By Lew Bryson
It’s hard to think of Stone Brewing and not think of Greg Koch. He has been the front man, the face of Stone, the brash and unapologetic voice of the San Diego brewing scene, the American craft beer industry and the general pursuit of hoppiness.
When we wanted to get more on what Stone is doing, and where Stone is going, it seemed like a good time to do it. Stone just announced that they are now officially available in all 50 states and 31 countries. That’s a landmark worth celebrating.
Koch and his partner Steve Wagner met in the music business in 1989; Koch’s band rented space in Wagner’s studio. A shared passion for good beer eventually led to discussions of making their own, and the rock and rollers became brewers in 1996. Stone was very rock and roll from that first moment.
I remember my first bottle of Arrogant Bastard and the take-no-prisoners bottle text: “This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth.” I laughed. But the laughing turned to gasps when I tasted it. That was indeed an aggressive beer, especially for the time.
That’s been Stone’s stock in trade, and they’re not backing down. If you want hoppier beer, they’ve got it; hoppier beer that they bend over backwards to get to you at the peak of freshness. They believe so much in their beer, in American craft beer, that they took their philosophy to Germany, the heart of beer country, and started a brewery. It’s thriving.
Greg Koch would simply say… of course it is. Is that arrogance? At this point, I’d have to say that it’s confidence, because it’s deserved.
Draught Lines (DL): You started Stone with a small brewhouse and an attitude, at a time when the San Diego beer scene was a bit behind the curve. Years later, Stone is in all 50 states, an icon in an industry that is increasingly leaving their icons behind, and brewing beer in Germany. How do you grow and keep it fresh; how do you become large, but avoid becoming “The Man”?
Greg Koch (GK): I’ve made many analogies to music and the music industry. You can be a kind of artist who wants to relive your original album, or the kind who’s constantly trying to discover and still be true to yourself. I always wanted to leave a lot of white canvas, not define too much who we are. I see beer and brewing as art. I did so when we started, and even more so today. Artistic endeavors can take manifestations beyond the obvious – sculpture, painting – and affect almost anything in life. Art is best when it has a point of view, when it’s not for everybody, and you recognize that and accept it. It helps you stay relevant. There’s a direct correlation to staying relevant to yourself, and staying relevant to fans of your work. Brewing offers more opportunity than most [production industries] in that regard.
DL: You’re in all 50 states now. How do you keep fresh beer in all markets?
GK: It’s hard work, lots of hard work. It’s very difficult. We try to make freshness really clear for everyone with our code dating. I’ve always been a believer that brewer, wholesaler, retailer and fans should all be on the same page, which is why it’s NOT “code” dating, it’s plain dates, printed on the package. We have a webpage that asks people to let us know when they see Stone beers that aren’t fresh, so we can address it, because we want to, and that helps us do a better job every day. It’s a never-ending endeavor.
Our new production facility in Richmond, VA was instrumental in getting fresh beer to all 50 states. It greatly expanded our capacity and decreased travel time for our beers. We’ve just installed our canning line, which means we can now brew, bottle, keg and can all of our year-round beers in Escondido and Richmond, and that means fresher beer for our fans in the eastern half of the U.S. This year we’ll not only produce our year-round and seasonal beers in Richmond, but we’ll also be brewing a special Stone double IPA exclusively for the East Coast, which will later become available nationwide
DL: Freshness is a good place to bring up Stone Enjoy By, the limited brews you release four times a year with a freshness date right in the name. What led to it, and how successful has it been?
GK: It was a chance to look at [IPA freshness] from a different perspective. What if you put all these hops in, then [package] it straight from the fermenter? We sat down with a whiteboard and started mapping out all the things that would have to happen for this to work.
Logistically, it’s a massive hurdle; a royal pain in the ass, is what it is. But I’ve had a long-standing philosophy: why do things the easy way when you can do them the hard way? The obvious person will look at that and think, ‘That doesn’t make any sense, find another way.’ I look at it and think, ‘That doesn’t make any sense… we should totally do it that way!’ It’s a Herculean effort, each time, by our wholesalers, and it’s appreciated.
(Stone Enjoy By first came out only in two states, with wholesalers who would commit to getting the beer out in 37 days. It has the highest sales velocity of any Stone beer.)
DL: It’s hard to keep up with all the beers you offer. What are some of the ones you’re most excited about?
