Unless you’ve been under a rock (or a stone?) for the last few years, you know of Greg Koch, the co-owner and screaming-face of Stone Brewing Company. Stone has been in the Chicagoland market for two years (how time flies when you’re drinking good beer!) and Koch was in town this weekend celebrating that milestone as well as continuing the media tour for his book, The Craft of Stone Brewing Company. I missed much of the fanfare when Koch was in Chicago in early fall 2011 to promote his book and I knew I did not want to miss him this time around; I’ve heard he was an enigmatic speaker and a proponent for small craft breweries and homebrewers. As luck would have it, I was contacted by Sean Curry, a member of the Evanston Homebrew Club, who asked if I wanted an interview with Mr. Koch. Um, YES! Curry knows the Midwest Sales Representative for Stone, Aaron Tyrell, who extended an invitation to us to attend an event, the after party, and then have a private meeting with Koch! Not bad for a Friday night…
The event was at the Cultural and Civic Center of Round Lake Beach in the northern suburbs of Chicago on Friday, March 30, 2012. Sean, the hubby and I arrived a little early so we had some time to check-in, mingle, and procure a beer. Initially, only Stone Pale Ale was being served, although Stone IPA and Arrogant Bastard Ale were available later on. As we were getting our beers, I ran into my beer blogging buddies Paul from Chitown On Tap, and Nik and Dan from Chicago Beer Geeks. We mostly talked about what a pain in the neck it was to get to Round Lake Beach; it was a bit of a hike but thankfully I was able to convince Sean to drive.
I apparently was very thirsty because when the coordinator instructed us to take our seats, my glass was almost empty! Hubby to the rescue, though; he grabbed us both another pale ale and we hurried into the auditorium. We didn’t have to wait long before a grizzled Greg Koch took the stage carrying a bottle of my personal favorite Stone beer, Arrogant Bastard Ale. He is slim, dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, but sported a full beard; he looked like a cross between Steve Jobs and Ted Kaczynski. He began reading the back of the Arrogant Bastard bottle which basically says that the beer is too advanced for most consumers and “you probably won’t like it.” He poured himself a glass, raised it, and led the crowd in the Arrogant Bastard Toast: “Here’s to me.”
Greg Koch: The Interview
My fellow Chicago Beer Geeks provided a great recap of the event so I will move directly to the interview. Sean and I met up with Greg Koch and Aaron Tyrell at the Timothy O’Toole’s in Gurnee for beers and dinner. The manager at the restaurant graciously allowed Sean and me to bring in some homebrew to share with Greg and Aaron. We started with the hubby’s and my St. Peppermint Patty, the mint chocolate milk porter that we brewed for St. Patrick’s Day. I’m pretty proud of that beer; it is exactly what we were going for. And Greg liked it! Well, at least he said he did. But he is not one to beat-around-the-bush or say things he doesn’t mean (as you will see below) so I am want to believe him. We then went through the three beers Sean brought. Be sure to check out his write-up here!
Recently I have been hearing a lot about how the lines of craft beer are blurring, what with Tenth and Blake (e.g., Miller-Coors) and Anheuser Busch-Inbev having a hand in the craft beer market. I knew Mr. Koch would have a strong opinion about this and I wanted to know his thoughts. According to him, these forays into craft are equivalent to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” referring to misleading labeling of certain beers such as Blue Moon. This beer has always been produced by Coors but is now stating it is from the Blue Moon Brewing Company. I countered by asking, “Well, if it tastes good, does it matter who makes it or where it comes from?” He took a moment to carefully formulate an answer. He finally said, “Have you ever seen this movie called The Crying Game? Have at it, turn out the lights, have yourself some good lovin’, and tell me it doesn’t make any difference.” Wow. Never heard that analogy before. He continued by saying, “For anything that says, ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ it makes me want to know why I shouldn’t pay attention to him. Who is moving the levers?”
When I asked whether he thought differently about craft breweries that are acquired by industrial breweries, Koch said it is a cop out from the craft brewers’ perspective. “We get to choose our bedfellows,” said Koch. “And when we look historically at the behavior patterns of a company… If we think that a leopard is going to change its spots then we are being [naïve].” I believe he is alluding to the past business practices of Big Beer; they are not going to change merely because they are trying to cash in on the craft beer market. Koch remembers one former craft brewer (his words, not mine) saying recently that the reason the brewer sold out to a large industrial brewer was because he needed that money to finance expanding capacity. “That didn’t make sense to me; it was difficult for me to calculate in my mind. I know the banks are lining up to finance craft breweries today, especially ones that are established. It is by far the cheapest form of money. If you want to finance brewery expansion, bank financing is the way to do it. If you want to sell out, then selling out is the way to do that. Don’t tell me you’re doing it for the people.”
