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Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co.

The story of Stone's rock star co-founder and CEO (Issue 21)
Greg Koch at Stone's Berlin location.
Greg Koch at Stone's Berlin location.

As the one-day “Sensory Evaluation of Beer” class began, students filed into the UC Davis classroom. Homebrewer Steve Wagner, who’d spent the better part of the 1980s playing music, primarily with the I.R.S. Records-signed band “The Balancing Act,” looked around the room and thought he recognized someone. Wagner walked up to the familiar face and asked him, “Aren’t you Greg Koch from Downtown Rehearsal?”

That was the early 90s, and by 1996, the two musicians opened Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego County, which today is the eighth-largest craft brewery in America, based on sales volume, and the 14th biggest brewery of any kind. Stone operates two breweries in the San Diego area, with two more currently being built; one in Richmond, Virginia and another in Berlin, Germany. They also operate a tasting bar in their local airport and grow some of their own food served in their restaurants at Stone Farms. Their beer is distributed in 41 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, and exports small amounts of its beer to eight different countries.

greg kochOhio Express

Although Koch is a native of Southern California, when he was four his family moved to central Ohio, and he grew up in the tiny town of Pataskala, located twenty miles east of Columbus.


Koch started out renting venues for local San Diego bands at Downtown Rehearsal before starting Stone with Steve Wagner.


After two years attending Ohio State, he felt the pull of the Golden State, and moved to Hollywood to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology. It was a one-year program, but he failed sight-reading and the bossa nova. Afterwards, as planned, he transferred to USC and finished college, getting a degree in business.

I Love L.A.

Koch loved being in California, and never returned to Ohio, preferring the state of his birth. Because he had more business savvy from his degree, he started managing a friend’s band that he had met at the Guitar Institute. That band’s bass player had a father who worked in an office complex, and they allowed the band to use an empty office where they could leave their instruments and make as much noise as they wanted, without complaints, after normal business hours.

But the bass player quit abruptly, and Greg had to find another lockout studio, which is what they call a dedicated rehearsal space for musicians. In searching available spaces, he found them to often be underground operations, usually in bad neighborhoods and falling apart, and he had a thought. What if there were decent-quality, above-board lockouts for a reasonable price? So he founded Downtown Rehearsal and began renting space to local bands, including the one he managed. Some of the bands that used his lockouts included Fishbone, Blind Melon, The Melvins and, of course, The Balancing Act, Steve Wagner’s group.

Downtown Rehearsal – still owned by Koch – is going strong today and has expanded several times since opening in 1989. Today it boasts hundreds of individual lockout studios.

Making Plans

After running into one another at the sensory class at UC Davis, it became obvious that they both had the same goal of opening a brewery. The pair hit it off right away. Nothing was spoken yet, but they later learned that both of them were thinking that the other might make a good partner if things panned out.

Steve Wagner had become interested in homebrewing, and went to UC Davis to explore his post-music options. Greg had become fascinated by the idea of microbrewing, and wanted a “deeper dive,” discovering that UC Davis was where one dove into it. As Wagner and Koch talked, Greg realized that although their backgrounds were pretty different, they seemed complementary. Steve had become a fairly experienced homebrewer already, and had even brought a peach beer he’d made to the sensory class. Even though Greg has never been a fan of fruit beers, he remembers even now that it was good; really good.

Afterwards, they casually began talking about working together on the project that would eventually become Stone Brewing. The following year, they both attended the weeklong “Introduction to Practical Brewing,” better known as “the short course,” at UC Davis.

Rolling Stone Down to San Diego

Discussions turned more serious, though it remained just an idea with no real timetable. They went back and forth on if it should be a brewpub or a production brewery. Both initially thought it would be around Los Angeles, since they both lived there, but they were open to anywhere in Southern California. The location decision was helped along when a friend from Koch’s years in Ohio moved to Solana Beach, in San Diego County. During a visit to see him, he had an inspiration, and called Wagner, who was spending some time in Oregon. “What about north county San Diego?” He asked him.

Greg moved to Solana Beach with his friend from Ohio in May of 1995 and began searching for a suitable location for a brewery. It was also in that Solana Beach condo that Greg made his first batch of homebrew, and also where he and Steve Wagner brewed their first beer together.

Koch started to get to know the area, and visited countless potential locations, most of which weren’t right or fell through for one reason or another. But then one of those came back on the market. The previous business still had its name stenciled on the door, the vaguely generic-sounding “A & J Magnetic Products,” but it became Stone Brewing’s first home when they took possession of it on February 2, 1996. They bought a brand new 30-bbl brewhouse, built by AAA Metal Fabrication in Beaverton, Oregon to Steve Wagner’s specifications.


greg koch

Koch and Stone started out with a 30-bbl brewhouse in 1996, and by 2005 they had upped production to 120-bbl.


