In the mid-1990s, when the craft beer movement still was in relative infancy, Stone Brewing co-founders Greg Koch and his homebrewing partner Steve Wagner were busy experimenting with beer recipes and bemoaning the “industrial fizzy yellow stuff.” Although they didn’t realize it at the time, one of their hop-centric creations — the now iconic Stone IPA — in addition to Arrogant Bastard Ale, would help the Escondido, Calif.-based company become an international brewer with a powerhouse reputation for brewing bold, flavorful craft beers.

Co-founded in 1996 by the two musicians and self-described beer geeks, Stone Brewing now is the 10th largest craft brewer in the United States, producing more than 325,645 barrels of beer and generating more than $200 million in sales in 2015, says Executive Chairman Koch. Stone Brewing also has grown from four employees to about 1,200 employees and maintains brewing facilities in Southern California, Virginia and Germany.

The overall breadth and depth of Stone Brewing’s operations, which include destination Stone World Bistro & Gardens in three, soon to be four locations, have “far surpassed” the founders’ wildest expectations, Koch says.

“It may seem strange to say today, but when we first started it, I thought we were starting too late to make much of a mark because the craft brewing space was already so busy, but we did it because we just wanted to. We felt compelled to join the movement and follow our passion,” Koch says. “We’re just kind of crazy for this thing called independent craft beer. It’s a lifestyle, it’s our passion, and we love sharing it with people who love it as much as we do.”

Beer style vanguards 

A leader and pioneer in the craft beer industry, Stone Brewing released its now iconic flagship beers Stone IPA and Arrogant Bastard Ale in middle and late 1997, respectively, becoming one of the first companies to produce West Coast-style India Pale Ales (IPAs), which now are a premier craft beer style in the world, according to Koch.

“When we first brewed Arrogant Bastard Ale, Steve and I absolutely fell in love with it, but we weren’t sure the marketplace was ready for it, so we didn’t release it until a year-and-a-half after we established the company.” Koch says. “It turned out [that] people responded to it very well. I was amazed. I wrote the back of the label anticipating that maybe we’d sell a couple hundred cases.

“We didn’t want to waste it on people who couldn’t appreciate it, so I tried my best to warn them away,” he continues. “But beer geeks, being as they are, sometimes we don’t want to be warned away. The rest is history.”

At 6.9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), Stone IPA has a citrusy, piney and hoppy aroma-forward flavor profile with Magnum, Chinook and Centennial hops, while Arrogant Bastard Ale, at 7.2 percent ABV, uses an aggressive-tasting hop treatment, but the recipe for the flagship brew is classified, Koch says.

Additionally, the company developed Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0, a West Coast-style double IPA. Deep golden to orange in color, the 8.5 percent ABV brew uses Magnum, Nugget, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra and Azacca hops and is a big, bold, tropical and citrusy IPA that “celebrates all the beauty and might of the hop,” Koch says.

“It’s fascinating to me — I get to travel quite a bit, and I see brewers literally from countries scattered on every continent that are brewing the West Coast-style double IPA,” Koch explains. “We were among the first to do it and the first to do it right. We were definitely [in the] vanguard of that style, and we loved it.

“I could never, ever, ever have imagined that it would become a popular style enjoyed around the world because, at that point, it was just for weird beer geeks like us,” he continues. “The West Coast double IPA takes the typical West Coast IPA and cranks it up several notches so that you’re getting a bitterness level that is beyond the human palate’s ability to perceive. We’re using a bountiful level of hops in the recipe and the result is just massive on the palate. Someone could open a bottle and pour a beer halfway across the room, and you see people perk up — they just notice it.”

A global empire

Beer aficionados and craft brewers around the globe are noticing Stone Brewing. Now in its 21st year, Koch and Wagner, the company’s president, have parlayed their passion for people and brewing great beer into a global empire that includes two award-winning Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in San Diego County (in Escondido and Liberty Station); a production brewery and tasting room in Richmond, Va.; five company stores that offer growler fills, pours, bottles, kegs and merchandise in Escondido, Liberty Station, Oceanside, On Kettner, which is in San Diego, and Pasadena, Calif.; and a Tap Room in downtown San Diego.

Consumers also can find Stone Brewing’s beers at Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, and in Terminal 2 of San Diego International Airport, while a new brewery in Napa Valley — the heart of wine country — is scheduled to open this spring. The company’s existing Richmond, Va., location will benefit from the addition of a new Stone World Bistro & Gardens that is slated to open in the summer of 2018, Koch says.

Beyond its domestic scope, Stone Brewing continues to expand its global footprint. In 2010, the company announced its plans to open a brewery in Europe — a somewhat risky venture because no American craft brewer had previously established independent operations in the country famous for Oktoberfest and diverse styles of beer, including lagers and pilsners, Koch says. However, a dearth of high hop-content beers allowed for a need state that Stone Brewing could fill.

