Koch, chairman of the Stone Brewing Company, mixes a devilish sense of humor with a true believer's dedication to craft beer, with remarkable results. The successful southern California brewery matches flavorful beers with creative marketing, and has built a cult reputation for quality and innovation which rivals any other craft brewer. Ask a beer geek to name five breweries whose beers he most wishes to sample and you could go deaf from the number of mentions of Stone Brewing.
In a short time, basically since 1996, Stone has helped create a new, profitable niche for retailers, palate shocking specialty craft brewers. These brewers produce a range of products that prompt beer geeks to undertake lengthy roadtrips to distant liquor stores, and serve as the basis for modern beer legends. In short, the brewery has developed juice. This is to say, Stone, along with a handful of other palate shocking specialty craft brewers, are like top tier athletic recruits, wooed and sought after by players in the big leagues. Distributors and on-premise accounts constantly ask Koch to make his company's beers available in their home markets. Stone's je ne sais quoi, super beer mystique puts it in the unique position of controlling its own path in a market where brewers fight for every inch of shelf space.
I recently spoke with Greg Koch to discuss his company's growing reputation among craft beer enthusiasts, its expansion in a time of industry-wide retraction, and to gauge one Arrogant Bastard's views of the craft beer market.
ANDY CROUCH How did the Stone Brewing Company get its start?
GREG KOCH It was started by myself and my partner Steve Wagner (I initially met Steve in 1989. It was pretty much just a handshake meeting; nice to meet you, other people around, that sort of thing). Then in 1992 I'd started to develop a passion for beer, and took a weekend class at UC-Davis called "A Sensory Evaluation of Beer". During that class, I kept looking over at this guy thinking I know that guy from somewhere. Eventually we had a break in the class and he came over and said, "Aren't you Greg?", Then I remembered how I met him, and we started talking. The short of it is that we discovered that we had very different skill sets and very different capabilities. But one thing we were in lockstep in was our attitudes about what we thought great beer should be about.
AC And what was that shared attitude?
GK The attitude; I have to add the word taste in there. We had the same attitude and taste, because you can have the same attitude but different tastes, and that can get you to a different place. The attitude is really a fairly simple one. We feel strongly about full character beer styles. We love everything beer can be, and our attitude as a brewery is that we never want to intentionally dumb-down something or make a user friendly version in hopes of getting a couple more people to drink our beer. Instead, we see ourselves as brewing it the way beer is best. Then, if people like it, great.
AC What differentiates Stone Brewing from other craft brewers?
GK Oddly enough, I don't know how to answer that question. Usually, I'm not for a lack of words. It's a tough one because some of our fundamentals I can't say things like, "we have a passion of quality" or "we like brewing big character beers", because there are others out there. There are other breweries out there that have passion for quality and brew terrific beers. I think what is different about us is almost perhaps a little elusive. We have a spark. There's a little magic going on in here.
AC How did Stone's reputation develop in the beer geek community?
GK It can only develop on its own. We didn't set out to make the beer geek community happy per se, although I'm thrilled about it because I think I'm part of that community. So I think the "how we did it" is simply by pleasing ourselves because we are beer geeks, pure and simple. I also think that often I've seen this a lot in small breweries; there's the beer geek contingent within the brewery organization, and there's the ownership or financial or bottom line contingency within a brewery, and a lot of time they are at odds with one another in some breweries. In our brewery, they're not at odds with each other because we never squelch our inner beer geek in favor of the accounting office.
AC Is your brewery essentially a playground for your brewers?
GK (Laughs). No, we don't ignore the business part. It would be a little too strong of a statement in that direction. Steve likes these big beers that we make as much as I do, but he is fairly serious about it. His attention to detail is very, very high, as all great brewers should be. He is pretty stringent about procedures and about how our brewing staff goes about their day of brewing.
AC How did you create the products in your initial portfolio?
GK We started off with a pilot batch system. It was basically a large homebrew system. As we were putting the business plan together we started formulating recipes together for our initial release, the Stone Pale Ale. Now when I say together, I'm using it a little loosely because Steve is our brewer and at best I was the brewing assistant. But we did spend a lot of time discussing flavor profiles and the test batches we were brewing and where they should head.
AC Does Stone have a flagship product, or at least one that leads sales?
GK The answer is yes. We seem to have two. We have our more regionalized flagship, which is Stone Pale Ale that we keep fairly close to home. It's only in California, Arizona, and the southern tip of Nevada/ southern California specifically. Then there is Arrogant Bastard Ale, which is non-regionalized.