In his speech, Koch mentioned that he and brewer Steve Wagner thought the craft beer market was saturated when they started Stone Brewing Company in the 1990s. “Things have changed now, haven’t they?” asked Koch, referring to the current craft beer boom. Sean asked Koch where he thinks the craft beer market will be in five years and Koch said he hopes craft beer will hold 100% of the market share. “I dream of a world without commodity anything,” said Koch. “Two hundred years ago, what would have been considered fancy? A peasant bread, rye bread from your local corner bakery, or Wonder Bread? Which would have been considered fancy, a porter, a pale ale, a stout, a bitter, a Belgian golden, or a beer with 37 adjuncts and ingredients? What would have been considered fancy? Slaughtering your cow and making some sausage, or bologna or a modern day hot dog? All of that processed stuff would have been considered fancy. So, what some people mistakenly refer to as fancy because they’ve bought the lies of the man – the ‘eat commodity! buy my brand!’ bullshit – that’s the false front. Tear down this house of cards that is literally killing us, right?” He also discussed how we are “going back to normalcy” with regards to food and drink; there is a push away from these packaged, processed foods and moving towards local and fresh ingredients. I found it interesting that Koch mentioned this as Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver used the exact same phrase when I heard him speak in the fall.
I have written extensively about how I love the business practices of craft breweries; you rarely find fierce competition. Koch is a proponent of this mentality, as well, and has frequently gone on the record referring to other craft breweries as his “compatriots” rather than competitors. I asked him if he still feels that way in today’s craft brewing boom. “If you are out there on the playing field, and you say you are going to play like compatriots rather than competitors, but then you get completely body checked on the side. And you realize it was intentional. You get back up and you dust yourself off, do you decide that they’re competitors now? Or do you change your behavior? And I say it’s up to the individual player. We’ve been body checked so many countless times, usually by big brewers, usually by big wholesalers, sometimes by craft brewers, and you know what? You get back up – that sucked – but that doesn’t change the way we play the game. I might try and tune my peripheral vision a little bit, not allow ourselves to be blindsided again. But I still believe that this is a game best played with my compatriots. No, my attitude has not changed. Every time we have to pick ourselves up, another craft brewery is there to help. Like a mosh pit. If you get knocked down in a mosh pit, you pick each other up. That’s the ethic.” At this point, the hubby and Greg Koch, who started out in the music biz, started geeking out about mosh pits and heavy metal. At one point, Koch even initiated a fist bump with my hubby. I think that was the highlight of the night for me.
In line with this “compatriot” attitude, Stone has released many collaboration beers over the years, meeting up with breweries from all over the country to produce a joint venture in beer form. Sean asked Koch what was his favorite thing about doing collaborations. “We all do a beer that we wouldn’t have done otherwise.” He used another music analogy, saying that when you “get together and jam with somebody new, you absorb something. It’s not copying; it’s learning from the other, ‘Oh, look at how they did that.’ And who knows how that would manifest itself in the future?”
My hubby asked (I allow him to ask questions from time to time) if Stone has ever capped production or pulled out of markets, similar to what Dogfish Head did a few years ago when it pulled out of a few markets across the country. Koch said that there is a Wisconsin brewery (he didn’t name names but I am assuming he is referring to New Glarus) that did an artful job of carefully re-characterizing leaving a market as wanting to pay attention to their home market, when actually what they were doing was getting rid of a wholesaler that they hated. My husband then asked Koch how big a craft brewery can get before it loses control. Koch asked, “So size is your controlling factor? What if growing is not your deciding factor? If you don’t say, ‘I am going to focus on growth’ but if, instead, you say you will focus on control and always maintaining control, standards, philosophy, then you can grow without losing those things because you are focused on them. You are focused on maintaining control, if that’s your focus then you will not lose it or allow yourself the opportunity to lose it.”
It was such an honor to be able to sit down with both Aaron Tyrell and Greg Koch, share some homebrew, and chat about beer and brewing. And a huge thank you to Sean Curry for arranging this meeting. You can catch his write-up here.
For more pictures of the event, please check out Christopher Murphy’s Flickr page.