Roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond. Call me what you will.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
It’s time. I’ll be leaving Stone Brewing soon, the company I co-founded and led for the better part of my adult life.
Counting the ramp-up time, I’ve dedicated almost 30 years to this. Not gonna lie…leaving is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Stone has been my life. But at some point, your life has to be your life. And it’s time for that for me.
From the guts of me: a sincere and humble thank you to so very, very many.
If you ask someone how much they’ve changed over the last five or ten years, they’ll usually respond that they have changed a bit, maybe even a great deal. But ask how much they expect to change over the coming five to ten years, and most people respond “not much.”
It’s a real scientific thing. They call it the End of History Illusion. We think that where we are in the moment is where our attitudes and opinions will continue to be in perpetuity. We readily admit that we’ve changed in the past, but can’t fathom we’ll continue doing so because here, now, this thought…that’s the pinnacle of who I am…and I won’t change much from here at all.
And yet we do.
I read about this illusion years ago. And yet, I fell into it every time. Wherever my head was at throughout my career, I was sure it was there forever. The world has changed dramatically in the last few years. The beer industry changed with it. And, so have I.
Sure. I’d said it dozens of times. Quite possibly well over 100. I 1000% meant it every single time. It’s what I truly believed. I said it while pounding my fist both physically and metaphorically on the table. I’d said it over the telephone or on video with the narrative emphasis “…he says while pounding his fist on the table.” The words: I will never sell out.
To understand that, we have to understand the genesis of why I got into craft beer in the first place, and why I would pound my fist in accompaniment with the aforementioned phrase. For some, all they may be able to think about right now is an urge to pop over to twitter with their righteous pronouncement of judgement. I get it. I don’t mind. Really. Sure, it’s better to say it to me in person, but chances are good you may not have the opportunity, and even stronger that if you do, you actually wouldn’t. (Thankfully, while people might say not-so-nice things via their thumbs tapping on a small screen, they tend to find nice things to say in person.) At any rate, I got off social media a few years ago, so I won’t even see whatever it is that’s said.
Sure. I have an ego. Egos aren’t bad things. They’re pretty much necessary to get out of bed in the morning. If you don’t have at least a modicum of “I can do this!” running in your veins, it’s possible you may not do much at all. Mine has mostly manifested itself in (one would hope) good ways over the years. My main ego driver has been wanting to do the right thing. I want to share with people visions of better alternatives. Things that were better than the norm. The belief that others might be interested in craft beer too. Sure, I got preachy at times. But I wanted to stand up for craft beer, which was the perennial underdog of the beer industry.
Until it wasn’t.
When was that moment? That’s a harder call than [pick your metaphor], but it seems to be sometime around 2016. Or the day before yesterday. The day you select will likely be proportional to how long you’ve been into craft beer. For me, it was just a handful of years after Stone started when things really started to heat up, and it felt like people began leaning in when I wanted to talk beer with them, rather than looking for polite ways to leave the conversation.
It’s humbling to sit here and realize all of my dreams have either been met or far exceeded. In 1996 I dreamed of a world where people had better options, and lots of them. But I never dared to dream there would be nearly 10,000 breweries in the US. Stone was around the 850th—not the first by any means, but the room was a little echoey when we got here.
Back then, if you needed a great brewer, you usually just hired a random person you believed in, showed them the ropes, and got to praying. Today there are brewing courses all over the nation, and an industry that’s robust beyond my previous comprehension. This is wonderful.
Now there’s a booming craft beer scene in nearly every brewing country in the world. When we started, I dreamed of a world where you didn’t have to drive half way across town to that ‘one place’ that served craft beer. Now most neighborhoods have craft beer places around the corner, at every major sporting event, and every bingo hall. (OK, I don’t know that last one to be true…do they even serve beer in bingo halls? If so, then I have something to look forward to in old age.) And there are STILL places that are worth driving half way across town for. That’s the kind of beauty that hits a craft beer nerd like me in the heart.
And now we have ridesharing, so bring on those IPAs and Double IPAs (and everything else)! It’s a personal kind of heaven.
But back to the gratitude. I thank you all. I thank those of you who supported us, who helped both envision and create a world in which better beer, food, experiences, and environments were made available to more people. It has always, always been a collective effort.
I thank my partner, and our original brewmaster, Steve Wagner. He was the steadfast foundation. He created Stone Pale Ale, Stone IPA, Stone Imperial (Russian) Stout. That’s a hell of a resume. Stone and I could not have done what we did without him. Period. He didn’t stop me from every dumb decision, but he helped us avoid many. More importantly, he worked with me to help realize the best decisions all along the way, including the founding of the company itself, which will go down in the history of decisions I think were really really good.
I thank our amazing team. The ones who are here today, working to evolve Stone. And the people at every point of our now 26-year history. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the absolute best.
People often ask me how Stone was able to achieve what it did. Well, a lotta luck and a lotta hustle. I was lucky to find the right partner in Steve. Someone who was as dedicated and steadfast as I was, but smarter (and more talented, and way more focused). Because peddling “craft beer” in 1996 was not easy. They called it weird beer. Foo foo beer. Said it was a fad. But I didn’t believe it.
You needed good people and you needed luck. I had both. And we worked our asses off.