AC The West Coast is known for big beers, especially super hoppy pale ales. How did you decide to go bigger than other brewers on the West Coast?
GK It's not a market survey driven decision. It's not seeing a niche out there that we thought we could fill. It's simply that we continue to brew beers that excite our own imaginations. There are already a lot of terrific West Coast style pale ales. I absolutely agree with that statement. However, there is always room for better. I'm never going to say that we're the best at this or the best at that. I'll definitely say that we are amongst the best. Coming from the Arrogant Bastard, I think a lot of people would expect me to make wild claims like that. Tastes are subjective, and there are a lot of really wonderful beers out there. About as dramatic as I'm going to get is to say that I know Stone Pale Ale is among the best pale ales that exist. It's not the same as the rest of them, and the rest are not the same as each other.
AC A handful of craft breweries known for brewing bigger beers, including Dogfish Head and Victory, are expanding while other craft brewers are playing it safe closer to home. Tell me a little about Stone's expansion plan.
GK Our plans are to expand our markets as appropriate; to go into new regions and states as appropriate. And that phrase, "as appropriate", really needs paragraphs to qualify when something would be "as appropriate". There must be demand and beer history in that area. What have the trends been in that area? Not that I follow trends so much, but it's very important to know who has been there, how they have been doing, and why they have been doing it. So I'm not just talking about whether people will like raspberry weizen beers or Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA. That I'm not so concerned about because I think our beers will stand on their merits almost no matter what the flavor trends may be in a given area.
AC The bottle for Stone Arrogant Bastard is pretty in-your-face with its challenge to the palates of potential drinkers. (Among other taunts, the bottle declares to potential drinkers, "You're not worthy"). How did the concept and recipe for Arrogant Bastard Ale develop?
GK When Steve and I were in the pilot batch phase; essentially it was homebrewing because we didn't even have the brewery yet; Steve developed the recipe for the Arrogant Bastard Ale. At that point, it wasn't even named yet, or actually, I didn't know what the name was yet. It hadn't spoken to me just yet. We had this batch and it just knocked our socks off. We both thought, we just got to release this. It's got to be part of our portfolio, but not yet. We actually waited a year and a half after we opened, almost two years after our first batch, before we released it. During that time I started developing the presentation of Arrogant Bastard Ale based on what the beer was telling me. I really thought honestly that we might sell a few hundred cases. So I thought, well since we're doing this for ourselves and a couple of our beer geek friends, and we're only going to ever sell a few hundred cases, I'm going to have fun with it. So that's exactly what I did. I've been accused, not to couch it in a negative way, of some brilliant marketing campaign with (Arrogant Bastard). That is praise I don't deserve. I simply wrote on the bottle what I felt. It wasn't a challenge. It wasn't reverse psychology or a marketing thing. I was writing what I thought. So when I said, "This is an aggressive beer"; true statement. "Most people won't like it." Well, most people don't. "It's quite doubtful you have the taste and sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth." Well, same as the previous statement; most people don't like it.
AC What happened after Arrogant Bastard was released?
GK Well, the first couple hundred cases sold out. I was like, "Whoa, guess we better brew up some more." So we brewed up some more, and it sold out. Then we started brewing some more, and then for quite a while we were constantly flirting with running out.
AC Stone is well-known for its approach to marketing. One of your pet slogans is that "fizzy yellow beer is for wussies". Do you get many converts to better beer from the pool of so-called "fizzy yellow beer" drinkers?
GK As much as we would like to generify the personal profile of a fizzy yellow beer drinker, it can't be done. There are ones for whom the clouds part, the sun shines, and the angels sing for everyday it happens. A lot of breweries use the soft approach. To get people into the beer, you go to the brewpub, or the production brewery, and they will have an entry level beer. It is something just a bare, scant step up from the beer that person might be used to drinking. I prefer the crowbar approach. It's the perspective of prying them open or just crack them over the head with it. But the Arrogant Bastard is our crowbar. We just take the crowbar approach to the fizzy yellow beer drinkers, and we don't try to coddle them.
AC Tell me about the Arrogant Bastard radio show.
GK I don't use it much; actually the name of it is the Arrogant Bastard on Beer Show and I don't use it as a vehicle of self-promotion. In a word, it is not for Stone. Sure, I am the host, so how could you say it is not self promotion for me to some degree? But I really do it in order to have fun and communicate with enthusiasts in the industry. That's brewers and people who work in the industry, homebrewers certainly, and beer enthusiasts; people that are kind of interested in beer. The shows are sometimes funny, often hilarious, and every once in a while pretty damn interesting, too. And every once in a while we have a train wreck and we have to get out and push the show to start.