Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local brewers.
Most brewers have an “ah-ha!” moment when beer “clicked” for them, and often it goes back to having a sip of a parent’s beer during childhood. For some, it’s discovering something different, something interesting during high school or the early years of college.
It was a bit different for Shawn Steele, the owner and head brewer at False Idol Independent Brewers.
“I didn’t have beer ’til I was about 22 years old,” says Steele, now 33. “I never drank anything.”
Yes, he missed out on those college days of beer drinking, mostly because he was from Marion, Ky., a small town in a dry county where, Steele says, beer was “not only not available, but also heavily frowned upon. I thought alcohol was this evil thing for a long time.”
It wasn’t until much later that he was in a different part of the state, and a friend said of beer, “There’s more to it than Bud Light.” Steele chuckles before saying that friend had him try a Woodchuck cider, followed by a Leinenkugel beer. But it gave him perspective.
When he moved to Louisville not long after, he went to a pint night at O’Shea’s Irish Pub and was hooked. He went back week after week and got to taste something new and interesting each week.
“That was exciting to me,” he recalls.
Steele had done everything from food service to call center work to writing captions for online videos. But he dabbled a bit in home brewing, and then, about two years ago, got a job as an assistant brewer at Akasha Brewing Co., where he learned to brew under Rick Stidham.
When did he know the life of a brewer was for him?
“The fact that I worked it Akasha for a year and a half and didn’t hate my job,” he says. “Every other job I’ve had, I’ve been incredibly miserable within a couple of months.”
This from a guy who sits explaining the beers he’s brewed since False Idol opened with the doting sound of a parent talking about a child. Steele likes keeping his beers accessible in terms of drinkability and alcohol content — most False Idol beers check in at about 5 percent alcohol by volume — but he likes making them unique.
Rather than just brew a pale ale, a signature at the brewery is a kettle-soured pale ale. Currently, there’s also a pale ale brewed with 40 percent wheat and 10 percent rye, making it a different animal altogether. Manna, the overwhelming best-seller at False Idol, is a little-seen kellerbier, an approachable German style, while Our Lady of Sorrows is a stout made with wheat and Cecilia is a rye-infused porter.
Steele’s passion didn’t start with beer; he is a musician who performed in a band called Violet Knives, and also was a co-founder of the Seven Sense Festival. He’s turned his attention away from music lately to focus on mastering the craft of brewing and, of course, running a business, which he co-founded with the V-Grits owners Kristina Addington and Jeff Hennis.
The amount of work that goes into such a venture is a challenge for anyone, but Steele also came in with a bit of a disadvantage in the form of a chronic disease that has plagued him since he was in grade school. Originally diagnosed with diverticulitis, a digestive tract disease, he since has been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory syndrome of the intestines that can cause serious complications as well as fatigue, anemia and other symptoms.
For most of his life, Steele has been periodically stricken with the digestive-tract issues, landing in the hospital many times and undergoing several surgeries. The burden is emotional and mental as well as physical at times, he says.
“There’s a point where your brain starts telling you that you’re going to die,” he says. “I don’t think people understand how scary that can be.”
It’s an issue he recently has decided to face in a more direct way, making it public and talking about it openly rather acting as if it doesn’t exist. The recent development was that his hair has begun falling out because of complications from the disease.
A frank social media post made no bones about the challenges he’s endured; essentially, he just wants people to understand so that others might be more willing to speak up and share their struggle.
“I always had super thick hair; it runs in the family, and I was always grateful for it,” Steele says. “When you have that hair and the chunks are coming out, when you see it going down the drain, it’s not just hair going down the drain. It feels like it’s years off your life, it’s your physical attractiveness. Your capability. Nothing makes you feel more frail than seeing parts of yourself come undone.”
The response was supportive, with some people offering platitudes but so many more simply reaching out to say that they care about him. Steeles says the responses have buoyed him, and he encourages everyone to be forthcoming when offering such emotions to friends and family. It doesn’t hurt to tell someone you love them or you care about them, he says.
“Those are things you don’t say in casual conversation,” Steele says. “When someone needs to hear it, you need to be forthcoming with it.”
His wife of 11 years, Becky, has been on much of the ride with him. And if the difficulty of Crohn’s might slow him down at times, it doesn’t quell the passion that got him to where he is. Having that sort of drive for what he does for a living is what he’d been seeking all along.
“That creative expression of taking something you appreciate more than a lot of people do and diving as deeply as you can into it and trying to gain as much expertise as you can” is what it’s about, Steele says. And it started with a single Woodchuck cider and then pint nights at O’Shea’s.
“I think that piqued the interest of the creative part of my brain that needs to express itself,” he adds. “I think that speaks to why I’ve delved into beer as opposed to some other thing. I love that it takes something mundane and turns it into a creative, unique experience.”
False Idol Independent Brewers is located at 1025 Barret Ave., inside V-Grits at the former Monkey Wrench space.