Warning. This post is long. I've been advised that blog posts should be 475 words. I've opted to strap that advice to the back of caution and defenestrate ‘em both. Because it's important that I share these words from the people quoted below. They're important to me, and if you're here, I'd like to think that we place importance on similar things. At the top of that list, being real.
I intended for this follow up blog post to take a couple days, or maybe a week. It took me 5+ weeks. From the distance of a little time, I can see the good a lot clearer.
As I wrote last time, we’ve transferred ownership of our Mariendorf brewery and restaurant to our friends at BrewDog.
To clarify, Stone Brewing remains very much independently owned by us. And we did NOT leave Berlin.
Our beer will still be brewed at Mariendorf, on the same equipment, with the same obsessive process, and many of the same obsessive people. The Stone Tap Room Prenzlauer Berg is going strong. Stronger actually (we broke our attendance & sales records just last Sunday).
April 9, the Tuesday after the news broke, I arrived in Berlin. I got to our restaurant at about 7pm for a planned informal gathering with our team. Gotta admit that at the time I wasn’t looking forward to this. I very much wanted to see everyone of course, however I wasn’t sure if they wanted to see me. They’d worked so damn hard, and we’d just delivered some devastating news a few days earlier. And after all it was me who had to give the final word to pull the cord. I would have understood if they were second-guessing that decision, frustrated, or even outright pissed.
Through the lens of the weeks and months prior that led up to the decision, it was hard to see the positive perspectives and good impressions we were leaving in Mariendorf. It just felt more like failure. It hurt.
But no matter what I needed to see my colleagues, my compatriots, my friends. There were a lot of thank yous to say, and say in person. Saying things in person matters. Going through things together in person is why beer exists.
I needed to shake their hands, and remind them that setbacks are not the same as ends. That they’d made progress toward a diversified beer culture. They’d curated the largest draft beer selection Germany had ever seen. They’d helped spread the word of both authentic traditional beer styles that had been largely ignored by the populace, and newer ‘craft’ styles. They’d started a ripple, and ripples don’t easily stop. Over time, they can become waves for long-lasting, positive change.
What I walked into surprised me. No matter how long I live — no matter how often I’m reminded that people are intrinsically awesome — I’m often caught off guard at just how incredible that can be. I got zero animosity. I would have understood. I got no recriminations. Again, I would have understood. Instead I was surrounded by words, hugs and even some tears of appreciation. Warmed the hell out of my heart.
Our head brewer, Thomas Tyrell, whose passion and obsession are rare commodities, had thrown his life into this project. “I’m still sad that it did not work out as you envisioned and planned and executed for over four years,” he texted me ahead of my arrival. “But I can tell you: I would do it again.”
I stood with my people and we shared good words, camaraderie, and beers from 7PM until 3AM.
“I felt lucky that I got to be here at all,” some said.
Wow. Thank you.
“I saw from the inside the changes that were happening, and are still happening, and I’m proud of our contributions,” others said.
Thank you. You’re such an important part of that, and will continue to be.
“When I started at Stone, even though he’s as German as it gets, my dad wasn’t into beer. Now because of what we introduced him to, dad is a huge craft beer fan and wants to try every new IPA that he hears about,” one told me.
Heck, I can’t tell you how many of our customers walked up to me over the ensuing days wanting a hug. A final selfie in the space. Some even started crying, including some who I was meeting for the first time. I choked back a bunch of times that week, and I’ll admit not always successfully. That’s what happens when you do things you care about. You feel lucky when others share the feeling. And I feel very lucky. Business ticked up definitively over the last several weeks as people came to see and experience for the first time, or the 300th (I know of at least one fan that was in that latter category). There were lots of pictures. There was zero schaudenfruede, as that tends to prefer computer keyboards and mom’s basements, to actual real human interaction.
So what about all the so-called controversy?
As news broke of our sale, the feedback was swift. The internet runs, it does not walk. There was a genuine appreciation for our part in the craft beer discussion that many Germans were already having. There were a few who accused us of arrogance — of being brash Americans disrespecting German beer culture.
Anyone who knows, knows this was never the case. Ever. The only thing we’ve ever disrespected is the industrialization and cheapening of beer, and we’ve openly lamented consumer’s eschewing of the authentic good stuff in favor of it. Sometimes knowingly, but more often not. The only things I’ve ever intentionally railed against is when there’s a lack of options for beer drinkers — most specifically, the lack of authentic traditional styles, and craft beer styles.
