The American Craft Beer Takeover Has Begun: Stone Brews in Germany

California's Stone Brewing is the first independent U.S. craft brewer to produce its beer in Europe.
California's Stone Brewing is the first independent U.S. craft brewer to produce its beer in Europe. Courtesy Stone Brewing

This fall, U.S. craft brewing's explosive growth saw the industry break a 142-year-old record for number of breweries — there are now more than 4,144. California's Stone Brewing has followed that milestone with another huge landmark for American beer: It's built the first independent, American craft brewery in Europe. In early December, the first beers flowed from the tap lines at Stone Brewing Berlin, and instead of making lightly-hopped lagers to match the popular taste in Germany's capital, the brewery offered up its aggressive Stone IPA and Arrogant Bastard.

Through Stone is actively brewing against the grain in Berlin, it's also entering a culture where beer is part of the national identity. Octoberfest and the treasured local beer garden are as much a part of Germany's gastronomical culture as sausage and sauerkraut. On the other hand, Germany's staunch beer traditions is why bolder styles haven't broken into the mainstream market yet. Germans drink classic pilsners and helles lagers, not IPAs or stouts. Still, Stone believes it chose the right place to make its mark.

"Our vision is to have this location serve as our international hub; a central location promoting goodwill and quality craft beer spanning the globe," says Stone CEO and co–founder Greg Koch. "We are here to contribute to the craft beer scene and offer Europeans additional choices when it comes to their beer."

It's been 19 years since Koch and co-founder Steven Wagner put their life savings into launching Stone. The craft beer scene was just starting to grow in the U.S., but they still entered a market where Koch says no one wanted the beers that they were making. Tastes evolved and on the backs of its hop-heavy beers, Stone is now the 9th largest craft brewery in the United States.

If Americans love Stone Brewing so much, why not the Germans? It seems like a logical next chapter in the history of the company — one that Koch and Wagner were confident enough to take a $25 million gamble on. Koch and Wagner looked at 130 sites in nine different countries before finally choosing their location. Eventually, they purchased a 1901-built gasworks in the Berlin suburb Mariendorf. The smaller pilot brewery has just started kicking out beer, and by March 2016, Stone will have a restaurant with 40 taps, company store, packaging and distribution center, private events building, and a larger production brewery. When all is said and done, Stone Brewing Berlin will be the city's largest craft brewer and ship out to 40 locations across Europe.

The move to Europe isn't without good business reason. Stone and other American craft brewers have already successfully tapped into the European market with U.S. craft beer exports jumping 37 percent from 2013 to 2014, and business research organization IBISWorld forecasted that craft beer exports will be a $227-million industry by the end of 2020. Stone's Berlin base gives the California brand a European foothold without the shipping costs and freshness perils of traversing both the U.S. and Atlantic.

And a sweet bonus for the brewers is that unlike the regulation-heavy process of producing beer in the U.S., selling beer in Germany is "like an unalienable human right," says Koch. He also thinks that his craft beer and specialized location will be able to draw younger drinkers into the beer scene who are looking for something different from the traditional German brews. Still, he's up against the decades-old attitude that all American beer is pale-yellow swill. 

"There is a perception in Germany and Europe that Americans are just about industrial beer, that couldn't be further from the truth," Koch says. "We hope to share our vision for craft beer with Europe by doing what we do best, brewing amazing, aggressive, hoppy, West Coast–style beers."