Mike Sella, the unassuming and soft-spoken brewer at Uno's Chicago Grill and Brewery for the last decade and a half, will be leaving his position. He will take over at Basil T's in Red Bank for the departing Brewmistress Gretchen Schmidhausler. Mike was kind enough to advise The PubScout of his pending change, and, after trying to keep such momentous news under my hat for a week, I sat down with him today to discuss it. No small task that, as this guy detests the limelight in any way. Just getting him to pose for a picture is a challenge. But he opened up about this momentous change in the NJ Craft Beer scene.
PS: How long have you been the brewer here at Uno's?
MS: Fourteen years.
PS: You followed Mike Munro, correct?
MS: Yes, I apprenticed under Mike when Uno's first opened. When he left, I got the job.
PS: When you came on, did you have to follow a company guideline for the types of beer they wanted to sell? Or did you follow Mike's lead? Or were you allowed to do your own thing?
MS: I told the company what I wanted to make, but I had to make sure it sold, too. At first, the Company did not want any unfiltered beers to be made, but one day I made some of my Hefeweizen and had them try it. It won them over, and my Hefe has been a staple for many years.
PS: Why are you leaving Uno's?
MS: It's a different venue and a wonderful advancement opportunity I couldn't pass up.
PS: When do you expect to be officially mashing in at Basil T's?
MS: Probably late July or early August.
PS: You've established quite a reputation and a following here at Uno's. How much of that following do you expect will follow you to Basil T's in Red Bank?
MS: Basil T's is a distance from Metuchen, I know, but I can only hope that some of the friends I've made over the years will come and visit from time to time.
PS: Your beer dinners have become fabulously successful since you started them. I can remember doing them with just eight fannies in the seats, and now 40+ seems to be the rule. Will you continue them at Basil's?
MS: That decision will eventually be Vic's [Vic Rallo], but we are talking about it.
PS: Basil T's Brewmistress Gretchen Schmidhausler has a number of GABF medals, including Golds, under her belt. Will you be following her recipes, doing your own or a combination of the two?
MS: Probably a combination of the two. I want to be creative, but I don't want to mess with success, either.
PS: Basil T's and Uno's are different types of places with different menus that cater to different clientele. How will that affect your brewing?
MS: It'll have some effect, sure. For example, I probably won't be able to brew my Wee Heavy in the winter, and my creativity will probably be tested as I brew lower alcohol beers. But I really don't know yet, because I have to "get my feet wet" in a whole new environment with a totally different business model.
PS: Vic Rallo Jr., your new boss, is a great guy and a class act, as was his dad. How do you anticipate that things will be different working for an individual business owner as opposed to a corporate boss?
MS: I'd imagine that having a sole proprietor who makes the decisions will have some advantages.
PS: You and Gretchen have both been fixtures on the NJ craft brewing scene for many years. After such a long and successful run at Uno's, how do you feel about putting this chapter of your brewing life to bed?
MS: It's going to be bittersweet, for sure. I'm definitely going to miss all the customers and the staff I work with every day. But at the same time, I'm excited by the opportunity to do something different and new.
PS: Your daily commute is going to change drastically. Are you ready for that?
MS: I just bought a new small car that gets 38 MPG, so I'm prepared for the gasoline costs. Besides, I'm an early riser and the heaviest traffic in the morning is coming North on the Parkway, not South.
PS: Basil T's has had a pretty regular presence out at the GABF. Will you be picking up that challenge in your new Brewhouse?
MS: I really don't know; it's too early to tell.
PS: What are the differences in the size of the brewing systems?
MS: The system at Basil T's is half the size of the system I use now. That means I'll be brewing more often, but that's my favorite part of the job.
PS: You established a very successful and well-attended series of Cask Ale fests at Uno's. Will you do that at Basil's?
MS: I enjoy cask ales, and we've talked about getting cask ales in, but we'll have to see. I don't know if my replacement at Uno's will do the Cask Ale Festivals, but if he does, I'll be here. They get pretty crowded.
PS: Will you maintain, decrease or increase the number of beer festivals you enter your beers in? Which festivals will you do, besides the NJ Craft Brewers festival?
MS: I don't know yet; too early to tell.
PS: What do you expect the differences to be in your daily schedule--beyond commuting--from your Uno's routing to your Basil's routine?
MS: Other than brewing more often, none.
PS: Have you offered Uno's--or has Uno's asked for-- any advice as to hiring a new brewer to replace you? Can you throw out some names?
MS: They have asked, and I have given them a recommendation, but that name's under wraps for the moment. I can say that he knows his way around the brewhouse. But I'll have him contact you when and if he gets the gig.
PS: Will the brewer who replaces you do his or her own thing, or do you expect that Corporate will want him to follow your successful recipes?
MS: I plan on leaving the standards—Ike's IPA, Station House Red, Gust N Gale Porter, 32-Inning and Bootlegger Blonde. Whether he does his own seasonal or not is between him and corporate.
PS: At least one influential person who knows your beer--and your intention of leaving--has told me, "I don't care if the beer is a little different after Mike goes, but it's got to be good beer." Your reaction?
MS: I see no reason why the quality of the beers at Uno's will suffer.
PS: You've done many things , fests, beer dinners, etc.,that reach out to the growing craft beer drinking public, and you've hoisted pints here at the bar with many of your customers regularly. What advice would you give to the incoming brewer regarding his or her role in public relations as the Uno's brewer?
MS: I'd tell him to listen to the customers as to what they like and dislike. You can't just brew styles that you personally like. They have to sell.
PS: Uno's Metuchen is the only Uno's franchise among more than 150 franchises that makes its own beer. They seem to be committed to keeping the brewhouse open if they seek a replacement brewer. But if that doesn't work out, could you envision Uno's shutting down its only brewpub in the world?
MS: I don't see that happening because the Brewhouse adds so much to the value of the restaurant. Actually, I'd hate to see that happen.
PS: You're replacing an award-winning brewmistress. Do you feel any pressure?
PS: Besides our beer dinner collaborations, what will you miss most about Uno's when you leave?
MS: All the friends I've made over the years here.
PS: Last question. You have a beer dinner planned here for June 28. Anything special planned for that final occasion?
MS: Yes. My vacation the next day.
Not many of us get to follow the old maxim "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life." Clearly, Mike Sella has been one of the lucky ones, and we who drink his beer have benefitted from that. The PubScout wishes him well as he starts this new chapter in his professional life, and vows to visit him as regularly as practical at Basil T's. One door closes, and another opens, as the saying goes. The big question is will the next person who walks through the Uno's Brewhouse door have to be named Mike, too? It's a tradition, you know.