Steve Wagner was born in Chicago, raised on Los Angeles’ Palos Verdes peninsula and worked as a professional musician and Pyramid brewer before founding Stone Brewing Co. with Greg Koch in 1996. They’ve built their Escondido brewery into a regional craft beer power, and they’re still growing, rapidly. We spoke with Wagner in Pasadena during a Stone invasion that included the grand opening of their latest company store.
How much more can you take on at Stone Brewing Co.?
That’s a good question. We feel like we can take on the world at this point. There’s so much opportunity out there that we just want to do everything we possibly can. There’s a lot of interest in our company and business and we can attract a lot of people and try to do everything. We don’t rule out anything. We want to do everything we possibly can.
When you first started, did you have an image of having a fourth company store and two breweries?
No. You know, when we first started, it was make beer, sell beer, keep our heads down, work hard, and that was pretty much it. And now the world has changed and there’s a lot of opportunity out there. We want to do whatever we can to build our brand and build our company.
How do you re-evaluate your goals?
Pretty often. At least quarterly, maybe more often than that. Things change so quickly. You’ve got to always be on top of it.
Can you see having a brewery in Los Angeles too?
I can see that. Maybe not a full-on huge production brewery, but as part of a restaurant or something we do up here, certainly. Some type of brewery, absolutely…We’ve got some ideas we’re working on. We’d like to increase our presence up here in Los Angeles, for sure.
At what point did you know you would work with beer for a living?
I’m good at turning hobbies into careers. That’s my thing. I was a musician for a long time and reached that stage where I was thinking, “Okay, this is a young man’s game and I’m going to get into something I can do for the rest of my life and be productive in and be creative. It’s been 20 years since I made that decision that I’m committed to beer. That’s what I want to do.
What was the very first beer that you brewed, and how did it turn out?
I’d have to look back through the archives for that one. I’m sure I started simply with a pale ale, but in my early days as a professional musician, as my side job, I would work at farmers markets down in Los Angeles. I was working for a farmer who grew this amazing stone fruit, and I would brew some fruit beers, believe it or not. It’s totally anti-Stone, but the reason Greg and I hooked up is that I brewed this peach beer that was amazing. That was the first beer of mine that he tasted, and he said, “Wow, this is amazing. We should start a brewery.”
Was there anybody who mentored you along the way?
Absolutely. I brewed at Pyramid with some guys there who were amazing brewers. Clay Biberdorf, Phil Phillips and guys who were just incredible at that time, who really taught me a lot about brewing. Most people weren’t going to let you in on all that stuff.
Do you still play music?
I don’t so much anymore. It’s hard to find the time. I’m still a music fan, for sure.
What’s the instrument?
I was a piano player, mostly, but I played bass and guitar in the more successful bands I was in.
Do you think being a musician helped you in being a brewer?
Absolutely. There are a lot of similarities. That combination of the creative, and in music it’s the mathematical. Brewing is kind of scientific. So the combination of creative and scientific or mathematical side. Absolutely. The main thing for me is I like to create things that make people happy. With music and beer, it was the same thing, make people happy.
I experienced Stone IPA with Palisades Hops at Haven Gastropub in Pasadena.
What’s the criteria for a beer that you brew at Stone?
It’s something we have to feel is really great. We brew a lot of different things. We try a lot of different things. But we really have to get excited. That’s the bottom line. We’re passionate beer fans, and if it doesn’t pass that test, what’s the point?
Do you and Greg and Mitch [Steele] have to agree?
Yeah. Actually we do. We always sit down and taste it with our other brewers. It’s definitely a group decision.
A lot of times it seems like it’s to style, but what’s your approach with naming your beers?
Naming beers, a lot of times we like to get creative or do some crazy things to draw attention to it, but that’s part of the creative fun part of it too. Yeah you can name something strictly after style, or you can get a little crazy with it like Sublimely Self-Righteous and have a lot of fun with it.
What’s your top selling beer at Stone Brewing Co.?
Stone IPA is still our top seller.
Why do you think that’s the case?
The amazing thing is we’ve been making that beer now for 14 years and it hasn’t changed, but people’s palates have changed and the public likes a great hoppy IPA. We threw that out there originally and there wasn’t a lot of acceptance. Now, people’s tastes have changed. That’s a type of beer that people really like now.
And the recipe’s stayed the same the whole time?
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your brewhouse?
Passion. It’s all about passion. For us, since the beginning, it’s been a passion thing. You’ve got to be passionate about beer. That’s really where it starts.
How are you able to maintain balance in your life?
I’m not. [laughs] Actually, I take that back. It’s getting a lot better. In the early days, I worked crazy hours, really hard. I think that’s why we excelled as a company. We outworked people. We worked really hard. Now we have more people helping us, people with a lot of skills and a lot of creativity. It’s kind of a relief to be able to delegate some of that stuff and let other people be creative. Greg and I are still involved with the company full-time, every day, but a little bit of the pressure is off our shoulders because we can count on these great people who are on our team who do a lot of cool stuff.
If you could only drink one more beer, and it’s not a Stone beer, what would it be and how come?
Wow, that’s a tough one. Especially these days, there are so many great beers out there. If I had one last beer to drink – part of it is those emotional touchstones for me – I lived up in Portland and brewed for Pyramid for a long time. One of the best beers I ever had was Deschutes Mirror Pond on cask. At that time, it was just a revelation to me. That’s the first one that comes to mind, but I could go on for 20 minutes about the beers I’m excited about.