Stone Brewing Berlin: Too Big, Too Bold, Too Soon

Posted on April 5, 2019

My heart is broken. It’ll mend, but I’m gonna let it be broke for a bit.

I love Berlin. And when you love something, it’s bound to frustrate you at times. Times like right about now.

Today we announce we are transferring the ownership of the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Berlin facility to our friends at Brewdog. Brewdog has agreed to adopt what we’ve built, and they will make it their own.

Since that day I first walked onto the historic gasworks property at the beginning of the decade, we accomplished some great things in Berlin. And we struggled greatly.

We started Stone in 1996 because we weren’t OK with the status quo of beer in the U.S. We felt Americans deserved better, so we brewed it for them. When we saw much of Germany stuck in a similar status quo of cheap beer, we were convinced we could help. As it stands now, German beer prices are the cheapest in Western Europe. As most of us know from life, the best things are rarely the cheapest.

Amazing beer is being brewed by amazing brewers all over the country. Unfortunately, according to the stats, most Germans are still ignoring these wonderful beers and buying the cheap stuff.

It’s changing. Slowly, yes, but changing all the same.

We invested a significant portion of a decade and significant millions building Stone Berlin. And it didn’t work out. These things hurt and these things happen. This one happened. And this one hurts a lot.

Even though we didn’t succeed with the big plan, we count our many successes. We met a whole new country of craft beer fans, converted new converts. We created an international beer destination in Bierland. The Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens - Berlin was named the “Top Beer & Food Destination in Germany.” Stone IPA was rated the #1 IPA in the country.

Awards and accolades are awesome and humbling. Unfortunately they aren’t enough. To feed a beast like Stone Berlin, we needed volume. The sheer cost of building and maintaining Stone Berlin to our standards didn’t let us grow it slowly. Sometimes you gotta realize when your dream is becoming a threat to your greater good.

Let’s be clear. Stone will continue to be distributed around Europe, currently available in 26 countries. And Stone is still very much in Germany, distributed in a good portion of the nation. We have made many converts there, and we will get them good beer. Some of it will also still be brewed at the same location. The brewers have been extensively trained by us, in our ways. But the facility itself—that grand ole 1901 gasworks property with the lovely old bones—will be under the stewardship of a different (and great) craft beer company.

I thank our wonderful team. Anything we contributed to beer culture in Berlin was carried out by them, every day and night. They shook the hands, poured the pints, delivered the sermon, spoke the tongues. I know they learned about craft beer and its entrepreneurial business culture, developed experiences and skills that they’ll be able to take into the world and create good. When you have to say goodbye to your friends it hurts, but knowing they’re equipped makes it easier.

And I made many great friends.

Stone Berlin was one of the most difficult and frustrating things I’ve ever done. The city and its few-yet-mighty craft beer fans are world-class. Yet, against professional counsel, I’m going to express one very specific frustration with Berlin. I say this because I love the city, and want it to thrive. And nothing ever thrived in an environment where people choose silence over honesty.

The truth is, the construction industry in Berlin is broken. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy. The U.S. has more than a bit of that, so we were prepared for it. The real challenge was the tendency of our contractors to stop everything when a problem arose. The refrain I heard over and over was, “These things take time.”

Got a question? Stop everything. Unanticipated challenge? Stop everything. Review the contracts. Stop everything. Reconsider. Throw the baby out with the bathwater. But most of all, stop everything.

Any time you attempt to build something with the size and scope of Stone Berlin, you’re going to run into unexpected challenges. My career is nothing if not a long list of them. But we’ve been able to grow Stone Brewing because we figure it out as quickly as possible. We always keep moving, keep working. We never stop. Never. And trust me, we’re no problem-solving geniuses. We consult smarter people, accept acceptable solutions, just get it done.

Our Berlin contractors simply couldn’t or wouldn’t do this. It cost us dearly. After talking with fellow business owners in Berlin, seems we’re not alone in that experience. The documentary film “The Beer Jesus from America” chronicled our journey in getting the place built and opened, and in it you can see some of the struggles I’m talking about.

There, I said it. At the end of the day, the responsibility falls on me. That’s my job. I take the bullet. But I’m a real person who experienced a real, systemic problem in a city I love. If you know anything about me, you know I’m going to say it.

