Category: On Tour

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!

 

 

 

The Fun of Beer Festival Volunteering!

Easter weekend – eggs, chicks, hot cross buns? Not for me – for me it was volunteering at the inaugural Hop City Festival at Northern Monk in Leeds.

I’d been to Leeds only a few weeks before to help Roberto Ross celebrate his birthday and enjoyed our visit to the refectory bar. The building is lovely with the brewery on the ground floor, the refectory bar in the middle and an events space on the top floor.

The festival promised to offer a selection of hop forward beers over 3 days (13th-15th April). Since I’m a complete hop fan I knew it would be for me then I saw a call to arms from Dea Latis to get more ladies to volunteer – I’d enjoyed volunteering at the Birmingham Beer Bash last year and (as you know from this blog) I love talking about beer so I signed up for 2 sessions – Thursday and Friday evenings.

I arrived on the Thursday to a very calm upper floor. There was the usual level of organised chaos from the organisers (shout out to Rob who organised us all and was great). As is usual you start out getting your volunteer t-shirt (a fetching yellow one with a giant hop on it) and a safety briefing. The usual rules of not knocking back pints and pints on shift – you’re there to work after all, but of ensuring you taste the beers you’re serving so you know what you’re talking about were explained along with the food voucher system and important health and safety info.

Each brewer had brought 2 beers with them and these would remain the same for the whole festival to prevent any fear of missing out by only going to one session. However the range was amazing.

My first shift was with Toby and Chris from Brew By Numbers – they’d brought 01/01 their very first beer, a Citra Saison, and 05/21 an Azacca and NZ Cascade IPA. They told me they’d planned to bring a different beer but an issue with a batch of yeast meant it wasn’t up to scratch. We were in great company as our neighbours included Beavertown, Other Half (I got to meet their brewmaster Sam Richardson at my ‘drinking’ session on Saturday), Wylam, Siren and Kernel.

Me with Toby and Chris from Brew by Numbers

Toby and Chris explained the beers to me and we had a taste – the saison was light and fruity and ended up being a popular palate cleanser during the hop overload whilst the IPA was a real juice bomb. They had a beer engine which I’d used before so pouring was no issue. As is the thing with all festivals the highlight is meeting people – punters, volunteers (it was great to meet Mac from @sotoncraftbeer, on with Kernel, who’d come all the way from Southampton to volunteer!) and brewers. As the evening wore on the fantastic soundtrack provided by the guys from Wylam got us all dancing behind our respective bars. I’m not sure if that attracted customers or put them off but we had fun. Of course there is hard work too – once the customers for the night had gone it was all hands on deck to clear up rubbish, collect empty glasses and get the area cleaned down for the next session.

Meeting Sam Richardson, Brewmaster at Other Half

Day 2 dawned and I spent the day enjoying Leeds with my husband but as 5pm rolled around I was back to Northern Monk for shift 2. One of the main draws is that for this festival Northern Monk had spared no expense in air freighting over a range of Alchemist beers from Vermont. These near mythical brewers make the top rated beer on Rate Beer – Heady Topper. Along with this the can bar also had Focal Banger, Luscious and Farmer’s Daughter. When I arrived I was assigned to this can bar and spent a very pleasant hour listening to classical music resonating around the brewery (as that is where the bar was situated) and getting to learn about the beers and the ‘rules’ for serving them. Only one of each per customer, mark their wristbands with the appropriately coloured Sharpie, 3 tokens a can and they must be opened at the table – no exceptions! Having spent all that money getting the beers over they rightly did not want people taking them away and storing them goodness knows how or for how long ruining the fresh taste and generating bad feedback. I started my day working with Tara Taylor from Northern Monk (she has my dream job – Brand Ambassador), she was a very lovely lady all the way from California! She told me they’d had 2 hours of solid queues on the previous sessions so I knew what to expect. She wasn’t wrong – once the doors opened a large proportion of people made their way straight to the can bar. Of course we had people asking for take aways (they got more as the evening went on – all sorts of bribes were offered and rejected!) but in general people were just happy to get their hands on these rare beers.

Chelsea, Tara and I show off The Alchemist beers!

I was joined early on by Adam (from @beermoresocial) so there was a fair bit of blogging conversation going on. Then the hightlight for me was we were joined by Chelsea Nolan one of the brewsters from The Alchemist! She’d only just flown in that morning and come direct to the festival. She was super friendly and more than happy to talk about her beers and the brewery. I learnt during the day that they have 6 people brewing – 3 men and 3 women (that’s a pretty good split!). She also told me that the reason Heady Topper and Focal Banger tell you to drink direct from the can is really 2 fold – the main reason is that volatiles from the super high levels of hops begin to be lost as soon as you pour out the beer so the can keeps them in and that also in the US plastic glasses are used at a lot of venues so by drinking it from the can you’re saving the environment too!

