Have a Beer with Mike Hess Brewer Jason Stockberger
Here’s a hard-working brewer with big plans, a big work ethic, and some pretty lofty goals.
Jason Stockberger | Photo by Bruce Glassman
Humble, determined, and eager to please his loyal drinking audience, Jason Stockberger is one of those guys who is constantly assessing and re-assessing everything he does—always looking for ways to improve his product and his craft.
Jason has been brewing at Mike Hess for about two years now. He arrived at the brewery with ambitious goals that included major growth in production as well as greater exposure for the Hess brand. When Jason joined the team, the brewery was producing around 2,000 barrels. This year, they’re on target to do about 9,000 barrels. And, ever since Jason focused his efforts on winning more recognition for Hess, he and his team have managed to win more than a dozen medals and awards, including a gold at World Beer Cup last year. That’s the thing about Jason: when he sets his mind to something, he works until it gets done.
I sat down with Jason and a cold pint of Deceptio (their most award-winning beer) to find out how life has changed for him since he left the big corporation.
At your previous job as a brewer for Rock Bottom, you were working for a large company. What has it been like making the transition to a smaller venue?
Well, before I came here I thought it was going to be more loose—coming from a corporation where everything was standardized and everything had to be a certain way, I thought everything here would be different from that. When I got here though, I realized it was a brand-new company working to build a brand and trying to build beers and flavors, so they were scrutinizing everything. We actually had to pay a lot more attention to every detail here—more than we did at Rock Bottom, because that was more of an established process.
When you got to Hess, were you handed a book of recipes and told to make the beer the way they had been doing it?
Yeah, when I joined they had about 20-30 recipes that they were already brewing, and I started filling in. When I took over, we started changing things as a team, the handful of us (Mike Hess, Frank, Greg). We would try to re-create certain recipes to make them better, or we’d adapt them so they would fit better in different markets, like Arizona or L.A. county. We had to focus on spreading the brand and looking beyond San Diego, where IPAs are dominant.
How did you change the recipes to make them, say, more Arizona-friendly?
A bunch of the beers had a lot of IBUs up front—residual bitterness—and we wanted to change some of them to have more aromatics instead of the lingering bitterness. We modified the hop profiles a lot, so we were using more whole cone hops, and we tried different dry-hopping methods to bring out aromas and make the beer smoother, so it would finish out easier. That was something we did across the board on all the session ales, the pale ales, and the IPAs. It seemed to work pretty well. The first time we made those adjustments, we picked up a gold medal at World Beer Cup (2014) for our rye IPA (Habitus). And the new recipe happened to fit really well right here in San Diego as well.
Did some of the recipe changes involve changing hop varieties at all?
We’ve purchased a lot of the newer hops and the experimental hops that I never used at Rock Bottom, because Rock Bottom would allocate and buy hops in bulk. Here, I have the ability to select anything I want. And Mike Hess has been really cool about saying, ‘Hey, what do you want to try?’ They’re so open to letting me do what I want to do here, I really appreciate that.
What are some of the hops that have excited you, or hops you’ve wanted to work with here?
We just brewed a wet-hopped pale ale with fresh hops that were harvested last week, and we used Ivanhoe. That was one I hadn’t worked with. Ivanhoe is a revival of the California Cluster hop, it’s got a mellow citrus, floral, and pine character and it’s around 8% alpha acid. The hops were harvested the day we brewed it. I never had that ability to just buy whatever hop I wanted on the spot market.
What are some of the recipes you developed that weren’t here when you came?
Well, our OktoberHess, that was a recipe I originally developed at Rock Bottom and then we “Hessed it up,” as we like to say. It was a Marzen-style fest beer and we brewed it with a lager yeast strain and a lot of Munich and Vienna malt. It’s fantastic. I think it’s one of the best beers we’ve ever brewed here. A lot of times Mike and other people in the company will say they want to brew something for a particular season, and they’ll come to me and I’ll offer some recipes that I have or that I’ve been wanting to brew. And then we all sit down and talk about the components of the beer—whether we want to do it to a style, to match a style guideline, or if we want it to be just an off-brand that we can put together—something unique and not like anything else we’ve done.
What about working with some of the non-traditional ingredients? Does that interest you?
We like to have fun with adjuncts and additional flavors. We did a ginger IPA last year, with fresh ginger, and I really enjoyed that. We put the ginger on a mandoline and sliced it up for about four hours! It was like 70 pounds of ginger! It was really fantastic and the ginger played with that IPA really well.
We tend to play in smaller batches, and with casking and a lot of cellaring for the tasting room. We’ve done a number of beers with peppers, jalapeños, spices, and fruits. We have about six or seven barrel-aged beers that we cellar every year, with three coming out by the end of this year—whiskey barrels and corn whiskey barrels, which we like a lot. I haven’t done anything with wine barrels yet. We just don’t have the room to do a lot of barreling and conditioning. I haven’t done anything with brett [brettanomyces] yet, which I kind of wish I had the ability to do.
The rye IPA, the Habitus, that was really the first medal that got the brewery recognition on the national stage, right?
I’m pretty sure that was the first award that we’ve ever won. Before I got here, I think they submitted beers in San Diego, Los Angeles—and I think World Beer Cup and GABF—but when I came on board I was really interested in bringing medals and validation to the brewery. We made a serious effort and ran a large campaign with everybody about how to selectively bring all the beers up to quality commercial standards, and also how to make our beers so they fall within a specific style guideline, which was difficult to do. So many Mike Hess beers are really unique and they weren’t built to a style guideline, they were built for fun.
So how do you please the typical San Diego palate and balance that with what is more traditional or required for the style guidelines?
Some of the beers I knew weren’t built for style, we’d try submitting them in different categories and, if they stuck, we knew we had something. For instance, the Grazias Vienna Cream Ale; we tried to enter it in five or six categories because it was never brewed for style, and we ended up winning in an adjunct category after we added coffee. So that’s how we wound up doing it. That’s how we won. I told Mike from the very beginning that I was going to do everything I can to win an award for every single beer that we have. So far, we’ve gotten 14 commercial awards, including World Beer Cup, a few in Los Angeles, a few in San Diego, and a few in Arizona. We picked up one at the California State Fair, so that’s been fun. GABF [Great American Beer Festival] is the one we don’t have yet.
How would you define the Mike Hess style?
Our mission statement was always to brew the best beer that we possibly can—and to make it as good, if not better than other breweries. We always want to produce ales and lagers that will stand up to the best breweries in the world. That’s always going to be our target and we never want to lose that.
What are Hess fans into the most? What’s your bestseller right now?
Our bestsellers will move around, but we sell more IPAs than some of the other core brands that we have. At any given point in time, we have four or five IPAs, including a session. That’s what popular. It’s what’s hip and it’s what’s happening here. And I think we’ve done a really good job with IPAs. That’s our number one mark right now.
What are some of the things you want to do to grow and evolve the brand from here?
It’s been really cool to see the cans get picked up in new markets, like liquor stores, and 7-Elevens, and hotels, and a lot of concert venues, including Cricket Amphitheater. I think the next step would be to get 12-ounce bottles and do six-packs. That will open up a lot more markets to us. I’d like to see our beer go more national. And then the next step after that is to get a bigger brewery!