Sean Greelish | Stilt House Brewery

PHL 23 | Making Great Beer

Stilt House Brewery has been a staple in Palm Harbor since 2013! Sean has a passion for beer and it is obvious from the first time you meet him. We talk with Sean about where is passion for beer begin and about the process of making beer. The neat thing about beer is that anyone can do it from home on a small scale but it takes experience and a deep understanding of the process to make great beer. That is something Sean takes a lot of pride in and he’s always open to trying new, untraditional ingredients for the next batch. Do yourself a favor and grab a beer, from Stilt House of course, before you listen in to this episode because you’ll be ready for one after you listen to Sean.

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Sean Greelish | Stilt House Brewery

I started this show because I’m extremely passionate about connecting you with the people in the local businesses that make Palm Harbor so special. Palm Harbor, Florida is a great place to call home. It has everything you can dream of, from the food, the outdoors, the lifestyle to the people in the community. Through this show and Instagram, I’ve been able to make some incredible connections. I want to invite you to follow me on Instagram. It’s @Donnie.Hathaway, where I share all the best places to live, work and play in beautiful Palm Harbor.

In this episode, we have Sean Greelish who is the owner of Stilt House Brewery right here in Palm Harbor, Florida. Stilt House has been around since 2013. Sean has a great story. If you’ve met him before or if you’ve been into the Stilt House, you know he is super passionate about making great quality beer for the local community. I’m excited to sit down with him and learn more about his past, how he got into making beer, and why he’s so passionate about it. Let’s jump right into it.

Sean, thank you for joining us on the show. We’ve chatted a little bit before. I’m super excited to share that with everyone else. Why don’t we start off and talk about the brewery, what you guys do, and why you got into that?

That’s an awesome story. My aunt owned a restaurant on the southern coast of England. The first time I went there, I was fourteen. That summer was the first time I bought a beer. I bought a beer in London. My stepbrother and I snuck out of the hotel room. We walked by this bar that had a roll-up door just like mine. There was a guy sitting there with the back legs of his chair on the sidewalk. He said, “Get these blokes over here.” My stepbrother and I drank the first one and then I bought another one. I thought I was the coolest person in the world. At fourteen years old, I bought a beer in England.

Was it legal in England to do that?

I had an American accent and money. That was pretty much all they cared about. I went back to the restaurant every summer after that until I was 21. I would work in the restaurant. At the end of the day, I would go down the street to the pub and buy a couple of pints, shoot some darts with the locals, and then go back to our room. The summer that I turned seventeen, I decided it was not fair that I could drink beer all summer. When I got back here to go back to high school, I couldn’t buy it. I started making it when I was seventeen years old at my house. If my dad reads this, sorry, dad, because he didn’t know that.

You brewed beer and your dad had no idea?

No, he didn’t know.

Did you brew it in your room?

I would brew it in the kitchen when nobody was home, and then I would let it ferment in the closet. I always had my windows open. A couple of weeks later, I would bottle it and hide the bottles in the closet with sheets and stuff over them. He never found out. I was popular in my senior year of high school because I did have a lot of friends who were like, “What can I get for $50?” They would buy cases of beer from me.

How much were you making at that time?

At that time, 5 gallons makes about 2.5 cases. They would give me $50, I would give them 2 cases and I’d keep half a case for myself. I then make some more.

You keep the process going. You never got caught for doing it.

PHL 23 | Making Great Beer

Making Great Beer: Beer is supposed to be high-gravity, not like light beer that’s got to be iced cold because it doesn’t really taste good.

 

That’s how the brewery started. I had some friends that were homeschool dads. One of the things that happen when you homeschool your kids, most of the time, it’s the wives that take the kids to the homeschool co-op. The guys didn’t know each other that well. I had all the kids over for a campfire and marshmallows in my backyard. I also make wine at home. I brought out bottles of wine for all of the wives who know each other. They see each other at least once a week. They were all drinking wine and all the dads were standing around in a circle, twiddling our thumbs. I was like, “Do you guys want a beer?” They’re like, “I thought you’d never ask.”

