Interview with Greg Koch of Stone Brewing

Craft beer pioneer and visionary. Part-time voice of reason and standard bearer. Everybody who’s even only remotely interested in craft beer knows of the Stone Brewing and right after that knows of Greg Koch. He visited Switzerland and we were on location to talk to him.

Which of your beers would you serve Michael Jackson, if he were still alive?

Knowing how many beers he’s had, I would ask him if he wanted a glass of water first.
I’ve got a vision of what it’s like to be Michael Jackson and how difficult that was. I once sat down with him in the original location of the Blind Tiger in New York City. As people started coming in and people started realizing it was Michael Jackson, they just started bringing him beers to taste and taste and taste. After that we went uptown to another place and he walked in the door and one guy saw him, jumped on his bicycle, went home and twenty minutes later brought several of his homebrews.
Everybody was shoving beer in his face: taste this, taste this, taste this! And there can be too much of a good thing. Therefore, I would just ask him if he wanted some water or something else. And then if he’d indicated that he’d be interested in a beer, I’d serve him a particularly fun beer that we have now and that he wouldn’t be aware of, the Stone Pataskala Red X IPA. It is brewed with a special kind of malt called Red X. It’s a German malt and quite unique for its biscuity flavors.
The first time I met Michael and he had some of our beers, it probably was 2003. He probably had the Stone IPA, the Stone Pale Ale, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Ruination IPA and probably a Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine.

You were on two Brew Dogs episodes. And in both of them you were a little bit like the voice of reason.

[laughs] Compared to James and Martin, maybe yes.

So that’s not your usual role?

No, that is not my usual role.
I don’t know if you are aware, but that show would not exist without me. Google for a video called “Stone Skips Across the Pond”. This was actually a pilot for a beer show.
In 2009 I took a documentary film maker friend of mine with us when we went to Norway to do a collaboration with Kjetil at Nogne Ø. Afterwards we hopped over to Fraserburgh to do a beer with James and Martin. That’s when my friend met them and they started to work together. That’s why they did the very first episode with me and we’re the only ones they’ve done two episodes with.
As a host, I am okay. But as hosts James and Martin are much, much better. They are so unfiltered; they just go for it. I am more reserved. I am apparently more the voice of reason, which nobody in my company thinks I am [laughs]. Everybody looks at me as the crazy guy and I try to tell them I am not.

If you’re not the voice of reason, what is your role at Stone?

To help with the ideas and the execution of the ideas – kind of the crazy “what if…?” For others those might be crazy, but for me they are never crazy. Like coming to Berlin: the average person looks at this as a crazy idea; I look at this as an “of course”. Do they have big, bold, hoppy styled beers like Stone in Germany and in Europe? Not zero, but not very much. In some countries, you will find them in higher concentrations. But this is all emanated from the US. Therefore, I felt it was the perfect thing to do; it made so much sense.

At the same time, there was some irritation in Germany about the attention your move received. Nevertheless, why is it a good thing that you’re in Germany?

I was actually not aware of any irritation, but then somebody is always irritated. I have heard, from time to time, that some have the image that craft beer will be negative for Germany; that it will threaten the traditional. I feel a hundred percent the opposite: the best thing for traditional beer…authentic, true, great quality traditional beer…the best thing ever, is something like craft beer. Because it helps refocus on something people in Germany mostly don’t pay attention to.
That is shocking to a German, if you say they don’t pay attention to beer. But all you need to do is ask him a few questions or ask him to tell you about this or that style. Or ask him a few very 101 level trivia questions and they realize that their beer knowledge is pretty surface. They have a lot of pride – and there’s good reasons for them to have a lot of pride in the German beer industry. But most of those reasons are ignored by the German populace. Which is a shame.
Focusing on beer is a great opportunity to focus on all the great aspects of beer, be it craft beer or true authentic traditional stuff. And to take the focus away from – which is my stated goal – the industrial junk.

