Is it a cop-out to say someone needs no introduction, especially because that claim is inevitably followed with a tale or list of merits meant to introduce the person in question? Personally, I don’t think so, but I tend to avoid playing angles like that to start a story. But if ever there was a post on BobbyLikesBeer.com that flirted on the verge of being worthy of such a preface, this is it. After all, Greg Koch is a legend who has accomplished more in his fifteen years of business than most craft beer evangelists can hope to in a lifetime. His outspoken insight and larger-than-life antics make Greg one of the biggest personalities in craft beer today. Even if you don’t know who Greg is, I’m sure you’ve had one of his beers. Stone Brewing Company has practically defined the American approach towards our beloved beverage with their witty beer names, arrogant attitude and consistently top-notch and ground-breaking products. With the release of the new book The Craft of Stone Brewing Co., Koch and co-founder Steve Wagner give us fans of fermentation unabashed insight into their world by sharing their story, complete with detailed tales of how the business came to be, their uncompromising product line and even how-to’s about cellaring bottles, cooking with beer and taking your first steps into the world of homebrew. As the book’s liner notes state simply without hesitation, ‘Real beer is Here’ (and odds are Stone brewed it). I was lucky enough to catch up with Greg while on tour to promote the book, and we shared about a half-hour chatting about all the topics du jour. Here’s the inside scoop, unfiltered and straight from the source:
You’ve been doing some lectures/talks at colleges for the book tour. What similar messages do you spread in a room full of college students that you also talk about at appearances like the Beer Bloggers conference or the Craft Brewers conference?
Basically the talk I give is an updated version. The talks I give at the CBC and Bloggers Conference are very focused for those particular groups. For the colleges, I read some passages from the book and I really focus on the entrepreneurial story. The sub-theme of my talk is ‘don’t be different to be different – be different to be better’. The college students have been very receptive to the message. The story of beer is my story – the Stone Brewery story – but I stress that this is not a beer talk. I give them the insight to apply some of the keys to our success to whatever they’re interested in doing. I try to support their vision.
One of the key business functions of any successful business is marketing. I believe that Stone Brewing Company has one of the most consistent brands out there, focused around not just the quality of the beer but also the attitude of the company and the product. How did the brand evolve?
Although clearly we market (I suppose), “marketing” is a term I’ve never been entirely comfortable with. Too often in our society, marketing is aimed at getting people to do things they don’t want to do or buy things they don’t need. I try not to do either. Instead, the way we like to approach it is to make information about ourselves available for those who are interested. There’s no question that the Stone Brewing Company and our beers aren’t for most people; we like to take an approach that communicates with the people who are interested.
The gargoyle imagery is a part of that. I knew we wanted to make big character, aggressive beer styles and I so felt big character, aggressive imagery was appropriate to give people an idea of what they could expect – or at least give them a sense that it wasn’t going to be the same-old, same-old.
Has there ever been a moment where the decision to use big, aggressive imagery limited you or has it effortlessly accommodated the direction that the beers have evolved in?
It comes back to the path that I advocate and that I talk about in the book – it’s the path of doing it the way you think is the best, the way you believe in personally. If you stay focused on that you can keep moving forward. Part of our story is that sometimes you get pressured to veer off the path and do things that aren’t true to yourself because you feel that you have to, or you feel that there’s no other way, no better way. I advocate sticking to your guns. But I admit we’ve made a misstep or two along the way.
Any notable examples of missteps you’d like to share?
Oh boy, we’ve always got to focus on the negative don’t we (laughs). I should know better – I know when I say something like that that people will say ‘OK, tell me about that misstep’.
You know I’m not trying to throw salt in any old wounds – I’m just wondering if you can share how you learned from those mistakes and how, looking back now, they made the company and yourself stronger from having gone through the process.
