Rockne Van Meter, the master brewer at Royal Oak's Bastone Brewery, knows his name is hard to spell. He has the misspelled medal to prove it.
A recent silver medal winner at the 2013 U.S. Open Beer Championship, Van Meter, 38, is quick to laugh off the mistake. He lives for competitions like the U.S. Open, and his aim is always to make beer the kind of beer that he likes to drink. "I don't make beer for the public," Van Meter said. "I make the beer that I like to drink." It seems to be working — the Bastone complex — which recently added Craft and Monk Beer Abbey to its collection of Belgian-influenced eateries — is regularly packed in the already-saturated Main Street Royal Oak restaurant scene.
Van Meter talked about about the brewing process, why he doesn't bottle his beer (just yet) and how much peanut butter is required to make his dark peanut butter brew. (Spoiler alert: a pound of peanut butter per gallon of beer).
How did you come to focus so heavily on Belgian varieties of beer? I've been making beer for about 10 years now, and my drinking has changed since then — from drinking huge amounts of beer way in the beginning to a more sessionable beer. I don't like being drunk. I like a nice buzz, but I don't feel like having hangovers anymore. That Belgian variety — the Belgian stain, the Belgian quads and triples — that just really appeals to me.
In the 10 years that you've been making beer, the Michigan craft beer scene has rapidly expanded. Why do you think that is? That growth has really exploded in the last five years. There's always been some kind of growth, but I think you have a lot of home brewers who are now opening up breweries. I don't how know how sustainable it all is, or what the saturation point is — is it 5,000 breweries? More? Less? I think you'll see the good ones sticking around, and the lesser ones, or those with poorer business models, falling off. When I see all these new guys, I think that's great. I wouldn't say I'm an outsider here, but there's definitely a lot of new guys who I just don't know.
How has your process changed since you started at Bastone? When I first got here, I had to make sure all the brewing processes worked. I mean, for the first eight to ten months, I had to break it all in — everything was brand new. But I've been trying to explore the different varieties, and make new kinds of beers, style by style. There's been a huge interest in the Dubbel, a genuine interest. And I just work my way through.
With all the other local breweries, which ones are you excited about? I live an hour away, I'm married and I have two kids. I don't have the time to come down here to drink beer. But Griffin Claw in Birmingham, I'm very excited to see what they're doing. I don't care if [brewmaster Dan Rogers] ferments milk — it's gonna taste good. It'll be nice to see what B. Nektar does when they get a brewing license — his meads are beer-esque.
You don't bottle your beer, so your beers are only available here. Have you ever thought about what taking that next step would look like? Feel like? I'm comfortable here. I'm in my environment. Bottling stuff, that's a pain, if and when that happens. Here at this location, it's also impossible. There's just not enough room. I'm the only guy here making the beer. I don't have an assistant, there's nobody sweeping the floors. I have no desire to bottle it out of here. I don't feel sad or envious of other people's beers. I like that it's an independent, homey little enterprise. I like that I get to work with the chefs here. I'm a big food person, and I love that I get to talk food here. I like the situation here. I don't miss the bottling aspect of my earlier work, and I need to sleep at night. I don't know if I could sleep at night if I were bottling my beer.
What appeals to you about beer competitions, and what's next on the horizon for you? I look forward to it. I like the competition really just for the sake of competition. The problem is that it takes so damn long — I'm like a kid waiting for Christmas. Depending on where the criticism and notes come from, I like the feedback. I tend to listen to the guys whose notes I can barely read — the Belgian guys I can barely understand and barely read. Those are the ones I look forward to.
Would you ever want to judge a competition yourself? There's about a two to three year waiting list to judge. I should probably get some training on tasting — I need to train my palate. I just had nasal surgery in March. Now that I have control over one my senses again, I have better control when I'm tasting beer. It makes me feel like I'm a super hero: I can smell! I get to use my olfactory senses for once. Watch, of course now that I can smell, this will be the year that I don't medal at the Great American Beer Festival.
What do you have in the works for the next couple of months? I've got the saison on tap now, the saison noir. I try to be seasonable with my beers. I might try a sour beer, or making my peanut butter beer on a scale that isn't ridiculous. It takes a pound of peanut butter for every gallon of beer — and that stuff just doesn't disappear. It really tastes like peanut butter.
· Bastone Brewery [Official]
· United States Open Beer Championship [Official]