Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch Explains How Two Brew-Bound Brothers Made It Big
Greg Koch is as excited about craft beer today as he was when he and co-founder Steve Wagner setup Stone Brewing in a nondescript warehouse in San Marcos, California in February 1996. In the twenty-two years since Stone has risen to the top of the craft beer business. They have a presence in each of America’s 50 states, a taproom as far away as Shanghai and, most miraculously of all, they opened a USD $25 million brewery in Berlin in September 2016.
Not that Stone Brewing have any intention of slowing down. Greg was just in Japan, and then Korea, and then Taiwan. Now he’s touched down in Ho Chi Minh City for two events in collaboration with Beervana at BiaCraft and Rehab Station—the latest frontier for the craft brew kings. And he’s still filled with wonder to be holding a carefully cold-chained Stone IPA at a bar in another farflung country waking up to craft beer.
“We started in San Diego in 1996 and have grown over the years. And, of course, here I am now in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Greg smiles as we sit down with him at the Dakao craft beer bar, Rehab Station, to understand how the brew-bound brothers behind Stone Brewing made it this big.
The German media called you the craft beer Jesus. How do you feel about the name? And what’s the most Jesus-like miracle you’ve achieved with Stone Brewing?
A German tabloid newspaper called The Berliner Kurier gave me the name. They put me on the cover in 2014 when we announced the creation of our Berlin brewery with the caption “Der bier Jesus aus Amerika.” I’m not entirely comfortable with the moniker, but I’m OK if someone throws it out there.
I don’t do miracles but I do share, proselytize, and sometimes even preach about the joy that is craft beer. In 1987, I had my first craft beer and it was a transformative experience. The beer was called Anchor Steam from a famous San Francisco craft brewery called Anchor Brewing. I had it in a hole-in-the-wall dive bar in a run-down district of Los Angeles where I was working in the music business at the time. Naturally, I wanted to share that experience—and that’s become my life’s journey. Half of me was excited about the world of flavor that had opened up…but the other half was angry that all my previous beer drinking years had been stolen from me.
You have one chance to convert someone to craft. Which beer do you give them?
Frankly, my recommendation is to share your favorite beer. Don’t try and guess what they may or may not like. And I do the same—I share the beer that excites me most at the time. If you want to turn someone on to great jazz, you don’t use Kenny Gee. Sure, not everyone’s going to like Charlie Parker or any of the other greats, but you’re doing the person a disservice if you dumb down your choice for them—with anything, music or craft beer, offer up the best and fullest experience you can.
With Stone Brewing found around the world, which is the most exotic or strange location where we can find your beer?
I have to say Berlin, Germany. Beer was kind of forgotten in Berlin—it’s something they don’t think about much, it just kind of is. Ten or fifteen years ago, there was maybe one industrial brewer in Berlin. Today, there are at least 20 craft brewers in Berlin. And we found a historic gasworks building, built in 1901, in which to make our brewery and restaurant.
Many people ask about the Reinheitsgebot—the German beer purity law that limits the ingredients you can use in beer. To use another music analogy, the Reinheitsgebot says that guitars, drums, and vocals are music. If you add keyboards, it’s no longer music. And that doesn’t really resonate with a thinking person. We don’t follow the Reinheitsgebot but many of our beers, like the Stone IPA, meet its standard anyway.
So, which of your Stone Brewing craft beers are you most excited about right now?
We created a craft beer with our friends in Metallica called “Enter Night” that I’m very excited about. I’m even wearing the T-shirt. But some passions never go away like my one for Stone Brewing’s IPA which I have right here. This classic west-coast IPA is always going to be one of my passions.
How did Vietnam enter your consciousness as a potential next destination for Stone Brewing?
Our presence here is a result of the work of our friends at Beervana. They import not just to Vietnam but also Thailand. We’re very, very strict about our cold-chain requirements and Beervana shares our passion. We keep all of our beer cold at our brewery and our warehouses and we ship it still kept cold, and they keep it cold at their warehouses upon arrival, and right up to its delivery.
What have been your first impressions of Vietnam’s craft beer industry?
Last night, we were at Heart of Darkness for the launch of their new stout. Then, I dropped by Malt. And this is one of the things about craft beer. You can travel the world and people throw open the doors for you. You get into conversations and meet people doing interesting things…it’s kind of awesome.
After 22 years spent building the Stone craft beer brand, what one piece of advice would you give to Vietnam’s craft brewers in our local industry that’s just getting started?
It is a vibrant scene here, and, I suspect, in other parts of Vietnam. This is a time that will be remembered forever; it’s kind of a magical time. When we started in San Diego in 1996 craft beer wasn’t really a thing. Now it’s definitely a thing. That kind of transitional time brings a lot of energy.
My advice would be very simple. It’s to ignore everyone. Do it your way. Don’t follow what people think they want. There are lots of breweries and recipes—with flavors and aromas and characteristics that I haven’t experienced before. I had this wonderful sour beer at Heart of Darkness last night and it was different to other sour beers in the hopping style they used. And it was really wonderful. Those things can’t exist if you simply follow what’s gone before.
It’s like Metallica. Do they care if you like them or not? No. And they shouldn’t. They should focus on being Metallica. And that’s very much how we are as a brewery. In fact, James Hetfield said to me that Metallica and Stone Brewing are the same, we each focus on doing our thing…which was kind of cool to hear.
Has there ever been a craft beer you didn’t like?
Absolutely. I’ve had a lot—even though some people might tell you there’s no such thing as a bad craft beer. Fortunately, I’ve had way more craft beers that I have liked. Today, in this world, it is a better time to be a beer drinker than at any other time in history and that’s worth celebrating…