The closing party of Berlin Beer Week 2017 was in full swing at the impressively spacious European headquarters of the legendary craft beer makers, Stone Brewing. It was here I met Greg Koch, co-founder of the brewery and all-round beer genius. With his massive beard and serious demeanour, he looked like he’d just wandered out of a distillery somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. It’s only when he spoke that he revealed his laconic, playful west coast humour.
Greg was born in Long Beach, California but grew up in the small town of Pataskala, Ohio. This also happens to be about 15 minutes away from Granville, where our photographer, Oliver and I went to college.
It’s what Greg grew up with and for him, this type of beer was representative of the world. It wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles in the mid 80’s to go to music school that his whole perception of beer shifted. He recalls the moment clearly.
In the late 80’s it wasn’t exactly easy to learn how to make beer. The market was dominated by the Millers and Budweiser’s of the world, and the internet had yet to link craft brewers across the world. Despite the barriers, Greg was determined, so he visited breweries, attended festivals, and threw himself into the world of beer.
Greg and Steve initially met in the music industry in 1989. Greg was involved with the music production and management. He also built music rehearsal facilities, some of which he still owns in downtown Los Angeles.
They would eventually reconnect at a Beer Sensory Evaluation class at University of California, Davis. They started talking about beer and found a common passion in brewing. By 1995, the two had formed a partnership dedicated to their shared passion. They wanted to make beer for a living, and they wanted to make it well.
Greg had very little experience with San Diego, but a gut feeling led him to look for a place on the northern part of the city. They eventually found the location they were looking for in San Marcos, which became the site of their first brewery.
From the very beginning, Greg and Steve have been adamant about brewing the beer themselves. They couldn’t respect their product if they didn’t have a hand in making it.
If they were going to do things from scratch, Greg and Steve needed the equipment. To get it, they borrowed, begged, and scraped together every last penny of their savings.
They were living and breathing their business. They couldn’t imagine making craft beer any other way. It’s a core part of their philosophy, which they carry with them, wherever they expand to.
The key difference for Greg between a true craft brewery and craft brewery owned by a larger company is simple. If a craft brewer fails does the industrial parent company fail? If the answer is no, then it is not a craft brewery. It’s what has driven the company’s fiercely independent streak. As craft breweries get bought out all across America by big corporations, Stone Brewing has never been tempted to sell out.
Along with their strong independent streak, the Stone Brewing team are passionate about making beer styles that represent their mindset. Greg compares it to some of his favourite musicians.
It’s the foundation of Stone Brewing’s style. You won’t find a generic Pale Ale or Pilsner at their breweries. Their beers have character, passion and individuality. They don’t bend to trends or fads, and they’d rather discontinue a beer than change it.
The craft beer world is a lot different today, compared to when Stone started. The variety of options available are as diverse as wine. If you’re new in this world, it can be a bit daunting, but Greg believes the joy of beer is in discovering new flavours and experiences.
Stone is currently ranked as one of the top 10 largest craft brewers in America. In the summer of 2016 they opened their first brewery outside the United States, just outside of Berlin.
Located 10 kilometers south of the city center in the heart of Mariendorf. It’s not the first place you’d think to find a craft beer paradise. Especially for the folks like myself living in Mitte, it seems like a lifetime away. It’s worth the trip though. The Stone Brewery is an experience you won’t find anywhere in the city centre.
The space is literally a campus, which holds a restaurant, event spaces, a 100 hectolitre brewhouse and packing/distribution facilities. There are plenty of places to hang out inside or outside, as you expand your craft beer knowledge by exploring their selection of 75 craft and artisanal beers on tap.
This is Greg’s baby and he’s been intricately involved with the planning and design of the spaces. It feels like a mix of California and Berlin. The old trees freestanding around the interiors of the main hall were brought in from a construction site near the East Side Gallery.
The bicycles that decorate the hall were donated by Berliners. The large concrete benches outside were created from slabs found outside Berlin’s most famous club, Berghain. It’s truly a labour of love.
The blend of California with Berlin doesn’t stop with the design of the space. It’s in the food they serve as well. Robert Hilges is the Executive Chef and is in charge of the menu. Robert is a true Berliner and his previous experience ranges from Hofbräuhaus Berlin to the Ritz-Carlton Berlin.
His menu is an eclectic mix of world cuisine, with ingredients sourced from local organic farms. Robert approaches the food the same way Greg approaches beer, with care, passion, and his own unique style. Some of the dishes have also incorporated Stone’s beer and each dish has a recommended beer pairing, to enhance your food experience. We had a chance to try a variety of dishes that Robert handpicked for us and these are some of our highlights.
Seared Shrimp tacos with cabbage, white salsa, kohlrabi salad and avocado cilantro dressing. These are the kind of authentic tacos you can’t find anywhere else in Berlin. The Berliner Weisse was the perfect pairing for this one.
Niçoise style salad with wild caught salmon, tomato, cucumber, green beans, red onions, olivers, boiled egg, tempura vegetables, potato, romanesco and mushrooms. This was straight to the point, refreshing and partnered perfectly with the beer pairing.
Crispy seared homemade tempeh burger with mushrooms, onions, aioli, melted cheddar cheese, sliced jalapeños with chili and dusted tortilla chips. It’s their number one seller and I’m not surprised at all. In a world of bland meat-substitute veggie burgers, this burger stands out as a lesson on how to make meat free junk food. It’s juicy, tender, packed with flavour and has nice spicy kick to it.
Chicken marinated in chocolate, spicy Amarillo, seared potatoes, mini kale, caramelised dates and almonds. This dish has that extra bit of sophistication and inventiveness, which makes Stone’s food experience unique.
In a short period of time, Robert has been able to gain the trust of his colleagues. He has incorporated a few menu items from San Diego, to keep it brand consistent but Greg’s main requirements were flavour, uniqueness and creativity.
Sustainability is also something Greg believes in. It’s a philosophy that applies to every part of their business, from food to beer to how they treat their employees.
This applies from locally sourcing their food to how the brewery uses water. Today Stone Brewing is one of the most water efficient breweries in the world. This something Greg is very proud of and all his business decision revolve around what he can do to lower Stone’s carbon footprint. The decision not to serve any bottled water is one such example.
Greg may be a bit seem a bit mellow these days, but inside he’s very much part of the rock ‘n’ roll generation. Whether it’s bottled water or the latest brew, he’s always willing to take risks and follow his gut, even if it means walking the more difficult path.
TookTook Stories covers the people behind the most exciting restaurants, bars and hotels from around the world. Running a restaurant or working in hospitality is incredibly hard. It takes more than a few visits to really be able to judge a quality of the experience. This is the reason why this is not a review. We only cover places we admire, with the focus to learn more about the background of the individuals, their work and what drives them.