How German Beer Became American
Kitchen Stories talks craft beer with Stone Brewing
Berlin is the world's best beer city.
What makes it the best? That its beer is a reflection of the city and community that it's brewed in. Here’s why:
Without its inhabitants, a city is nothing more than a lifeless collection of buildings. Essential to the well-being of any urban space, a populace does more than simply occupy an area; it imbues it with its collective personality and character. The city itself begins to resemble a living organism, taking energy and creative inspiration from those who inhabit it, and symbiotically returning it. You shape the city and it shapes you— your thoughts, words, behaviors, and beliefs. This is the urban experience.
And it's exactly what sets Berlin apart from any other city. For several decades, the city has had a reputation of being creative, tolerant, and a place where individuals are free to push personal and social boundaries with limited consequence. It is this side of the city’s personality that has attracted a large influx of expats and curious-minded souls from across the globe. Many of them bring a diverse of array life experiences, as well as strong creative impulses and artistic skills to contribute to the ever-evolving, pulsing urban space that is Berlin. In particular, the city has recently experienced a gastronomic renaissance that can be attributed to, among other things, a renewed interest in all things artisan, myriad cuisines brought by immigrants, and greater diversity in culinary market demands. And Berlin’s food revolution is about to gain even more momentum, thanks to the arrival of a group of seasoned artisans from California.
This summer, Stone Brewing—America’s 9th largest craft beer producer—will host the grand opening of its Berlin brewing facility, the first American owned and operated craft brewery in Germany. The facility, which Stone purchased for $25 million in 2014, will be housed in an old gasworks building in the Mariendorf neighborhood of Berlin. The site will also feature a packaging and distribution center, as well as a restaurant: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens.
The opening of an American brewery in Berlin might not seem special. After all, Stone Brewing isn't the only American company operating in Germany. However, the American-style craft beers they brew are part of a burgeoning global trend that has enjoyed immense success. Craft beer culture has developed more slowly in Germany, largely in part to the country's cherished, centuries old brewing tradition and the industry regulations spelled out in the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law). By opening a multi-million dollar facility in Germany, Stone Brewing is bringing foreign innovation right into the back yard of tried and tested domestic tradition.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing, to talk about craft beer and his vision for Stone in Berlin.
My first question for Mr. Koch was: “How would you explain what craft beer is to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept?”
« “True authentic, traditional German styles of beer are very much like classical music. They’ve been around for generations, hundreds of years. They’re nuanced, delicate, refined and wonderful pieces of art. Craft beer to me, and maybe what we do at Stone Brewing to be personal about it, is like rock and roll. We go in new directions, sometimes we’re a bit louder with the beers that we make, but this also requires a high level of skill, just with a more recent tradition. The industrial beers, which unfortunately so many people around the world think of as beer, are really just the equivalent of elevator music. It sounds familiar, you recognize it, but it’s really just a pale facsimile. It’s soulless. It has no authentic character,” he explained. »
Stone's loud, rock and roll style of brewing has enjoyed moderate success so far in Berlin. Their beers can already be found in several restaurants in the city, and distribution will become more widespread over the next several months.
But some aren’t so quick to give craft beer a warm welcome. After all, Germany is a country with a rich tradition of brewing and very specific quality standards. It’s understandable that some German consumers might still be skeptical about beer that isn’t protected under their government’s food and drink regulations. However, Stone is praised in the USA and elsewhere for their own high quality standards, and they've long been a proponent of the organic farming industry. Is it fair to dismiss them for having different quality standards? To get a little clarity on this issue, I consulted Prof. Dr.-Ing. Frank-Jürgen Methner, the head of the department of Brewing Science at the Technical University Berlin.
“The Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purtity Law) has nothing to do with quality,” said Mr. Methner. “It is, regarding its origin, a law for the protection of the consumers since it regulates the ingredients of beer, the price of beer, and the sales and serving conditions. From my point of view, quality is the ability of a manufacturer to produce a product that is of a consistent quality that varies within small limits. One can do this as a large producer, as well as a small one. With respect to beer, one can do this within the German Reinheitsgebot or outside of this regulation. Beer from other countries is not harmful to consumers, if it is produced according to reasonable food legislation and consumers’ protection.”
Mr. Koch agrees with Mr. Methner’s assessment. And as an American craft brewer in Germany, he knew ahead of time that there might be some skepticism on the part of consumers. However, he’s confident in the quality of Stone products and would prefer that they speak for themselves.
« “The personal philosophy that I employ at Stone is that we want to tell the truth. We want to be honest and straightforward. We want to open up and show people what we do. We want to share our passion and spirit with them. We don’t want to convince anyone of anything, but if you’re interested, we’d love to show you around and let you experience what we’re so passionate about ourselves...So, please come and pay us a visit. We’d love to have you.” »
It’s precisely Mr. Koch’s confident, yet cooperative approach to the marketing of his beers that makes both him and Stone Brewing an ideal match for Berlin. As mentioned earlier, what’s shaping Berlin’s image as a great beer—and food—city is not the beer in and of itself; rather, it’s the fact that the beer is the creative output of bold and passionate individuals who simply wish to be a part of a matchless, international community of artisans. But it would be a half-truth to say that Mr. Koch is content to only be a member of this community. He intends to use his resources to bolster it, as well. Stone Brewing already has a reputation of collaborating with other artisanal food and beverage producers in the USA. At their Stone World Bistro & Gardens in California, the company seeks out high quality, lovingly made foodstuffs from local producers to feature in their restaurant—a practice they’ve already started to carry out in Berlin.
« “We’re looking to find awesome partners to work with. For example we will be serving coffees from a couple of different roasters, including 5 Elephant and we’ll be featuring chocolate from Belyzium, a small producer in Berlin—and it continues on down the line. They don’t have to be small, just quality. We want to connect with them and understand them and how they approach their art. We’re doing that now. We’ve made so many great connections. You’re going to see that some of the best stuff that Berlin or Germany has to offer will be at our restaurant because that’s just part of our philosophy.” »
Time will reveal the extent to which Stone Brewing is successful in Berlin, Germany, and Europe as a whole. But the future looks promising. Mr. Koch and his colleagues have, in just a short time, already demonstrated that there’s far more to their company than the products they peddle. Behind the beer, there’s a group of individuals who are passionate about their craft and genuinely interested in the cultivation of a strong, vibrant community of artisans. And they couldn’t have chosen a better home than Berlin—a city that draws its strength from individuals who dare to be themselves.
Published on May 29, 2016