In a way you’re not just arriving in Germany, you’re arriving in Europe, as you are exporting beers from Germany to other European countries, like Switzerland. Where else?

It is actually 18 countries in total, among them the Scandinavian countries, UK, Poland, Italy, Spain.

So the goal never was to only get a location in Berlin, say a new Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, but always to have a production brewery?

Yes, because we have a 100-hectoliter brewhouse, so we built it for production. Our main business is a brewery. Our second business is destination restaurants. We have been fortunate enough to be quite unique and do special stuff in those areas.

Having been to both locations in San Diego, how will they compare to the one in Berlin?

They are the original ones; the one in Escondido has been there for ten years. Berlin is pretty special though. It’s really quite an amazing property we are creating. We already started with an amazing property; a 1901 historic gasworks building. It will be worth people’s trip.

Stone has personality, but Stone also has a personality. So do other breweries like Dogfish Head. What will happen, when you’re retiring?

Yes, I am part of the personality at Stone, but Stone itself has so much of its own personality. We really wanted to create a brewery that can become its own entity. I think in many ways it has. With all fairness to Sam, who’s a good friend of mine, Dogfish as a brewery has its own personality that is not just his. Of course he’s a force of nature and he’s a wonderful guy, he’s creative and drives that. But I think if I’d get run over by a bus tomorrow, our brewery would be great. I’d like to not think better, but actually they may even learn how to be better.
I don’t really believe in the afterlife…I actually believe when I’m dead I’m gone…but if I did look down from anywhere, I’d love to see them doing an even better job without me.

So if they’d learn to get better, where do you hold Stone back?

I’m not so sure. You always need fresh ideas and perspectives. In fact, I need to remind my own team sometimes that just because we have been doing it a certain way for a few years or always, it doesn’t mean that we can’t question it. When it comes to qualitatives, you don’t question those, because – no pun intended – we set them in stone, like: this is our minimum bar. And our minimum bar is actually quite high. Everything else… I think the best in brewing is about creativity. Because brewing is an art. And when you treat it like art, then you want to be a little less focused on rules, even your own rules.

You’re renewing yourself by retiring my favorite Stone beers.

I know that’s rough! I’m serious, I can completely relate to that. And we’re going to retire a couple more this year.

What’s going to be next?

I’m not going to say. But it’s known that we’re retiring Stone Smoked Porter later this year. And it’ll be really rough, because that is one of my favorite beers.
We can always revisit an old friend in the future, I guess.

That’s what I was wondering when I heard you’re retiring Ruination. Why not make the original recipe an infrequent special release?

The challenges with limited infrequent releases is, they are an extreme level of work. I’m not saying we never would. I would love to come out with the original Stone Ruination IPA again. Maybe next year we can do it.
Retiring a beer like Stone Ruination IPA was so difficult for us to do, because it is so precious. Our brewing team was asking “what the hell are we doing?!” People in our brewing team were upset about this. But then we had the Stone Ruination IPA 2.0 and we love it.
Change is good. I like change. I am actually one of those people that crave change. In my experience, this seems to not quite be human nature. Which for me is strange, because I feel that change is a wonderful thing. Of course nobody wants negative change, we all want positive change, but still. You have to take some risks, you have to try, you have to explore and you have to say why not. You also have to sometimes be willing to fail, willing to be wrong.
For example, we missed the mark with Stone Pale Ale 2.0. So we are going to replace that in a few months.

Stone Pale Ale 3.0?

The team couldn’t talk me out of it, but I said we’ll call it that unless someone else can give me a better name. And someone gave me a better name about two weeks ago.

What’s the name going to be?

You may be the first to know this: We are going to call it Stone Ripper Pale Ale. The reason for it is that it’s brewed with both American hops, like Cascade and Australian hops. Being in San Diego and Australia being a surf and beach culture as well, ripper is an Australian surfer slang term for awesome.

