys who were all food and beverage professionals. There was one guy running fine dining at the Hampshire House in Boston, another guy who was a manager at Cheers. We liked to drink beer. We were college-age guys, these guys know a thing or two about food and beverages, and we kept trying to seek out different beers. This is about the time when craft breweries were just getting started. So with a high degree of interest in beers and different flavors, that’s when I first became acquainted with it.
It was about the same time that the three early breweries in Boston got started. That was Sam Adams building their brewing facility, Harpoon and Commonwealth. The way I was supporting myself in school was cooking. I’d heard through the grapevine that at Commonwealth, I could certainly get a job in the kitchen and they promoted from within. So I went in as an overqualified kitchen person, with an aim toward getting into the brewery just to see what it was all about. So that’s kind of how I got my start there, both drinking craft beer and also getting involved with the industry. It’s something I figured I’d do for a year or two and move on, and the fad would pass by then. Still waiting.
Benenson: The kind of put-on-a-show winging-it that went on in the business back then, I’ve read that you went to work in the kitchen and a year later you were head brewer.
Mallett: Correct! And it’s funny, the person who left, he’s still in the beer industry. He’s the brewing manager over at Ommegang [a Belgian-style brewery located in Cooperstown, N.Y.]. There’s a number of great brewers who came through there.
Benenson: From the perspective of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, to what degree has the evolution of craft beer met your expectations, exceeded your expectations, greatly exceeded your expectations?
Mallett: Greatly exceeded. I would say the fundamental landscape that was there at the time was that there were these large brewers, we couldn’t add anything to the discussion. At this point, in many ways, we are the discussion. You look at even on the raw material side, hops or whatever, craft brewers lead that, the large brewers are following and maybe not even closely. So it’s very interesting. That’s probably the single-largest piece there. When it comes to craft, certainly I understand that the quality that comes from large brewers is very good. But for whatever reason, many consumers do not equate that with quality, and I don’t understand why that is. They hit the mark, it’s just aiming at a place where these drinkers are not interested. So they equate, “I’m not interested in that, so it’s poor quality.”
Benenson: For the craft beer movement, industry, the ‘90s were really an experimental phase. A lot of people who came on line, a lot became enormous and wonderful, like this, and a lot of them faded away. And the quality was an issue there. Some of the breweries were not ready to be selling beer to the public. Today, almost all the stuff is good, it may not be perfectly to your taste, but it’s been a long time since I picked up a craft beer and said, “This sucks. Why are these people doing this?” Why did that happen?
Mallett: I think one, it’s education. One of the big pieces of education that’s there, if they’re opening up a brewery, they’re not starting at only home-brewing potentially. They have access to someone who has worked in a brewery before. Second, the equipment, I think, is better. And third, one of the big flaws that happened that expressed itself early on were things like yeast. If you get a culture from a supplier that’s not pure, you can’t make pure beer. That was the case much more then than now. So I think advances in raw materials and equipment and training. There’s been advances all around. There’s an infrastructure now of support. This industry was literally a hundredth of the size than it is today.
Benenson: Was the taste always there, it was latent, people didn’t have the product, what they were looking for in beer, or have Americans’ taste changed?
Mallett: I believe there has been a fundamental change in Americans’ taste. Back in the day, if you drank a really bitter beer, it would be considered pretty pedestrian today. There has been a real shift in what is acceptable for bitterness.
Benenson: It has definitely been a consciousness-raising experience. As someone who tried to help steer friends who were mass-brewed beer drinkers into this new area, I know. It’s really an eye-opening experience for them. It must happen every day in here.
Mallett: We have some people who come in and sit at the bar and say, “I’d like to try something more bitter.”
Benenson: As one of the early pioneers as a brewmaster, what do you think your role has been in advancing what has been a revolution in this phase of culinary arts?
Mallett: At a personal level, one of the things that I’m deeply committed to is education. That’s what I’ve attempted, to be a resource for matters technical and then feeding back into the levels of brewers. When I think back to when I was in school, there would be great brewers coming in from places like Coors to talk about various attributes and I thought, what a generous thing, what a critical thing that allowed me to make better beer than if I just walked in off the street. So that has been something that I’m intensely grateful, that I have the opportunity to return that. That’s my personal thing that I look at.