The Stone Name

While given the music ties to Stone Brewing’s co-founders, you could be tempted to think that the name likewise came from a music reference. It didn’t. Once they started planning and knew they’d be opening a brewery, Steve started working on recipes, and he and Greg started trying to come up with names for both their beers and the brewery itself. They bandied names back and forth for years, and they always turned out to be taken, or not quite right for some reason. None of them quite hit the right note, and usually were dismissed immediately.

But then Greg was given a forgettable demo CD for a band called “Stone Mind,” and he thought, “Hmmm, Stone Brewing?” It was solid, natural, represented their desire to have a no-bells-and-whistles approach and had no pre-existing association with beer. Plus, he really just liked the name. But perhaps most importantly, Steve didn’t say no right away.

Opening in San Marcos                

For the first ten months, Stone Brewing made draft-only beer, finally offering their flagship Stone Pale Ale in 22-ounce bottles in June of 1997. By October, they’d added Stone IPA and their Smoked Porter, and the following month saw the debut of their iconic Arrogant Bastard.

The now-famous “you’re not worthy” slogan and aggressive text on the bottle was a collaborative effort. Greg wrote pointed barbs at specific competitors and Steve acted as editor, pulling out the specifics and making it more timeless as it went through countless iterations fueled by the high-octane beer itself. The text served to cement their identity and create a reputation for being different.

Early Struggles

Initially they couldn’t find a distributor who would carry their beer, and out of necessity began self-distributing with an eye toward building enough demand to get a distributor interested in picking up Stone beers. But by late 1997, they were bleeding money, losing around $30,000 each month.

After every distributor in town said no, finally Mesa Distributing said they’d take on their brand in San Diego County. But in mid-November, they claimed to be too busy with the holidays and put off the launch until after the holidays. In January, the Super Bowl forced Mesa to put it off for another thirty days.

When February rolled around, they’d changed their minds altogether. No matter what the words they used to tell Koch that, what he heard was “we’re going to let your company die.” When he got off that phone call, Steve Wagner told him looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

Turning Things Around

In March, however, they had a break-even month, perhaps even turning a profit of a few hundred dollars. Things had finally started to turn around. A Miller distributor (which has since changed hands) took them on in Arizona. A friend in San Francisco in the wine business took them on for the San Francisco Bay Area market, until a few years later they were picked up by local beer distributors.

Koch became aggressive about selling his beer, wanting to make it available as widely as possible. He believed that their “job was to make and sell beer.” He went on long road trips to meet with wholesalers, or anyone who would meet with them. He started leapfrogging the country, going wherever anyone was interested in Stone beer.

Horse Brass owner Don Younger worked hard to get them into Portland and Oregon, and introduced them to Amber River Distributing. They opened Washington, and then Massachusetts. He discovered Alaska was bootlegging his beer, and went to the Last Frontier to find proper distribution for the state. They opened Colorado, New York and his boyhood home of Ohio too.

On March 13, 2003, the Blind Tiger beer bar in New York City, did a tap takeover of Stone beers, putting all of their beer on at one time. Greg watched as 35 beer geeks came to sample his beers in the middle of the day, and as far as he knows it was the first tap takeover anywhere.


greg koch

Stone opened its World Bistro & Gardens in 2006... without the necessary amount of ketchup.


World Bistro

By the mid-2000s it became clear that they needed a bigger brewery, and found a spot nearby in the north county town of Escondido. The new 120-bbl brewhouse was up and running by the end of 2005 (with a second added in 2013), and the following year saw the opening of the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, which included a restaurant and, naturally, a one-acre garden.

The first challenge to operating a restaurant came swiftly, and without warning. They didn’t serve any ketchup, preferring to leave the dishes in the capable hands of the chef’s designs. But people love their ketchup, and for a few months Greg was inundated with hate mail. After almost three months he finally relented, and a Fifties-style movie poster was created showing a woman screaming in terror with the tagline: “The Night Ketchup Attacked.”

During the same period, Stone Brewing added a warehouse, and expanded their own distribution into the LA area. They also opened a restaurant and pub in the San Diego airport, in Terminal 2 (2013), a dedicated space on the fifth floor of Petco Park between Sections 307 and 309 (2014), and Stone Farms (2010), a 19-acre farm, which grows hops and organic produce and offers live music periodically during the warmer season.