Maybe we should’ve started smaller, aimed for the tree line instead of the stars. I know there will be countless people with I Told You So’s. If you run into one, give ‘em a nickel for me. Like broken clocks, naysayers end up being right sometimes.

In our careers at Stone, we’ve been fortunate to be right a lot more than we we’ve been wrong. I’ll be the first to say we’ve messed up plenty. For me, being right “more often than not” is the most I could ever hope for. Sure, you hope the times you’re wrong will go by largely unnoticed. But living life out loud makes it so that won’t always be the case.

We’ll always be able to say we tried. Hard. With passionate heart and focus. Sometimes that’s not enough, and this is one of those times.

I take heart knowing that the beer scene in Berlin is significantly better today than it was in 2014 when we first announced our project. There are dozens more craft beer bars (there were zero when I first came to Berlin in 2011), breweries, and Berlin-based craft beer brands. The Berliner Weisse style has had a resurgence, and there are more IPAs, Pale Ales, and small-batch traditional German lagers in Berlin than there have been in decades.

The year we started in San Diego, we were about the 15th brewery to open in the county. There were also only about 15 bars and restaurants who focused on craft and specialty beers. Today in San Diego, there are 150 breweries, and more than 1,000 bars and restaurants with 10 beers or more on tap. It is from this culture of beer selection, range, and quality that we saw our vision. This helped drive us to create a destination with the largest selection of draft beer in German history. We’re incredibly proud of that big number because it means big diversity and, almost always, bigger quality.

Hopefully the diversity continues. Berlin has a million more people than San Diego, yet today there are only about 15-20 breweries, and about 20 bars and restaurants that offer more than 10 beers on tap. Brewdog is one of them. We were two of them. And now Stone is one and Brewdog is two. The city is thankfully not left with ‘less’ as a result of this transition.

Occasionally I’ll meet a German who feels the need to try to gently explain to me that American beer is junk. I nod and respond with my own observation: Most Germans think American beer is no good, and most Americans think that German wine is no good. Neither are true.

The silver lining in conversations like this is the conversation itself. People are beginning to talk about beer diversity in Berlin and other parts of Germany, and Europe. I am thrilled that we’ve been a part of it. Our Stone Brewing Tap Room Prenzlauerberg will continue to operate and proudly welcome guests to take a peek into a world of choice—more choices, and for some, better choices.

These kinds of choices aren’t cheap. Great art isn’t cheap. Great beer isn’t cheap. Great things aren’t cheap.

Months after opening their brewery, Brewdog co-founder James Watt and I met the first time when he came to San Diego in 2007 to visit our newly opened Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido. He brought beer. Two years later Steve and I traveled to Fraserburgh, Scotland to brew our first collaboration beer with James and his partner Martin Dickie at their brewery. Our history runs deep.

We wish our friends at Brewdog every success with the Mariendorf gasworks property. We loved it and brought it to life, and we know they’ll do the same in their own way. They will do great things. And from time to time, as we’ve done in the past, we’ll do some of those great things together.

Thanks to everyone who saw what we were trying to do, came, and shared a beer with us. There will be more opportunities. Promise.

- Greg Koch
Stone Brewing Executive Chairman & Co-Founder


The Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens - Berlin will remain open until the end of April, at which time formal ownership will be handed off to BrewDog. If you’d like to come by for a beer, a bite, to give us a hug, wish us well and thank us, or wag your finger with an I Told You So, do come by between now and then.

 

You can read the original blog post on the announcement of the Stone Brewing Berlin project here: https://www.stonebrewing.com/blog/venues/2014/greg-koch-announces-stone-brewing-co-berlin

Outside the bistro
The Main Bar at Stone Berlin
cans of berliner weisse in ice
Category: 

Comments

Jonas Kolpin's picture

Greg, I'm very sad to hear that. The Stone Garden was one of my favourite places in Berlin over the last years. Great beer, great food and nice people. I hope you come back one day, all the best for all of you at Stone (And I'm really looking forward to visit the Stone Garden in San Diego one day soon).

Arthur Zapparoli's picture

I'm really sad to see this happening.

Stone Berlin is my favorite place in the city by far. It's also my wife's favorite place and she doesn't even drink any beer. My 2 kids are always asking to come back to the "stair restaurant" where they play for hours on the stairs. But I'm happy that Brewdog is taking over and that Stone was responsible to bring some change to that city. I've been here before Stone opened and the number of craft beer places opened after it only gets bigger (like Brewdog itself or Mikkeller). Kudos for you, Greg! You have to be proud of it.