Benenson: The expertise you have not only as a master brewer but as someone who has sold equipment has to be huge. A lot of these people must not know what they need when they’re starting out.
Mallett: I agree. I look at that period of my life as almost like doing an advanced degree.
Benenson: How would you define Bell’s role in all of this?
Mallett: Bell’s, I believe, is the oldest craft brewery east of the Rockies. Larry started this company 27, 28 years ago. He was literally brewing in a soup pot, very small scale. I think what it is did was it fertilized the imaginations of a lot of people who said, “I’d like to try that as well.” One of the other things that Larry did that was just exceptional was he came out of the gate brewing quirky, eccentric beers in a very unique manner. So he’s making unfiltered, bottle-conditioned beers at a time when these products just weren’t available. When you look at some of the other breweries that started up around that time, they went through more rapid growth at the time by moving closer to the mainstream, but in the end, the Bell’s drinker became trained to say, it’s okay if the beer’s cloudy. That’s an incredible, a real gift to the brewing industry as a whole, to expand the horizon of what is possible in beer.
Benenson: And just the willingness to constantly experiment. Anymore, you’ve got so many category-benders. You don’t have to do the same old thing over and over and over, only bigger.
Mallett: I continue to be impressed with the number of people Bell’s has touched in some way and make that reference back to Bell’s. I think that’s a great legacy that’s been developed here.
Benenson: I have a lot of friends still in the D.C. area, and the reverence for Oberon, the lines out the beer store door when Hopslam comes out. For a product that’s not so new anymore, that’s been around for a few years, to maintain that kind of cult following, with an established company like this that could easily get away with doing the same thing in mass quantities, is very impressive.
In terms of styles, where are we going now? The American-style IPA is almost standard now, just about every brewery has one. You’re starting to see more Belgian-style beers now. Where is the American drinkers’ taste going?
Mallett: I think it’s going the way some people think the universe is going, which is expanding, in all dimensions at once. I see it as the continued voyage of experimentation. That goes not just to, can we throw some more hops in there, more alcohol, but beyond that, how do we make a very interesting beverage that pairs exceptionally with food within the parameters of, we want to keep the alcohol to a very moderate level or develop different flavors in it. So I see it expanding in a lot of different ways at once.
Benenson: I’m glad you raised the issue of food pairing. Brant [Dubovick, head brewer at DryHop, a new brewpub soon to open in Chicago] said beer is better with food than wine. That may be a minority opinion now, but I think it’s a direction a lot more people will be going.
Mallett: I don’t know that it is a minority opinion. You talk to someone who has spent a lot of time looking at this, someone like Garrett Oliver [longtime brewmaster at New York’s Brooklyn Brewery]. When you think about the foods that don’t pair well with wine, in some ways, the range of ingredients in wine include grapes. With beer, you can play more to the barley side, the yeasts used in brewing are of a far greater variety of expressed attributes than are in wine. You’re playing with three different decks of cards and a lot of variety within the hop and within the malt. So there’s a very broad range, much more than you would have with a well-chosen wine.
That being said, wine has a very high acidity component to it. How does that do with a chocolate? Even cheeses, you have to be kind of careful with wine.
Mallett: Another one that’s particularly exacerbated is heat. There’s not really a good wine for that. But there’s a whole host of beers that do a marvelous job of managing that. Those are the cuisines, the Eastern cuisines or the Mexican, these kind of flavors that just don’t play well with wine.
Benenson: Are we going to see more specifically ethnic stylings?
Mallett: Like 5 Rabbit, for instance? [5 Rabbit, a young Chicago brewery, produces beers aimed at having a Latin American character.]
Benenson: Ethnic styling throughout history was Irish, German, Czech and white northern European. But now we’ve got this huge population of people with a different palate.
Mallett: In some ways, I look at some of these other indigenous styles, stuff coming out of Africa and places like that, and those have not really been commercialized on the U.S. scale, but it’s certainly something of interest.
Benenson: The success and growth of this company inspired to a great extent the fact that Michigan is one of the biggest brewing states in the country.