I took them into my garage. I had built a false wall in the middle of my garage that separated it from the front to the back. The inside part was my bar. I had a six-tap kegerator, glassware shelves, and all kinds of stuff in the bar. There are six different beers on tap. I started handing them out beers and they were like, “Do you have a bar in your garage? Where did you get all of this?” I said, “I made it on the other side of this wall.”

We opened the door into the other part which was my brewery. I had fermenters in there and all the stuff that I needed to make beer. They were jaw-dropping like, “Why don’t you have a brewery?” “Because I have a job. I need a job. Brewing is my hobby.” It did take them two years to convince me to do it, but here I am several years later.

You’ve been making beer for a long time. The breweries have become more popular than several years ago. What is it that you like about the beer that attracted you to it from such a young age?

Beer is a great social experiment as long as you don’t get carried away. People sometimes get carried away here because I like high-gravity beers. I like beers that taste good. I learned what beer was supposed to taste like during all those summers in England. It’s not supposed to be an American light beer. When most people are drinking, they’re like, “I’ll have a Bud Light but it’s got to be ice-cold.”

The reason why it’s got to be ice-cold is it doesn’t taste good. You’re only drinking it to get hammered. If that’s your goal, that’s fine. It’s the difference between getting a cheeseburger at McDonald’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. There’s a difference in price but the one you’re getting at Ruth’s Chris tastes good. That’s where the thing came from. I’ve expounded on that. I’ve made almost anything that anybody has asked for. People ask for crazy things like, “I’ll bet you can’t make a beer that tastes like this.” I could, but how many people are going to drink that? If you think a lot of people are going to drink it, I’ll make it.

We didn’t do it in 2020 because of the whole thing but before that, there was a thing that we used to do in the Tampa Bay area called the Iron Brewer. It was like Iron Chef but it was with beer. We would all meet at a brewery down in St. Pete. You get ingredients at random like kumquats, cashews and Old Bay Seasoning. I forgot what the other ingredient was but it didn’t go well with the Old Bay Seasoning.

Usually, there would be between 22 and 28 different brewers that were all involved with the Brewers’ Challenge. Some of the stuff that came out of there were fantastic. I never took in the top three. I was in 4th place, three years in a row. It’s a blind taste test. They set up jockey boxes at a brewery and the general general public gets to vote on what they think is the best. It was fun. One year, I got chocolate and vanilla. Everybody was like, “You’re making a stout.” I said, “No, I’m going to make a white stout that tastes like chocolate and it’s the color of a pilsner. If you close your eyes and took a sip of it, you would think you were drinking a stout, but it was blonde in color.

What is the whole brewing process like? How long does that take?

Brewing a batch of beer with industry-standard equipment takes almost the same amount of time. No matter if you make 5 or 130 gallons or 30 barrels. It still takes 6 to 8 hours because the process doesn’t change. We’d take the modified grains and steep them in hot water at a specific temperature to convert starches to sugars. Once you convert all those starches to sugars, then you boil them to get rid of any coagulants that would be in there and clarify the beer.

Boiling is where you also add your flavorings, hops and all that stuff. We then pull it out, cool it down and put it into a fermenter. At that point, we’re in complete control because we’ve made something that is no longer going to touch the outside atmosphere. Once it leaves the kettle to go into the fermenter, it doesn’t touch the atmosphere until it comes out of the tap. All the rest of that is a closed system. The fermentation and kegging, everything is all done with pressure at that point.

What about adding flavors like when you have two ingredients that you’ve known nothing about? Is that just from experience that you know how much to add? How are you adding the ingredients? How do you get the flavor?

It depends on exactly which flavors we’re adding. Everything that I make that has a fruit or vegetable in it, I buy all of those fruits from Steve’s Produce stand down the street so it is real fruit and vegetable. My most popular selling beer here is the Hell Yeah!. It’s a jalapeno cornbread lager. It’s made with jalapenos and flaked corn.