And for me and my family, the only think I can do is be at Stone every weekend of this month!

Lexi Cook's picture

I'm reading your note with a heavy heart. We had the honor of visiting this beautiful Stone brewery on our honeymoon in Berlin and it was such a highlight. An oasis. To any and all finger-waggers and 'I told you so-ers' I say shame on you and also, go to hell. You guys tried to do something amazing. It was amazing. The fact that it didn't work out is beside the point. Thanks for what you created. It was magical.

Eric Anderson 's picture

Greg
You’re the best. You did it- you have shattered the 500 year old tradition of beer purity in Germany and there is no going back now. Just sorry I didn’t make it by to return the empty Arrogant Bastard keg that I drank and served several years ago in Holland. Congratulations on what you accomplished and as a small business man that was dealt the biggest set back by a German in my career I fell your pain.

Shawna Dowling's picture

Greg, my husband and I were fortunate enough to visit Stone Berlin while stationed in Germany. What a great thing you brought to the people of Germany. My husband introduced many of our American friends to Stone as we have visited Stone in Escondido. We wish we could come have one last beer, a bowl of cheese soup, and buy a replacement IPA glass that broke at home.

Pete Harvey's picture

I live in Escondido CA and have been to Stone brewery several times.
I have also been to Stone Berlin twice. They are both amazing brewpubs, if you like IPA'S.
I love your venue, but also love lagers and pilsners. I keep going back, hoping to find a beer I
Can enjoy, but always leave with a taste of weeds in my mouth.

MICHAEL ROPER's picture

I was one of the lucky ones who attended the Stone Berlin Grand Opening in September of 2016. It was my first visit to Berlin and I extended my stay over the entire week. I loved the city and I had a great experience at Stone. I immediately understood why Greg was inspired to build there, particularly in that historic gas work structure. Berlin is an amazing city. So much energy. So cosmopolitan, diverse and dynamic. Not really like the rest of Germany.......or anywhere else.

The grand opening event was full of positive energy. For Berliners, I am sure that the aesthetic was something very new. For me, having been to Stone's brewery in Escondido, I recognized some cool and welcome Southern California vibe there. There were some other American well wishers there including my friend Rob Todd from Allagash. It was a great party.

As someone who's owned a pioneering craft beer bar in Chicago, The Hopleaf, for over 25 years, naturally I was curious about the beer and pub scene in Berlin and took advantage of my week there to check it out between exploring Berlin's excellent museums. One of my first stops was a great craft beer bar called Hopfenreich, which claims to be the first craft beer bar in Berlin. I felt instantly comfortable and even ran into a hop grower/broker I know, Nunzino Pizza from Hophead Farms there. Hopfenreich offered several Stone brews on tap along with beers from the emerging local craft beer scene. Tasting several of the local brews, I found them to be quite good but perhaps tame relative to Stone's hop forward beers. The local crowd seemed to be enjoying the Stone offerings. We also visited the Markethalle Neun in Kreuzberg where Heiden Peters had a beer stand. I loved the market, the food stands and the beer was excellent, if again a bit tame. We of course visited several restaurants and taverns who's beer selections were more pedestrian. I will say that very fresh, at proper temperature, in clean appropriate glassware and served with excellent sausages, many of the mass market beers of Germany are pretty damn good; far superior to the Bud Light/Miller/Coors choices in America.

Craft beer as we know it in America seems to be a bit of a slow starter in Germany. Maybe that is not surprising in a country long married to an established beer culture. There are 1300 breweries in Germany but like America in the 1970's, the vast majority of beer sales are dominated by a few mass producers of well made but uninspiring beers. Of course America in the 1970's had only 70 breweries and none of them were making the niche styles that some small breweries in Germany still make. The same situation is true even in Belgium where most drinkers bypass the great lambics, Flemish sours, saisons, Trappist beers and other specialties for Stella, Jupiler or Maes. Many of the most interesting new and old beers of Europe only survive today because of the interest in them from export markets, America in particular.

