On Thursday, June 13, Barley’s bar and restaurant in Greenville was officially awarded the title of Most Arrogant Bar in the U.S., a title bestowed annually by the Stone Brewing Co. to the bar that sells the most amount of a certain number of Stone beers. To celebrate the occasion, Barley’s tapped more than 30 rare and unique Stone kegs, and Stone CEO and Co-founder Greg Koch flew in from San Diego to present the plaque and greet fellow craft beer fans.
During his visit, Koch sat down with me for an hour-long interview on a variety of subjects related to the craft beer scene. In the third and final installment of that interview – and after Koch delivered his manifesto on “crappy, industrialized shit” - I talk with Koch about what he thinks the future holds for Stone and craft beer as a whole.
Circling back around to what the question was going to be – and I’m not going to bring up shandies again – but …
Barley’s GM Drew Moren: Wait, that was all the shandies conversation?
That was still the shandies conversation.
Koch: Here’s the short version, and I’ve been saying this for 20 years, even before I officially got in the business: Act like a wine cooler, go the way of the wine cooler. Another way to say the exact same thing is, Those who choose to ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
Anyway! Back to my original question. What I was going to ask is, What trends do you like and dislike in craft beer currently?
I like almost every single trend in craft beer. There is an increasing level of diversity, of creativity, of regionalism and these are all wonderful things. These are things that I – we, the collective we in craft brewing – fought for. They fought for diversity and access, so these are beautiful things. So, while there might be 10 brewers that brew or do things that I don’t particularly care for or like or maybe I don’t even respect, there’s probably 300 new brewers that do things that I think are awesome, that I think are worthy of sincere respect, and yet I wish I could drink more of the beer but I’m just limited by my capacity as a human being.
Kind of on that same note, what do you see being the most promising thing about craft beer now going into the future?
What’s most promising is the collective consciousness that is changing. Now, the term “craft beer” is understood in the vernacular of the United States. Even just a couple of years ago, it was just one of those new terms that wasn’t fully used. It’s like “locavore” or “farm to table,” which I think are sort of sister terms. They weren’t either, and now people understand these things. It’s a beautiful thing.
Just the expectation from our brothers and sisters, our fellowman, whatever you want to call it. Our expectation is no longer limited to the industrialized notion of beer. That, right there, is huge.
The expanded understanding of what craft beer is?
Or even just the awareness it exists. There’s a lot of people out there who have no idea what craft beer is. They have no idea how to understand it. They maybe never even picked one up, but they’ve heard the term. And now that it’s become part of our national conversation, the pathway between now and them having one is dramatically shortened from before. When we first started, it wasn’t part of the national conversation at all. It was part of pockets of conversation, little silos of enthusiasts, which I was a part of. But it was difficult for me to learn more. It was difficult for me to find more. Now, it isn’t difficult at all. In fact, you can find it presented to you at any given moment via somebody wearing an awesome local brewery t-shirt. I mean, I ran into Rob of Tavern, which is a new app, and I ran into him at the Nashville airport, and I saw his t-shirt which said something about “craft beer is a … (catchphrase)” and I just said, “Hey! Tell me about Tavern. I see your t-shirt and it says something about craft beer. That’s of interest to me. Tell me more.” And that sparked the conversation, and these random conversations can happen now, and they’re not so random anymore.
What do you see, I guess if there’s a “next big thing” in craft beer, what do you see that as being?
I think the next big thing in craft beer is that there is no next big thing. Craft beer is rock ‘n’ roll. Back when rock ‘n’ roll first came out, people said it was going to go away, it’s a fad, whatever derogatory things they had to say about. People said the same things about craft beer, and as it developed and it became clear that craft beer was going to be around, it started to diversify. We went from an era of Elvis and then The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to now there are, at a minimum, nine recognized subgenres of metal. So, you have this subgenre after subgenre after subgenre so that the enthusiasts can dive deep into any particular characteristic or aspect or direction of craft beer that they like. There’s a lot of depth. We have a lot of venturing. That’s why I say the next big thing is there is no next big thing, because you’re always going to have some breakout somebody from somewhere that does something that captures a little bit of a larger audience’s imagination, which is great, but there’s a lot of people who are going to be doing small, artisanal stuff. Somebody was here wearing a Hill Farmstead shirt, for example. It’s a beautiful thing.
Let’s talk about Stone a little bit. What’s coming up later this year? Anything that hasn’t been announced?
Anything you want to leak?
No! (Laughs) I know I wax poetic about everything else, don’t I?
What about Stone’s future? Expansion? I know the big trend now is folks opening satellite breweries on the East Coast, particularly North Carolina.
Oh, come on! (Laughs) There’s in the neighborhood of 2,400 breweries in the United States. Three are opening up in North Carolina.
But the question is, Do you want to be the next brewery to open up in Asheville?
You know, at the last Craft Brewers Conference, there was a last-minute add-on to the seminars entitled “So You Want to Open a Second Brewery in North Carolina.”
I will say, I’m partial to someone opening in Greenville.
I’ve been to a lot of awesome places, and Greenville unquestionably qualifies as awesome. But anyway, back to your question, we’re still focused on this whole crazy, stupid, whatever you want to call it European idea. We got so close and it didn’t come to fruition, and it was the point of some frustration and I still hope to make it happen.
What are the hurdles of that? A lot of people asked me to ask you if you’ve thought about going to Europe.
We actually announced that we intended to open up a brewery in Europe. We intended to be the first American-owned craft brewery to operate in Europe. That was a couple of years ago. If you look at our track record in that regard over the past couple of years, you got a lot of nothing. We’re still working on it. We found a property in Berlin that we had negotiated on in excess of a year and a half and eventually we were not able to get that one across the finish line, so we ended up back at square one, and now we are ramping back up the search. We visited more than 130 sites in nine countries. We treated it seriously.
I believe Stone recently tried to collect drinker input on future beers you should brew and input on ingredients to use. Is there anything you wouldn’t brew?
It’s not necessarily a style, but it’s an attitude or a philosophy: We would never brew a dumbed-down version, and you can insert “dumbed-down version of … .” We want to brew the one that doesn’t pull back, the one where someone will eventually treat the beer with respect, not treat them as if they don’t have taste. I don’t believe we should treat people as if they don’t have taste, because I don’t like to be treated as if I don’t have taste. I want to treat people with the same respect I would like them to treat me with. This isn’t complicated.
All right. Final words.
I’m genuinely stoked to be here in Greenville. This is kind of awesome. I like the town. I am going to say for the second time in a row as far as my visits, I didn’t budget enough time to hang out, to really, truly be able to appreciate it. But I love it here. I appreciate the enthusiasm people have here, and it’s kind of awesome and I’m enormously flattered to have been invited out. Or more actually like compelled out.
Thanks to Greg, Scott, Drew and the respective Stone and Barley’s crews for making this interview happen.