Beer Run

Beer Run: Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch taking West Coast IPAs global

Stone Brewing CEO and co-founder Greg Koch.
Stone Brewing CEO and co-founder Greg Koch. Courtesy of Stone Brewing

Last week, we covered the publication of a terrific new book, “The Beer Bible,” by Jeff Alworth. During an interview, the author noted that the ever-expanding lineup of American-brewed hoppy pale ales and IPAs are now sought out by consumers in many of the historically great beer nations, including Germany and Belgium. That was news to me.

A few days later, I had coffee with Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, and mentioned what Alworth had told me. It seemed like a new growth opportunity for enterprising American craft brewers, I said. He smiled and responded that Greg Koch, Stone Brewing Co.’s legendary CEO and co-founder, will be talking about that very subject at the California Craft Beer Summit to be held in Sacramento next month. Koch is the keynote speaker, and the format will be like an interview (with McCormick asking questions).

So I lined up an interview with Koch and, just to add another layer to all this synergy, I had the chance to try Stone’s latest special release, its “Stone 19th Anniversary Thunderstruck IPA,” a balanced blast of hop complexity featuring some of the liveliest varietals out of Australia. I tasted layers of tropical fruit, mango, citrus and touches of sweet canned peaches balanced with a dry, mildly bitter finish. It’s the latest great hoppy beer from one of the West Coast masters.

Koch was traveling on business in Minnesota when I reached him. He has been talking about opening a Stone facility in Europe for the past five years, but was ahead of the curve. The awareness and demand had yet to reach critical mass. Now it has, and Stone’s $25 million brewery and destination restaurant for 600 to 800 people is set to open in Berlin in early 2016. A larger project closer to home – a $75 million East Coast brewery in Richmond, Va., not unlike Sierra Nevada’s in Fletcher, N.C. – is on track to open in spring 2016.

“I’ve had the chance to do some traveling over the last few years, and it’s been quite fascinating how, quite literally, all over the world there are breweries making beer specifically labeled as West Coast IPA. I’ve seen breweries label beer as ‘San Diego-style IPA.’ It’s all over the world.”

What’s more, those West Coast IPAs and hop-forward pale ales are becoming known to the rest of the world as APAs – American pale ales.

“We literally went from 35 years ago being the country that the rest of the world laughed at – mocked – when it comes to beer, to becoming the country where all eyes are on us and they’re emulating what we do,” Koch told me.

Koch doesn’t believe that in the past, big American beer was merely brewing what the public wanted. Rather, he insists “it was a competitive race to the bottom,” complete with cheaper ingredients and brewing methods to shave costs and keep stockholders happy.

That’s happening now in Germany, where beer is the cheapest in Western Europe, according to Koch, who is prone to say “you can’t have the cheapest and the best.” Watered-down quality means opportunity. Why do you think we have so many good new breweries in the U.S. these days? We’ve become acquainted with flavor, and there’s no turning back.

I asked Koch if he’s worried the European market won’t like Stone’s West Coast brewing vibe.

“I’m not worried in the slightest because when we opened in San Diego in 1996, people didn’t like our style of beer,” he said.

In other words, Koch and other pioneers in the U.S. created a style and over time have taken it to new heights. Newer brewers joined in and ran with it, too. Now it’s unabashedly an American style done with flair and skill – and there’s plenty of global potential.

This is just some of what you will hear at the summit, where all of California’s craft beer pioneers will mix with all of California’s newest brewers, with beer lovers as a big part of the equation. The all-California Brewers Showcase will feature 150 breweries and is projected to be the greatest beer festival Sacramento has ever seen.

For just a bit more synergy, this whole thing was McCormick’s idea, something he’s dreamed of doing for years.

Says Koch, “I’m excited to participate and extraordinarily honored to be asked to give the keynote. Tom McCormick is quite literally one of my favorite people on the planet. He has been involved in the craft beer movement long before he could even dream it would be a thing.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob