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Stone Brewing thrives after rocky start
April 14, 2004

Tomorrow, Greg Koch will step to a lectern at the Town & Country Hotel and welcome colleagues from around the world.

He's a good choice for the Craft Brewers' Conference's opening address. The CEO of Stone Brewing Co., creator of the infamous Arrogant Bastard Ale, Koch bubbles with wicked humor.

Still, it's unknown whether Koch will share the secrets of his success. Allow me to cite both.

1. When Koch and President Steve Wagner launched Stone in 1996, they brewed a series of aggressive, full-flavored, you-want-a-piece-of-this? beers.

2. Then they hired a team of assassins to destroy their company.

WHAT: Association of Brewers Craft Brewers' Conference and Brew Expo America

WHEN: Today through Saturday WHERE: Town & Country Resort, 500 Hotel Circle North, Mission Valley HOW MUCH: Welcome reception tonight, 6:30 to 8, $40; single-day admission to Brew Expo, $85; two-day ticket, $135; World Beer Cup Gala Awards Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, $90.

INFORMATION: Call (303) 447-0816, or visit

In truth, the "assassins" were beer distributors – the only ones that had expressed any interest in taking on the new, local brew. Koch insists they acted in good faith. Reasonable minds may disagree, especially after reviewing the evidence.

In November 1997, the distributors suggested rolling out Stone's beers on New Year's Day 1998. Koch agreed, with a sigh of relief. For a year, Stone had been distributing its own beer from the brewery's Econoline van, consuming time, gas and cash.

"Every time we dropped off a keg or a case of beer, it cost us more money than we made," Koch explained. "We were probably losing $20,000 to $30,000 each month."

In December 1997, the distributors begged off. They were gearing up for the Super Bowl, which would be held in San Diego. They would launch Stone on Feb. 1.

In January 1998, they called again. Super Bowl XXXII, set for Jan. 25 at Qualcomm Stadium, was occupying all their energies. How about March 1?

The next call came in early February. As Koch remembers, the conversation went like this: "Yadda yadda, blah blah, April 1."

The final call, a few weeks later. "You know what? We're not going to do this after all."

There, that's the secret of Stone's success. That, and March 1998.

We had only been through one March before and were way too young to notice," Koch said. "But we now know that, in the beer business, March is like a nitrous boost to your engine."

That month, orders poured in, and Stone broke even. "We still lost money in '98, but not a tremendous amount," Koch said. "We learned we were going to survive."

They also learned that they had to build their own distribution company. As the occasional break-even month gave way to hugely profitable years – sales last year were up 41 percent from 2002 – Stone acquired a refrigerated truck fleet to deliver its products.

Those trucks log plenty of miles, hauling Stone beers throughout California, 16 other states and the District of Columbia. Every bottle and keg is from San Marcos, which means the brew house hums 24 hours a day, six days a week. Sometime this year, the humming will expand to 24/7.

This explains why Koch is inspecting local real estate, a surprisingly tough job. Have you ever looked for a large, unoccupied parcel in San Diego County?

We need six-and-a-half acres," Koch said. "There's just not six-and-a-half acres that many places any more."

Stone's new and larger plant, wherever it is, will be running by September 2005 if Koch gets his way. He usually does. Last year, he dispatched his beers to Colorado, a move some observers figured was as pointless as exporting theologians to the Vatican.

Colorado, after all, is home to the annual Great American Beer Festival. Home to the Association of Brewers, the national organization that sponsors this week's conference. Home to hundreds of breweries and thousands of brews.

Hey, just what they need – more beer.
"There are many good beers in Colorado," Koch acknowledged. "Colorado is known for its wonderful collection of malty and, dare I say, polite beers.

Coming from me, that sounds like a back-handed compliment. It's not.

"But Colorado has not been known for aggressive beers, and certainly Stone Brewing has."

A year later, Stone beers can be found in Colorado from Fort Collins to Durango.In Denver alone, 20 locations stock the import.

"Our sales there are beyond expectations," Koch laughed, "and our expectations were really high."

Tasting notes

(Beers are rated from 0 to 5, with 5 being best.)

2004 Symposium Ale

San Marcos One happy tradition of brewers' conferences is the symposium beer, in which local brewers pay liquid tribute to the event. In this case, 2004 Symposium unites the talented teams of Stone, Mira Mesa's AleSmith and Pizza Port Solana Beach. The Belgian-style golden ale offers your nose a musty, yeasty aroma. The ale opens with sweet and malty flavors, followed by a tart, spicy note and then a smooth, citrusy finish. I thought I detected a bit of ginger, a dash of coriander, a sprinkle of lemon zest. But nothing here is overwhelming; everything pulls together as a team. A strong ale, it weighs in at 7.48 percent alcohol by volume.

Sawyer's Triple

San Marcos Stone has only a few bottles left of this unusual beer with a heartbreaking pedigree. It's worth seeking out and savoring – and the cause it supports is worth supporting. Bill Sherwood, one of Stone's brewers, devised this recipe and named it for his son. Sawyer, 8, had been diagnosed with Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare metabolic disorder; Koch notes that every penny from Sawyer's Triple sales – not just the profits – goes to ALD research. Tragically, Sawyer died a few days before the beer was issued. The Triple became a tribute to a cherished young spirit, gone too soon. Trappist breweries classify their offerings in ascending order of quality. Singles were served to travelers, doubles to the brothers, and triples to abbots and distinguished visitors. Triples are often dark and heavy; Sawyer's, though, is as bright and active as a cheerful boy. The aroma reminded me of a fruit orchard, and the flavors of orange blossoms and spice cookies. Bubbly and eager, Sawyer's is refreshing and light on the tongue despite its 7.6 percent alcohol content.

Stone Pale Ale

San Marcos Years pass. People change. Buying a six-pack of Stone Pale, I wondered if I would stick by my rapturous 1999 review: "Sets the standard for excellence among San Diego County's breweries. Uncompromising in flavor and ingredients, it is a first-class example of one of the globe's most popular beer styles. Deep, complex, rewarding and refreshing ..." Short answer: yes. Longer answer: Yes, yes and sorta. This remains a wonderful, rewarding ale. I couldn't detect any give in either flavor or ingredients. Still, it's not quite right to regard this as the local pacesetter. That's because so many local brewers are racing in different directions – toward superb Belgian-style beers, say. This week, many of these beers will be drunk and judged by the world's most accomplished brewers.

Beer biz

The next meeting of QUAFF, the home-brewers' club, is April 27, 7 p.m., at Callahan's, 8111 Mira Mesa Blvd. In 2004, San Diego County's two largest breweries predict record-setting sales. Karl Strauss expects to roll out 40,000 barrels; Stone, 33,000 to 34,000. Big years for both. But in 2003, Pabst Blue Ribbon sold 8 million barrels; Coors, 22 million; Miller, 38 million; and Anheuser-Busch, 103 million. There's big and there's big.


Brewery Rowe appears monthly in the Food section. Peter Rowe, the proprietor, welcomes calls, (619) 293-1227; letters, c/o The San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA 92112-0191; and e-mail,