Mallett: Right, and it’s really neat to go and talk to my peers at other breweries in the state. They are a very gracious group, because they give a lot of props to Bell’s and the role that Bell’s had in establishing the nascent brewing culture here. Whether somebody came out with direct experience or simply took the inspiration from the brewery.
Benenson: Again, we’re seeing inventiveness, people doing everything from Jolly Pumpkin to people who are trying to replicate German-style American pilseners, lagers, better than the mass-brewed kinds.
Mallett: In many cases, certainly on a par or better than the average breweries in those countries. It’s very interesting to get involved with a World Beer Cup, drink the German pils next to the American pils, and there’s a really high quality on both of them.
Benenson: People who have an awareness of the whole area are aware there is a taste thing. With things like sustainable food, they know there is an environment aspect and a health aspect. But I think the really under-reported part of this is the impact that craft beer, artisan food in general, have as a tool of economic development. Bell’s was a catalyst in the revival of downtown Kalamazoo, wasn’t it?
Mallett: I think to some extent. I certainly don’t discount the effects of the university or the pharmaceutical presence here. But we’re all part of that together. I don’t think it’s been to the extent of a Wynkoop in Denver, which just anchored and revitalized that whole LoDo area incredibly.
Benenson: I was invited to go to Denver last November for a Michigan State alumni craft beer tour. I told the group, this is non-partisan, but I think it’s awesome that Colorado has a brewer [John Hickenlooper, a co-founder of Wynkoop] as a governor and I am personally supporting him for president in 2016. But that’s a pretty good indication of how important that sector was out there.
The Denver area was ahead of the curve, Portland, the Bay area, a few other places. But this is a very replicable model. If you’ve got the skills and get a little bit of money behind you, there isn’t any reason why every town in America can’t have a brewpub.
Mallett: Absolutely. We don’t all eat processed food that comes out of a giant factory and is shipped to x town. There’s no reason why if you can make food, you can make beer.
Benenson: I’ve visited Walldorff in Hastings, and I would have had no other excuse to go to Hastings, Michigan. The same with Sawyer, Michigan, where Greenbush is. That’s still a pretty sleepy main street.
Mallett: But it’s interesting, especially when the weekend gets here, you pull up in the parking lot, New York state and Iowa, and I don’t know that they would be driving randomly into the downtown of Kalamazoo looking for a place to get a bite to eat. They come here and these folks are interested in trying what we’ve got here.
Benenson: My friends at Hop Head Farms tell me you’re writing a book.
Mallett: The book I’m writing right now is on malt and malting. It’s part of a series the Brewers Association is putting out on the raw materials of beer. There’s one on water, there’s one on hops. One of the pieces that’s there for that is looking at the now-nascent growth of craft maltsters, micro-maltsters. This is a very interesting development.
At Bell’s, I really feel like one of the things we do here, in some ways, I want to be a pane of glass. When you look through that beer, you want to see all the way back to the farmer’s field. That it’s not complex and processed, but you want to look back through that process if at all possible. Working with farmers. The day after tomorrow, I’m going up to our barley farm. We’ve certainly been involved with a number of different hop growers and maltsters to get a better sense of what’s happening there. We do feel like if we can make the farm shine through the beer, we better choose a good farm. How do we develop that relationship to get what we need.
Benenson: And that barley farm. How did that project develop? For a long time, it seemed like local ingredients were not a high priority and now they’re becoming a priority, and you’ve got places like Bell’s that are investing in doing their own growing.
Mallett: Yes, the way we got involved with that was we were very interested in using raw materials, this was many years ago, and at the time there wasn’t any malting barley grown probably east of Wisconsin. Through some conversation, we found there was a guy who had grown barley many years before that met brewing spec and he’s been out of it for a while. We reached back and contacted him and said we’d be interested in doing it and he said he was. We ended up establishing that relationship with that farmer, his name was Ike Turnwald, he’s up in Shepherd, Michigan, north of Lansing. As we started to develop this relationship, at one point, the farm next door came up for sale, the widow was ready to be done with it. We ended up picking up that property with the aim of growing malting barley. I go up every year for harvest, check in a couple of times. I love the fact that I can run my hands through the dirt that grows the barley that makes the malt that produces the beer right here at the bar. It’s a wonderful look-back through to know the identity preserve of that product at every stage of the production cycle and value chain.
