The first thing you’ll notice upon meeting Alec Steinmetz is his animation, his ebullience, the way his face lights up when talking about anything, especially when it’s about apples or fermentation.
He gets giddy just discussing the Brix scale (a measure of sugar in liquid — in this instance, cider). “Ferment everything!” says the 23-year-old cidermaker at Buskey Cider.
To have a conversation with Steinmetz at the cidery in Scott’s Addition, it must take place while he’s climbing on equipment, checking taps, or hauling kegs as if he is a one-man ant army.
Although he hasn’t been cavorting with his revered fruit for long, you wouldn’t know it when he enthusiastically describes an upcoming single varietal cider made with native Virginia Pink Lady apples from John Saunders at Silver Creek Orchards in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Always in action, Steinmetz shares his thoughts while he is behind the counter at a neighboring cidery’s grand opening making sure its cider was pouring correctly.
Steinmetz grew up as the middle child of three boys in a rural area some 30 miles north of Milwaukee. His parents are involved in foster care, and he can’t remember a time when there was just the three brothers at home. “We have welcomed 50-plus kids into our home over the past 12 years,” Steinmetz says.
His college ambition was to play baseball and he did for a year. But a volunteer internship at Rustic Road Brewing in Kenosha changed his dreams. He found he not only had some real skill brewing beer, but also enjoyed it.
When opportunities kept presenting themselves for him to learn more, to move up, Steinmetz went for them: a year at Telluride Brewing in Colorado, earning certification in brewing science and technology; and another in beer production and quality control from the brewing school at Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. His second round of online studies was funded by a Milwaukee Beer Barons Pro Brewer Scholarship.
With just those few years of brewing under his belt, he became the head brewer at Water Street Brewery in Milwaukee in June 2015. His Baltic Porter for Water Street won a gold medal at the 2016 Craft Beer Awards in Oregon..
It was those beer-brewing skills that caught the attention of William Correll, owner of Buskey Cider. When the 26-year-old Hampden-Sydney graduate decided to open a cidery, he was thinking he needed to hire a cidermaker, not a beermaker. Reserved and serious, Correll set the bar high for his consultants and future employees. His partner from almost the beginning, winemaker Matthew Meyer from Williamsburg Winery, brought a background in winemaking and expert palate to the new cidery.
Steinmetz, however, came from the internet. Steinmetz and Correll originally met sharing a mutual beer interest in a beer forum on LinkedIn. Then after answering an ad on CraftBeerJobs.com, Steinmetz’s résumé ended up being one of the most promising. And Steinmetz ultimately came to Buskey as head cidermaker.
“People always wonder if beer people can transfer over to cider. The process is a little different but not by much. (Steinmetz) is young and has a lot of passion, a lot of talent. He makes a stellar hopped cider because he understands hops. He is exactly the kind of person people want making their cider — innovative and creative,” Correll says.
Steinmetz credits Correll and Meyer as mentors along with cidermaker Chuck Shelton from Albemarle Ciderworks. Shelton stands out as the first professional and personal mentor that “I could call at any time and we can chat about what we do, ... (and) his award-winning ciders make good conversation.”
Steinmetz has been at the helm of cider production at Buskey since January 2016 (the cidery opened to the public in April). He started out by running experiments brewing test batches. “Matthew, Will and I did blind tastings and selected our most desired apples/yeast strains,” he says. Now he does all the cider production, from pumping juice from the tanker truck when it arrives at the cidery to all the fermentation, filtering, blending, carbonating and packaging.
Buskey has released 17 ciders in its tasting room and always has at least eight ciders on tap there. Steinmetz’s ciders harvested three awards in August from the “Drink Outside the Grape” competition in Charlottesville. He’s sheepish about the acclaim coming his way, stepping around the accolades he has received as if they are breakable and he still can’t believe them.
His excitement seeps through, however, as soon as he starts in on cider and his next couple of cider creations. “I enjoy cidermaking even more than I did brewing. Can we talk about this nitro-cider and the cold brew-nitro (coffee and cider nitro collaboration)? These are what cider really can be.”