In 2011, Greg authored two books, the first, “The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.: Liquid Lore, Epic Recipes, and Unabashed Arrogance,” was about his brewery and was co-written with business partner Steve Wagner. The second, “The Brewer's Apprentice: An Insider's Guide to the Art and Craft of Beer Brewing, Taught by the Masters,” was co-written with freelance beer writer Matt Allyn, and was more of a collection of advice from luminaries of the beer industry teaching readers how to brew and open a brewery.

The Beard

Greg Koch had always been relatively clean-cut, with short hair and a goatee, or at least some degree of facial hair. But then came “The Beard.” It wasn’t intentional apparently. Like many people forced to shave for work on a daily basis, Greg let his beard grow out over the winter holidays. He’d done it before, but usually shaved it off before returning to work. It was, at least in part, a protest beard, after some lengthy and difficult business negotiations that took place shortly before Christmas of that year. And this time, over the winter of 2011, he simply found that he liked it … a lot. He let his hair grow out as well, and the new look was complete.

After the holidays, rumors began to circulate about sightings of a new, almost unrecognizable, Greg Koch. But during the 2012 Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, the new Greg Koch emerged, making his debut in a conference marketing session, performing with The Gourdians, a musical group consisting of Marty Jones, David Buhler and Steve Beauchesne.


greg koch

The beautiful grounds of Stone's World Bistro & Gardens.


Liberty Station

Less than three years ago, Stone Brewing opened a second Stone World Bistro & Gardens, this one in the historic Liberty Station, which was originally a Naval Training Center, which opened in the waterfront neighborhood of Point Loma in the 1920s. Stone Brewing transformed their portion of the site – over 23,500 square feet – into a restaurant with outdoor dining, bars and gardens, including a bocce ball court and outdoor cinema.

Walkabout

Beginning in February of 2014, Greg Koch went dark. Disappeared. Went on a walkabout. He was burned out with the 24/7 pace of running a brewery and needed a break. And so he went on a “communications sabbatical,” and for four months went off the grid, disconnecting or locking himself out of all social media, e-mail and work. He and his paramour, Sara, traveled for the entire third of a year, starting in Hawaii on the island of Maui after finishing some business there. From there it was on to New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, northern Italy and then Eastern Europe, before ending the trip in Berlin, Germany.

Road Trip to Berlin

His first two weeks back to work after his self-imposed vacation were working on the project to open a Stone brewery in Germany, which had first been announced in 2009. After looking at close to 130 sites worldwide, in nine countries, it was narrowed down to just a few before the final decision to pick Berlin was made. It’s located in a neighborhood called Mariendorf, in south central Berlin, in a historic warehouse that boasts plenty of room to spread out and expand. There’s space for a restaurant, gardens and, of course, 10 HL and 100 HL brewhouses.greg koch

The European Stone Brewing is expected to open in March of 2016, which will likely make Stone the first American craft brewer to open and operate their own brewery in the EU. As for how they’ll approach traditional German brewing, Koch says simply: “To heck with the Reinheitsgebot.” Some of their beers will adhere to its standards, but many will not, and they’re not worried about it in the least. In fact, they’ll be hosting a “media brew day,” where local media will take part in brewing Xocoveza, a rich spiced mocha stout made with coffee from a local roaster. The brew is made to show that beers can be made today using a variety of non-traditional ingredients and afterwards Koch believes the question “tell us exactly how we’re making this worse” will answer itself.


Stone's Berlin brewery is slated to open in March 2016.


Virginia is for Brewers

Just one month after opening the German facility, Stone Brewing’s Richmond, Virginia brewery should open as well. It too will include a restaurant (which is slated to open a few years later), packaging hall, and offices for the East Coast. Like Berlin, Koch and Steve Wagner visited over forty sites up and down the eastern seaboard before choosing the Virginia location.

Shifting Gears

In September of this year, Koch announced that he would be stepping down as CEO and transitioning into a newly created position, executive chairman, which will allow him to focus on long-term strategic planning instead of the day-to-day operations of Stone Brewing. The search for a replacement began as a solo effort, but he has more recently hired a search firm to help find the right individual. Until then, Greg Koch remains in control.

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

Of course, in the near future, what’s in store for Greg Koch and Stone Brewing is somewhat obvious. The brewery in Berlin should open in March of 2016, with the Richmond, Virginia one coming online shortly thereafter, hopefully in April. After that it’s anybody’s guess. With Greg freed up from the day-to-day and looking instead to where to take the brewery next, he’ll be ready to rock out.

From California to Ohio and back again to LA and San Diego, the original goal of being a rock star has come true, just not in the way he expected, nor in any way Greg would admit to. But with what he’s achieved in the beer world, he’s made a name for himself among the elite craft breweries of the modern era.

All photos courtesy of Stone Brewing Co.