‘Berlin isn’t really a beer city yet.’ Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch Embraces Opportunity in Germany
When California-based Stone Brewing Co. announced its imminent expansion to Berlin back in July 2014, craft beer fans immediately knew the German beer landscape was about to change forever.
Germany’s storied beer traditions reach back hundreds of years and are built largely on the Reinheitsgebot, a purity law that restricted legal brewing ingredients to water, barley, and hops up until its repeal in 1987. The rise of craft beer brewing, which doesn’t always adhere to these guidelines, opens up a whole new playing field in the land of pilsners and hefes.
Since we’re all about talking disruption over a delicious IPA here at Silicon Allee, our new Editor-in-Chief, Julia Neuman, recently sat down with Stone Brewing’s Co-founder and Executive Chairman Greg Koch. What followed was a conversation about shifting perspectives, sustainable business values, Berlin’s craft beer and tech scenes, and a healthy dose of rock and roll.
I understand you had quite the exhaustive search before settling here in Berlin for Stone Brewing’s European expansion. What factors clinched the city for you?
We actually visited the site and started negotiating on it before I got to know Berlin. I fell in love with our location first. The first couple times I visited Berlin, I didn’t like it very much. But I was in the wrong area. Frankly, I was in Charlottenburg…I was introduced, by circumstance, to the more corporate side.
But once I started understanding the neighborhoods. The differences between Mitte, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Neukölln — and now even understanding what Kreuzkölln is — I started to get a feel for the city and its cool spots, not just the international brands. Well, I guess Stone is an international brand now, aren’t we? Strange to think about!
What are your thoughts on the current craft beer scene here, and how do you think it will look in a couple years?
Here’s an interesting thing: San Diego county, 3.4 million people. Berlin, 3.5 million people. Virtually the same size. In Berlin there are right around fifteen bars or restaurants with ten or more craft/specialty beers on tap. In San Diego, there’s well over a thousand bars like that, and there are hundreds with twenty or more beers on tap.
But when we started Stone in 1996 in San Diego, there might well have been about fifteen. I remember we used to drive to a neighborhood specifically to be able to get craft beer. And now it’s changed dramatically. Today, there are 115 breweries in San Diego, and in Berlin about twenty-two. So I think you can see the trajectory — where it’s going and what it could be. It’s fun to think about that today.
Maybe Germans would take exception to this comment, but Berlin is not really a beer city yet. There are very few beer cities in Germany. Depends on what your definition is.
I will joke with people that Oktoberfest is not a beer festival. Here’s why: Can it be a beer festival if you finish your beer, say to your server, That was great. What else do you have? and you get nothing but a blank look. Another one is the only answer you can get. Can that qualify as a beer festival? The only choice is more of the same.
I hear the term “craft beer” quite a bit here in Berlin. Whereas back in the States, since it’s already been around for the last twenty years, people just call it “beer.” An IPA is beer. But here, there’s a clear distinction in social culture.
I have even a different perspective. There’s the one perspective of US vs. Germany/Berlin. But there’s also the perspective of you vs. me: I turned twenty-one in 1985. You turned twenty-one in…2009?
So, you said craft beer has been prevalent for twenty years. But twenty years ago in San Diego, there were maybe fifteen bars and restaurants where you could go for craft beer.
Aha, so it’s a difference in generational perspectives.
Yes, this is when I pull out my fake old man voice and say, you kids don’t know how good you have it these days. You’re familiar with the term “digital natives,” of course. You’re also a craft beer native. You’ve never known a time without a copious level of choice in the United States.
I joke about it, but it’s true. You don’t know how good you have it until you go through the lean times. It’s an interesting shift of perspective. So you asked me about the term craft beer. I grew up in the time of craft beer not being known, at all. So yes, I still think of the difference between craft beer and industrial beer.
I’d imagine that Germans are a pretty tough crowd due to the traditional beer culture already established here. What kinds of challenges are you facing while working with a clean slate?
I would disagree. Germans are not a tough crowd, necessarily. They are not nearly as tough a crowd as people in the U.S. twenty years ago. They are much more open. People in the U.S. thought they knew what beer was about, and that’s always a challenge when the average person thinks they know about a subject.
But you can only expect that people will have opinions. And really, that’s an opportunity. Like Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That’s why he never believed in focus groups. He said, why would I ask someone what they’re looking for? And Henry Ford famously uttered [many] years ago, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
So our job is to make the beer we think is amazing, make it to the pinnacle of what we think it can be. We don’t have any attitude like ours is best or anything like that. We’ll let people decide for themselves if they like it or not.
If we think of beer in the analogy of music. Great quality, traditional, authentic German or European beer is like classical music. It’s storied for hundreds of years, amazingly well crafted and executed, it’s nuanced, it’s delicate, it’s sophisticated. Industrial beer is like Muzak, or elevator music. It’s the same notes you hear in classical compositions, but it has no soul or personality. All of its nuance, delicacy, character, and quality has been stripped away and it’s been repackaged for mass consumerism at the lowest common denominator.
Unknowingly, most people have found themselves drinking the industrial beer. They’ve found themselves listening to the elevator music, until they’re exposed to the true authentic. But even still, when they are exposed, because it’s more expensive and nuanced, they might not appreciate it right away if they’re used to the homogenized version.
Stone beer is probably more like rock and roll. It’s completely different from classical music. Do I want to live in a world without classical music? Hell no. It’s wonderful. But can I live in a world without elevator music? I would like to.