Well, the one that instantly comes to mind is the Stone ‘Heat Seeking Wheat’. We actually had a wheat beer out – a filtered wheat beer that was a little hoppier than the wheat beers were at the time, but it was not something we’d consider a ‘Stone style’ beer today. We made this beer because we were desperate for volume – we were struggling to reach the critical mass we needed to be profitable. Although I respected the beer – it was a good, quality beer – it wasn’t really us. What I learned from it was, well, ultimately, it failed. And that’s a good thing. I’m glad it failed. We learned that we need to focus on what we do – what’s really important to us – and trust that that’s going to take us where we need to go.
Enough negatives, what changes in the industry have been the most positive since you started out?
Without a doubt, the thing that’s changed the most is consumer interest in craft and specialty beers. When we started, you know, it was hard to get anybody to pay any attention and most people pooh-poohed craft beers. We opened up right when the first craft beer bubble burst…luck of timing. So, nobody was interested. Today, a new brewery starts up and people line up to get tastes or growlers of the first batch in volumes and numbers of people that surpass our second anniversary celebration. That’s a great thing – however, it does make me feel a bit like the old guy that says ‘when I was your age I had to walk uphill both ways barefoot’. You know? No shoes!
Do you think technology and the web has been the major force in changing the business that way?
It certainly helps because us craft beer types are often ‘geeks’ and, as geeks, we like to communicate with each other. Social media and the Internet have helped in making that communication possible. Now, what used to be a tiny, regional secret – or even part of a neighborhood – can be communicated around the world. A brewery can release a special beer and get attention from literally all over the world because of it. The beer can make its run up the pop charts of Beer Advocate or Ratebeer.
Do you think it’s a double-edged sword? Meaning, word about the small regional treasures gets out quick but there’s also “crowd-sourcing” of opinions when a small but loud group of people chime in about a beer and their verdict is just a Google search away?
Absolutely, but I would be challenged to name something in life that isn’t a double-edged sword in one way or another. I have to agree with that. Everything comes with its positives and negatives but I think it’s more cool than not. For example, folks learning about cellaring beer is wonderful. Folks going out of their way to get a special beer – that’s absolutely wonderful. Ebay-ing for profit and having mules go with you to snatch up more than a reasonable amount of your share of certain beers so you can hedge the market – not cool. So, sure there’s positives and negatives.
I know Stone recently made a decision to release some extremely limited versions of your barrel aged beers in a series called ‘Quingenti Millilitre’ (Latin for ’500 Milliliter’). Tell me a bit about the planning that went into releasing these beers and why you chose to release them in the way you did.
We definitely have always tried to work in charitable approaches to the business whenever we can. We saw the special 500 Milliliter releases (especially Ken Schmidt / Maui / Stone Kona Coffee, Macadamia, Coconut Porter Aged in Bourbon Barrels) as an opportunity to explore that method in answering questions like ‘how do we release it?’, ‘how do we make it fair?’ and ‘how do we spread it out wide and thin versus some people getting a lot?’. Our goal was to support charity and be reasonable in the process. So, we hit on this idea of selling people tickets with the hopes that they could be able to win with a drawing. 96 cents of every one-dollar ticket sold went to Escondido Creek Conservancy & Interfaith Community Services. The premise was making it as fair as possible and assuring that, if you didn’t win but dropped $10 or $25 in the hopes to win a chance to buy, you felt good about the fact that, at the very least, the proceeds went to charity.
And it seems like, at least in the areas of cyberspace I visit, there were fewer complainers about the way the release went than other high profile rare beer releases. Speaking of the message boards, I notice that you are one of the few people at the forefront of the craft beer movement who I see posting on Ratebeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com.
Oh yeah, I’ve been a Beer Advocate and Ratebeer member since 2000. I definitely pop up less and less when some of the more obnoxious voices take over and change the tone of a thread from being a conversation to being simply nagging, complaining, or being buffoonish. Those conversations get old very quickly. But I still love participating in online conversations about craft beer with enthusiasts because I’m that guy – I’m one of those guys. However I have very little patience for the boorish behavior. And we have to careful, because, feel free to quote me on that but I really don’t want to see a post somewhere that says ‘Greg Koch thinks we’re all just a bunch of boorish idiots’ which is not the case. It’s not the case even slightly. In fact, the majority of people aren’t and it’s only a very small percentage of people who are. But they often ruin the conversation for the rest of us.
