By BeachRock Bill
“Stone Brewing to be Sold to Sapporo Holdings in Deal Expected to Close in August”
While trying to decide on a date night with some blog potential, a friend of mine suggested a “good-bye” visit to the non-corporate Stone before it becomes a Japanese-owned brewery. I loved this idea, and knowing Stone’s Woot Stout has always been one of Wife Helen’s favorite beers, I knew she would be on board.
Every craft beer aficionado knows Stone Brewing. Founded in 1995, it’s not the oldest Brewery in San Diego, but it grew at an astonishing rate to the become the 9th largest craft brewery in the U.S.
There is an excellent timeline on Stone’s website that charts their beer releases, milestones, and exponential growth over the years. At the beginning, co-founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner were searching around San Diego for a location they could afford to make their dream of starting a brewery come true, and when they found just the right spot, as their website states: “a nondescript warehouse in a nondescript industrial park on Mata Way in San Marcos was our new home”. With the help of Lead Brewer Lee Chase, the first beer produced in the new facility was a hoppy pale ale they simply called “Stone Pale Ale.”
After a few unremarkable beers to follow in the coming months, Stone finally found their groove, coming out with an IPA. Again, they kept things simple with the name, and called it “Stone IPA.” The reception for this new IPA was extremely favorable, and the buzz around town on this new brewery in San Marcos began to grow.
When Stone released “The Arrogant Bastard IPA” in time for their second-anniversary celebration, it seemed the Beer Gods were smiling down at them. Famously based on a recipe mistake, the aggressively hopped Bastard came at the ideal time, just when IPAs were becoming accepted by a broader range of beer drinkers who found the style enjoyably bitter yet still drinkable with tons of bold flavor.
Stone wasn’t the first to the party with this type of tongue stripping style, but the catchy name (about time, guys), paired with the scary gargoyle logo, and a signature marketing strategy– challenging light beer drinking wussies if they were hard core enough for a Stone–turned out to be gold.
Even the Brewery’s name, Stone, fit right in with this bad-ass theme, as did the “Are You Worthy?” slogan stamped on every bottle. You know what? This strategy not only worked, it was huge. Stone just kept growing and growing, which allowed Koch and Wagner in just a few short years to expand out of their San Marcos warehouse (now occupied by Lost Abbey/Port Brewing) and into what would be named the “Stone World Bistro and Gardens” just a couple miles away in Escondido.
The Gleaming Opulent Palace of Beer-dom
This spanking new facility was (and still is, to some extent) an over-the-top all-immersive experience–with Jungle Cruise-like landscaping, a huge production brewery doing hourly tours, a full-service restaurant, a big merch store, and of course, beer. Beer geeks were thrilled that the multi-page beer list not only consisted of Stone’s offerings, but also some of the best hard to get craft brews from around the world.
Wife Helen and I made this new beer lover’s Disneyland a regular destination for a fun night out with the family- typically sitting outside, enjoying some great beer and reasonably priced food, while letting the kids burn themselves out running around the gardens and man-made river. Stone built a family-friendly, gleaming, Opulent Palace of Beer-dom, and best of all, it was FUN for the whole family.
An Impressive Stable of Beers
Quietly aiding Stone’s meteoric growth was the behind-the-scenes work of their small but ever-growing sales team. The creation of the Stone Distributing subsidiary in my mind was the smartest move Koch and Wagner would make during this period. Stone’s distribution arm allowed them to get their beer directly into California bars and store shelves dominated by the beer conglomerate brands, which effectively broke the mafia-like stranglehold Big Beer had at almost every direct and indirect retailer. To leverage their sales team’s efforts, and to have a more complete package of styles to offer to better compete with Corporate Beer, Stone made deals with other craft breweries to distribute their offerings alongside Stone’s. An innovative idea at just the right time allowed Stone to build an impressive stable of beers that began to make a noticeable and growing dent in Big Beer’s sales that has continued to this day.
Never Say Never
A few years after opening the Escondido brewery, during the boom of Stone’s popularity and sales, the flurry of Big Beer buyouts got into full swing, and co-founder Greg Koch famously and repeatedly proclaimed that Stone would NEVER, repeat NEVER sell out.
Well, things have a way of not always going as planned–competition grows, pandemics come along, and some seemingly brilliant ideas turn into balance-sheet-draining epic fails (“Hey, let’s borrow a ton of money and open a huge Stone Brewery in Berlin and teach those Germans about good beer!)
Yep, shit happens, but I’m going to give Koch and Wagner a pass here and not be too critical of the decision to finally sell out to Sapporo. Koch’s oft repeated “never ever” mantra of years’ past was during a flush time of success at Stone, where the purpose for selling out would be to reap a big personal payday, Ballast Point-style.
My view, given the financial issues Stone got themselves into, is this–selling out for the sake of cashing out is not the same as selling out to keep the amazing vision you created from crashing down under a mountain of debt ( reported to be $464 million currently). The former is like chugging a glass of disgusting hard seltzer, the latter like enjoying a delicious West Coast IPA.
