Stone Berlin and Greg Koch

One of the main reasons Deb & I wanted to go to Berlin was to visit the recently opened restaurant “World Bistro and Gardens” and brewery of Stone Brewing since we’d had a few friends singing its praises. We decided on dates and once booked we were fortunate to discover that on the Wednesday a Brewers’ Dinner was on the events calendar. This seemed like an opportunity not to be missed and when we knew we had tickets I thought I might as well ask if there might be a chance to have a chat with Greg Koch, the co-founder and Executive Chairman of Stone Brewing. And after a couple of emails back and forth with Colin Lenz, their PR guy, it was set up for late afternoon. I got a bit panicked because we were running a bit late but needn’t have worried because they seemed very chilled and laid back. Colin met us outside and we were pretty knocked out upon entering the reception area where we could see a bar, merchandise, a fridge full of beer and a small glass enclosed room. Then we entered the main hall and were fleetingly blown away by the sheer scale of the place before being ushered into the new library bar where Greg was waiting for us.

I began by asking him when he first got the idea for a European base and was surprised when he said it was as far back as 2009. So they spent a while looking at different sites including the UK and Greg said they had put very good proposals together but just couldn’t find any traction until they found the site south of Berlin’s city centre. Built in 1901 it had been a gasworks facility and due to its size it provided a space for the brewery, plus restaurant and gardens to enjoy great food and great beer in a beautiful setting. When he saw it he could see its potential, and after a few visits to the city of Berlin he fell in love with its history, architecture and vibrant cultural life.We then went back to the beginning, Before Stone, when he was living on the West coast and working in the music industry and although into beer the choice was fairly limited. Then before I could ask him, he mentioned his epiphany beer was drinking an Anchor Steam Ale whilst in LA in 1987. This had two effects, the first being that he became a beer geek and went in search of more flavourful beers and sought out beer festivals. But he also had a sense of disappointment and frustration and felt that by brewing bland corporate beers the big brewers had somehow avoided giving the public a choice. This was a theme he returned to a couple of times in our conversation. But back to the early 90’s and Greg met fellow beer enthusiast Steve Wagner who was also a homebrewer, and so they began brewing together. The first beer they brewed was a very hoppy Altbier, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess there weren’t a lot of examples of this style around, it being an amber ale of German origin. So even at this early stage the guys were setting out their stall so to speak. There followed a further 3 – 4 years when they went down the rabbit hole of beer geekdom, getting increasingly angry about the aforementioned lack of choice and the fact that there were only a few bars in major cities with anything approaching a decent selection of beers. So by 1995 they came to the conclusion that they needed to open their own brewery, and after searching for a few months settled on San Diego in February the following year with the first beer being released in July. They came upon the name Stone purely by tossing ideas out and actually coming up with something that neither of them objected to with both liking the fact it had a naturalness about it, and its attributes including the sense of solidity. Originally they thought they wanted to do traditional European styles of beer with Greg being a self professed Europhile, and so the gargoyle symbol came about because it was a motif to ward off evil spirits. In the case of Stone it is there to ward off cheap ingredients, pasteurisation, and chemical additives…

 

Their first beer was a pale ale, but they followed this up with a smoked porter almost in an effort to really show the possibilities that they felt were missing in the beer scene. But the barriers to entry into the beer market were high and included coming into contact with a certain amount of ignorance. He told us a story of one meeting with a group of beer distributors to sample the beers and when he poured the porter, one of them was astonished that it was so dark! And they had opened at a bad time for the burgeoning craft beer industry which had gone from having growth of 25% and then 45% to just 7% in 1996 and down to 2% the following year. This was the year that they released one of their signature beers, Arrogant Bastard, a beer that seems to have been loved and misunderstood in equal measure. Like many people I thought their message does come across as a bit arrogant, but when you are with Greg he doesn’t come across that way at all, and when he explains the reasoning behind the wording on the Arrogant Bastard label (which I’m sure he’s had to do more times than he can remember) it does make sense. You have to try to imagine what it was like 20 years ago when the beer drinking public just had Miller, Bud, Coors etc and so they weren’t aware of whether they might like something different because they didn’t have the choice. So when the label says you probably won’t like it, well for 99% of drinkers at the time it was probably true, ditto not having the taste or sophistication. At first they were just going to produce 100 cases of the beer because there was a sense that in amongst the sense of fun they were also trying to put people off. And yes it takes a dig at the big corporations but at the time this beer was an outlier pointing to a future that was maybe a little bit uncertain.

