A Conversation with Greg Koch from Stone Brewing: The Evolution of the San Diego Beer Scene, Stone’s Early Days, and the Growth of SDBG
It has been an incredible journey for the San Diego Brewers Guild, and today we celebrate 25 years of promoting and supporting local, independent craft breweries! We sat down with Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing and the initial conceptualizer for SDBG.
As the first president of the Guild, Greg has a lot of wonderful insight into how far we've come and where we might be going. We also get to learn some fun stories about Greg's time in the industry and how he got his start in brewing. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Greg!
When and where did you open your first location? How did your brewery get founded?
Mata Way in San Marcos, CA in what is now The Lost Abbey. We sold our first keg of beer to our friends Vince and Gina Marsaglia of Pizza Port Solana Beach on July 26, 1996.
It was 1987 and I had my first taste of Anchor Steam. I suddenly realized that beer could be far beyond the stuff of the television commercials. I was curious and inspired. I slowly learned that there were others and began seeking out craft beer anywhere I could find it. All the while I became more and more fascinated by its potential.
Eventually, Steve Wagner and I met at a class called “A Sensory Evaluation of Beer.” We recognized each other from the rehearsal studio facility I owned in L.A. He was in a band and would come in to rehearse. We began brewing casually together. We both knew we wanted to be a bigger part of the brewing industry, but most importantly, we thought what we were creating was really something special. Steve went on to take his first brewing job at Pyramid in Kalama, WA where he gained a ton of experience as a brewer. When we started Stone, he assumed the role of Head Brewer. We were about the 15th brewery to open in San Diego County, with most of them being brewpubs.
What do you think it is about San Diego that has allowed it to become the "Capital of Craft"?
It became part of the culture in San Diego to push boundaries. Pizza Port Solana Beach and Blind Pig (in nearby Temecula) brewed two of the first known West Coast Style IPAs. We were inspired and followed with our own Stone IPA. From there, the scene kept on building, exploring styles and then expanding on them. Left turns inspired more left turns.
What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the brewing industry in the past 25 years?
It would be hard for today’s craft beer drinker to imagine what it was like back then. In 1996 you’d have been challenged to find an IPA on tap outside of Pizza Port Solana Beach. “Adventurous” beer drinkers were exploring imports. There were maybe fifteen bars and restaurants that had more than ten beers on tap. Today, there are more than 1,000. As I said, there were about fifteen breweries in the county, and today there are more than 150. To my knowledge, Stone opened the first satellite tasting room in the country, now they are barely countable!
The average beer drinker is far more sophisticated and understands the nuances of different beer styles and much more discerning when it comes to quality. At the same time, craft beer drinking has become more accessible and therefore, people are curious. They expect brewers to offer new and creative releases constantly. And that’s fun to keep up with!
San Diego provides a unique environment for brewers. What has been your favorite or most memorable beer that you’ve brewed over the past 25 years?
The Stone 2nd Anniversary IPA thru the Stone 5th Anniversary IPA exploration. We based them on a cranked-up version of Stone IPA, initially just cranking the hops, then increasing the ABV from 6.9% to 8.5% for the 4th & 5th. Eventually, we created a bit of a blend and released the 7.7% ABV Stone Ruination IPA, which became the first full-time brewed and bottled West Coast-style Double IPA on the planet. It was fun and exciting being on the vanguard of something that has spread around the world, though at the time most people thought we were being weird, but we didn’t mind. We loved it!
What do you think has been the key to your brewery’s longevity; what challenges did you have along the way?
Sticking to our guns. We’re best when we’re true to ourselves. We’ve always done things a bit differently … more radically in the early days, and less so when so many others came into our space (read: West Coast IPAs, barley wines, imperial stouts and such). Our very first beer to market was considered too hoppy for the time, but rather than assume that no one out there would ever like our beers, we found the few who did and we trusted that their good taste would lead the way.