Beer should taste interesting. You should get different flavors at different times.

The flaked corn goes in the mash and will convert a little bit, but it adds that corn flavor into the beer. We also put some jalapenos in the mash to get started. The jalapenos go at the beginning and the end of the boil. There’s also a lot of honey in that, which is why it tastes like cornbread. It’s honey, corn and jalapenos. We serve it in a pilsner glass with a slice of jalapeno on the rim.

In the glass, it’s about a 2 on a scale of 10, depending on what season the jalapenos were grown in because some jalapenos are hotter than others. It’s usually about a 2 when it comes out of the tap, but if you take that jalapeno from the rim and drop it into the beer, capsaicin is alcohol soluble so within about three minutes, it’s about an 8 on a scale of 10 from one slice of jalapeno. Without the jalapeno, you get the green flavor like a baked jalapeno. When you bake a jalapeno after scraping out the seeds and you bake it, it’s not that hot. It tastes earthy green. That’s how the beer comes out until you put that slice of jalapeno in it.

Some people like that. I have two pepper beers on. The other one is called Wizard’s Wheat. That’s made with serrano and poblano peppers. We roast the poblano peppers over a fire so that you get a little bit of a smoky flavor and the seeds on the inside of the poblano pop. They give you a different flavor. There’s a regular customer that comes in. He likes it so hot that he brings his own habaneros. He slices habaneros and puts 6 to 8 slices in the bottom of his already slightly spicy beer. He sweats like crazy and he loves it.

That doesn’t sound good to me, but everyone has got their own thing. That’s one thing that’s different about your brewery compared to some of the other ones. You experiment with a lot of unique flavors compared to others. Is that something that you’re passionate about? Where does that come from?

It comes from customers and the ideas that we have. I wrote a recipe. I never made it because I chickened out of that one. I wrote a recipe for sweet and sour chicken that would have tasted like sweet and sour chicken with chicken bouillon in it. Part of the reason why I didn’t do that one was because the bouillon has enough fat in it from the actual chicken that I don’t think it would hold ahead. It would have tasted exactly like sweet and sour chicken, but it wouldn’t look good in the glass. I was like, “We’re going to leave that one.”

How do you decide how much to put in and the timing of it too with the jalapenos when you add it to the mash and stuff? Is it trial and error?

It’s like watching a fantastic band onstage live. Everybody’s got their own little part to play. Sometimes Eddie Vedder goes in the corner and you don’t hear him. Sometimes he is right in the center of the stage playing harmonica at the same time that somebody else is playing. It all depends on how you want it to work. It depends on where you want the flavors to come out. I like layering because beer should taste interesting. The reason for the jalapenos going at several stages is it layers the beer. You get different flavors at different times.

I did a chocolate raspberry hard water where you put in 12 pounds of chocolate. When you smell it in the glass, it smells like a chocolate bar. When you first taste it, it tastes like raspberries. After you swallow and talk for 30 seconds, it tastes like chocolate again. I have been called the Willy Wonka of beer because it’s the whole layering of blueberry pie. Getting different flavors at different times, I find that a challenge. That’s the challenging part that I try to do every single time.

One of the things I did early on is I made batches of beer in glass jars called carboys. I had 7-gallon glass carboys. I would do a five-gallon batch in the carboy. Picture a lava lamp except it’s not one drop of lava. It’s millions of little yeast cells that are picking up something to eat. As they eat that thing, they let out CO2, so they float to the top. When it gets to the top, once the CO2 hits the surface, the surface tension breaks loose the CO2, and that particle falls back to the bottom. It does that in the entire thing all the time for the first 48 hours. It was amazing.

The Germans called it the sturm, which means storm. You can see it moving up and down inside the container. Because I used to do that, I know what it looks like. Even in a stainless-steel container where I can’t see it, I know what it looks like in there. It’s very important for homebrewers to do that at least once so that you get an idea of what’s happening at what stage.

Anything that we add fruit to, usually the fruit is added at the end of the boil, but then it’s also added after primary fermentation. With the fruit or vegetable beer that we have, we have a typical pound, usually about 40 pounds. That’s a lot of fruit. A lot of the fruit beers that I make are pretty expensive. I had a guy come in one time and I was behind the bar. I heard him talking to the friend that he came in with. He was complaining that he has coconut trees in his backyard. The coconuts fall and they make a mess. He was having a hard time figuring out where to get rid of them because he didn’t want to take them to the dump anymore because it’s food.

He was talking and I was like, “How many coconuts you got?” He goes, “What would you do with 75 coconuts?” I said, “You know who you’re talking to, right?” He’s like, “What would you do with 75 coconuts?” I was like, “Give me a piece of paper.” I wrote a recipe for a coconut stout. He brought coconuts the next day. He didn’t have 75, he had 100.

He threw them from his truck into the back of my truck. The next brew day, we were all out there with our machetes. I drilled a hole in each one to get the coconut water out. We got 4.5 gallons of coconut water and 4 pounds of coconut meat. All of that was staged in various parts of the brew. We then added more into the fermenter, some of the ones that we didn’t use in the brew.

PHL 23 | Making Great Beer

Making Great Beer: No matter if you make 5 gallons or if you make 130 barrels, it still takes six to eight hours because the process doesn’t really change.

 

We cut those up and added the coconut meat in bags like dry hopping in the fermenter. I made a coconut stout that was to die for. I put it on nitro and it went super fast, a matter of a couple of weeks. People still asked me if I can make it again, but one single coconut at Publix is $2. That’s $200 for coconuts. If the guy ever comes back with the coconut, I will take another truckload of coconuts.

Let’s jump back into 2020. It’s a challenging year for a lot of people, especially the local brewers. There was a time I remember when we were questioning whether any of the breweries were going to be able to stay open. Talk a little bit about that and what that was like.

That was difficult. I did get a phone call from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 at noon. I thought they were joking because the person said, “I’m calling from the DBPR. You have to be closed at 5:00.” I laughed on the phone. I said, “No, you’re kidding. This is a joke, right?” He said, “No. You have to be closed at 5:00.”

At 6:30 PM, when Pinellas County sheriffs rolled in, there were still 30 people inside. He came in and said, “You’ve got the phone call, right?” I played stupid. I’m like, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” They made everybody leave. The next day, I came in. I sat down at the bar with a glass of water. I cried for a little while. I was like, “I’m going to figure out how to do this part because this is something different. I’m not going to let this be the end of it.” My landlord is not going to let me not pay rent. I still have to pay the bills.

All my fermenters had beers in them because we didn’t have any warning about that. There were a bunch of breweries that had to dump stuff out. They take the hit and dump it out. I was determined to not let that happen. I have a little tiny canning machine that came from Oktober, a company that makes canning machines. It’s a single canner, one at a time. I called a friend of mine that owns a canning company. I bought a pallet of cans. I called the growler company and I bought a full pallet of growlers.

We had a walk-up service at the back window. The state said, “It’s all right to deliver beer just like its food,” because they tell us it’s food all the time. I would have a couple of employees a week that would be on the phone. Everybody knew that if they called, “What do you need? Do you need a case? We’re going to can you a case. We’ll deliver the case to your house and drop it off at your front door.” We had people coming up to the back window filling growlers every single day and buying four-packs of cans. I got in trouble a couple of times because they would go outside the back door, open up the can, and then sit in the back parking lot drinking it.

I’m like, “That’s not my property. If they were drinking a Budweiser, is it my fault at that point?” They were drinking my beer, so I got in a little bit of trouble a couple of times. That wasn’t too bad. We figured that out. We were able to get into a groove with that. I had two employees on at one time. One was behind the bar and the other one was out serving. We did that for a while. They allowed us to reopen a little bit, and then all of the sudden they were like, “No. Unless you’re a restaurant, you got to be closed.” That part was hard.