“We announced six or seven years ago that we had a goal of opening a brewery in Europe, and we were going to start looking for a great spot to do that,” Koch says. “After quite an exhaustive search that included more than 120 sites in nine countries, we discovered a beautiful, 1901 historic gasworks property in the Mariendorf neighborhood of Berlin that we fell in love with.

“We were able to renovate the building and build our destination Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens as well as having a production brewery that is now brewing beer for 20 countries across Western and Eastern Europe,” he continues. “The Germans, just like so many people around the world, really like good beer, and they like choice. They like freedom of choice and are embracing this idea of a wider range of great beers that, of course, includes German classics along with really respected world styles, like the West Coast IPA.”

The 2,400-square-meter Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Berlin opened Sept. 15, 2016, while the 10-hectoliter pilot brewery became operational in December 2015, making Stone Brewing the first American craft brewer to independently build, own and operate a brewery in Europe, the company says. The campus includes expansive gardens, along with event space situated in a historic train repair building; a retail store that sells Stone Brewing’s beers and merchandise; and a 2,000-square-meter packaging and distribution center for filling, packing and storage.

Under the direction of Berlin’s Brewmaster Thomas Tyrell, the state-of-the-art Krones 10-hectoliter pilot brewhouse is producing about 90 barrels annually. The company’s 100-hectoliter brewhouse, which has expansion capabilities to 120,000 hectoliters, began releasing its first year-round beers last June on draft and packaged in single, 12-ounce aluminum cans and in multipacks of four 12-ounce cans. Products are internationally distributed throughout Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Like its U.S. counterpart, Stone Brewing Berlin’s year-round releases are the aforementioned Stone IPA, Stone Ruination Double IPA and Arrogant Bastard Ale, along with Stone Cali-Belgique IPA and Stone Go To IPA. The limited-release, winter-spiced Stone Xocoveza, a take on Mexican hot chocolate, is a “highly regarded” chocolaty mocha stout layered with cocoa, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg and a hint of pasilla peppers. It is available from October through January in both Europe and the United States, Koch adds. 

At home and abroad, Stone Brewing aims to give beer consumers a plethora of specialty and limited-release brews while also inviting collaboration from other breweries. “We have the largest draft selection in the entire country of Germany with 65 taps, and we celebrate not only the beer we make on-premise as well as European, German and U.S. craft and specialty beers,” Koch says.

More than half of the beers on draft in Germany and the United States are guest beers, he adds.

Koch notes that Stone Brewing is resonating with German consumers as exemplified by an encounter he had with a 75-year-old restaurant patron this past summer.

“[H]e said, ‘I understand that you are the owner here,’ and I said, ‘Yes, hi my name is Greg,’ and he said, ‘I have something that I want to tell you.’ And I said, ‘of course, please,’ also bracing myself because he sounded like maybe he was upset about something. And he said, ‘Your beer reminds me [of] how it used to taste. Thank you.’ and he clapped me on the shoulder. I thought that was awesome.”

Extending its reach

With the boost in production from the Richmond, Va., facility and the addition of three states to its distribution territory — North Dakota, Wyoming and West Virginia — Stone Brewing will accomplish national distribution in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., along with 30 countries and Puerto Rico in April, Koch says. He credits the company’s team of 125 wholesalers across Europe and North America for the brand’s continued success.

“I’m very proud of our team for locking in national distribution, which has really been a result of one step in front of the other for the past 20 years,” he says. “This didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of long discussions and building relationships over the years. You do it best when it’s not done in a rush.”

In addition to an extensive wholesaler network, Escondido, Calif.-based Stone Distributing transports beers from more than 35 craft breweries in the United States and abroad throughout the seven counties of Southern California, while its bottling plant in Virginia has enabled the company to get fresher beer to its fans in the eastern half of the United States, Koch says.

Because maintaining quality is pivotal to Stone’s mission, all of its beers are distributed “cold chain” via refrigerated trucks, he adds.

“All of our beers are stamped with a date code and/or an enjoy-by code to ensure our fans receive the freshest beer possible,” Koch explains. “We also ship cold chain, which means our beers are never stored unrefrigerated in the distribution process, ensuring proper flavor at the time of arrival to our accounts.”

Stone Brewing packages its products in kegs, 12- and 22-ounce bottles, and 12-ounce cans. Packaged beers are available in six-packs of bottles and cans along with some 12- and 24-pack variety packs. Currently, the company offers six year-round releases: Stone IPA, Stone Delicious IPA, Stone Go To IPA, Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0, Stone Ripper and Stone Tangerine Express IPA. It also offers six seasonal releases, the Stone Enjoy By IPA series with seven releases throughout 2017, as well as more than 10 special releases and collaborations throughout the year. Stone Brewing’s alter-ego Arrogant Brewing offers three year-round releases: Arrogant Bastard Ale, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard and Who You Callin’ WUSSIE.

Koch calls one of Stone Brewing’s newest releases, Stone Tangerine Express IPA, a “particularly fun beer.” The brew is the result of a one-off special collaboration blend — Stone Mixtape Vol. 13 — that Stone Brewing created in collaboration with P.J. Whelihan’s, a small, independent chain of bars and restaurants in the southeast Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey areas.

