It’s dog eat stone in the craft beer world. For Stone Brewing’s executive chairman and co-founder Greg Koch it is a fall from “Beer Jesus” to hightailing from the brewer’s first outpost in Berlin and Europe to “lick a few wounds” back at headquarters in Escondido, California.
For BrewDog, Scotland’s version of a hipster specialty coffee chain, Koch’s white flag was a chance to acquire Stone’s property, a 1901 gasworks building renovated as a tap room and brewery. Stone opened it in 2016 and it will still operate with its 75 taps up to 1 May, when Brewdog takes over. Brewdog says it will “continue to help and support Stone in Europe by making their beers for European distribution”.
Staying true to his open, plain speaking character Koch says: “Ultimately the project turned out to be too big, too bold and too early in our growth curve in Europe. Sure, in hindsight maybe we should have started smaller, aimed for the treeline instead of the stars. Today we lick a few wounds, but count our successes too.”
In a separate blog post he writes: “My heart is broken. It’ll mend, but I’m gonna let it be broke for a bit.”
Then true to the “Beer Jesus” title he was dubbed as by a Berlin tabloid and which was used for The Beer Jesus from America, a documentary about Stone’s mighty struggles against the Germans’ penchant for “cheap stuff” and the horrors of the city’s construction industry, Koch takes his last, patronising swipes at the beer culture and business practices that doomed the brewer’s foothold in Germany.
“We started Stone in 1996 because we weren’t OK with the status quo of beer in the U.S. We felt Americans deserved better, so we brewed it for them,” he writes. “When we saw much of Germany stuck in a similar status quo of cheap beer, we were convinced we could help. As it stands now, German beer prices are the cheapest in Western Europe. As most of us know from life, the best things are rarely the cheapest. Amazing beer is being brewed by amazing brewers all over the country. Unfortunately, according to the stats, most Germans are still ignoring these wonderful beers and buying the cheap stuff.”
Koch notes that the German beer market is changing, but not fast enough. And even though Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Berlin was named the “Top Beer & Food Destination in Germany” and Stone IPA was rated the #1 IPA in the country there just was not enough volume sold to justify the reportedly US$30 million sunk into the property because of those Germans still swilling their cheap beer.
“To feed a beast like Stone Berlin, we needed volume,” he writes. “The sheer cost of building and maintaining Stone Berlin to our standards didn’t let us grow it slowly. Sometimes you gotta realize when your dream is becoming a threat to your greater good.”
And then there was the cost of construction due to slowdowns he says, speaking against the advice of ” professional counsel.
“I say this because I love the city, and want it to thrive,” he says. “And nothing ever thrived in an environment where people choose silence over honesty. The truth is, the construction industry in Berlin is broken. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy. The U.S. has more than a bit of that, so we were prepared for it. The real challenge was the tendency of our contractors to stop everything when a problem arose. The refrain I heard over and over was, ‘These things take time.’ Got a question? Stop everything. Unanticipated challenge? Stop everything. Review the contracts. Stop everything. Reconsider. Throw the baby out with the bathwater. But most of all, stop everything.”
Koch notes Stone continues to distribute to more than 30 European countries. Stone Brewing Tap Room – Prenzlauer Berg will stay open to “proudly welcome guests to take a peek into a world of choice—more choices, and for some, better choices”.
He adds: “These kinds of choices aren’t cheap. Great art isn’t cheap. Great beer isn’t cheap. Great things aren’t cheap.”
OK I get it. Bad beer cheap, and your beer not cheap. Still it is a shame the beer world shaker and high priest of craft purity did not succeed. And perhaps his struggles will help others or at least help change the Berlin construction market.
“I take heart knowing that the beer scene in Berlin is significantly better today than it was in 2014 when we first announced our project,” he continues. “There are dozens more craft beer bars (there were zero when I first came to Berlin in 2011), breweries, and Berlin-based craft beer brands. The Berliner Weisse style has had a resurgence, and there are more IPAs, Pale Ales, and small-batch traditional German lagers in Berlin than there have been in decades.”
In a farewell video Koch notes that “BrewDog will gain a foothold in continental Europe and an extremely badass production brewery, if we do say so ourselves”.
The Beer Jesus from America documents Koch’s adventures in Germany and the culture clash that occurred as he went about his mission “to oppose the most beloved industrial beer in the world and join Europe’s craft beer revolution”, as the blurb recounts. Brewers in Germany are under the constraints of the 500-year-old beer Purity Law . Struggles with bureaucracy to cultural differences and stubborn traditionalism, are the grist of this film, directed by Matt Sweetwood (Beerland, Forgetting Dad).
“The Beer Jesus from America takes us on a journey with Greg as he builds his European craft brewery from scratch in a sleepy corner of Berlin, Germany, where he faces seemingly endless challenges that threaten to end the entire project. We see all the blood, sweat, tears, and beers that go into the making of the brewery, and, along the way, understand the importance of dreaming big and believing in your vision,” says the press release.