Aside from relating to your customers in your passion for craft beer and conversation online, you’ve also been able to set the tone with your fellow brewery owners, brewers and industry folks. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the craft beer industry today?
It’s actually the same challenge as the past few years, or maybe even since we began. And that is ethics out in the marketplace. Craft beer has risen because of our quality, because of what we have to offer, both to beer drinkers as well as to beer retailers. Craft beer is profitable for pubs, markets and grocery stores to sell and it’s a great proposition for the consumer because they’re getting something very special for a comparatively reasonable price. We have so many benefits to offer that we really don’t need to play unethical or illegal games in the marketplace to give our beer perceptions of benefit to retailers. Yet, sometimes, some folks feel they need to do that for whatever reason. Usually, this problem happens when people give away free stuff and cross the line with unethical behavior. It’s just lazy. It lacks imagination. And usually it’s because they want to sneak past a competitor and kick somebody else off a tap tower in their favor. Rather than earning their position, they want to attack somebody else’s position. I just believe in earning our position. Let the cream rise to the top. Focus on what you do and do a great job and you’ll have a great business model.
Do you feel the “three tier” system is to blame as it becomes more about handoffs and there’s less connection between the people who make the beer and the forgotten “forth tier”, that being the customer?
Well, I don’t think it’s the system that does that. Again, I can say it’s another example of the double-edged sword – any approach can be abused or it can be respected. When it’s respected and you have a great retailer – you can take a look at the Winking Lizard as an example – their business is focused on great quality choices for customers. You can’t buy those guys off – they’d kick you out of their offices if you tried to, they’d tell you that ‘You can’t buy me, my choices are not for sale. I make my choices on what products to carry based on my business and my customers.’ They have a really healthy business as a result. In this case, everyone in the chain leading up to that glass of quality beer in your hand have the customer’s best interest in mind and in focus.
I can tell you that, as a Clevelander, I feel like the Winking Lizard is easily the biggest cornerstone in the foundation of our scene. I’m noticing a shift here from people pursuing their craft beer journeys independently to more of a community. With that shift, it seems we need to keep consciously putting effort and energy into our community to improve the beer culture in Cleveland and America as a whole. What’s the one thing we can do to keep our community and culture moving in a positive direction?
It’s always about being positive. Focus on the positive. Focus on all the things we’re doing right and try to do more of those. Celebrate the people, businesses and breweries who are doing things right. If there’s a restaurant or pub that doesn’t have a great beer selection, you can communicate to the management or the ownership. Just ask them. Ask them politely. Ask them in a way that makes them think to themselves that ‘this is the kind of person I would like as a customer so I want to make this person happy. I want to appease and appeal to this kind of a customer’. Too often people take the complaint-based approach, which often causes someone to tune out. So, to put a finer point on it, ‘your beers here suck’ doesn’t work very well but ‘I would come here more often if you would consider having a better beer selection that would include things like X or Y or Z’ can be very effective. Tell them you like going over to this other place that has a quality selection and does good business and remember that consumers often mistakenly misunderstand their role in the equation and their strengths. A lot of people don’t say anything to management because they feel their voice doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. My message is that their voice matters – it matters a lot and we have a powerful collective voice as craft beer enthusiasts so let’s use it. Let’s be awesome people sharing the awesome word of great craft beer. It will work because when somebody hears it 5 or 10 times, he or she’ll start to listen.
We spoke a bit yesterday about trends for the next year (look for more on BobbyLikesBeer.com towards the end of 2012) and one thing you mentioned was Europe – specifically, waking the “sleeping giant” and how you plan to be a part of that. Can you tell me more about how that effort is coming along and what plans you have for Europe?
The trend is definitely evolving. Heck, I just got an email this morning from a startup in Poland. Some guys are starting up a craft brewery in Poland and they’re hoping to bring craft beer to Eastern Europe. That’s fantastic – it takes a team effort and the team is growing every day. I found the news pretty exciting. As for Stone’s involvement, time will tell.