We need rock in the elevator.
Or just authentic. I love the other styles as well — what I don’t love, is crap. I get in conversations with people all the time:
“So what are you doing here in Germany?”
“Well, I’m actually bringing a brewery here to Berlin.”
[long pause] “….a brauerei? In Deutschland?”
“Yeah, it’s true.”
[another long pause] “…but you are…American?”
And the implied is, don’t you understand that as an American you don’t know anything about beer? I love that. It spells an opportunity for me to say, by the way, taste my beer!
Along those lines, how would you describe Stone’s approach to marketing up until this point? Will a similar strategy work in Berlin?
Our marketing is focused on telling the truth. Which may seem obvious, but sadly in the brewing industry it’s not. It’s focused on having a real personality. Not being afraid that someone might not like our beer.
It’s like rock and roll. The best was made not caring if somebody liked it — it was what they felt like playing. Metallica is only one of three American artists to ever have five number one albums. Does Metallica give a rat’s ass if you don’t like Metallica? No. Should they? No. If they did, they might be worse at being Metallica than they are. I’m not gonna bother talking about their last few albums, but…
In 1991, the Black Album came out. BAM Magazine put Metallica on the cover with this very simple caption: “They didn’t go to No. 1, No. 1 came to them.” I love what that said, because it was clear that they got to number one by being who they were, not by trying to be who they weren’t. Not by trying to meet a popular expectation.
And that’s why we’ve been successful at Stone — by going hey, this is what we’re about, we love this stuff. We’d be stoked if someone else likes it, but we’re not going to dumb ourselves down to the popular taste of the day.
What kinds of values do you bring to this brewery project here in Berlin, in terms of community building and sustainability?
We get to do cool stuff at Stone. Obviously beer, but we get to participate in the community. Over the years, for example, we’ve had an anniversary celebration in Escondido. It’s a charity beer festival. And we raised over a quarter of a million dollars for local charities over two days.
As part of Berlin Beer Week, we had the official closing event. It was also a charity beer festival, and I think maybe the first Berlin or Germany has ever seen. They’re all for profit. You have to make money in order to operate a business, but I think it’s sort of a responsibility to be part of the community rather than just paying taxes, hiring some people, and making money.
Tell us about your vision for the brewery itself. How will it stand out from other craft brewery experiences?
You’ll find when you come to our brewery and restaurant in Mariendorf that, one, you’re gonna go out of your way a little bit to get there. But it will be a craft beer mecca.
We’ll have 40 beers on tap. A carefully curated list of not only our own beers, but a lot of guest beers. You’ll find a restaurant that’s expansive with 600+ seats and high creativity, like an art piece. We’ll have a biergarten. But not a biergarten like most people think of it, not Bavarian-style. I’ve brought in six truckloads of boulders so far from another part of Northern Germany. We’re planting well over 100 trees. It will be an amazing experience. It will be like a vacation, thirty minutes away from central Berlin.
We’re announcing a program called Liters for Meters and Bikes where we’re asking people for planks of old wood from their family’s barn, grandmother’s old broken cabinet, floorboards of the house you remodeled, whatever…and we’re gonna build all these pieces of wood into our main bar. Similarly, we’re looking for old bicycles that will be hanging from the ceilings. So we’ll have all this wide range of character, age, history, and stories. For each piece we get, we’re giving out a voucher for some beer.
I can imagine as an American trying to come up in here and “disrupt” the beer scene, you’re getting some backlash. What misconceptions have you heard?
Did you by any chance see the Tech Open Air talk? I started off by showing a picture of Germany and talking about how it’s the most amazing beer culture in the world, how it has the best range of styles and character. It has the best reputation around the world, because everyone knows Germany is the best! Then I talked about how the US is the worst beer country in the world, worst range of styles and poorest quality. Laughing stock of the world. Everybody knows this.
Then I said: there are no questions this is true…35 years ago.
So, in the Tech Open Air talk I was building people up. And I looked out into the room as I was doing it and saw a lot of people nodding their heads, thinking Yes, Greg, what you’re saying is true! And then the other half were going What the hell are you talking about? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Which is how you just reacted, of course! Then when I said “35 years ago,” everyone flip-flopped. The people who were incredulous were now going oh, I see, you’re making a point.
People ask me all the time whether or not I’m afraid if people in Berlin or Europe won’t like my kind of beer. And my answer is no. When we opened twenty years ago in San Diego, nobody liked our kind of beer then. I have a lot more people interested in showing up to our opening day here in Berlin than I ever dreamed of having [back then].
Are you familiar with the tech community here? What do you find most interesting about it?
I’m modestly familiar with it. Obviously tech and geek go together, beer and geek go together. I don’t actually have statistics on this but I suspect that the highest percentage of home brewers are engineers or someone who is immersed in technology. These typically make the best home brewers.
We have a home brew club that’s been meeting at our brewery since before we opened our doors to the public, and they call themselves the Society of Barley Engineers. So anybody that’s focused on understanding how things work, and they’re passionate about it, tends to be amongst the earlier groups of people that cares about craft beer. It’s just the way the brain works. There’s a lot of people that don’t care about the way things work and are happy to buy the grocery store brands, and they’re not the early adopters.
But I love the energy [of the Berlin tech community]. The location where they had Tech Open Air — you know, they only fix up the buildings just enough so that they’re safe. But they don’t do anything more! I love that!