Outspoken and a major figure of the craft beer movement, Greg Koch co-founded Stone Brewing in 1996 in San Marcos, California, just north of San Diego. Refusing to compromise on taste like so many others did, Stone pioneered the West Coast-style IPA and has consistently brewed in-your-face beers. Growing at an insane pace and becoming a global powerhouse in the process, in 2005 Stone moved to neighbouring Escondido, where it is still headquartered. In 2016, Stone built facilities in Berlin, Germany and Richmond, Virginia, USA, and Greg transitioned into a new role as executive chairman, making way for new CEO Dominic Engels. Recently, Greg visited Hong Kong for a quick stopover at Second Draft to celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary – and we met up beforehand to get his take on Stone’s meteoric rise.
Your last trip to Hong Kong was 30 years ago. What do you remember about the city then?
Hot and humid! The first trip was August ’82, and then in winter for Chinese New Year in early ’87. I remember all the streets with the signs and wires everywhere, just like this massive three-dimensional thing – total overload.
Briefly, what is Stone Brewing?
Stone is a craft brewery that began in San Diego in 1996; I’m the co-founder with Steve Wagner, my business partner, who was our original brewmaster. We started at a time when craft beer wasn’t really a “thing” – while it was certainly present, it wasn’t widely understood or available to any degree that it is today. The beers of the day were mild by today’s standards, too. Most brewpubs were making Irish-style stout, English-style pale ale, American or Bavarian-style hefeweizen… not much of a leap, flavour intensity-wise.
We quickly moved into the territory of bigger character, hoppier and stronger. I would go into a brewpub somewhere and introduce myself to the brewer – still do today – and a common statement would be “Don’t try these!” and it would be the first several beers of their line-up. “We just make those because we have to. I want you to try this limited release, this special…” So I said to myself, “What if we don’t make any beers ‘because we have to’ and we only make beers we’re personally proud of?” And that was the business model that we followed.
Eventually you started a distribution arm for Stone and other like-minded breweries.
Our self-distribution came out of necessity, because no wholesaler was interested. A little over a year in, I finally capitulated to our very small board, which included the real estate guy, my father, Steve… They said “Okay, Greg, you gotta go talk to the local wholesalers because we’re bleeding money.” To the tune of $20,000 to $30,000 a month – completely unsustainable. I was very proud of our self-distribution; even though it was bleeding us dry, it was us representing our beer in the way we knew it should.
The big-brand wholesalers all said no. But magically, March came around and we had our first break-even month, just from self-distributing in San Diego. We didn’t see it coming! So, fast-forward a couple of years – we aren’t losing money self-distributing, we feel we know how to store our beers, we’re the only refrigerated wholesaler… maybe we should talk to other breweries we really respect who also can’t get distribution and see if we can work together. Thus, Stone Distributing was born.
These days, it seems like the industry is moving so quickly. How do you plan to keep Stone relevant in a changing landscape?
It’s a challenge when your primary stock in trade – Stone IPA and Ruination IPA being the longest full-time production West Coast-style IPA and double IPA on the planet – becomes everyone else’s. I can find at least one Hong Kong brewer making a West Coast-style IPA, right? What we need to do at Stone is continue to make sure people know that they can trust our beers, that they can respect our ethos and ideals, that our beer is stored to ensure quality when it gets to their local market, and that we create beers to capture their imagination.
And we just have to look in the mirror for that. We are beer geeks. I am a beer geek. I was a beer geek before you guys – with the exception of that one guy going “Nuh-uh!” [laughing] The things I like as a beer geek are the things that I want us to do at Stone.
People are still crazy for West Coast-style IPAs. Will that continue to be the case in five years’ time?
I’m certain that IPAs will be every bit as popular – why? One very simple reason: they’re delicious. At what point are we going to suddenly stop liking something so delicious? It’s in the same way that, while it’s great to have new music and I like that too, [U2’s] The Joshua Tree is always going to be an incredible album. The goal at Stone has always been to create our seminal album, if you will. And I think a really amazingly brewed West Coast-style IPA is something seminal that won’t go away, just like Belgian-style tripels, Bavarian-style hefeweizens – this is a world-classic style that will be a favourite amongst beer drinkers for generations.
What do you think about “gateway beers” for new craft beer drinkers?
Really, I think it’s rude to give somebody a gateway beer, because essentially what you’re saying is, “You know, I like the good stuff, but I don’t think you have good enough taste and you can’t handle it.” Why??? I prefer to treat you like you’ve got great taste, realising you may not like all the same things I do. “Let’s try this one – you love it? Great. You don’t? Okay, let’s try another one!”
Unleashed in 1997, Arrogant Bastard is one of the iconic brews of the craft beer movement – it recently got its own company, Arrogant Brewing.
Arrogant Bastard Ale has always had such a strong, unique personality, which isn’t necessarily reflective of the rest of the beers we produce. At some point it just puffed up its chest and said, “I want my own show.” Arrogant Brewing is the alter-ego of Stone Brewing; there’s a little bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing. Everything under there can continue to fly its arrogant flag. I’d argue that, as a brewery and as a company, Stone is far from arrogant – we distribute other brands of beer, we have more guest taps than our own beers at our restaurant, we do tons of collaborations, our charity connectedness… we love being a part of this craft brewing community.
What’s the greatest compliment you’ve ever received about Stone?
The BeerAdvocate and RateBeer rankings – and it’s because they’re the real world. Nobody sat in a controlled environment with little tasters – which is a fantastic and super-valid way to judge beer, but what you’re doing is judging the best beer to have less than one ounce of. “This is how I feel and this is the rating I’m gonna give when I’m just buying beer randomly at a pub, a restaurant, a grocery store” – and to be named by BeerAdvocate as the All-Time Top-Rated Brewery on Planet Earth twice… that’s a hell of a compliment – thank you!
Does the term “craft beer” still have any meaning?
In today’s world, does “craft beer” mean something to me? Unquestionably it does. But I think there may be the necessity to add some modifiers such as “independent craft brewery”, which we are. Ultimately we aren’t going to tell people what to think, or what is and what isn’t – it’s always going to be in the eye of the beholder. I know what it means to me, and it’s those ideals and standards that are our guiding principles. Our definition is how we know we’re on the right path – and it’s been the same path all along.