But a bit to their surprise it became a success which lead to many variations and it taking on a life of its own in recent months cf Arrogant Brewing. Moving into the new century Stone, like many American breweries, found themselves able to take a few left turns since they had no recent strong brewing heritage in the land of fizzy yellow lager. It’s a bit of a mixed metaphor but it was like being in a culinary environment with a blank canvas. I mentioned to Greg that one of my favourite beers of theirs was the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA because I loved that meeting between a west coast ipa and Belgian yeast although he did say that it was no longer a big seller in the US. But you only have to look at their Untappd listings to see how adventurous they have been during their 20+ year history. Eventually success meant that they outgrew their original brewery and moved to the current location in Escondido, north of San Diego in late 2005. A year later they opened the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens to sell their beers, locally sourced organic food, and give themselves event space for festivals. I finished off my conversation by asking how he felt things had developed since that big move and how he felt about social media. He said he found the business to still be extremely competitive and even with their name and success they still had to work hard to get their beers into bars and keep producing high quality product with the best ingredients. Social media is just seen as a communication tool, not a selling one

Once Greg had left Colin suggested we had a beer and brought the list in for us to peruse…omg, it was big, 51 taps split into Stone Berlin & San Diego, Arrogant Brewing, and guests. I went for the Pataskala Red IPA (I’m sure Colin said it was named after the town of Greg’s birth) which uses a German speciality malt to give it a red hue and sweet bready base for the combination of Mosaic, Cascade and Amarillo hops to sit on. Deb had Tangerine Express ipa which she described as being lovely and full bodied with the correct amount of orangy goodness. We had a little chat about his background in Germany – he had also been working in the music industry in Berlin before moving to Stone in October of last year into a job which he is really enjoying. We asked about his epiphany beer and he said it was a Lervig Lucky Jack pale ale that he had 7 years ago in Oslo. He added as well that whilst touring the US West Coast with his girlfriend he was impressed by all the small breweries along the way, specifically Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka where he celebrated his birthday on the 4th of July. He also gave us a little more history of the place telling us the brewery is 100 hectolitres with the first beer being released last June, and the pilot brewery, which was the first to become operational in December 2015, is 10 hectolitres. The restaurant had opened in September and, like the one at Escondido, used ingredients from small local, organic farms for its menu which is inspired by different food cultures. The library bar where we were sitting was a recent addition, having only been opened in the previous month and was full of bric a brac some of which were gifts from other breweries. After a while Colin had to go back to work and so we explored a bit more including the garden space, and I’m going to quote their fact sheet first – “Approximately 5.000 square meters with corners, nooks and gathering spaces created using natural elements of the space and repurposed building materials. The expansive gardens include boulders, large trees, and plants maintained using 100 percent organic methods.” I’m not sure if this gives an indication that, like the indoor bar and restaurant area, it is not uniform and corporate but has different distinct looks which we thought really added to the ambiance of the place. The brewery feels calm and welcoming, and although quiet when we first arrived it soon filled up with couples, families, and groups of friends coming to sample beers from the 2 Stones breweries and the plethora of guests. Eventually it was time to join our fellow guests for the brewers dinner with Greg, Drew Curtis, collaborator on w00tstout, and Thomas Tyrell, the Director of Brewing.

So after a brief meet and mingle period we took our places at a table for 6 with Colin, his girlfriend Michaela, and a German couple Daniel and Meike, the latter being a food and drink blogger in Berlin. If you are visiting, check out http://smamunir.de/  although if you’re like me you may need to use Google translate. With 4 courses of excellent food and 10 beers it was a long, fun night – here are some of the highlights (unsurprisingly my note taking became more sporadic as the night went on.) We discovered that the Stone Berliner Weisse that came with the first course is Greg’s favourite beer when he visits the brewery, and with the second course we had 2 relatively new beers, Stone Ripper Pale Ale and the previously mentioned Tangerine Express. With the main course of spicy pork chop we had Arrogant Brewing Punishment which used chilis from Greg’s garden originally and is his mother’s favourite beer (which is pretty hardcore). Greg said that great brewing is art and art should have a point of view and by the this course I think we were getting it – my description of Punishment just said “Wow, what a beast, chilli heat and maltiness”. The other third course beer was the Drew Curtis / Wil Wheaton / Greg Koch Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout (2016), the continuation of a collaboration that first began in 2013. Taking its name from Wil Wheaton’s W00tstock show it was inspired by Kentucky Bourbon Pecan Pie dessert, Drew said they thought the pecans gave it a good mouthfeel and helped the different flavours work well together. Finishing up with Bourbon Barrel Aged Arrogant Bastard and a mellow Coffee Milk Stout a rather splendid evening of great food, beer and conversation came to an end.

In conclusion we found Berlin to be a great city to visit, so much history and culture for one thing, but this afternoon and evening at Stone was certainly a highlight and it’s highly recommended as a place to visit…cheers to Greg, Colin and the rest of the staff!

 

 

 

5 comments

  1. Greg is one of the most affable people I’ve ever met & his passionate resolution towards there being zero compromise on the quality of the beer & the food at their ‘Gardens’ is so admirable. Great piece – I hope more people actually go visit Stone Berlin so they can see first hand the full extent of their ruthless commitment to their vision 21 years on.

  2. Visited the first week the bar was open, only found it by chance but what great potential. Sounds like they have pulled it off. Will have to go back now it is done.

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