“I tried this wonderful beer that our team had produced and immediately fell in love with it and said, ‘We must bring this forward into full-time release,’” he says. “This is a culmination of just that. It’s really aromatic, flavorful and has got a full depth of flavor and character. I’m a huge fan of the beer.”

Another new year-round release, Stone Delicious IPA, is one of the country’s first gluten-reduced IPAs, Koch notes. “As IPA masters, we realized that we had the unique opportunity to create a gluten-reduced beer that the most devoted IPA fanatic would never realize, without looking at the label, that it was gluten reduced,” he says.

In honor of the company’s 20th anniversary, which took place last year, the company re-released some fan favorites. “Our 20th anniversary was a way for us to revisit, reminisce and celebrate our history. Fans were ecstatic to re-taste and retry some of our past beers, some of which are something of a legend,” Koch says. “For instance, we had a beer called the Stone 5th anniversary IPA, which was the precursor to the Stone Ruination IPA. It was one of the earliest of the double IPAs ever produced in the world, and we got to have it fresh.”

Consumers also can sample new craft beers through the company’s seasonal program, which typically releases six beers annually. For example, from February through May, Stone Jindia Pale Ale and Stone Pataskala Red X IPA are available, while Stone Mocha IPA and Stone Ghost Hammer will be offered from June through September, the company says.

However, the Stone Pataskala Red X IPA, named for the Ohio town where Koch grew up, actually made its debut a year-and-a-half ago as a fundraising beer for a school arts program. “It was a hit, so we decided to give it broader release, and because it did very, very well, we’re releasing it again,” Koch says.

Raising the beer bar

Accolades about Stone Brewing continue to pour in. In January, the RateBeer Best Awards Banquet and Festival named Stone Berlin as the “Best New Brewer in Berlin” and the “Best Place for Beer in Germany.” Additionally, it recognized Stone Brewing as the “Best Brewery in California” and one of the “Best Places for Beer in the United States,” highlighting the Escondido headquarters.

“We’re thrilled to have received recognition not only for being the highest-rated California brewery, but also as a Top 100 Brewer in the World,” Koch said in a statement. “We are enormously proud and humbled that the voices of our fans enjoying our beers in pubs, restaurants and homes across the U.S., Mexico, Australasia, and now across 20 countries in Western and Eastern Europe have elevated us with this accolade.”

Stone Brewing’s fans and social media also have played a major role in the brand’s success. Sprinklr, a social media management platform, announced
Stone Brewing as the “most engaging and loved brewery” with more than 1.4 million social media engagements and 44.5 million earned impressions.

No holding back

Since the company’s inception, the gargoyle, drawn by California designer/illustrator Thomas K. Matthews, has been an integral part of Stone Brewing’s brand and packaging, symbolic of “helping ward off cheap ingredients, pasteurization and chemical additives — the modern-day evil spirits of beer,” the company’s website states.

Yet, Koch notes that when he wrote that statement prior to the company’s launch in 1996, it was a very different era for beer.

“At that time, most consumers really didn’t know what craft beer was [and] why it was different,” he explains. “I realized that we were going to be brewing bigger character [and] stronger beer styles. I wanted consumers to realize that they should expect something different. It was a philosophical statement, of course, but it also was a positioning statement that you should expect something bigger [and] bolder that doesn’t hold back. These are the things we believe in, that are important.”

The company also takes its bigger, bolder approach to another level with its “alter ego” beer: “Jekyll and Hyde” Arrogant Bastard Ale, which Stone Brewing released in 1997, and now is under the Arrogant Brewing product line. The division also manufactures Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard and Who You Callin’ WUSSIE, a German-style pilsner, Koch says.

Just as innovation remains a key driver for Stone Brewing’s beers, the creative style and spirit extends to its Stone World Bistros & Gardens.

“People love to come visit Stone, and we thought, ‘well, if they’re going to go out of their way to visit us, we want to go out of our way to create something very special.’ And that’s where Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens comes from,” Koch explains. “Our restaurants are sustainable, organic and locally driven with all of our ingredients. When we started this 10 years ago, this was an emerging idea, but we believed in it.

“We don’t have burgers and fries, we don’t have ketchup,” he continues. “We showcase a wide range of influences from all over the world. For example, we have barbecue duck tacos, a Japanese-influenced yakisoba, Asian stir fry and a pulled pork spring roll in Berlin that is to die for.”

Yet, whether it’s creating new beers or showcasing foods, Koch says that Stone Brewing’s “Be Amazing” mantra will continue to drive the craft brewer.

“It’s our goal to always make decisions with that in mind. Is this the most amazing decision I can make, ‘yes or no,’” he explains. “Amazing is a great bar to set for yourself, and it’s a challenging one. Amazing might mean being more sustainable. But when you have amazing as your standard, it goes well.” BI