becoming the beer jesus

Q&A with Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing and director Matt Sweetwood

Greg on Bike.jpg

Matt: What were your first impressions about this whole project? What made you think you could pull it off? Did you ever have moments you thought it might not come to fruition?

Greg: Well it's all idealism for me at the beginning. I know I can do this because I believe in what I'm doing. I know we can accomplish it. I know that people will be excited.  Yes, sometimes you hit hard reality. You run into it like a freight train…actually, no not like a freight train but more like a motor scooter! A freight train destroys the wall. A motor scooter into a solid brick wall means it's not the wall being destroyed it's the person on the scooter hitting it. I definitely had those moments. But being an entrepreneur and a dreamer means that ultimately you have an unrealistically positive view on how things will turn out. Sure, you get beaten down sometimes, but you always find the little successes to give you energy and pick you back up.

Matt: Is that weird when someone is filming you in those moments? I was surprised that you were OK with me being there for, well, who knows what...

Greg: I guess in my nature I'm a bit of a storyteller. You know, talking about the beer you’re passionate about is telling a story. You're telling the story of why you're excited about the beer, why decided to make the beer, how you started the brewing company. These stories are just a part of who we are as human beings. We tell these stories. Of course, I talk about nonfiction stuff. Stuff that's really happened, stuff that's in my thoughts and feelings. As an artist we like showing our art. That's a lot of why we do it and this is another way to express myself personally as well as express the style and character of the company. This includes the dark times. The times where it feels like you’re running a motor scooter directly into a brick wall. It can be ugly, but it’s the authentic part of how you get from here to there sometimes.

Matt: I just had a feeling when I kept showing up like "Shit man, I don't know what's gonna happen next." You're kind of hurting and I'm like "Should I go near him or not?"

Greg: Yeah you should and you did, because you needed to get those elements. That's the thing about filming a documentary: You can't just film the good parts or the easy parts. You've got to capture the hard realities of it too. I understood that. As I was going through it and I would notice you there, I'd think like "Matt, this person is saying this thing that we need to catch and I'm trying to mentally lull you a little closer so you can get that audio or whatever, because I'm realizing at this moment that we're in, it's an element the broader story. I mean hey, if we're going to tell a story, then let's tell it the best we can, including the difficult parts as that's the reality.

Matt: And telling that story is sometimes hard. I didn't expect there to be so much conflict and unexpected variables. When did you have the feeling that this is maybe getting a little out of control or that there's too much stuff getting delayed? I felt a little annoying asking “So when is that [thing] going to happen" and "When is this [other thing] going to come in?"

Greg: And you couldn't get a straight answer, could you?

Matt: They'd say "Yeah, we're going to be there on this day or whatever." Then nobody would show up. But I thought OK, something's gotta happen... I couldn't imagine it. I didn't always have access to the plans but even then, your guys there were like "We don't even know what's going to happen now."

Greg: Well, when you show up on a Tuesday because X is supposed to happen and you're there with your camera on that Tuesday and nothing is happening, you're capturing part of the story, which is “This is what I was told, this is what was scheduled, this is what was planned, this is what was anticipated, this is what is needed to go to the next step,” and in reality... nothing. Squat. Nobody's there. Like what the fuck, man? Really, like what the hell?

Matt: Did you ever had the feeling that money was going to run out and something was going to stop it?

Greg: We were fairly carefully budgeted. Interestingly, we didn't go so much over budget on this project is as we went way over on time, and of course time is money. There is a cost to time when you're not getting revenue as a result of brewing beer or having a restaurant that is actually open and can welcome paying guests.

Matt: I mean, I was really fascinated, because I wanted to see this brewery getting built. But there was a point where I didn't know if things were going to continue on or if you were going to show up someday and say "We're not going to make it."

Greg: No no, I didn't want one of those half-built condo projects or whatever you see scattered around parts of the world. Fortunately when XYZ contractor didn't show with their stuff on Tuesday, that also meant that we weren't paying them. We might have given them a deposit so they create the work and then bring it here and install it of, for example…whether it's part of the bar, the mezzanine or whatever it might be. But we were careful not to let anybody go too far out. That being said, we still lost money due to people's inaction/inadequacy and constant failed promises. There's no question about it. But it didn't kill us. We were pretty careful. But damn, it was painful. Crazy painful.

