Mike Castagno, a homebrewer with years of experience and a successful track record in competitions throughout the Southeast, recently took over the reigns as brew master at Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards in Decatur. Eater Atlanta recently sat down with Castagno to discuss his background in beer and his plans to keep interesting brews flowing from the taps at one of Decatur’s favorite beer-drinking destinations.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in beer.
When I turned 21 I took a tour of the Yuengling Brewery in Pottstown, Penn. I’m from Philadelphia; that’s like our hometown beer and everyone up there is very proud of Yuengling. Around that time I also started graduate school in chemistry at Furman University, and we would have late-night brainstorming session over beers at local pubs. I got exposed to this vast new world of craft beer, especially the local craft beer from North and South Carolina. Those experiences exposed me to whole new styles of beer, I saw that there were more than just light lagers and dark lagers. That got the whole interest in beer really going.
A few years later, I was working at DuPont and would spend a good bit of time at brewpubs as I felt that brewpubs were really doing what was interesting in beer with new styles I’d never heard of or experienced. I ended up at a rally for the American Homebrewers Association in Delaware, and I tried some of the beers and realized you can make really good beer at home. The next day I went out and bought a homebrewing kit, and it all started right then and there. I started brewing at home regularly after that. That was in 2005.
"Chemistry gives me an interesting perspective on the ingredients I put in the brew"
Do you think homebrewing came easy for you with your background in chemistry?
Yes. Chemistry gives me an interesting perspective on the ingredients I put in the brew, the things I do, and how those decisions impact the final product on tap or in bottles. Chemistry gives me a good understanding of how one ingredient, one decision might be realized in the final product.
Tell us about your experiences as a homebrewer and homebrewing judge.
I’ve competed in numerous homebrewing competitions around the Southeast and a few in the Northeast and Out West. I’ve accumulated around 60 awards, about half of those were first-place awards. I also grabbed a few Best of Show beer awards, here and there. When you get the ability to brew a beer a few times and tweak it to your liking, and then you get that positive feedback in competition, that’s an endorsement that you might be on to something, that you are on the right track. The competitions were a great way to get anonymous feedback about how good your beer is, from how well you made it, to how well it represents the style.
I decided that becoming a judge myself would be a good way to hone my palate and build my knowledge, so I took the Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP) exam and became a certified judge of beer competitions. Once I did that, it really stepped up my game as I was not only able to understand better the tastes of beer and flavor profiles, but I also gained greater insight into the process and how to improve it, and how to tailor beer to the profile I wanted. You have this imaginary idea of what your beer should taste like, and being able to find a path to that beer is something that judging really helped me out with.
Are there any specific beers or breweries that have influenced your brewing style?
Nugget Nectar from Troegs [in Hershey, Penn.] is one of my favorite beers of all time. [Escondido, Calif.-based] Stone Ruination, the original, was an eye-opening experience as to how you can use a beer as an almost blank canvas to portray hops to the consumer. It is just in your face, super citrusy, a lot of grapefruit, and a hint of pine, but it is a very clean-finishing beer. Often, when you have a double IPA with 8 percent or 9 percent alcohol, it can be heavy or overwhelming, and this beer transcends my expectations in that sense.
Locally, the original beers from SweetWater, like Exodus Porter and Happy Ending, were also important to me and things I liked. Also, the Red Brick Brewing Session IPA is one of those beers that flies under the radar. But with session IPAs you have that very difficult balance of expressing the hops as an IPA should, but keeping the alcohol low without the beer being overly thin or bitter. That beer is so well-balanced from start to finish, it is a beautiful everyday-drinking beer. The Quad that Three Taverns is making is also a great beer to sit back and ponder.
What types of beers do you really like to make?
I try to keep as diverse a portfolio as possible. I like to make all of the European beers: German, Belgian, English, Scottish, Irish, as well as most of the American styles. In general, here at Twain’s, I like to keep beers on tap that will complement the food, work with the food, and help bring each component to a better platform. That tends to mean moderate strength beer, 4 percent to 6.5 percent alcohol, but all different kinds, whether they be hoppy, or amber ales, or the English Special Bitter I make that people seem to enjoy. I like to keep things rotating so there is always something new and interesting and we can provide an atmosphere where our customers can explore the world of beer and find things that they might not find in other places. There are a plethora of beer styles that people aren’t regularly aware of that I would love to introduce to the consumers in Decatur.
How much do you think about your beer being served with the food at Twain’s?
A good bit. So, we have the Olivia burger here (Olivia was Mark Twain’s wife), and my daughter’s name is Olivia, so I am trying to pair that dish with a specific beer. I’m thinking it will be a Belgian-styled blonde ale. Pairing beer and food is a way to complement each ingredient and amplify or make more subtle each component. You can balance out the spiciness of wings with a malty, sweeter beer, or you can amplify the heat with a higher-alcohol, hoppier beer. I’m also thinking about seasonal beers and how people drink beer based on the weather. With colder weather, people tend to go toward a stronger beer, a more full-bodied beer. When it’s warmer you want something that is light and refreshing like a hefeweizen or a gose.
"When someone walks in the door, I need to be sure there is a beer on tap that they want to drink"
What’s the biggest challenge going from being a homebrewer to a head brewer at a brewpub?
In my homebrewing days, I would keep a handful of ingredients on hand at any time and I would brew on a whim in terms of what I might want to be drinking a couple weeks later. I was mostly brewing beer for myself. Now, I am brewing for everyone in this room, so I need to gauge the interest of the crowd and get a good feeling of what they might want to drink. When someone walks in the door, I need to be sure there is a beer on tap that they want to drink. It’s a bit of a switch to be thinking about having the right beers at all times for the customers.
Any plans for new beers/styles that will have your stamp?
Right now, the beers on tap are [former head brewer] Chase Medlin’s. They are his recipes, but soon they will all be new recipes. We might try to bring back some of the old favorites that I will be rebooting. We will always have some hoppy beers on tap, but hopefully a good bit of dark beers too. I’m hoping to introduce a sour program to the brewery. The exact methodology we’ll use to get there is still up for discussion, but I hope to do some sours here soon. There are four or five styles of beer that I want to have represented on our taps board at all times. I want beers you can socialize with while watching the game, mostly lower-alcohol beers, but I also want to maintain more serious beers when you just want one beer at the end of the night. Every beer has a purpose, and when someone walks in the door, I want to have the beers available to fit each purpose.