We were lucky to join the revolution during the period when ‘microbrews’ were transitioning from being the butt of pejoratives, to when the craft beer voices were starting to be louder than the critics. More brewers got inspired, which inspired more consumers, who inspired bars, restaurants and retailers to begin offering a selection, which inspired writers to write about it, and home brew shops to cater to the newly curious. It became a virtuous cycle, and it began to snowball.
Our taste for big, bold flavors seemed excessive to many at the time, so not many followed us down that road. Turns out we lucked onto a principally uncharted road that eventually a lot of people found they wanted to be on (once they gave themselves a chance and tried).
When we opened the doors of Stone on July 26, 1996, there were four of us. Steve, me an office manager, a delivery / do-it-all guy (shout out to Estella and Mike). Our distribution vehicle was a panel minivan with our logo on it (and the only minivan I’ve ever been proud to be in). At the time, with just the four, Stone was the largest company I’d ever worked for. Today, we have around 1,000 people. Passionate, caring, hard working, creative people. I leave the brewery in very capable hands.
But wait…again…why go?
Two primary reasons.
One, I have to be self-aware enough to know that just because I co-founded and led the company for many years, I may not be the best person to helm Stone into the future. I’d planned to operate the puppet strings all the way to my last days, but can easily see now how disrespectful that would be to all the people that have shared our vision along the way…especially the folks that are here now and showing up and working hard every day. I’ve run the calculus every which way (over and over in my head for years now), and this is the most pragmatic decision to ensure this beautiful thing I care so much about has a future.
And two, for the same reasons we started Stone. Got one life. When your gut nags you, follow it. I’ll finally fully honor my inner introvert. Gonna take myself out to pasture, both metaphorically and literally (but to clarify, I’m not dying…but hopefully I’ll do that in some random hiking trail, jungle or pasture when the time comes).
Gonna start my semi-recluse phase. I might just find myself a volleyball to talk to.
I thank the detractors who kept me humble. And I realize that many reading that sentence are chuckling. Greg…humble? Just think how bad it would have been without you. Lolz. Through the years I’ve sometimes been known to be a bit overly passionate, overly serious, and I have even come off like an ass at times. I promise you that under that bombast was always a healthy dose of self-deprecation, self-mockery, and a metric ton of self-doubt. Any supreme confidence was an alchemy of my own intense need to make this work — to protect the baby we’d built and the industry we all created — and a good dollop of old-fashioned self-doubt that I might not be up to the task. You can see almost all of those emotions present themselves in the I Am A Craft Brewer video I created with my friends Jared and Chris at Redtail Media, that featured some of the people I most admired on the planet.
I don’t regret the ‘overly passionate’ part. But if I could go back and give younger self some advice, it might be “Lighten up, Francis.”
And speaking of lightening up….
I’m still, and expect to always be, a supporter of independent craft beer. It’s my roots. It was my cause. I’d like to think I made some contributions to the effort over the years. I will continue to enjoy craft beer because, well, craft beer is awesome.
However, I’ve softened my rigidity around this in recent years. I’ll happily buy a beer from Avery, New Belgium, Dogfish Head and Bell’s. And Anchor. I’ll always happily reach for an Anchor. I have a special place in my heart for Anchor and always will, as it was my epiphany beer all the way back in 1987. The one that turned me on to what ‘could be’ in the world of beer and was the initial spark that sent me on my craft beer journey.
I have a special place in my heart for all of you. Both the supporters and the detractors. Really. You shaped Stone. You shaped the world of beer. You shaped me.
A few more special and heartfelt THANK YOUs:
- To all the breweries out there doing crazy awesome things today. You have constantly shattered my expectations. Sure, I don’t always love all of it, but I love a lot of it. And that leaves me plenty to enjoy, and little to complain about. If you’re making great beers with passion, heart and soul, thank you.
- To all those pushing progress on the DEI agendas, you are showing what I’ve believed all along: that craft beer is for everyone, and that all should feel welcome and included. I’ve always loved the diversity of craft beer, but always wanted it to be diverse-er. Due to the active advocacy of a great group of voices from many communities, the industry is making leaps and bounds in this direction. As it should be. Thank you.
- To those moving sustainability efforts forward. The world needs you, and you’re making a difference. This has always been and will always be a team effort, but I also encourage the average person to apply these principles to their daily lives. (And people please, stop with the fucking single use plastic bottles of water already. It’s not a good look.)
- And once again, to the people at the company whom we affectionally refer to as Team Stone: You ARE Amazing.
In closing, I wanted to share something I heard recently that really resonated with me. The psychologist and author Dan Gilbert talked as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts about the fact that after having a 20 year long career in the public eye, he “no longer needed to hear himself talk.” It struck at the heart of how I’m feeling (which is great, by the way). This blog may be the last time that you hear from me. I’ve enjoyed being a passionate — and vocal — advocate for craft beer, but I’m ready for smaller, more intimate conversations now. If you are inclined, you can listen to the exact part of the episode of People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt by fast forwarding to minute 43:20.
And now it’s time for me to be a fan of your work, to enjoy the results of your art, and to listen to what you have to say. As another of my highly recommended favorite authors/podcasters Seth Godin likes to say “Go make a ruckus.”