I live part of every year in Italy, who's craft beer scene has exploded like it has in America. I have the 2013 Slow Food Guide to Italian Craft Breweries. There are a remarkable 500+ entries. In 2019, there are now close to 1000 breweries in this wine centric nation. Unlike Germany's more timid craft brewers, Italians take a lot more chances, push the ingredient and flavor profile envelope with sometimes reckless abandon. They still tend to shy away from the American IPA level of bitterness but local and ancient grains, herbs, fruits and chestnuts are frequent additions, mostly with positive results. Brewers in Italy and other nations are not constrained like Germans are, if only psychologically, by the limitations of Reinheitsgebot that have led to there being far less diversity in German beers.

After that bit of rambling I should focus to my views as to why Stone Berlin was not as successful as Greg had hoped. First, the site itself. A more ideal building would be hard to imagine. The German architectural equivalent to the early 20th Century "Arts and Crafts" style is perfectly realized in the former gasworks building chosen. Unfortunately, it is located in Mariendorf which is a bit sleepy compared to many areas of Berlin. The site is not as accessible to public transport and is surrounded immediately by rare vacant land. While there are some nice parks in the area, there are also a lot of industrial sites, cemeteries, and underutilized plots. It is not a center of nightlife, theater, music and art. The streets are not teeming with activity. Stone would be a destination in and of itself and I think perhaps after an initial burst of interest, it may have returned in Berliner's minds to being located in an out of the way backwater not worth the trouble to go to.

Next, there is the beer. For reasons I touched on above, Stone's hop forward, high IBU beers may not suit the palates of many Berliners or Germans in general......at least yet. Germans have a lot of beer that they are quite comfortable with. It is integrated into daily life. In fact, the way that it is integrated into people's routines has favored the types of beers the Germans brew; refreshing lagers that tend to be a bit lower in alcohol and go down easy and fast. While some Germans were converted, many more seemed to see American style beers as a curiosity to try occasionally before returning to their longtime habits. Perhaps Stone Berlin is just ahead of its time. Perhaps, though, Germans are just happy with German beer. It is interesting to me that unlike the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands and other European nations, Germany was the one place that Belgian beer never made any impact in spite of a wide open EU market that could have made these beers available. It reminds me of the total lack of interest in French, Spanish or American wines or food from anywhere else in Italy. Parochialism lives.

Lastly, Stone arrived in Germany at a time when Germans are drinking less beer overall. Germany has the same demographic crash as much of Europe. The population is aging and aging people drink less and are less likely to try new things. On top of that, many, if not most of the young newcomers to Germany are from places where beer, for religious or cultural reasons is not allowed or desired. Added to everything else mentioned, it is a tough nut to crack.

No one should fault Greg and his partners for trying. They were ambitious. They were hopeful. They triumphed over a lot of adversity to complete the project and it was launched with a wave of positivity. The facility is awesome and of course the beer was and is good. Some might be saying it was an arrogant American move to try to impose Stone's beer culture where a homegrown beer culture has thrived for centuries. That sort of thinking would have us still choosing between Schlitz, Pabst or Bud at every corner bar in America. Trying new things, introducing them to others, blending cultures, and alas, learning lessons and sometimes overreaching and and falling are all good in the end. In this case, Germans were introduced to quality American beer and some were impressed. Even those who may not be converts have to admit that their stereotype of American beer as watery nothingness is wrong. Stone will still have a presence in Germany. Time will tell if BrewDog will have better luck decoding the German market. I wish them well and I wish the best for Greg and Stone.

Michael Roper
Founder/Owner, Hopleaf

Don Paul's picture

So sorry to hear your Stone Brewing Munich investment didn't pan out. Being a commercial real estate brokerage company owner and real estate / stock investor, I've learned as much from my successes as my failures. The hardest part is admitting & accepting the failures... But for me these difficult decisions were almost always for the best.

I'm sure you'll continue to innovate in at Stone Brewing and DISRUPTING the beer business. You're the Elon Musk / Steve Jobs of the soulless corporate beer industry and both your fellow craft brewers and Stone beer fans like me are SO much better having you in it.

Keep your chin up. I believe your NEXT BIG THING is in our future... and can't wait to see what you come up with next!

Cheers!

P.S. Please re-brew all my Stone Brewing buddies' FAVORITE Stone beer: Double Bastard with Toasted Oak. Smoothest DB every made and still SORELY missed. Last glass was at Stone Oakquinox a couple of years ago.

Oh and we REALLY need a Stone Brewing "Company Store" or Liberty Station / World Bistro in Orange County. Can't let AB InBev's Golden Road go unanswered. 8-)

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