Billb interviews Greg Koch of Stone Brewing
February 22, 2002
Written by billb
The following is an interview with Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Company.
First off, any relation to Jim Koch of Sam Adams glory? Are you tired of that question?
GK: No. No relation and very different philosophies. Tired of the question? No. I am rarely asked it.
How did you discover real beer?
GK: I used to go to a seriously grungy little dive bar in the artist loft district of downtown LA called "Al’s Bar" in the mid and late 80’s. They served Anchor Steam on tap in 20oz cheap plastic cups. It was the first beer I had ever found that didn’t begin to taste insipid as it warmed up. Gorky’s was also downtown and added a brewery to their restaurant in the late 80’s (later closing in the early 90’s). I can remember being pissed off that they stopped serving fizzy yellow beer brands when they got their own beer on line (yes, ladies and gentlemen, even the Arrogant Bastard had a learning curve). Since Gorky’s was a really cool place to hang out, I started off drinking their beer because it was all they served and then continued being a customer because I developed a taste for it.
Still, at that time I was only a casual --- but ever more curious --- micro drinker. Then, in the early 90’s work took me to San Francisco. I began touring brewpubs and microbreweries as a modestly interested fan and soon developed into a hard core enthusiast.
I can remember one morning in 1992 a friend at work gave me a 22oz bottle of Anderson Valley’s Boont Amber. I hadn’t had one yet, but I had heard it was good. The bottle looked good like it would be something I’d like. I put it in the fridge for later. It turned out to be one of the toughest, most frustrating days I had ever had at work. Looking forward to enjoying the Boont Amber in the fridge kept me going through the day. By 11:30 that night when I finished with work for the day, I was exhausted and spent (I had started at 6:30am). I opened the bottle and decided that I would willingly go through trials and tribulations of daily life with little regret if I could only enjoy a beer of that quality and character every day. I was hooked!
What made you think you could brew better beer?
GK: "Better" is not a term I use often. "Favorite" is a word I prefer. Arguments about one beer being "better" than another is a waste of time unless they are of the exact same style and the respective brewers had more or less the same intent. Otherwise, it’s an issue of personal preference --- i.e. which one is your favorite.
So, we (Stone Co-Founder & Brewmaster Steve Wagner and I) set out to bring the world beers that would rank amongst OUR favorites. I had tasted Steve’s homebrews and I knew he was talented. We spent years talking about philosophies, brewing styles, approaches to beer, flavor profiles and such. I KNEW Steve and I would be able to bring out Stone brews that would be nothing less than outstanding. Steve and Stone head brewer Lee Chase have never let me down.
...and they manage to make a lot of other people happy too!
What is your favorite beer style?
GK: What time of day is it? What is the weather like? What am I eating? My favorite beer style is situational. That being said, IPAs always rank high on the list.
List a few of your favorite beers.
GK: Other than our own brews, here’s a few of my favorites that come to mind (in no particular order): Hanssens Gueuze Westmalle Triple Avery Brewing’s Hog Heaven Barley Wine St. Arnold Christmas Pizza Port brews (in Carlsbad & Solana Beach --- too many to list!) Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye Courage Imperial Russian Stout (when they still made it) Russian River IPA Victory Storm King Stout Bell’s Expedition Stout
How did Arrogant Bastard evolve? It’s a unique beer.
GK: Arrogant Bastard Ale did not evolve. It was a clear case of creationism. Like the Big Bang. Bam! There is was.
In keeping with the fact that we brew beers we like and the fact that we like massive beers, Steve brewed up a batch of Arrogant Bastard Ale in between test batches for what was to be our initial release: Stone Pale Ale.
We held on to the Arrogant Bastard Ale recipe for nearly a year and a half before releasing it upon the unsuspecting public. We really didn’t think we would sell much. When I wrote and designed the bottle, I only thought a few people would ever see it. I could not have been more wrong....
We see some strong AB devotees, what’s the weirdest thing a fan’s ever done? Do you have groupies?
GK: I haven’t found Arrogant Bastard Ale devotees to be particularly weird. They’re simply people who expect a higher level out of life. Sure, there have been many stories of people going to heroic lengths to obtain it, but nothing "weird" comes to mind.
I wouldn’t call them "groupies" either. I get a lot of high-fives and great compliments on the beer and the label, but they’re the kind of compliments that let us know that what we’re doing here at Stone is pretty damn righteous in many their hearts and minds.
And I get some REALLY funny emails on a regular basis as people describe their experiences with Arrogant Bastard Ale.
What’s standing in the way of Stone’s world domination?
GK: We are. The only styles of beer that will ever have the chance to dominate the world are light lager styles. Because of a set of realities, I would say that there is little to no chance of this not being true. Those realities are:
1) The generic consumer does not want something that challenges them. They want safe and familiar --- even if they know that it is not the best choice or the best for them --- as long as they don’t have to think. Thus the success of McDonalds, Kraft singles, Pringles, Bank of America, Lipton Iced Tea, Oscar Mayer Bologna, Ford Escort, etc. Generic products for generic consumers. The reality is that the majority of the people in this world are generic consumers.
2) In beer, I see there are two major schools of thought to creating and selling: Product driven marketing or Advertising driven marketing.
"Product driven" means that the beer must speak for itself. If there is advertising, it is generally aimed at simply creating awareness that the brand exists. Most of the reason the consumer chooses this brand is because of the beer itself. These brands must be good as they rely on word of mouth. If they are not good, their chance for wide success is quite limited due to lack of a significant word of mouth, or worse, negative word of mouth. The target audience for "product driven" beers are people who seek out better, new and more unique beers.