Benenson: Bell’s is a little different because you’re distributed in 18 states plus D.C., but Buy Local was where it started and it’s where most of the startups are, building a market by saying, this is made down the block. So that lends an aspect. There’s also supply security. From my friends in the hop world, that seems to be a pretty prevalent part of the conversation.
Mallett: Security of supply is important. There’s a bunch of different factors there. I certainly do appreciate the ability to source from multiple geographical areas and regions. The Great White Combine that hits on the plains with a storm of some kind, it’s not going to hit everywhere on the plains at once. So getting a little distribution across there does work to spread the risk.
Benenson: I’ve heard there was a pretty substantial brewers’ barley industry [in Michigan] but when Stroh’s [a Detroit-based mass brewer] went down it faded away.
Mallett: Absolutely. Michigan did grow a fair amount of malting barley that was up in the Thumb, not far from where we’re growing. There has been kind of a wholesale shift of barley moving westward. That’s for a number of reasons. As a cereal crop, barley grows higher and colder and drier than anything else. If you can’t grow barley, you can’t grow nuttin’. [Laughs] As the agronomics of corn have improved, through genetic modification or whatever, it has been pushing barley away. The second factor is that for a long time the barley grown was six-row varietals, and those tend to grow best over here, and two-row varieties grow better here, and there has been a shift by brewers away from six-row and toward two-row. So there are a bunch of different factors that have driven it out of state.
Benenson: So why is that?
Mallett: A long time ago, when you made a beer with corn or rice adjunct, the preparation for that required the use of malt to drive enzymatically that reaction. Six-row barley tends to have higher enzymatic capabilities. In more recent years, there’s been a shift toward using maybe adjuncts that have been coming in in less than native starch and more in sugar form. Therefore, those don’t require those six-row.
Benenson: Where are the malt houses in Michigan?
Mallett: There’s one malting operation that’s commercial, selling commercially, in Shepherd, Wendell Banks’ place, very small. Realistically, at any size and scale in the United States, there are four malting operations, some of them in multiple locations. Now there are just starting up a number of micro-maltsters. Those are spread out. There’s one in Massachusetts, there’s one in Tennessee, California…
Benenson: There’s one in North Carolina that I’ve read about recently too. But how much of the local beer industry can they actually supply?
Mallett: Not much. You look at the history of the malting operations, the same way as many of the commodity-based things, there’s been concentration there. The number of malting companies wasn’t always four, there were a lot more before. To try to break in to an appreciable scale in a highly consolidated, competitive commodity business, that’s pretty tough.
Benenson: That’s what has made Hop Head Farms kind of a compelling story to me. It was interesting to see a speculative enterprise like that capitalize a few million dollars and invest in state of the art equipment. Processing seems to be the bottleneck. Is it a chicken-and-egg syndrome where you would have more people growing hops, growing brewers’ barley if the facilities were there?
Mallett: I don’t know. I look out west, the American hop industry is big, U.S and Germany are the biggest hop-growing areas. There are about 30 families involved in hop growing out west. It’s a specialty crop, none of them are just doing hops, they’ve all got apples and whatever else in much bigger masses there. With mechanization and consolidated, how many are needed to satisfy the need.
Here, over time, transportation costs have dropped as a percentage. Maybe the proximity isn’t as important as it was 100 years ago, when you would have been sending them across by covered wagon.
Benenson: Does it make a bigger difference with hops, fresh versus pelletized?
Mallett: If you said fresh hops are the very best, they’re the only ones we’re going to use, you’d brew for about a month a year. So some accommodation has to be made. Storability is good.
Benenson: How far do you think Bell’s will go in terms of growing its own? Do you think you would get into hops at some point?
Mallett: I don’t know that we would. It’s really nice to have Hop Head close to us, it’s a resource. They know way more about that than I do… Both Jeff and Bonnie [Steinman, the lead growers] have been doing growing for a long time. It’s not like they were dentists and decided they’d like to try that.
Benenson: When is your book coming out and what will it be titled?
Mallett: I think it will be called something like “Malt.” I’m looking to finish up the manuscript around May, June, it will go through the editing and production process. It’s probably around a year out.
