Interview: Stone Brewing Co. founder Greg Koch

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Craft Beer San Diego

Photo courtesy of Stone Brewing Co.

Some breweries are just more brazen and aggressive, not only in their brewing style, but also in their marketing and sales push. In Southern California, look no further than Stone Brewing Co. founded by Greg Koch and brewmaster Steve Wagner in 1996. Since then, they’ve built the brewery into the San Diego leader, increasing production from 400 barrels in 1996 to over 100,000 barrels in 2009. Stone is also one of Southern California’s top beer distributors, and the 55,000-square-foot facility hosts the World Bistro, a wood and stone sanctuary with gargoyle imagery, market-driven food and lush gardens. Koch and I recently met at Stone and we subsequently discussed the brewery’s background, approach and future.

What distinguishes Stone from other breweries?
Our willingness to do it our own way and purely follow our own muse. Call it willingness, call it confidence, it could be a combination. We’re unique because we’re willing to be unique.

How has Stone changed in the past 13.5 years?
We’ve gained a greater understanding that going your own way and being unique can work.

How do you think San Diego stacks up against other beer-focused areas?
Clearly other areas have their eyes on San Diego. Why else would so many breweries from outside San Diego be attempting to brew San Diego style beers?

What will it take for Los Angeles to compete with San Diego when it comes to beer?
More than a few handfuls of people with a clue about good taste. It really takes a leader to really set the tone. We’ve got some craft beer bar leaders, which is fantastic, but there’s not a brewing leader…We’re sort of doing it from San Diego right now. Craftsman has certainly done their part, but it’s a team effort. You need more good breweries in Los Angeles. Craftsman’s hometown support is coming from San Diego.

How did you become so interested in beer?
I’m enlightened and insightful. Anybody who’s interested in craft beer qualifies as being enlightened and insightful. They just go hand in hand. Does that mean that people who don’t love craft beer are not enlightened and insightful? No, it just means they’re not as enlightened and insightful.

You said you need more than a few handfuls of people with a clue about good taste. Do you think San Diego was cultivated?
We were all cultivated. Nobody could possibly change my mind about that. I’ve seen it happen, gone through the middle of it. Just like places like Blue Palms, Verdugo and Father’s Office are creating a paradigm shift in Los Angeles, they’re doing it by cultivating people. If you think about it, if everybody was starting from square one, it would be more natural for people’s taste to gravitate toward craft beer than fizzy yellow beer. People followed fizzy yellow beer because commercials taught them that. Craft beer simply tastes much better. Given the opportunity, people will gravitate toward beer that tastes better, until they’re turned to the dark side. Then they have to work harder. Big companies haven’t created beer that tastes better simply because there’s not as much profit margin in it.

Do you have a first beer memory?
It was with a fizzy yellow beer that I found in an abandoned lot. People were drinking beers and didn’t drink all of them. It was warm and it tasted like ass, really made me want to gag.

Was there a turning point for you?
Yes, courtesy of Anchor Steam. Anchor Steam I discovered in the artist loft district of downtown Los Angeles, in a place called Al’s Bar, which is unfortunately no longer around. I loved hanging around Al’s Bar, and they had Anchor Steam on tap. The interior would change every week because they’d pretty much let anybody do anything in there that they wanted. The graffiti was constantly changing. It was a funky little space with no sign, just a door with a porthole. It would get really hot because it was small and packed. They sold beer in two sizes, 16-ounce or 24-ounce size. The price per ounce on the 24-ounce size was much better, and being a poor college student, I definitely paid attention to the pricing differential. The beer would warm up before I finished it. That was the only beer that didn’t taste like ass once it got warm. It still tasted good.

Who are some other brewers that you respect?
It would be a long list. I don’t mind pointing out Craftsman as one of them. I’ve long been a fan of what they do. From Lost Abbey and AleSmith in San Diego, to Bear Republic and Russian River in Northern California, Victory and Dogfish Head. Internationally, Shiga Kogen and Baird in Japan. BrewDog and Thornbridge, of course Nøgne Ø in Norway. There are just tons.

Where do you enjoy drink beer when you’re not at Stone?
I have a place in downtown San Diego. My favorite bar is just called Neighborhood. They have a fantastic tap line-up, really awesome tap line-up. It’s a cool vibe, great organic food, local and natural meats and so-on.

If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would it be?
It’s a depressing question. What beer would I drink if I’m really depressed, or to pull me out of depression? I’m going to pick Arrogant Bastard Ale.

How come?
It’s just got that flavor profile, that place in my heart. I would want Arrogant Bastard Ale to be my last beer.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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