"Advertising driven" means that the brand owners concentrate on pushing the beer through advertising. Since the vast majority of the public is of a "generic" mind, the product cannot exceed that level. Otherwise, they are spending money sending their message to a population that does not care about or want extra quality or uniqueness. As you know, much of the approach for these brands is "lifestyle" based. In other words, they try and tell you that if you drink their brand you will be the life of the party, or that you will be transported to a tropical frame of mind, or that you will attract the opposite sex, or that you are an original thinker, etc....
3) Since we make "product driven" beers, we will never reach the mass public and therefore we will never dominate the world. That’s OK. I only want to be popular amongst those who make CONSCIOUS decisions about the beer they drink.
It is my theory that if ALL beer advertising was suddenly banned (TV ads, magazines, billboards, sports sponsorships, free t-shirts, little blinky buttons with brand names, beer promo girls, etc.) and people only had the beer itself on which to base their purchase decisions, all fizzy yellow beer brands would suffer a minimum of 50% loss in sales volume within a half generation. Then Stone might have a shot at world domination!
Most beer geeks prefer Belgian style beers. Any plans on brewing one? Why or why not?
GK: I don’t agree with that statement. I think a truer statement is "Most beer geeks really like Belgian style beers." In 2000, about 55,000 barrels of beer were imported into the US from Belgium. That’s not that much when you think about all the Belgian brands out there. For frame of reference, I think that Sierra Nevada is at around the 350,000 barrel annual mark, maybe more.
As you’ll notice, there are several Belgian beers on my "favorite beers" list above. However, I drink a LOT more American brews on a weekly basis than Belgian.
I think that any style of beer we do will have a Stone Brewing character to it. In other words, if we addressed a Belgian style of beer we would throw the Stone personality into the recipe. Our Stone 02.02.02 Vertical Epic Ale is a perfect example of this. Stone head brewer Lee Chase created what he is calling a "Imperial Wit" for lack of a better term. It’s a strong golden ale fermented with a Belgian yeast. It also has coriander, orange peel and lots of hops (ringing in at about 45 IBUs --- typical for this style is in the 18-22 IBU range).
Any tips on shipping your beer?
GK: Pack it good. Send it overnight express if the weather is warm. Never send it towards the end of the week as it may end up in a hot warehouse somewhere over the weekend before it reaches its final destination.
What’s the best way to serve Stone Brewing brews? (type of glass, temperature, etc)
GK: Depends on the style of beer of course. I think the classic pint glass is always a great way to go for a great ale. Temperature can start off cold, but NOT freezing. The Flying Saucer tap house chain has a plaque in their restaurants that says "Only Amateurs Ask For A Frosted Glass." I agree with this!
It’s quite enjoyable to allow our beers to warm up as you drink them. That way you can experience the changes in the aroma and flavor as it opens up due to the rise in temperature.
For our Stone Smoked Porter or higher alcohol brews such as Stone Imperial Russian Stout, Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine or Double Bastard Ale, setting the bottle out of the fridge for ten or fifteen minutes before pouring is a good idea.
On the other hand, since cold accentuates the palate’s perception of bitterness, I sometimes like to serve Stone IPA nice and cold in order to really make the most of that initial bracing smack of hop bitterness. The aroma and hop flavor then begin to come out more as it warms up.
Have you ever had a Budweiser?
GK: I have sampled countless brands of beer. Some I have enjoyed immensely and some I have not. Without being brand specific, I tend not to gravitate towards brands that are not known for being honest, true to style, additive free or otherwise meeting up to a high set of standards.
Growing up, I drank fizzy yellow beer. It was all that was available. I didn’t know any better. I moved on.
I run into many people who use the "It’s what I grew up with, that’s why I drink XYZ brand of fizzy yellow beer" excuse. Bullshit. It’s because you got used to a generic taste and have decided not to move on. That’s OK, but the fizzy yellow beer drinker should at least be able to acknowledge their own reality. They don’t want to expand their horizons. There’s a reason why better things in life are referred to as "acquired tastes." you may have to work at developing your palate, but when you get there it’s nirvana!
I think it was the rock band RUSH that said "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
What do you think of RateBeer.com and the beer geek community?
GK: Beer geeks rule. I’m a huge beer geek, which is why I decided to start a brewery. I can easily talk about beer for hours. The answers above might look long, but they’re SHORT for me! It’s just that I am only a fair typer....
RateBeer.com is really cool. It’s fun to see not only how people rate various beers, but to read their comments as well. It really involves people in the beer community, and that’s a great thing!
Any last words?
GK: Yeah! I’d like to have you guys as guests on my weekly internet radio show "The Arrogant Bastard on Beer." If you’re not going to be in San Diego soon, we can arrange a time to have you call in to the show.
We can talk about how you guys came up with the idea and how you’re putting it into effect. RateBeer.com members can call in to the show with questions and comments. Let’s schedule it!
Greg, we’re all over that!
If you’d like to get in touch with Greg, you can write, call or visit the Stone Brewing Company.
Greg Koch CEO & Co-Founder Stone Brewing Co.
155 Mata Way, #104
San Marcos, CA 92069
(760) 471-4999 xt: 102
(760) 471-7690 Fax
Greg - This is one of the best succinct craft beer articles I can ever remember reading. I applaud you, your philosophy and your great beers! Kudos too to Rate Beer for an excellent article.104 months ago
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RateBeer is really cool. It’s fun to see not only how people rate various beers, but to read their comments as well. It really involves people in the beer community, and that’s a great thing!
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