Farewell to Independence
Speaking of West Coast IPAs, the Stone IPA was on my list of things I wanted to try as Wife Helen and I bellied up to the bar for our “Farewell to Independence” visit.
I wanted to stick with taster-size pours so I could try a few different beers, and the Stone IPA was first on my list. I was disappointed with its showing in my previously blogged about IPA showdown, “San Diego West Coast IPA Six-Packs at a Store Near You,” where the guest judges felt, despite a recent “Canned On” date, the beer showed signs of oxidation. I wanted to give this iconic IPA a chance at redemption by drinking it directly from the source. As for Helen, looking at the tap menu online on the drive she knew she wanted to try this year’s version of “Woot Stout”–a big 10% ABV Imperial Stout with an annual release that coincides each year with Comic-Con. Woot has always been one of her favorites. Our wine room (actually more a beer room now) is packed with many bottles of Woot’s past “vintages” that have been aging wonderfully.
Scanning our paper beer list after sitting down at the main bar inside, Helen was also curious about a Double Hazy on tap, and our Beertender Jen was nice enough to give her a splash to try. “Fear Movie Lions”- listed at 8.5% ABV, turned out to be not all that hazy, but had pleasing notes of citrus and pineapple on the nose and in the mouth. I didn’t mind it one bit, but with that signature Stone bitterness present throughout, Wife Helen was apparently not “worthy” enough, and decided just to stick with a full pour of the Woot.
Of course, we had to try the food, since we hadn’t eaten and the Stone World Bistro and Gardens has always been more about the whole experience than just the beer alone. I mean, the words “beer” or “brewery” aren’t even in the name.
The food choices all looked great with Wife Helen finally deciding on the “smashed” burger, and me going with the fish tacos.
Round Two, The Food, and The Reviews
My first two taster size pours disappeared fast. I was happy to see the Stone IPA showed zero signs of oxidation like the canned version we had for our shootout. It was the same classic old-school West Coast IPA that I’ve always remembered, with a pleasing nose of earth and pine and a long bitter finish. It was good, and it made me wonder why the 2-month-old canned version wasn’t. As for the Stone Hazy, it had a pleasing dark straw color in the glass, and unlike the Double Hazy splash we sampled earlier, had a nice medium-level haze. I was a little torn on the aroma however, the big blast of fruity pebbles coming up from the glass had a bit too strong extract-like character. There were nice citrusy flavors in the mouth, but again I was disappointed when I noted an unexpected sage-y vibe going on. It was a drinkable if not memorable beer for me.
Our food showed up, and looking for some tartness that would pair nicely with the tacos, I ordered two more tasters. The first was an Imperial Berliner Weisse with peach creatively called Stone Imperial Berliner Weisse with Peach. Just kidding, this one actually had a cool name alluding to its employee collaboration origins and its high alcohol content. The staff named it, “Can I Get A Drink Runner, Please?” and it turned out to be the beer of the night for me–with big sour notes balanced by the fruity peach. Boozy, tart, salt, and fruit, it was the perfect margarita-esque pairing with the tacos.
The second pour I ordered was the Stone Saiche (sawSHAY)- a 5.3% ABV Saison that was made in the smaller, more experimental brewhouse at the Liberty Station location. I like some, but not all styles of Saison, and the especially heavily-spiced ones are not in my wheelhouse. Unfortunately, the Stone Saiche was one of those, and the in-your-face clove/cardomom notes got in the way of an otherwise fine beer. I ignored much of the glass to go back to the delicious high alcohol 8% Berliner Weisse.
The food, by the way, was also delicious. The brewery where I work makes pretty good fish tacos, but the ones I had at Stone blew them away. Wife Helen loved her Smashed burger–with two thin crispy patties sandwiched between great bread and all the right fixings. It was a great meal.
What About the Woot?
Oh, and the Woot? This annual release didn’t disappoint. Slightly more coffee forward and bitter than years past, it was still delicious, and we couldn’t help but think how much better it would get with some age in our beer room to round out the sharp edges. Helen’s birthday is coming up, and I may be making a trip back to Escondido to grab a few bottles to go alongside the others in our collection.
All in all, we had a wondering evening. The Bistro and World Gardens didn’t disappoint, and while the guest beer list has been pared way down from past years, the food was much improved and exceptional. It will be interesting to see how Sapporo handles their new acquisition. It has been widely reported that the main purpose for the acquisition is to ramp up U.S. production for its flagship lagers, so one wonders what the future holds for the Stone brand.
I imagine Koch and Wagner are cautiously optimistic that Sapporo will carry on and honor the brand or they wouldn’t have chosen to sell to them. Word is Sapporo approached Stone, not the other way around, and while $175 Million selling price might not seem all that high, when you factor in the $464 million of debt that goes along with it, and that the crown jewel–Stone Distributing–wasn’t part of the deal, the boys ended up doing OK for themselves.
Hopefully, their legacy will live long and prosper.
Cheers to Koch and Wagner for being one of the big contributors to making San Diego the epicenter of the Craft.
And cheers to Wife Helen for learning to love (a few styles at least) beers that we could share and enjoy together.