Stone Brewing, Cali-Belgique
Founded in 1996 by Greg Koch and Steve Wagner in San Diego County, California Stone Brewing have come a long way since selling their first keg of beer over 20 years ago.
Renowned for their hop forward and flavoursome core range of beers as well as a constant stream of experimental, seasonal and short-run brews, all served with a dose of strong environmental commitment and philanthropy. Stone aren’t just one of the founders of the modern craft beer movement in the States, they are one of the largest independent breweries in the US and have had an influence on beer here in the UK. Oh and there’s the gargoyle on the beer labels, let’s not forget about that guy.
For anyone not frequenting the West Coast, it’s been a challenge to find their beers in the sort of box-fresh state that we’ve come to demand from our hoppy beers. Not anymore though. If you look closely at the can you notice that your beer was actually brewed in Berlin, Germany.
“Those IPAs don’t travel too well.” explained Thomas Tyrell the Master Brewer at their new Berlin brewery location. Even with today’s impressive global logistics, a beer made in California takes close to two months to get from the brewery an into the hands of a beer fan somewhere in Europe. It’s also a two whole months delay in getting to try the beer as fresh as the brewmaster would like. As Thomas succinctly puts it, “That’s a long time for aromatic and hop dominated beer.” It also adds to the cost of the beer, in cash and environmental terms.
So how did Stone Berlin start? For Thomas this journey began in 2014 when he was working at the Research and Teaching Institute for Brewing in Berlin (aka the VLB) and an intriguing and slightly mysterious invitation arrived from the people at Stone. The invite came with instructions to attend a presentation by people from Stone Brewing to be held at an undisclosed location.
It turned out that this would be at the site of Stone’s future European arm. Although back in 2014 this a was dilapidated red brick industrial building and former gasworks that dated back to 1901. Located on the outskirts of Berlin in the Mariendorf area it is fair to say that the site had seen better days (it burned down in 2006!).
The delegation from Stone could see nothing but potential in this location. Having looked at more than 130 sites in nine countries they believed that they’d found the perfect site in the perfect city, Berlin. It was a fixer-upper for sure but there was enough room to build a full-scale brewery complete with a restaurant and garden space. Greg Koch (co-founder of Stone Brewing) had visited the site and was in love with Berlin. In particular, the way that the city embraced all things countercultural. Be that art, music or, more recently, craft beer.
Their ambitious plan was to open a version of their site in San Diego. Somewhere that would become a destination for locals and beer tourists alike. It would be a place where you could eat in their restaurant and watch the machinations of day to day life in a modern brewery through a large glass wall. A neat touch that is not only entertaining it’s also testimony to Stone’s commitment to transparency. And their vision.
A year and a half later in December 2015 the first beers emerged from the 10 hectolitre pilot kit at the brewery and were destined for 40 selected bars across Europe. Six months later and their first beers rolled out of the 100 hectolitre brewery. This was, of course, their flagship IPA.
It’s been over a year now and Thomas tells us that it feels like the brewery has always been there. To date, over 18,000 people have been for a tour and tasting at the brewery and the restaurant is proving to be a great success. We suspect that includes many of the locals who, curious about what was happening in their neighbourhood, have embraced it as their own. Their brewery. Their restaurant.
It’s also changing the way people feel and drink their beer. It might seem odd that a place like Germany, which has a proud and long brewing history, and a city like Berlin might suffer from a lack of great beer. But Berlin had long been dominated by big breweries who had somehow stifled the selection and variety of beer available. This is probably one of the reasons why the brewery tour and tasting were proving so popular.
“Many don’t know what an IPA is. Or even a Berliner Weiss is.” explained Thomas, “In Berlin!”
Thomas doesn’t use the term ‘craft’ when he talks about good beer. Instead, he uses the words “creative and independent brewing”. It seems that despite their size (and being from the US) Stone are helping to champion this and shine a spotlight on other, small independent brewers in Berlin. Providing them with a voice that might have previously gone unheard.
We asked Thomas about this week’s beer, their Cali-Belgique IPA. This hybridised beer is essentially the classic IPA recipe where the yeast has been replaced with a selected strain from Belgium. You can think of it as the identical twin to the Stone IPA, only one that was raised in Belgium.
“It’s a beer that I always like to present to people.” Thomas told us. The difference that the change in yeast makes is really quite pronounced, much spicier than the regular IPA with the hint of banana (in a good way). “So you get to showcase that knowledge.”
Like all the beers brewed in Berlin this one started life with the original recipe being tested and developed using their pilot kit. We wondered what, if any, difference there was between versions of the beers made in Berlin compared to those from San Diego.
Thomas told us that this was something that everyone at the brewery wondered about. Small changes would be made to the US recipes to account for local availability of ingredients such as the malts. Sure there’s a difference, there should be Thomas told us; “The beers are like siblings. Only a mother or a good friend would be able to tell the difference.”
With all this work taking place to produce the core Stone beers we wondered how much time they had to develop their own beers at the Berlin site. “Every week.” Thomas added. “We have 75 taps in the bistro. We have to do something!”
About the Gargoyle
Paying homage to the guardians of old buildings and sacred places, the gargoyle is there to protect the beer and the brewers. To ward off evil spirits, cheap ingredients, pasteurisation and chemical additives.