During that time, I wrote six letters to Ron DeSantis because his parents live in this area. Without giving any names, I told him, “My son comes over with me on Sundays to the brewery and we take a bike ride. We went south on the trail from where I’m located. We came across a restaurant that’s located on a wharf and there were 300 people inside. The reason why people are going there and not coming to my establishment is because they can have a beer inside, sitting down at a bar.” He loosened things up a little bit and he said, “If you have a food truck or a kitchen, then you can open.”

I had a friend with a food truck. He parked out front every single day of the week for 3 or 4 weeks. One of my employees was starting a catering company. I said, “Let’s get the catering company going.” This front room became my kitchen for two months. It was not the right way to do it but it was fairly legal. We were closed. The only thing is that I wasn’t running that through the DBPR. I was running that through the local health department. That’s the part where I wasn’t doing it right.

There were other local breweries who thought it was a joke. They would print a menu and their menu was sardines and crackers in every single line, they just described it differently. We have a kitchen and have sardines and crackers. It’s not the right way to do it. When my health department inspector came in with our kitchen here, she said, “You’re closed. You did almost everything right. I’m impressed.”

They loosened everything up toward the end of 2020 and said, “You do whatever you feel comfortable with.” Some interesting things happened because of that. A fantastic musician named Greg West used to play here every Saturday. When they shut everything down, Greg lost his job because he plays at restaurants, bars and sporting events. All of the things that he did and places where he would go were all gone.

We started having free concerts out in the backyard. I built a stage out there because I was supposed to encourage people to be outside. It’s Saturdays and it has grown to a point where there will be 100 to 160 people outside listening to Greg and having a beer. It’s awesome. I can’t thank him enough. He stuck in there with us.

It was a difficult time and you had to adapt, put one foot in front of the other, make changes and do the best you could. It sounds like there are some good things that came from that too like the patio, having that space out there.

It’s important to have kids feel like they’re not just tagging along their parents while they have a beer.

I always wanted something like that. When we first chose this building, I was like, “I want to turn the backyard into a place where people come out and have a good time.” Nobody forced me to do it yet. I was like, “I don’t have the money to put into this,” but that became the only avenue. People couldn’t come inside, but they could be outside as long as I encouraged them to.

That was one of the other exceptions like, “You can sell to-go stuff and people can be outside. You need to encourage them to be outside.” That’s where all of that came from. I started looking at the outside space and thinking, “I need a stage, waterproof sunshade coverings and all this stuff.” Because I was forced to do that, our space back there looks decent now. There’s a whole lot of stuff that I still want to do, but that’s all about being able to afford to do that.

You’re right off the Pinellas trail too. Having the space back there is huge for the people that are coming up and down.

Most of the people that come here on the weekends are coming off of the trail. We have a Running for Brews every Monday. They run on the trail and then come back. A couple of times a year, there’s Biking for Brews. They did that for special occasions. The Biking for Brews, there will be up to 170 people on bicycles. They tell me ahead of time so I know they’re coming. I’ll set up a station outside.

As a matter of fact, outside we have a Kombi Keg Tampa. A ’72 Volkswagen is parked out back with six taps on the side of it. When we know we’re going to be super busy and it’s not going to rain, we try to get beers on the Kombi Keg. Kombi Keg Company is owned by my bar manager, Angela. It was convenient. She said, “I can park it here. I could park it in my driveway.” I said, “That would be awesome.” We try and keep enough things going during the week so that there’s something different going on. We started doing trivia again, but it’s only every other Tuesday.

We talked about the community and the family-type atmosphere that you have here. That’s something that you’re passionate about. Every brewery has a different vibe and stuff, but that’s one way that separates you from the others.

