Greg Koch of Stone Brewing

Going Pro by | Apr 2007 | Issue #4

Stone co-founder Steve Wagner (left) and Greg Koch (right). | Photo by Dylan Ousley

In little more than ten years, the Stone Brewing Company has grown from a two-man, stovetop, pilot operation into a nasty, snarling beast of a craft brewery. Stone chairman and CEO Greg Koch stresses that his co-founder, president and brewmaster, Steve Wagner, is “arguably more responsible for our beers and the way they taste than I am. It’s almost like we’re a songwriting team—he writes the music, I write the lyrics.” Since ladies love a lead singer, that’s where our phone call went.

1. Love beer? Then keep going deeper
Brewers don’t decide to start brewing, Koch argues; they just never break off the natural arc from beer novice to beer lover. “It’s more than just the actual pint in front of you. It’s to the degree that you say, ‘You know what? I love that pint in front of me, but when I don’t have a pint in front of me, I still want to be immersed in this stuff.’”

2. Let the masses come to you
Koch and Wagner first brewed their flagship beer, Arrogant Bastard, back in 1995, a full year before they co-founded Stone, and two years before the beer’s commercial release. “I didn’t expect it to sell well,” Koch says. That wasn’t the point. “The beer was brewed almost in absence of expectations. You do what you love, and if you’re really good at it, then people will come to you, and you don’t have to try and appeal to the masses.”

3. To the haters: Stop bitching
In parsing the pro- and anti-Extreme Beer debate that frequently roils barrooms and chatrooms, Koch is philosophical. “This is, collectively, our favorite subject, so we’re going to find microcosmic things to talk about. They’re not of microcosmic importance. It’s just that you could find any minimizing comment to make about any beer style. Okay, fine. Choose not to drink that beer.”

4. Don’t cry when you can laugh
Koch’s crusade against fizzy yellow beer has been very vocal and very public, although he’s not so much angry about the swill merchants as he is irrepressibly, uncontrollably befuddled by them. “Look at the depth of opportunities to poke merciless fun that I’m handed on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s like I am Jon Stewart, and fizzy yellow beer is my Dick Cheney … or Ann Coulter.”

5. Honesty’s the only policy
Much of Koch’s anti-fizzy-yellow angst stems from macro beers’ fuzzy marketing. “Things that I find offensive are misleading statements like, ‘The taste of a true Pilsner,’ when it’s not, and nobody has any misgivings that it is or could be. Or, ‘This beer comes from this geographic location,’ when it doesn’t. I’m offended in the same way that I would be buying a free-range chicken that never saw light of day. Why are you trying to make me believe something that is not categorically true? As a consumer, that offends me.”

6. Beware of the book … and the mushrooms
Asked what advice he’d give to beginning homebrewers, Koch suggests that if they don’t set their how-to books on fire, they at least let them collect some dust. “Find a local homebrew club,” he says. “Homebrewing, like foraging for mushrooms in the wild, is something best done with an experienced person, not with a book. There’s so much experience, so much of a knowledge base to draw from. And when you’re boiling for several hours in a row, it’s good to have some camaraderie.”

7. Psychology doesn’t belong on labels
“We don’t get to spend all our time writing press releases,” Koch says. Stone Brewing’s labels are another story. Koch scrawls mini-epics on the back of Stone’s annual Old Guardian Barley Wine releases, and the text on Arrogant Bastard bottles mocks fizzy-yellow-beer drinkers with unworthy palates who buy into million-dollar ad campaigns. “Many times, people give me what they intend to be a compliment, and they say I put a brilliant piece of reverse psychology on the label. Trust me—it was not. I was being bluntly straightforward.”

8. The Y in DIY? It means “yourself”
Stone’s labels aren’t the only things around the brewery that have Koch’s fingerprints all over them. During the construction of Stone’s new World Bistro and Gardens, Koch personally dug up, hauled and replanted “30 or 40” trees and plants. He also hand-built the restaurant’s stone walls. “At the time, I made the decision to just do it. I had no idea how insane it was,” he says. “I just took to doing it.” A mere 1,000 hours later, Koch’s got himself a new wall.

9. Don’t mind the begrudgers
Asked whether he felt pressure to make his new restaurant’s food stand up to its beer, Koch laughs. “That was my expectation—it needed to do that. What really caught me off guard was that a lot of beer fans had exactly the opposite expectation. They expected generic food, and initially, a very vocal minority were very upset that they couldn’t find any. I was shocked that they were angry about not getting mediocrity. People should feel free to limit themselves all they like, but don’t ever try to limit us. We have no intention of being limited.”