Benenson: So how big can Bell’s get? You’ve got that big new brewhouse.
Mallett: There’s the brewhouse and then there’s fermentation and then there’s packaging, there’s logistics. We just moved the chokepoint to a different place. We’ve got capacity in the brewhouse that we can grow into for years. Bell’s has been very consistent in its growth. We’ve grown about 20 percent a year, and I don’t think we’ve opened up a new market in about five years. Last year in Michigan, we had wonderful growth in a very mature market. We were over 20 percent.
Benenson: That leads to a discussion with some people taking a position that the industry is saturated. To me, with all this growth, there’s a lot of headroom and a lot of education that needs to be done to wean people off the stuff that’s advertised every six minutes on television.
Mallett: When you say headroom, it is a single digit of overall consumption in the United States. Growth there means shrinkage somewhere else. If I were working for a large brewery, I’d be concerned about that.
Benenson: They’re showing that in some ways that aren’t entirely negative. They’re trying to come up with their own brands that aren’t craft beer but try to give off that aura. Bud Light Platinum, for instance. When they start to bigfoot on shelf space, tap handles, you know you’ve gotten their attention.
When I read these scare stories that now they’re responding and now they’re going to try to crush this little infant industry, isn’t the craft beer industry really creating its own economy that can do an end run around those efforts to try to box them out?
Mallett: I don’t think anybody at ABI [formerly Anheuser Busch] or MillerCoors is thinking, our goal next year is to get all of these things to close. It’s just not even conceivable. Where the issue comes in is stuff like access for shelf space. Talking about terms like “category captain,” someone who does the shelf set and say, “Eh, we’ll put that stuff down on the bottom. We’ve got something that looks pretty much like that. We’ll put it here at eye level.” Realistically, the focus is on a level playing field. I don’t want to get to a playing field where I can box ABI out. I don’t want to get involved with a playing field where ABI has boxed us out. I’m happy to compete at every level as long as it’s a level playing field.
Benenson: If demand is growing, that’s going to be more influential. You don’t want to exclude this sector because people want it.
Mallett: People are speaking pretty loud and clear. It’s interesting that some of the brands that are posted out there right now do not have a clear origin. It’s whatever beer from whatever brewing company, but it’s a wholly owned label of one of the large brewers. I’m pretty proud about what I do and I want to put my name on it. So you’re saying, “We’d put our name on it, but it wouldn’t sell as well?” I don’t know how I’d go to work every day.
Benenson: The fact that this craft brew sector kept spiking while the rest of the economy was going the other way, this is an affordable luxury.
Mallett: Absolutely. I might not be able to drive the finest car produced, but I can afford and drink the finest beer made. That makes me feel good.
Benenson: I lived in Washington and used to go up to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles. When the Orioles started their annual last-place experience, drinking beer became even more important. When they started bringing in Maryland microbrews, they were charging $7.50, and they were charging $7 for a cup of Lite. Now, $7.50 ain’t a cheap beer, but if you’re only paying 50 cents more than for Lite, that’s the best food bargain around! A lot of your beers are going year-round. Is that the direction your company is going to go?
Mallett: Those beers [like Oberon and Hopslam] come out in a time-limited fashion each for independent reasons. And I don’t want to drink an Oktoberfest in May. With Hopslam, we make that and we release it once a year. If we released it year-round and somebody lays in a stock in a convenience store and it sits on the bottom shelf, that beer is very fragile, I want that beer drunk up quickly. Larry wants that beer drunk up quickly, so you get the most flavor impact out of it. By bringing it out once a year and allowing it to flush through the system quickly, we’re in partnership with our beer-loving public to get them the best product possible.
Benenson: In terms of the breadth of your distribution, is there a particular reason why you’re limited to 18 states?
Mallett: We grow 20 percent a year. If we opened it up every state, we wouldn’t be able to supply them. We’re happy to develop the business within those areas. If we can get a good flow of beer and a controlled flow of beer, we’re going to make sure we have the best beer possible there. It really does not serve us at all to push it out there, not manage it well, not support it. We want to do it what we consider the right way. Other people have other thoughts on that, and we certainly respect that.