We never sacrificed what we wanted just so the general populous would join us. Instead poured all of our energy into our craft beer community and our fans, which importantly, included us. We put quality first and we work to deliver more than what’s expected. Our beers are bold in flavor. Our brewers are among the very best and they’re constantly exploring new hop varieties and different combinations to make beers that standout from the rest.
Oh – and our fans! We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for our diehard fans who keep their fridge stocked with Stone IPA, who hang out in the gardens at our Stone Brewing World Gardens & Bistros, who enthusiastically join our anniversary festivals, and who even have gargoyles tattooed on their bodies!
We’ve had plenty of challenges along the way! Oh, like from Day One when we opened our brewery just as the first craft beer bubble had burst. Distribution was a huge hurdle for us, and many of our friends. Stone Distributing Co. was born because of this. We couldn’t get distribution from the big guys, so we bought a van and loaded it up with our beers, and after a few years, also those of some other craft breweries and we started our own thing. Stone Distributing, by the way, is now one of the country’s largest craft-only distributors. We carry 42 other brands and deliver throughout all of Southern California. So that worked out nicely in the end…
The principle challenges we’ve faced over the years were probably born out of thinking that the heady times of out first 18 or so years would continue to be as robust. We were the cool kids for many many years, and then as other new also very cool kids came onto the scene, we found ourselves being perceived in the ‘legacy’ category. From our internal perspectives, we were still pushing and innovating like we were as a younger company. However, some of the public, having been very familiar with our brand for many years, started seeing us as the old dogs. Personally, it’s a bit weird to realize some are perceiving you that way.
Also, we expanded robustly, including internationally, in ways that ultimately proved to be too big, too bold and too soon.
Then there was more expansion, and more consolidation and the entire industry seems to be facing challenges today. We like to reframe challenges as opportunities, though. We know we’re not alone in navigating an evolving craft beer market and our talented team continues to blow our minds with their ability to adapt with new offerings and creative ways to engage our fans.
Do you have any fun or interesting stories the public might not know about your brewery?
We got our yeast strain from a now-defunct Canadian microbrewery. A brewery in the Northwest U.S. was using it when Steve was living up that way and he really liked its properties – He thought it would be a great fit for the beers we had talked about making.
When we first moved down to San Diego, we brewed a few test batches with some yeast that Pizza Port let us have, but when it was time to get our own yeast strain going, Steve had his friend Jeff fly down with a batch of it from Oregon.
So, there he was at the airport with this huge keg filled with liquid yeast. He was checking it as luggage (when you could still check something like that!), and the counter attendant told him it was over the weight limit. So, he wheeled the keg into a stall in the men’s bathroom, attached the fittings, and drained some of the yeast out. It wasn’t a clean job though; the yeast had sprayed on the walls and around the seat and pretty much everywhere. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a liquid yeast culture, but it’s not a pretty shade of brown. And, considering the fact that it was splattered over a large portion of a bathroom stall, I guarantee the poor janitor that discovered it didn’t think it was yeast that made that Jackson Pollock.
The work of that unsung hero of the custodial arts was not in vain! Our keg made it to San Diego safely, rolling down the baggage claim conveyor to scores of laughter and applause. Its contents have served us – not to mention countless fans – quite well ever since.
How has the San Diego Brewers Guild evolved in the past 25 years? Some of you have been around since before the Guild had even been conceived. You have seen firsthand how the Guild has changed and evolved over the years.
I think the SDBG has done a fantastic job in fulfilling its mission to communicate to the public that there are phenomenal choices for them in San Diego County. I was the initial conceptualizer and the first President of the SDBG, and I think I did an ‘OK’ job at kicking things off for the first couple of years … however, subsequent leadership has helped bring it to a whole new level. I’ll admit that I have not been as personally active over recent years, so I cannot comment directly on the most current and recent leadership other than what I have seen I think has been great, but I do know I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out Colby Chandler for his outstanding many-year run as head of the SDBG. I think Colby really helped set the stage for what the SDBG is today. I might have started the initial spark, but Colby, and others, have built the bonfire of awesomeness that it is today, and I thank everyone for their part in that!