Mr. Beer Gave us So Many Breweries Under the Christmas Tree

December 19, 2017

By Aaron Goldfarb, December 19, 2017

You’re walking through a Kohl’s, or maybe a Best Buy, thinking what to get your husband, or sister, or maybe even dear old dad for the holidays. Then you see him. He loudly introduces himself on the packaging. Your husband likes beer. Sissy does too. Of course dad likes a cold brew. Maybe they would all like…

Mr. Beer.

Founded in 1993 by Dallas inventor Michael Smith, Mr. Beer was designed to make homebrewing easier and cheaper (just $60 per kit!) for aspiring hobbyists. The tiny “advanced polyvinyl chloride” fermentor known as the “Little Brown Keg” could brew ten different styles of beer, ones with names like Classic American and Whispering Wheat Weizenbier. It would produce twenty 12 ounce bottles per brew and, since it had a spigot on the keg, once it was ready, you could serve directly from it if you wished.

It was a minor hit, and by 1999 Smith was able to sell the business to the Tucson, Arizona-based businessman Mike Bernstein. A highly successful computer software entrepreneur who already built and sold companies, Bernstein had even greater ambitions.

New styles! A better barrel system!! A Mr. Beer in every garage!!!

His vision worked. After a decade, and millions of Mr. Beers becoming an integral part of many American families, Bernstein sold the company in late-2011 to Coopers Brewery. Conveniently, the Aussie brewery was already the world’s largest manufacturer of malts and “DIY brewing” supplies. They had even bigger ambitions, and some serious international distribution muscle, to make Mr. Beer even higher-quality, and way more ubiquitous. Coopers has sold nearly two million more Mr. Beer kits since their acquisition, claiming half of those sales occur during the holiday season.

And, while it’s easy for the craft beer elite to mock the cheesy simplicity of the Mr. Beer kits, the fact of the matter is, people are buying them and people are learning from them. In fact, many folks have taken an unexpected gift of Mr. Beer, and turned that into a passion which eventually became their profession. Some of those stories are below.

Mr. BeerBeer and Mr. Beer: simple, but powerful.

Hank Rowe
Brewery:  Catalina Brewing Company (Tucson, AZ)
Received Mr. Beer:  2001

A former middle school teacher, Rowe received a Mr. Beer as a gift from his wife Darlene after retiring.

“It was wonderful because... it allowed me to enter into brewing without a lot of equipment, overhead, and mess,” he explained. Also, if you remember from above, Tuscon is, in fact, where Mr. Beer is based. Thus, Rowe became a regular customer at the offices, purchasing supplies and getting tips from the on-staff brewmaster.

As mountain biking enthusiasts, Rowe and his buddy Brian Vance often liked to enjoy one of his Mr. Beer creations after a ride. One night, right in the midst of Tuscon’s famed 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo bike race, sitting around the campfire at 2 AM, Vance remarked that Rowe’s pale ale was particularly good. He also encouraged him to start a brewery... with him as a partner.

In 2012, the two men opened their brewery right by the town’s bike path, and today have a taproom showcasing old bike parts, continuing the “We bike, we brew” ethos that spun the whole crazy idea into fruition. In 2016, Rowe partnered with his old friends and neighbors at Mr. Beer on collaboration kit. Called Mesquite Agave Ale, it's a uniquely southwestern-themed Mr. Beer kit.

Matt Anthony
Brewery: Anthem Brewing (Oklahoma City, OK)
Received Mr. Beer:  2001

Another Mr. Beer alum who was gifted the kit from his then-girlfriend and current wife (a pattern you’ll continue to see), Anthony immediately took to the hobby.

“A switch was flipped in my brain that day, and brewing became my passion,” he would later claim.

He immediately set his sights on one day opening his own brewery, one that focused exclusively on Belgian-style beer using old world techniques like open fermenters and barrel-aging. By 2006 he was brewing on an all-grain system, by 2010 he was working on his business plan, and by 2012 he had quit his day job as a motion graphics artist, editor and photographer.

Starting commercially that year as a gypsy brewer, Anthem Brewing today has a brick-and-mortar facility and is one of Oklahoma’s finest brewing outfits. Unfortunately, in 2014 Anthony abruptly left his creation to return to film production full time – though he continues helping out with recipes and label artwork. Under the current steerage of Patrick Lively, Anthem remains a top-flight operation thanks to the foundation Anthony first laid, even still brewing some of his initial beers like Golden One and Uroboros.

The first batch we did, it sucked. But we were so proud of it.”

Eric Crigger
Brewery:  Rocket Republic Brewery (Madison, AL)
Received Mr. Beer:  2004

It started with a Mr. Beer pale ale kit gift from his wife Tatum. They’d just relocated from Phoenix to Huntsville in late 2003 so he could take a job doing IT work for the various defense contractors in town. Little did Crigger know, homebrewing wasn’t even allowed in Alabama at the time.

“I made some decent beer, not awesome, but never doing it before, at least it was drinkable,” he explains. He continued ordering additional Mr. Beer kits online, opting next for an IPA, and brewing out of the family laundry room. “It prompted me to move up from there and ditch Mr. Beer.”

From there he went to a 5-gallon extract system before building a 10-gallon all-grain system. He took a class at Siebel and soon was working at a local brewery where he “did dirty nasty stuff,  climbing into tanks, the things I wish I had someone here doing now.”