What makes you nervous about the beer industry?

It is disconcerting to see our former friends and colleagues sell out. It put some ripples into the beer industry. For me it has always been about the greater good and comradery. And I made it very clear that I am not interested in selling out and we never will.
But you sort of can’t blame them, but you don’t have to be happy about it. So, I don’t blame them, but I am not happy about it.

The numbers are incredible: 1 billion for Ballast Point!

It is, but I’ve turned down opportunities of more than that, as we are a larger brewery.

Others have told me that they are nervous that eventually the fight will not be between craft beer and industrial tap handle, but a craft beer trying to replace another craft beer.

That’s always a challenge, because there’s a lot of unethical stuff in the beer industry. Primarily, but not exclusively, at the hands of the big brewers. Their job is to own the market place.

You once talked about the perceived value and the actual value of craft beer and how it is successful because it matches. How is it with crafty beers?

That’s a great question. Part of the value of craft beer is not just in the individual, single transaction. A lot of that value also comes from the ability to have choice, the ability to be connected to your brewery, the ability to understand that the breweries care about the things that you care about as a person.
So, when you lose some of these intrinsic characteristics that are of value to you, it’s hard to put a dollar sign on them, it damages that transactional value.
Also – considering the boiling frog – which appears to be a myth, but besides that – big breweries, when they buy them, they slowly, over a period of time, make changes that are bottom line driven. They do it slow enough so that nobody notices.
Every press release after a brewery sells out is always the same. I can write a press release for the next one that sells out, even though I don’t know who they are. It will explain how nothing will change, how they very carefully selected this partner because they understood the value of the company and they are really thrilled that these people got it and they cared about the same things they’ve cared about. And the only thing that I’d like to add, a little of my own editorial: Yeah, horseshit!

You started True Craft. What effect will it have?

Well, it’s going to take some time for that to come to fruition, you know, the potential of it to be realized. The goal is for it to be an alternative to selling to the big guys and to show to the public that there are those that still believe in the vision and who are willing to continue to carry the torch. And of course there are many individual breweries that are going to stay completely independent, which I think is fantastic. However, this is a model that’s designed to be built to support independence and foster independence.

So it will buy minority stakes?

That’s what it’s focused on.

Has it already done that or is in the process of doing that?

We have not done the first one yet, as we are still in formation of the technicalities of how everything will work.

Do you have a goal when you want to do the first one?

Our goal is always yesterday.

Five beers people should drink before they die.

Oh boy. A very common question is – like I see it posted on forums: “I have a friend and I want to turn them on to craft beer, what beer should I serve them?” And you will see all kinds of answers and they are very specific: “Oh you have to serve him this one, because this is the important one.” My opinion is: Serve them your favorite beers. Whatever they are. And that’s going to be different for every person.
So I think the ones you ought to try before you die are literally five beers you’ve never had. Five beers you hear your friends talking about. Five beers that spark your curiosity, rather than me being specific with “this one, this brand, this style.” The world has literally become too complex and too varied for that. In a positive way for beer. So everybody’s journey is going to be different and unique and it should be different and unique. Celebrating that is what I would suggest.

Are there five beers you want to drink again before you die?

So you’re just trying to get me to give you the answer in a different way? [Laughs] It’s not that I don’t want to answer the question, I just think to me and in the way I think, it is kind of unanswerable. So I think I am giving you the most honest and truest answer. I answer it the best way I could the way that I did.
But yes, I would love to try the five special releases that Stone Brewing will inevitably produce in 2051.

That’s not when you’re going to retire.

No, I am just giving myself another 35 years to live.

You’re how old now?


So that’d be 87? You’re going to live longer than that!

I just try to be reasonable. Okay, I’ll add another 5 years, so 2056. Yeah, I like that number better!

The interview took place on 14 June 2016 at the Stone Brewing tap-takeover at the International Bar in Zurich. You can read our pre-tap-takover post here.

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