Beer brewer pleases a tough crowd

Cal­i­for­nian’s bar in Ger­many is thriv­ing, which some peo­ple find hard to be­lieve.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Erik Kirschbaum

BER­LIN — Some Ger­mans thought Greg Koch was coura­geous. Oth­ers con­sid­ered the Cal­i­for­nian crazy.

In one of the world’s big­gest beer-drink­ing coun­tries, al­ready sat­u­rated with 1,388 brew­eries and 5,000 brands of beer, the en­trepreneur from San Diego was de­ter­mined to es­tab­lish an Amer­i­can-style craft beer brew­ery.

It took courage, crazi­ness — and chutz­pah.

But a year af­ter Koch opened his now-thriv­ing brew­ery, beer gar­den and res­tau­rant in the Marien­dorf sec­tion of south-cen­tral Ber­lin, Ger­mans are no longer laugh­ing at the 52-yearold ex­ec­u­tive chair­man and co-founder of Stone Brew­ing Co.

It is a cav­ernous tem­ple to beer built out of the ru­ins of an aban­doned gas­works plant dat­ing to the turn of the last cen­tury. About half of the splen­didly re­fur­bished 34,000-square-foot fac­tory floor in the red brick build­ing was turned into the brew­ery that will pro­duce 925,000 gal­lons of beer this year for Ger­many and ex­port to 24 Euro­pean coun­tries — es­pe­cially Bri­tain, Swe­den and the rest of Scan­di­navia.

The beer styles are, for the most part, the same as those Stone pro­duces in the United States, in­clud­ing Stone IPA and Stone Ruina­tion Dou­ble IPA.

The other half of the former gas­works, sep­a­rated from the trop­i­cal tem­per­a­tures in the brew­ery by a spec­tac­u­lar floor-to-ceil­ing glass win­dow, is re­served for the re­laxed, Cal­i­for­nia-style res­tau­rant for up to 1,100 peo­ple. It has a bar that fea­tures 75 beers on tap and, for Ger­man stan­dards, un­com­monly friendly ser­vice staff.

“When they hear about us, the av­er­age Ger­man thinks, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty odd idea,’ ” Koch said in an in­ter­view when asked about the au­dac­ity of in­vest­ing $29 mil­lion in an Amer­i­can brew­ery in Ber­lin. “They look at me with this quizzi­cal ex­pres­sion like: ‘Don’t you know we al­ready have beer in Ger­many?’ ”

Other Ger­mans, many with a beer su­pe­ri­or­ity com­plex that comes with their 1,200-year beer tra­di­tion, are less diplo­matic: “They’re like, ‘This is a crazy idea and what could you, as an Amer­i­can, pos­si­bly know about beer?’ ” Koch said.

There is a lin­ger­ing as­sump­tion here that Amer­i­can beer is noth­ing more than a wa­tered-down im­i­ta­tion of the bier that Ger­mans like to think is one of their most im­por­tant gifts to the world.

“The av­er­age Ger­man con­sid­ers Amer­i­can beer to be thor­oughly un­drink­able, and that’s thanks to beer like Bud Light,” said Nina Anika Klotz, the founder of Ger­many’s first and largest craft beer mag­a­zine, Hopfen­helden. “That rep­u­ta­tion of wa­tery beer has made it even more dif­fi­cult for Stone. It’s only been in re­cent years, thanks to younger Ger­mans who’ve tried Amer­i­can craft beer, who know the truth is com­pletely dif­fer­ent and the qual­ity of Amer­i­can craft beer is truly out­stand­ing.”

But it’s not only younger Ger­mans who have dis­cov­ered Koch’s craft beer palace. “Some Ger­mans have com­plained, ‘What’s an Amer­i­can doing here try­ing to teach us about beer?’ ” said Michael Jas­tram, a 63year-old Ber­lin sculp­tor and reg­u­lar pa­tron. “But it tastes great. It’s strong, an ex­cel­lent prod­uct.”

Ger­mans cel­e­brate their fa­mous brews, their beer drink­ing and their pow­er­ful brew­ing in­dus­try with a near-pa­tri­otic en­thu­si­asm. Even though con­sump­tion has slipped in re­cent decades be­cause of in­creased health con­scious­ness, Ger­mans still drink an av­er­age of 28 gal­lons of beer a year, third in the world be­hind the Aus­tri­ans and Czechs.

“Ger­many’s in­dus­trial beer is bet­ter than our in­dus­trial beer,” Koch said. “But, of course, who wants to drink in­dus­trial beer?”

Ger­mans, he said, pay less for beer than any other Western Euro­peans. “Most Ger­mans will re­act as if that’s a point of pride, like, ‘It’s cheap, it’s a great thing,’ ” he said. “But I say: Hang on. Cheap is not an at­tribute. The only pos­si­ble re­sult of cheap beer is cheap beer.”

Koch said he wants Ger­mans to try what he in­sists is bet­ter-tast­ing beer, even if it costs dou­ble or triple what they’re used to pay­ing. But Stone’s move to Ger­many also re­flects the slow­ing growth that craft brew­ers are fac­ing in the U.S. af­ter years of rapid ex­pan­sion. Stone, which had more than $200 mil­lion in sales last year and is the ninth-largest craft brewer in the United States, laid off about 5% of its 1,200em­ployee work­force in Oc­to­ber.

Klotz at Hopfen­helden said Euro­peans are quickly learn­ing, as Amer­i­cans have, to sa­vor the richer fla­vors of craft beers. Many are sur­prised to learn that, with more than 150 beer styles and 20,000 brands, the United States now has more choice than any other coun­try.

But Klotz said Stone Brew­ing faces two ma­jor prob­lems in Ger­many: its rel­a­tively high prices and the fact that it sells beer in cans. Craft brew­ers say that cans bet­ter pre­serve fresh­ness, but many Ger­mans don’t see it that way.

“Cheap beer comes in cans,” Klotz said. “It’s what the bums in the street drink. Ger­mans are used to drink­ing beer in bot­tles be­cause they want to re­cy­cle them, not throw them away.”

Koch agreed that he faces an up­hill bat­tle in Ger­many, where most peo­ple be­lieve the coun­try’s 501year-old Rein­heits­ge­bot, or beer pu­rity law, means Ger­man brews will al­ways be su­pe­rior.

“It’s a form of brain­wash­ing,” Koch said. “Ger­mans have been told by the big in­dus­trial brew­ers over and over again that Amer­i­cans are in­ca­pable of brew­ing any­thing that would qual­ify un­der the Rein­heits­ge­bot.” He said that 95% of Stone Brew­ing beers would pass the beer pu­rity law.

Hans Wag­ner, a 59-yearold elec­tri­cian, was en­joy­ing an IPA re­cently in the Stone beer gar­den and said he didn’t re­ally care about the Rein­heits­ge­bot. “The only thing that mat­ters is that it tastes good, and this tastes very good, very fresh and very strong,” said Wag­ner, an Aus­trian who has lived in Ber­lin for decades. “I have to ad­mit I was skep­ti­cal at first about Amer­i­can beer. You hear only neg­a­tive things about the big brew­ers there. But this is good stuff. I don’t know if Ger­mans will take to it, though. They think their beer is the best in the world.”

Kirschbaum is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

Erik Kirschbaum For The Times

SAN DIEGO EN­TREPRENEUR Greg Koch, left, sam­ples a beer at his Ber­lin brew­ery with Fred­erik Bren­ninkmeyer, who runs a craft beer shop in Cologne.

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