Battle of the brews in the land of beers, by Ed Meza.
In the land of beers, small specialty breweries are gaining ground against the global beer conglomerates. But why would a California craft beer company start brewing in Berlin?
Never mind coal to Newcastle, but who in his right mind would go to Germany to set up a brewery? California-based Stone Brewing, America’s ninth-largest maker of premium craft beers, has taken the plunge and is doing just that. Hoping to generate some froth in the land of beers, Stone Brewing chose Berlin to build what may be the first American craft-beer brewery in Europe.
The idea isn’t as strange as it seems. Steeped in their own ancient beer-making culture, German beer-drinkers have remained loyal to their own breweries and regional styles of beer, from bitter pilsners in the north to frothy wheat beers in the south. Not only have foreign brews made few inroads, but that also means the global trend towards craft beers – exotic specialty brews made by small breweries for urban hipsters and other niche markets – has been slower than elsewhere to take off. In part, that’s because many of Germany’s 1,350 breweries are themselves small, local or regional operations crafting traditional beers according to Germany’s venerated Reinheitsgebot – the 500-year-old “purity law,” still in effect today, that limits a beer’s ingredients to hops, water, yeast and barley or wheat.
But the Germans’ loyalty to their own legendary brews also means that Europe’s largest beer market seems ripe for a little more variety. At least that’s what Stone Brewing founder and CEO Greg Koch thinks. He’s drawn gasps by calling Germany’s mainstream beers as boring as elevator music, and for the Reinheitsgebot to be abolished, claiming it unnecessarily restricts brewers’ creativity and stifles the market.
Koch’s $23 million investment to turn a historic Berlin gasworks into a modern brewery and beer garden comes at the end of a search that included 130 sites in nine European countries. From its Berlin facility, which will produce up to 10 million liters of beer per year when it’s completed, Stone Brewing has been shipping beers to Germany and Europe even as construction continues. Stone’s styles are familiar to craft-beer connoisseurs but
I think of authentic German beers as classical music — traditional, refined, developed over long periods of time. With our craft beer, we’re more rock ’n’ roll.
Greg Koch, CEO of California-based Stone Brewing
completely foreign to most German beer drinkers. They include the flippantly named Arrogant Bastard Ale — a very dark, highalcohol beer — as well as Stone’s version of IPA, which stands for India pale ale, a trendy craftbeer style with extra hops and a complex flavor.
Stone Brewing knows how to make a splash. Founded in 1996 by Koch and beer buddy Steve Wagner as one of America’s hundreds of emerging microbreweries, the company has made Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. and been showered with awards for its beers. Now the brewer is going international, beginning in a country literally swimming in beer, producing 10 billion liters of the stuff each year. But the rewards of cracking the German market could be huge: Germans drink more beer per person — 107 liters a year — than any nationality except the Czechs. Germany overall consumes almost twice as much beer as Britain.
So how does Koch explain to Germans why they should give up their own beers? He likens brewing beer to making music:“I think of authentic German beers as the classical music of beer,” he says, “traditional, storied, developed over long periods of time, artistic, nuanced and refined. With our craft beer, we’re more rock ’n’ roll.” He also rails against the global brewing conglomerates making cheap, industrial beers that have bought up many of Germany’s biggest breweries. Their beer is “classical music that has been dumbed down, computerized, homogenized,” Koch says. “All the soul is gone from it.”
The spread of bland, globalized, industrial beer even in Germany has Koch and fellow niche brewers hopeful. Germany’s own craft breweries and brew pubs produce just 0.9 percent of the country’s total output, but there are already 933 of them, according to the German Brewery Association. With Germans’ thirst for specialty beers growing, Stone Brewing might just be in the right place at the right time.