In this great new world of becoming a "branded" web writer (brilliantly summed up in this New York Times piece), I will be doing a lot more scribing on these here Intertoobz. It'll be a combination of article writing, blogging and rambling on as I see fit. Does it pay a lot? Ummm, No. But nobody asked me to be a writer in the first place.
Why am I telling you this? Because rule #1 on the Internet: It's all about the writer behind the laptop.
One upside is that I can write more about things of personal interest, like say, beer. If you like malted beverages, pop open a frosty and give this audio slideshow on the canned craft beer revolution a listen to.
Then get yourself an Arrogant Bastard and enjoy this an epic Q&A with Greg Koch, CEO of Stone Brewing and a fellow USC alum.
TrojanWire, your source for all things Trojan football and malted barely.
The SC Song Girl slogan never seemed more fitting. Fight On, indeed.
(Photo by StudioSchulz.com)
If you like kick-ass beer, then you like Stone Brewing. The Escondido Calif.-based brewery has a rabid following in the craft beer world and direct ties to USC. Greg Koch, class of 1987, co-founded Stone in 1995 and has helped build it into a juggernaut. It’s the largest craft brewery in the southwestern United States, and as CEO, Koch oversees 275 employees, the production of 100,000+ barrels of beer a year, and its distribution to 35 states. And to think, it all started with a fortuitous glass of Anchor Steam at graffiti-covered bar not far from the SC campus.
Koch talked to TrojanWire’s Patrick Sauer about Stone’s humble beginnings, what goes into deciding on a name like Arrogant Bastard, and why the most important lesson he learned at USC didn’t come in a classroom.
TW: When did you first get interested in craft beer?
Koch: It was actually while at USC. I used to hang out at place called Al’s Bar. It was downtown Los Angeles in the warehouse district, a punk haunt covered in graffiti. I used to go to their No-Talent open mic night, always interesting. They had Anchor Steam on tap; it was the first place I discovered beer could actually taste really good.
TW: Were there many places to get quality beer at that time? This was before the brewpub thing started to take off, correct?
Koch: I think the first brewpub opened around 1982, so it had started, but it was sparse across the United States. After I graduated from USC in 1987, I hung out a lot at a place called Gorky’s. It was a downtown hipster 24-hour restaurant type of place where they started brewing. They put in a system and I found the process of brewing beer totally fascinating. Around that time, a buddy of mine started taking me to all these brewpubs that were sprouting up and I started learning about the world of craft beer.
TW: Obviously, it made an impression…
Koch: Every time I would learn a little bit, I would want to learn a little bit more. I started going to breweries and beer festivals and the like. I’d say 1989-93 were the most formative years where I developed my fanboy beer geekdom.
TW: What were you doing to earn a living in those days?
Koch: I worked in the music industry. I did some production, managed bands, and built a rehearsal studio in downtown L.A. that I still own.
TW: Are you a musician?
Koch: I spent a year at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood before finishing up in business school at USC. I do play guitar, but wisely, I don’t break it out at Stone Brewery.
TW: So when did you get into the business of suds?
Koch: As time went on, I just found myself more interested in beer. I met up with Steve Wagner at a weekend beer class at UC-Davis. We realized we had complimentary skills and backgrounds and decided to partner up.
TW: Why did you choose San Diego?
Koch: Both Steve and I wanted to be in Southern California because it was a blank canvas. There was a dearth of brewing culture, so Stone could experiment and create one, but we didn’t feel like L.A. was the right place to start. In early 1995, I visited a friend down in San Diego. I was born in Orange County, but grew up in Pataskala, Ohio. I’d never spent any time down in San Diego, but right away, I thought it was the ideal place. Steve agreed. I moved down a few weeks later and started site selection.
TW: Where did you get the seed money?
Koch: We were able to secure $500,000 in angel financing. We bought a 30-barrell system and started brewing beer.
TW: Where did you get your beer recipes?
Koch: Steve and I are different people, but we’re similar in our opinions about what makes great beer. We wanted to make beer that was more flavorful and unique. We liked what was possible in the world of beer but wasn’t being expressed much at that time. Back then, breweries were conservative in their approach. We collaborated on the styles of beers. It was a team effort, but Steve came up with the recipes. He’s our brewmaster and he deserves the lion’s share of the credit.
(Photos by StudioSchulz.com)
TW: How did it go in the beginning, trying to make a name for Stone Brewing?
Koch: The early years were rough. We initially came out with Stone Pale Ale and got a lot of complaints that it was too bitter, even though by today’s standards, it’s relatively mild. It was aggressive for the marketplace, but we forged ahead and put out Stone IPA, Stone Smoked Porter and Arrogant Bastard Ale within 18 months.
TW: So even though the Pale Ale had been perceived as too aggressive, you went ahead with the Arrogant Bastard. Did you think it would catch on with the public?
Koch: From the beginning, we’ve brewed the beers that we want to drink. We don’t care if its right for the fickle uneducated public. We only care if it’s right for us.
TW: How were sales back then?
Koch: Minimal. We didn’t have a restaurant, and we had very little on-site sales because the beer was only available in growlers. We sold draft to local bars and restaurants and then after ten months, we started bottling 22-ouncers. It was strictly in San Diego County, nobody else wanted to buy our beer. The craft beer industry plateaued in 1996, so we opened up at the perfect wrong time. We also set a standard that we would be ethical, which meant no illegal incentives for bars. We wouldn’t give away free kegs, which got me kicked out of more bars than I care to remember.
