In 1996 Greg Koch left L.A.’s music industry and sunk his life savings into co-founding a brewery making strange, bold beers almost nobody wanted. Eighteen years later, he’s leading the brewery's expansions on the East Coast and in Germany as Stone Brewing now stands as an icon in American craft brewing. While Stone's peers are also opening eastern locations, Stone's new Berlin outpost is an absolute — and audacious — first for a U.S. craft brewer. Koch visited Men’s Journal recently to talk about the future of Stone Brewing and where craft beer is headed.
So why Germany?
We actually visited and looked at more than 130 sites in nine countries trying to find that perfect spot. So the reason why Germany, is because we found that perfect spot in Berlin, an historic gas works factory in a collection of buildings and outdoor settings. It's a pretty incredible sight.
Looking at the German market and taste, are you going to adapt in your beers?
No! You look at ‘96 when we started in San Diego, there was no San Diego taste. Nobody in San Diego liked our style beer. Nobody, literally, functionally nobody. We just believed in the styles of beer that we like to make and people just came over one by one by one.
In Germany, we're going to be ourselves and let people decide for themselves if they like it or not. But we have confidence in our ability to brew really delicious, tasty beer. And we also have confidence in people's ability to appreciate really good, tasty beer.
So can you tell us more about what you will be brewing there?
We plan on having both a full production-size brew house as well as a rather small brew pub size-system, which will be our flexible, small-batch system for serving at the restaurant and growler fills. But the main brew house will be the classic Stone styles. Things we're most known for. Big, bold, hoppy.
How have you been received by the European brewing community?
For our big brewery announcement in Berlin, we had craft brewers from Hungary, Poland, Italy, and James from BrewDog in Scotland came out, as well as pretty much a full representation of Berlin craft brewers. As far as the industrial side of the equation, I don't really run in those circles.
Were there any legal challenges to brewing in an entirely different country?
No, but there's a few things at play. There's the famous, so called Bavarian Purity Law, which never was a purity law but it's been marketed that way since the 1950s even though it's a 16th Century law. Basically it was a breadmaker protection law because they didn't want wheat and rye to find its way into beer. Barley, hops, and water were the only ingredients that could be used for beer. Most of our beers fall into those guidelines, but it's no longer a law — you can brew anything you want in Germany.
On the other side of the regulations, it’s funny. When we were doing our research, we talked to German officials to make sure that we'd be able to cross all our t's and dot all our i's and so I said, “what do we need to do to get our license to sell beer? What do we need to do to sell beer?”
He sort of looked at me quizzically and said, "you sell beer." You don't need a license? "No! Why would you need a license to sell beer?" It's like an unalienable human right there.
American craft brewers are 3,000 strong and growing, do you see trouble ahead with limited shelf space and bar taps?
From the first day I sold beer in 1996, all the taps at the first restaurant I went to were full. All the shelves at the first market I went to were full, and they're full today. It's always been a highly competitive landscape.
That's not to suggest there haven't been some dramatic changes. It used to be that a pub had, three beers on tap, or your liquor store cooler had two doors. And now it's 10 doors or sometimes 20. The consumers have a cornucopia of choices, unlike any time before. So as we sell less volume in some pubs, you know, the ones with 25, 50, or 100 handles, but we sell more beer because our reputation and awareness has continued to spread and grow.
Are there any small or developing beer styles you see growing?
The beauty of today's craft beers is you're seeing more of everything. I think craft beer started off as rock and roll in the 50s. A lot of people were like, this is just noise, this is devil music, it's just shaking your hips. There were even people who were protesting it. "We don't want flavor in our beer! This is crazy stuff. We want our Benny Goodman!”
And as rock and roll has grown, craft beer has grown. Now there are all these sub styles and regionalizations. You know, in ‘73 it was heavy metal and in 2014 it's, well what kind of band are you talking about, speed, thrash, death, are you talking Norwegian death? I see craft beer like that.
Well what are you most excited about?
Sours. I first visited Cantillon in Brussels in 1995 and they had these very authentic sour styles. Those have always been something to get excited about in my mind. You can get some really intense flavor profiles in some rather low-alcohol beer.
Then a lot of brewers are coming up with new versions, using specialty yeast with these funkifying organisms: pediococcus, lactobacillaceae, brettanomyces. I used to think, 12 years ago, I knew what there was to know about the beer industry and what can be done in brewing. And now I happily admit, I have no idea what's around the next corner. And that's cool because the rate of innovation and creativity is increasing.
What can you tell us about your new East Coast location?
We've narrowed it down to three possible cities: Columbus, Ohio, Norfolk, Virginia, and Richmond, Virginia. We're in the final negotiation stage and expected to announce soon.
It's been really incredible to me, the lengths that these communities have gone through to attract us. We've been visited by governors of both states, the mayor of Columbus brought an entourage to Stone. There's been grassroots Facebook and hashtag campaigns, aimed at us from the people of the regions.
And again, music analogy, it's like an 18-year overnight success. You're used to playing in clubs and yeah, you've got a rabid fan base, but it's small. But it fills your soul and it makes you feel like going on and you love doing it. Then all of a sudden they what you to play the stadium. Really? Pinch me. Is this real? And that's kind of how I feel sometimes. Although, I'm not actually a real rock star.