That was always pretty important to me. I have two kids. I have pictures of the first time we got the large brewhouse. My son was helping me clean it the first time. That was a few years ago. He was six years old and he’s got a hose in his hand, helping me spray and brush it down. That was pretty cool. I always encouraged people to bring in their kids. We always have events for the kids. This Christmas 2021, we did Santa Ross. If you’ve never seen Ross in a Santa suit, he was perfect. It was a free Santa. You come and sit in his lap and take your pictures and whatever. Every child that came here, we gave them a goodie bag. We had ornament painting for free, where they were outside painting their own ornaments. They can take them home and put them on their own tree.

We didn’t do a lot in 2020 because we couldn’t, but we used to have an outdoor sprinkler station where the kids could come in and play in the water. We turn the water on and let them play there. Sidewalk chalks out front, where kids would color stuff, and then we would vote on it. The kids that would win would get something like a soda and bag of chips or whatever.

That’s pretty important to me to have the kids feel like they’re not just tagging along with their parents while their parents have a beer, and they have to sit still and be quiet. There’s a place for them. Kids bring their own stuff. They bring their scooters and they’re riding on the front sidewalk or out in the back. I encourage that. I liked that feeling.

That’s one reason that separates you from the other ones. I feel like we can keep this conversation going. There are so many more questions I have, but I want to wrap it up with this. This is something I like to ask everybody. What is one of your favorite local businesses? It doesn’t have to be a favorite. It can be one that you want to highlight right now. If you had to pick one, what would that be? Pick a local one.

He’s already pretty well known. It’s Fairway Pizza. He had my beer on tap for a long time when we were back in the distribution before the distribution company went out of business in 2021. Fairway Pizza is a great place, and also Fireside Pizza. I know they’re both pizza places. Right after we opened, I was still using my system but I had to wheel it outside every day. I was complaining that I needed an exhaust hood over the kettle before I could use it inside.

Fireside Pizza, Mike said, “What do you need?” I said, “I need a 4-foot exhaust hood.” He said, “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” I said, “Yeah.” He brought me one and gave it to me. I was like, “That’s $5,000.” He said, “It’s been sitting in a storage unit and I don’t need it. It’s yours.” He came in and was buying beer. I was trying to give it to him for free. He said, “If you don’t charge me for beer, I’m never coming back here.”

I said, “I’m going to pay you back somehow.” What we used to do is I would buy 4 to 6 pizzas every Wednesday and give them away. “If you’re not going to let me pay you back, I’m buying 4 to 6 pizzas a week. That’s how I’m going to pay you and give it back to the customers.” Wednesday was Customer Appreciation Pizza Night. Maybe we’ll get back to that because we had to stop doing that in 2020. It wasn’t going to work.

PHL 23 | Making Great Beer

Making Great Beer: Getting different flavors at different times is a challenge.

 

I feel like we’re close to that. Hopefully, we’ll be back to some of those norms and stuff.

Everybody just wants to feel normal.

It’s the uncomfortable feeling of the unknown of being outside around people and stuff. It’s different. I appreciate you jumping on here. You have a website but you’re located here off the Pinellas Trail in Palm Harbor, right off Alternate 19.

We’re at 625 Alternate 19. Depending on your landmarks, we’re either near the post office or right across the street from Hungry Howie’s. We’re right off of the Pinellas Trail. We’ve got the big blue shades. We do have a website. Our Facebook page is pretty active. On our website, you can order from the shop. If you want to get a shirt, a hat or something like that, you can order it at the shop. It’ll either be here in the brewery or we can mail it to you. If you call the bar phone, nobody will answer it. That’s the way that goes.

Don’t call the bar phone, just show up. Thank you again. I appreciate it.

Thank you, Donnie.

I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Sean from Stilt House Brewery. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to hit that follow button on your favorite podcast platform, whether it’s Google, Apple Podcast, Spotify, Castro, Deezer, whatever it is, hit that follow button and download the episodes. If I can connect you with any of our previous guests or with Sean, follow me on Instagram, it’s @Donnie.Hathaway and send me a message over there. I hope you’re having a great start to the week. Have a great one. We’ll see you next time.

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