One thing I constantly hear from European brewers about American beer culture in general is that we over-classify everything. Do you think that hurts us overall, particularly when it makes our culture seem like a push to over-compartmentalize or focus more on labels and styles than enjoying the actual beer in our glasses?
I would differ on that point because I don’t think that trend represents us as Americans. That’s just the noisier of us Americans on beer enthusiast websites. The folks who don’t feel so compelled to do that and are happy simply experiencing the broad range of what’s out there simply don’t complain and they don’t want to deal with the complainers. It comes back to what we were talking about a moment ago about the tone taken on enthusiast forums. (The complainers) want us to stay out of the conversation because there’s no stock in it for them when we just talk about a beer without over-analyzing. When someone says they like it the way it is or there’s no problem for them with a beer that others may think crosses some nonexistent line, they get attacked, so they decide it’s better not to say anything at all and mind their own business. I think the noisy voices often give an inaccurate view of what people really feel and that’s why it’s called the silent majority. That silent majority doesn’t share the opinion of the noisy minority.
One evolving slice of the US craft beer landscape seems to be focusing on experimental beers and breaking down style lines. That slice is the emerging nanobreweries of America who are pioneering new styles but face their own set of challenges.
Well, I think their success will still be based on what they do – the quality, the character and consistency of their product and how they’re able to communicate with people. The ultimate factor of their success won’t have to do with them falling in or outside of a particular style. We can see examples in The Bruery or Shorts – we can see people doing something far outside the existing style categories with success on a regional scale and getting a great reaction from fans because what they’re doing is compelling. (Their beer) is interesting and it’s also quite good. Not everybody likes it but that’s OK – not everybody has to like it. That’s not the point. We have a rising class of craft brewers who are more and more accepting of the idea that not everybody has to like what they do.
Stone has pioneered some styles that are now extremely popular. The beer that sticks out for me is the XI Anniversary (re-released as Sublimely Self-Righteous) – I think it was both a revelation and a revolution in a glass. Draft Magazine just named Sublimely on of the top 25 beers of the year for 2011. What does an accolade like that mean to you?
I think it’s always nice to get reinforcement via mentions like that – it just reinforces that people are enjoying what we do and we love reviews like that. Who doesn’t? It’s a pat on the back. I think it’s terrific, very satisfying. The goal of that beer was to bring back one that we’d heard people talking about since the eleventh anniversary, and we also took things to a new level with the fifteenth. The goal of the fifteenth was to take elements of that style to further reaches and see where it could go. I think it succeeded in becoming such an animal.
Fifteenth Anniversary is another beer that I’m sure will inspire others and start a trend. Speaking of which, your brewery basically started the concept of a vertical set with Vertical Epic, then you became one of the biggest players to pioneer collaborations. What’s going to be the next big trend you’ll help start?
Well, we definitely kicked off the tap takeover trend. That’s one that seems to be more and more popular and we were really the first ones to push that concept. It’s interesting; Stone Ruination IPA was the first full-time brewed and bottled Double IPA on the planet back in June of 2002 when we released it. Can you imagine that? Now you can get DIPA’s everywhere (and they’re wonderful). Stone IPA is the longest full-time production West Coast Style IPA in existence. We’ve been brewing that since 1997. Arrogant Bastard Ale was the progenitor of the American Strong Ale category. So, I do sometimes wonder what we will do that’ll get picked up on next. Maybe it’s a brewery in Europe – we’d love to be the first American owned craft brewery to own and operate a brewery in Europe. But I know we certainly won’t be the last.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today and thanks so much for all your hard work pushing better beer forward. I really enjoy every time our paths cross – your passion and your energy are contagious and is a big part of why craft beer is barreling into the future. Here’s to continued success!
Thank you brother, I always have a good time. I appreciate you coming out and seeing you and your friends and I appreciate the conversation today. Thanks so much and keep doing your part to move the craft beer needle. Cheers!
The Craft of Stone Brewing Co. is available in stores like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the Apple Book Store and Stone Beer is available just about everywhere better beer is sold from coast to coast. Please buy your copy today and support two true American legends: Stone Brewing Company and Greg Koch.
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