Founded in 1996 in San Marcos, Calif., Stone Brewing has since become the nation’s eighth-largest craft brewer. Maintaining buzz and relevance as a legacy brewer is no easy feat. Stone is a perennial early adopter, quick to adjust its business model and its approach. More often than not, executive chairman and co-founder Greg Koch is at the leading edge of change. It’s one reason why, more than two decades later, he’s still worth watching.
At a time when larger craft breweries were testing the waters with international distribution, Stone went all-in with Stone Brewing Berlin, the first American-owned and operated craft brewery in Europe—in Germany, no less. Opened in 2016, Koch championed the project through more than two years of planning and delays. An independent documentary about the whole process, titled The Beer Jesus of America, is set for release this winter.
The Berlin brewery is also an outpost of Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, the authentically branded hospitality and retail franchise the company introduced with two California locations.
In 2018, Stone opened a production brewery in Richmond, Va., becoming one of the first West Coast craft brewers to establish an East Coast production and distribution hub. Again, there were unforeseen delays—and again, Koch pushed for a creative solution that maintained the original vision, even if it meant increased cost. In September, Stone announced that newly hired COO Sean Monahan (a position Koch stepped away from several years prior to make way for new leadership and new ideas) would be based out of the Richmond location.
In addition to rolling up his sleeves and leading from the front, Koch is also a stalwart protector of craft and of the Stone brand. In early 2018, the company filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors over trademark infringement on rebranded packages of its Keystone beer (which placed heavy emphasis on the word “Stone”), and Koch became the face of what turned into an effective and wide-reaching PR campaign.
A few years prior, when big beer started scooping up craft brewers for large valuations, Koch and several partners responded with True Craft. The angel investment firm launched with $100 million in backing and is focused on assisting craft brewers of more than 25,000 barrels to grow while retaining independent ownership and control. Koch even helped to define what “craft beer” means in a leadership role on the Brewers Association’s craft beer industry group.
In early 2018, Stone announced the rare milestone of distributing its beers to all 50 states (and 31 countries). Rather than enter new markets with its best-selling flagships, however, Stone has retired many of those brands in favor of new flavors, including its continually evolving and well-regarded “Collaboration” and “Enjoy By” series. In 2015, Stone spun-off its most iconic brand, Arrogant Bastard Ale, into its own brewing company with a separate identity.
Speaking to MarketWatch, Koch likened Stone to a seminal rock band. “Your very best bands that have literally lived on for decades are the ones that have been able to reinvent themselves while simultaneously being true to themselves,” he said. “By having all of those connected threads that you recognize them for what they are and their artistry. That they delight you rather than disappoint you.”
And while other legacy acts have sold out, called it quits, or chosen to coast by on past hits, Koch and company maintain their vitality and credibility by doing what they do best: making great beer and refusing to compromise quality.