Matt: Still, it was really interesting to me to see how much, not just money, but time and effort that you were willing to invest to make your products better and the overall experience totally worthwhile. And yet the big breweries here in Germany haven't changed in years. Why do you think that is?

Greg: [There were] a lot of downward pressures on the German beer industry for decades, because Germany did have so many breweries in competition with each other. Over the past four decades so many have closed. Each brewery wants to not be one of those that closes, obviously, and so they succumb to price pressures. If a grocery store chain says "Look, if you you don't give me your beer for X price, I'm gonna go to that brewer over there and that other brewer over there." It wasn't like the U.S. where you had the big three and a couple others. There was never really one or two just big dominant breweries in Germany. There were big regional players and bigger national and semi-national ones. The German brewing industry has gone through a lot of consolidation. There was always someone else you could buy from, another brand you could buy from that was going to be functionally similar. So you have to make your beer price attractive. And if you're making your beer price attractive, the next guy tries to make his beer price attractive and the next guy and so on like this. That's intense downward pricing pressure.

And there is only one possible result from cheaper and cheaper beer and that is... cheap beer. It's not fancy math here. When you're making beer cheaper and cheaper the flavor intensity, the richness of the flavor, the character will come down. The brewer uses less and less hops, because hops are expensive. If you put fewer and fewer hops into your recipe incrementally over time, does anybody notice? No, not immediately. It's that boiling frog thing over a long period of time and it's incremental change, incremental change, plus incremental change...and so on and so on. And then you end up with a difference that any 75-year-old man would be able to tell.

And I want to tell you one thing that I'm super proud which is our influence of craft beer in Germany — and this is not just the influence of Stone — it’s that craft beer is bringing back an interest in beer. A lot of Germany’s authentic character never went away. There are some great authentic German breweries that have stayed true to themselves, and haven't succumbed to making ever cheaper and cheaper beer. But unfortunately the populous has often ignored it. Craft beer is helping bring back a popular interest in authentic old school beers, as well as new approaches to beer.

Matt: And now big breweries are starting to brew some stuff too. It's weird. Like Becks is making in Amber ale?

Greg: Yeah, I am aware of some big companies and their amber ale, or pale ale and such. Honestly, without being brand specific here, they suck. They are lame attempts that bring in no one. But here's the thing that's really awesome: Germans are beginning to talk about beer in ways that they haven't done for decades; actually discussing flavour profiles, actually discussing regional styles, actually discussing levels of bitterness and maybe even taking a brewery tour! The discussion of beer other than "Mine brand is the best. No, mine is the best!" Outside of that very limited conversation, it's not very interesting for very long. It's been totally taken for granted in this country it's something that's become a commodity. And for most people is still a commodity. Most Germans are drinking beer that sells a crate of beer…20 half liter bottles…for eight euro! It's crazy. You can't make something awesome, that cheap.

Matt: I used think cheap beer was kind of cool, actually…

(Greg grumbles)

Matt: …I mean, as a young guy. You think it's like getting a bigger bang for your buck, but then you slowly start to realize: something doesn't make sense here. It's too good to be true.

Greg: If you can actually get true greatness for a cheaper price... Hallelujah! That's a wonderful thing. But if you have  long period of time where beer keeps getting cheaper, then you will inevitably not be able to keep the greatness at the same time. It's just not possible any longer. Can you name anything…anything…where you have both the cheapest and the best at the same time?

Matt: What do you say when people tell you that you look like Jesus?

Greg: I will often joke when somebody says "Hey dude, you look like Jesus!" I'll say well, I look more like the northern-European re-imagination of Jesus, the Anglo-Saxon version of Jesus because I am not of Middle Eastern descent and Jesus was. He would have had a Middle Eastern kind of look about him... because he was Middle Eastern. But anyway, I get the reference even though I’m 30 years older than he was, and Northern European. I’m a bit uncomfortable being called “Beer Jesus” to be honest. It’s not something I would ever call myself. However when the Berliner Kurier called me that, and admittedly they weren’t the first, I had to accept that sometimes that’s the way people see me.