GK: Last night I was enjoying some Tangerine Express IPA. Not brand new, but it’s just a wonderful, flavorful beer. I’m a fan of our portfolio of beers. It’s obvious, but it’s true. I have a constant opportunity to either revisit something I’ve loved a long time, like Stone IPA, or something newer: Stone Vengeful Spirit IPA. I find myself in front of the open fridge, trying to decide what I’m in the mood for. We have six beers in our core lineup, the newest being Tangerine Express IPA, released nationwide in cans in January. We’re adding a new core beer in February: Stone Scorpion Bowl IPA, very juicy, fruity aroma and flavor, no fruit added. There will not be as many collaborations next year.
DL: You’re in cans now. I assume you never thought you’d be in cans. Why cans? Why now?
GK: For many years I was not a believer in cans, and now I am. It’s that simple. In Germany, we only package in cans and a few specialty corked bottles. Qualitatively and environmentally, they’re just great. The package has gone through so many improvements in the past decade or so. It all comes down to freshness. We have an incredible lab here, and we know canning is better for the beer. And people want the portability.
DL: The Arrogant Bastard beers were recently spun off as Arrogant Brewing. Still the same company? What’s the aim?
GK: It was a recognition that Arrogant Bastard has always had its own strong personality. Allowing it not to be restricted by the Stone Brewing voice, which is a different one, allows that personality to be more of what it is, an interesting, unique voice. It’s an alter ego, a Jekyll and Hyde kind of relationship. We’re not trying to pretend we’re two different entities; we’re not. But the way they express themselves is quite different.
DL: You’ve got a focus on hops, always have. How did that lead to the Hop Revolver IPA idea? Was that focus on the kind of hop about the beer geeks getting more educated and hungry for more information?
GK: It’s about growing our own knowledge, trying opportunities we may not have had the chance to. And as beer geeks ourselves, if we enjoy it, other beer geeks may say, ‘Hey, this is kind of cool.’
But beer enthusiasts maybe haven’t changed. Look at us: we didn’t know anything. We got interested, we liked it and we decided to go further down that rabbit hole. When we first opened, there weren’t that many drinkers out there that knew that much. Now there are more: is that a change, or just a natural evolution?
There’s been a cultural shift. I can remember when, not even ten years ago, people would still refer to craft beer as “foofoo beer.” You don’t hear that anymore. It’s a change in our society, in what we accept and won’t accept. I was into that kind of thing, personally, way back, but now there’s a peer group, societal support. Society wasn’t supporting craft beer, the mainstream media wasn’t noticing us. Now they do. Weird. Kinda beautiful, but it’s kinda weird.
DL: Speaking of “kinda weird,” you’re not just in 50 states; you’re in Germany, in Berlin! What the hell led to that? Why did you do it? How’s it working out? Are Berliners drinking Stone? Is Stone inspiring German brewers?
GK: You’re looking at it and thinking, there’s a lot that’s awesome with this beer scene, but if I had to live with it, there’s a lot that’s maybe limiting.
I’d see American beer fans saying, ‘Well, when I go to Germany, I don’t want an IPA. I want lager.’ Absolutely, you should have that choice. But who are you to say that a German shouldn’t have access to an IPA. That’s like a German coming over here and saying you shouldn’t have access to pilsners, or hefeweizens, or Dortmunder exports! That would be offensive. That would be crazy! West Coast-style IPA is one of the great beer styles now, and they should have access to that. That’s how we looked at it.
Let me tell you a little story. Last summer, I was in Stone Bistro in Berlin. I noticed a German guy, about 75, bee-lining straight towards me. “I understand you are ze owner here.” Yes, I’m Greg. “I have something I want to tell you. Your beer tastes like I used to remember. Thank you!” And he grabs me by the shoulders, kind of German-hugs me. That was one of my most awesome moments of the entire year.
DL: Does the concept of ‘American beer imperialism’ concern you at all, the idea that American craft beer ideas are coming full-blown into countries new to craft and having a huge impact?
GK: Zero issue. It’s only our innate desire to be apologists for being ourselves, for being awesome. We spend too much time apologizing for ourselves. It’s totally up to people everywhere what beers they prefer. It would be imperialism to say that we should decide what choices people have. We went to the Germans, showed them our beers; let’s see if they like them. Which is all we did in San Diego back in 1996.
DL: What’s next? What direction does Stone the company take? What directions do the beers take?
GK: Always in development. That’s the nature of the art. In many ways, it’s better not to focus on what’s the next big thing. Just do your art and let the marketplace decide what they gravitate towards. Are we making what people want? Yeah, we are. A lot of people enjoy our beer. You can’t ignore the marketplace. Are we making what we want? Absolutely. We have to give the marketplace credit for good taste; we have to give ourselves that same credit.