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Brewery Rowe: After Stone Brewing’s sale, yes, Greg Koch needs to be called out. But he deserves praise, too

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Union-Tribune
 2022-07-08
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In this 2014 photo, provided by Stone Brewing Co., Stone Brewing Co. CEO and co-founder Greg Koch (center) toasts the crowd after announcing the Escondido brewery’s plan to build a brewery and bistro in Berlin. (Associated Press)

After Japanese mega-brewery Sapporo acquired Escondido’s Stone Brewing last month, co-founder Greg Koch took a public drubbing. For years, he had loudly insisted Stone would never sell out to Big Beer — and just as vocally slammed craft breweries that did.

We believed him, trusting that Stone would remain San Diego’s champion of craft beer independence for decades to come, if not forever. As it turned out, we were not worthy.

No question, Koch deserves to be called out. But Koch also deserves credit for propelling San Diego into the forefront of the craft beer revolution.

Stone was among the first to champion hop-forward India pale ales. The company helped redefine beer with barley wines, Russian imperial stouts, smoked porters, Belgian-inspired brews, sours and a certain strong dark concoction known as Arrogant Bastard Ale.

Unlike Karl Strauss, its chief local rival in the 1990s, Stone promoted other breweries, featuring them in their tap rooms, restaurants and signature beer festivals. They employed countless top-notch brewers, some now running their own breweries.

Stone’s missteps — especially its audacious but ill-fated Berlin brewery — were errors of ambition. Koch and business partner Steve Wagner were never timid or mediocre. They always swung for the fences.

Sometimes they struck out. But what I’ll remember about the Koch era at Stone is the relentless push for excellence. When the first Stone World Bistro and Gardens was under construction in Escondido 15 years ago, I watched as Koch inspected boulders being installed along the complex’s winding pathways.

One massive hunk of stone caught his attention. Wrong place, he insisted. Move it!

An example of micromanaging? Perhaps. But it was also evidence of someone with a precise vision and a fierce will. Craft beer, here and elsewhere, would be poorer without this imperfect but brilliant pioneer.

Triumphant return

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Tom Nickel, left, and business partner Tyson Blake at the San Diego International Beer Festival. (Photo by Peter Rowe)

Last month, the San Diego International Beer Festival returned to the San Diego County Fair in somewhat abbreviated fashion. Tom Nickel, the festival’s organizer, noted that there were about half the usual number of beers, as many breweries were reluctant to commit to an event taking place in the shadow of a pandemic.

Yet this was a triumph for the roughly 2,000 attendees, a nice comeback after two summers in which COVID had canceled this festival.

The beers weren’t bad either. I enjoyed Eppig’s Wake Up & Slay, a full-flavored West Coast IPA; Enegren’s The Big Meat, a smoked bock that would make a perfect nightcap around a campfire; and True Kolsch, a light and bright summer beer from Alameda’s Almanac Brewing.

The two-ounce samples were ideal for exploration. The Vice Huckleberry Lime Ale from San Marcos’ Wild Barrel Brewing looked like raspberry Kool-Aid with a foamy pink head. No problem. San Diego’s Jade Martinez happily stepped outside her liquid comfort zone.

“I didn’t expect it to be that sour,” she said. “But once you get used to it, it’s great.”

Coming attractions

Mark your calendars:

July 14: Summer Art and Beer Night, AleSmith Brewing, 9990 AleSmith Court, San Diego

July 16: Best Coast Beer Fest, Waterfront Park, 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego

Hop talk

Dry hopping: Adding hops late in the brewing process. This boosts aromas and flavors without delivering more bitterness.

Quick sips: A taste of notable brews

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Nearly Departed from North Park Beer (Photo by Peter Rowe)

Beer: Nearly Departed

From: North Park Beer

Style: Triple dry-hopped West Coast IPA

Alcohol by volume: 7.5%

Drink or dump: Drink. Bold, unapologetic hop bomb, with fresh aromas and a bracing bitterness. A showcase for Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic and Strata hops.

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Tachi from Original 40 (Photo by Peter Rowe)

Beer: Tachi

From: Original 40

Style: Japanese lager

Alcohol by volume: 4.3%

Drink or dump: Drink. Light in body yet full in flavor, the mid-palate’s sweet rice and lemon spritz gives way to faint herbal hops at the finish.

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Japanese Lager from Harland Brewing (Photo by Peter Rowe)

Beer: Japanese Lager

From: Harland Brewing

Style: Japanese lager (duh)

Alcohol by volume: 5%

Drink or dump: Dump. Brewed with Jasmine rice and toasted rice flakes, this dry beer smacks of seared Rice Krispies Treats.

Rowe is a freelance writer.

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