I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever opened so many cans, I soon had a blister! I also had ‘can envy’ as I got to smell all the wonderful aromas from the beers but not drink them! But we had great fun and Chelsea was great company joking with the customers all evening (obviously beer counteracts jet lag!).

As the evening wore on Tara came to ask for a volunteer to go up and work on the Refectory bar – I couldn’t miss this opportunity (I’d briefly worked on there the day before but it was fleeting). So I ended my volunteering working at the main Northern Monk bar. It was busy and there were quite a few people looking a bit the worse for wear but still lots of people interested in the line up of beers on. It was a great end to a really fun couple of days of volunteering.

If you don’t mind hard work and maybe blisters from opening cans I can wholeheartedly recommend volunteering at a beer festival – you meet great people from all over the world, brewers, volunteers and visitors. You get to talk about beer with like minded people and I got to go to the festival on the Saturday too, so I got over my can envy! Roll on my next volunteering adventure and Hop City 2018!

Quick City Guide – Leeds – March 2017

Roberto Ross doesn’t like having a birthday in January so every year he has a second birthday in March. This is celebrated by a beer focused weekend trip to a location in the UK and this year that trip was to Leeds.

We were only with him for one of the two days so this quick blog just covers the bars we visited – there were plenty more that looked interesting that we didn’t visit – Leeds is certainly a thriving city when it comes to great places to drink beer and eat good food, a model Birmingham would do well to follow!

We started our day at the Northern Monk Refectory. To be honest I could have stayed there all day. It has 16 keg lines and a couple of cask as well. Long tables and a few high bar tables with stools fill the cosy area – it’s not big but the atmosphere is great and the beer list amazing. We had some lunch here too a ploughmans for me and avocado and poached eggs for Dave.

One of our merry band of travellers was Josh Waldock the Brewing Manager at Ridgeside Brewery on the ouskirts of Leeds. Never one to miss a quick interview opportunity I got a few details from him about his brewery as I’d not heard of them before. He said that the majority (80%) of what they brew goes to cask with the remainder in keg, bottle and can. They have 5 core beers and also a few specials throughout the year. Back in 2010 the brewery was a traditional CAMRA style place but 18 months ago new owners came in with a new head brewer (Matt Lovatt) and shook it up a bit. I am looking forward to trying his beer when I volunteer at Hop City Leeds in April (taking place in Northern Monk).

As Josh was with us we were lucky enough to get a quick visit to the brewery itself (on the lower floor of the building) – it’s compact and bijou and limited by the height of the ceiling. They are planning to move to a bigger site shortly but will retain this smaller brewhouse as well.

We then moved on to the Head of Steam. The bar here is split into 3 areas – US kegs, Belgian and cask lines. It was a bit of an odd place if I’m honest. Packed as it was Saturday afternoon but mostly with people drinking macro lagers. We all agreed it felt a bit like a Wetherspoons but with a more diverse beer selection. We stayed for one and moved on.

 

Our next stop Tapped was at capacity so we reluctantly left there and moved onto Friends of Ham.

More of a restaurant feel to this place but very nice and an impressive beer list too. They have a clever process of listing what’s on each tap and what’s on next so when one runs out they stamp the list and the next beer is on. The downside of this is you can see some great beers coming but not get them! What a temptation! The other great thing here is the 3 thirds for £5.50 or 6 for £10 – regardless of the individual prices of the beers. We had a nice big round table downstairs and all took advantage of these flights. Again it was really busy and we were lucky that Josh had called ahead to get us a table. I will definitely be back here in April to try some of their charcuturie too!

A short walk then to the wonderful Corn Exchange and the Little Leeds Beer House. The Corn Exchange itself is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture completed in 1864. It was the sort of place you could wander for hours looking at all the quirky independent stores and then going for a beer. The beer house had three taps and a nice selection of bottles and cans. I really love that this building is still being used for its original purpose, trade, but in a modern and independent way.

Two bars next to each other were stops 5 and 6. First up Whitelocks. A traditional style pub with a lovely copper bar. Keg and cask was available and since it was such a busy place we ended up sitting outside. Next stop was the Turk’s Head – this was more of a hipster establishment and not as busy as it’s neighbour.

Our final stop for beer and dinner was Bundobust. Wonderful vegetarian Indian streetfood and a great selection of beer on tap and also in bottles. It’s a small place and like a lot of the other locations we visited it was packed. I wish we had one of these in Birmingham – I’m sure it would be a success.

It was a great day out and it was so good to see such a vibrant beer scene. It’s worth noting that none of the places we went were more than a stone’s throw from the train station. It made me a little melancholy too to be honest that Leeds seems to be able to support such a thriving scene whereas here in Birmingham although we have good places they are few and far between – maybe our city council can learn something about supporting small business from Leeds?

I am very much looking forward to going back to the city in April for Hop City and trying a few more great beers in the process!