TW: Did you always believe Stone Brewing would make it?
Koch: I was always confident in our ability to brew flavorful beer and felt that as long as we had enough cash, the future would be fine. But for the first year-and-a-half we were bleeding around $30K a month. Sure, we questioned if we could survive. Lo and behold, in March 1998, we had our first break-even month.
TW: When did Stone Brewing take off and become what it is today?
Koch: Not right away. We built slowly and steadily. It took about six or seven years before wholesalers were interested in carrying our beer without us begging. We kept at it and our reputation grew. If we deserve credit for one thing, it was making unique beers with big character and never wavering.
TW: When did you feel as though, “Now we’re viewed as one of the top brewers?”
Koch: When some of the early lists from RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com ranked us among the top breweries in the world. It’s always been my favorite metric. Just this past January, RateBeer came out with their annual list of "Best Brewers in the World 2010.” Stone Brewing came in ninth, but we’re the only brewery that’s been in the top ten each of the ten years they’ve compiled the list. And BeerAdvocate has three Stone brews in the "Top Beers on Planet Earth.” Those are consumer-rating websites, so to me, I can’t think of anything more flattering.
TW: In 2010, is Stone Brewing where you hoped it would be, given the recession?
Koch: Thankfully, the recession hasn’t really touched us. We opened Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens a little over three years ago. Now we’re the largest restaurant purchaser of local small-farm organic produce in San Diego County, which is pretty cool. It’s won architecture and landscaping awards. It’s a fantastic place to visit.
(Photo by Chris Cochran)
TW: If a beer comes out and isn’t a hit, do you serve it once, retool, or is it set for life?
Koch: There’s no hard and fast rule. We have several beers that are once-a-year special releases like the Stone Imperial Russian Stout or the Anniversary Ale, which is different every year. They’re limited and we always sell out of them. In the last ten years, we haven’t released a beer and discontinued it.
(Photo by StudioSchulz.com)
TW: Arrogant Bastard is a bold name for a bold beer. It seems like that would be the fun part, deciding how aggressive to be, how far to push it…
Koch: It is fun, but what we try to do is name the beers so they appropriately and effectively communicate the beers themselves. Arrogant Bastard is a great example, but sometimes it’s best to be simple and straightforward. Stone IPA lets people know that, “Yep it’s an IPA. And yep, it was brewed at Stone.”
TW: Do you feel like you’re part of the American craft beer renaissance? It’s a lot easier these days for anyone who desires to find killer beer…
Koch: We certainly feel that we’re part of a greater whole. I created and produced the “I Am A Craft Brewer” video. It says exactly what I feel about the industry. I am a fanboy beer-geek and I admire all these people making these amazing beers. They’re friends, and I love their work. I wouldn’t even call it a friendly competition; I consider them compatriots. If you come into our restaurant, you’ll find 32 beers on tap, but only 8-10 of them are Stone. We want to share and showcase all these great selections. You’ll find zero fizzy yellow beers.
(Photo by StudioSchulz.com)
TW: With all of these craft breweries, do you think American beer palates are improving?
Koch: I believe people inherently have good taste, but we can get programmed. Look at the beer that’s advertised on television. People have to want to be unprogrammed, and they need that chance of discovery like my serendipitous Anchor Steam at Al’s Bar. Today, there are so many more opportunities for that first encounter with amazing beer that the number of good beer drinkers is multiplying.
TW: Is it true you want to plant a Stone flag in Europe?
Koch: Yes. We are openly discussing the possibility of opening a brewery in Europe. To my knowledge, no American craft brewer has ever even talked about it. I think the likelihood is decent, because in places like the UK and Germany, beer sales have been in decline for the last couple of decades. They can’t afford to be provincial. We’ve already been contacted by the British and French embassies, they want to help connect the dots. Stone represents a fresh face and a new approach.
TW: Any new beers you recommend we check out?
Koch: The Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. At the beginning of March, it’s going from an occasional to a full-time beer. Stone fans are ecstatic.
(Photo by StudioSchulz.com)
TW: Looking back, did you learn anything at USC that’s impacted your career?
Koch: I learned that I’m an entrepreneur, which means my grades weren’t all that great.
TW: I was surprised to learn you aren’t a sports fan because beer and tailgating go hand-in-hand--
Koch: It’s our philosophy to make great beers and it’s up to people to decide when and how they want to enjoy it. We don’t do any advertising. I think it’s the height of silliness to tell people “this is when you do that.” If you want to drink excellent beer, we have it. If you want compromise your standards and drink yellow nonsense, then you’re probably not our customer anyway, so what do we care?
TW: What dreams do you have for Stone Brewery?
Koch: I’d love to see Stone on tap in-and-around the Southern Cal campus. That would be awesome.
TW: What’s the hold up there?
Koch: Ask the bar owners. I don’t know. Maybe people at USC have an inclination to the poser green bottle imports? Or the poser clear bottles with the limes shoved down the neck? I’d hate to believe SC’ers don’t like to do anything more than scratch the surface of mass consumerism.
TW: Thanks for taking the time with TrojanWire, we’re big fans of Stone Brewing.
Koch: As a Trojan, it’s a huge honor. And as a beer lover, it’s a great privilege getting to do what I do.
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