During that time he started writing a business plan with two local rocket engineers, John and Lynn Troy. Laws for opening a brewery were still not very kind in the state which literally had one brewery. Rocket Republic launched in 2013, contract brewing, before moving into their own steampunk-themed facility on St. Patrick’s Day 2015.

It wasn’t too long before Mr. Beer had heard about his success. They reached out to congratulate him, and he soon agreed to collaborate on a kit for his Astronaut Brown Ale. Luckily, homebrewing is no longer illegal in Alabama.

“The Mr. Beer kits have changed quite a bit since I started,” Crigger’s noticed. “They’re a lot better today.”

Jeremy Roberts
Brewery:  903 Brewers (Sherman, TX)
Received Mr. Beer:  2005

It started when Roberts and a buddy bought a Mr. Beer brown ale kit at the store.

“The first batch we did, it sucked,” he explains. “But we were so proud of it. We brewed it, we wanted to drink it, but we handed it out to friends and they were like, ‘This is nasty!’” He adds that the nice thing about Mr. Beer is that it teaches you the basics – which he claims is using good water, controlling temperature, and practicing sanitization. “You’re understanding how beer is made.

Brewing on the stove in our one-bedroom apartment was the beginning of the unforeseen start of our future.”

He used Mr. Beer for around a year before switching to all-grain. He and his wife Natalie founded the brewery in 2011 and opened their doors in 2013 on a barrel-and-a-half system. Today they’re on a 30 barrel system. They’re known for their stouts, having recently released eight brewery-only barrel-aged beers called Sasquatch Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout (which won a silver at GABF).

“I still have a bottle of that first brown ale,” Roberts claims. “Man, I’m a dreamer. I used to tell people, ‘One day I’m gonna open a brewery.’ And everybody laughed at me. I told them, ‘I’m gonna keep this one bottle, and hang it up at my brewery one day.’ And I did.”

Danny Bruckert
Brewery:  Circa Brewing (Brooklyn, NY)
Received Mr. Beer:  2005

An actor in an off-Broadway production of Tony n' Tina’s Wedding, Bruckert had a lot of time on his hand between gigs. Hoping to help her husband fill the boredom, Joli Tribuzio snagged him a Mr. Beer kit right off a CVS shelf in Queens. He started with an IPA and was quickly trying other styles. Soon, he was more interested in brewing than acting. By 2010 he was working at Sixpoint as a keg washer; he would eventually become their head brewer.

Earlier this year, Bruckert opened Circa Brewing (also in Brooklyn) with some partners, including his brother Luke. At the slick gastro-brewery, Bruckert brews while Luke makes Neapolitan-style pizzas. He probably didn’t learn that skill on a Mr. Pizza kit.

Scott Strain
Brewery:  Kros Strain Brewing (La Vista, NE)
Received Mr. Beer:  2007   

Formerly employed at the U.S. Senate offices in Washington, D.C., a Mr. Beer kit gift from his wife Michelle (on Valentine’s Day if we’re being honest) led to him falling in love with the hobby.

“Brewing on the stove in our one-bedroom apartment was the beginning of the unforeseen start of our future,” she explains. “That one brew lead to him brewing a beer for our wedding. Looking back I can only imagine how it tasted.”

Jonathan W.C. MillsWhen in the desert, brew for the golfers.

From there, he started going to the D.C. Homebrewers club and eventually switching to his own jerry-rigged homebrew kit which he used on the driveway of their Maryland townhouse “

The neighbors were quite concerned with the safety of ‘what we were up to,” Michelle jokes. Eventually he took a side-job at 3 Star Brewing while taking a yearlong online brewing program from Siebel. Homesick after six years in D.C., the Strains moved back to Omaha where Scott quickly became a cellarman then brewer at Nebraska Brewing Co.

Along with fellow co-worker Bobby Kros, who had been a mechanical engineer at a nuclear power company, they decided to create Kros Strain in January of 2017. Today it’s a 10,000 square foot, 15 barrel system. Their handsomely-labeled beers include such flagships as Helles Creek, an easy-sipping lager, and Fairy Nectar, an easy-drinking IPA. The Strains still keep that little Mr. Beer keg as a memento.

Scott Stokes
Brewery:  La Quinta Brewing (Palm Desert, CA)
Received Mr. Beer:  2011

After having fallen in love with San Diego’s beer scene during a family vacation, Stokes’ wife knew the perfect Christmas gift to get him and indeed, he unwrapped a Mr. Beer kit from under the tree that December. Almost immediately he brewed his first batch and was so taken by the hobby he bought two more Mr. Beers before his first pale ale had even fermented. That first year he produced a whopping 25 Mr. Beer batches.

Looking for a new career after having retired from real estate development, Stokes decided he should maybe open a brewery. Still, he didn't have much experience brewing, even after all those Mr. Beer runs. Wisely, he hired a brewmaster, and today La Quinta is finding success with beers like Heatwave Amber Ale and Old Town Honey Wheat. Stokes still has that original Mr. Beer kit at their home.

If you have a beer fan in your life who you’re unsure what to get for the Christmas or Hanukkah, perhaps you should consider a Mr. Beer under the tree or menorah. The only fallout is you may accidentally create a professional brewer.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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