When I gave a speech to announce the Berlin project in the summer of 2014, I reflected on this:
"For centuries, brewing has been a noble art… an art of and for the people. Tragically, over the last several generations, industrialization and pandering to the lowest common denominator have fueled brewing’s deterioration into a mere commodity. So much so, that most of the world no longer thinks of brewing as art. Far from it. Instead, they view it as something to be purchased as cheaply as possible. True, there have always been and continue to be brewers who have maintained the integrity of their art over the centuries. However, their work has largely been ignored by the average beer drinker in recent decades. The masses have instead been held sway with an endless barrage of advertising schemes and degradation of the art at the hands of pricing wars and accountants. Decades of consolidation and mass-homogenization has led to a loss of understanding of beer among the populace.”
We founded Stone Brewing Berlin because we love Germany and saw an authentic artisanal beer culture that had been long suffering precipitous declines, and a passionate craft beer culture starting to form. Our goal was to help raise the profile of both. Hopefully perk enough ears that people listened to see if the sounds were interesting to them. Or not.
For me, the real arrogance came in a far-too-common remark we heard from some Americans. It goes something like, “When I go to Germany, I don’t want to drink IPAs.” Their clearly implied and thinly veiled message was “I don’t want options in Germany, I want their beer culture to stay the same forever. Because that’s what I want."
To see the real perspective, one needs to pause for a second and put the shoe on the other foot. Trust me on this one: the Germans I know…and anyone…would like to make that decision for themselves, thank you very much.
Think about it this way. In the USofA we get to have the very best of Belgian, British, Irish, Scottish, Czech, American, German, and other world beer styles. We import them, and we make them. We have fallen in love with the rich tapestry of choices.
Want to know true arrogance? It’s arrogant to think that someone somewhere else wouldn’t want / doesn’t deserve the same level of free choice because you want your image of the old world to stay firmly locked in your imagination of history. Shame on that. Just as a couple generations ago Americans traveled to Germany and discovered its rich brewing heritage and wanted to bring the best of it back to enjoy in their home country, similarly many Europeans have traveled to the US over the last couple decades and fallen in love with our beer styles. For good reason: they’re different, and really good.
There is no single tree in the forest (for if there was it’d be a single tree in a desert), and the reality of the craft beer world is that it’s an ecosystem. If we conceptualize craft beer as a forest, then we can imagine industrial beer as a much larger homogeneous grassy expanse next to it of, well, grass. Unthreatening sameness. Little to explore. Comforting (perhaps to some) and boring. The forest offers diversity. Things to learn and discover. A wondrous world, yet potentially scary to those who’ve spent all their time sitting on the grass (populated with billboards and TV ads to reinforce that decision).
Craft beer types are naturally drawn to the tree line when it first appears on their horizon, and can’t wait to explore its wonders.
The diverse occupants of the forest offer many different perspectives. Nothing hits you in the heart quite like the feedback of the real people who work their asses off making good, craft and artisanal beer — in Germany, and elsewhere in the world’s craft brewing ecosystem — and I thought you should hear from them. Directly. Personally.
I want to share some of the texts and emails sent to me because these are the words that are most important. They are words from people who are not looking at it from the outside and making judgements, but instead are on the inside. These are the folks fighting for the freedom of additional choices where most people might still argue that they don’t want them (just as in the US 40, 30, and 20 years ago, and that one neighbor you have down the street neighbor still today who likes his industrial beer and loudly derides the ‘weird’ beers that some kids seem to like these days).
And for everyone associated with Stone Berlin, hopefully these words will help illuminate the positive things you were able to achieve.
Just as I’ve noticed with some of the sharpest critiques about me and our project have come from Americans, you’ll find that some of the comments from our German friends include some fairly sharp opinions about their own country and the attitudes of their countrymen. Recognize that every country in the world has their own phrase for the “Ugly American,” except that they replace ‘American’ with their own country. You see, we’re all human. We’re all inherently good. We want good things for ourselves, and we want good things for others. That can manifest itself by being very self-critical, extending that ‘self’ to our own country and our own tribes.
Enough of my perspectives. I will leave you with the perspectives of some German brewing industry friends.
Katharina Kurz, founder/co-owner of Berlin’s BRLO Brewery:
"Stone has made an amazing contribution to craft beer in Germany. I am proud to call Greg and the Stonies my friends. I think that Stone has had a great impact on craft beer in Berlin and Germany. The Stone brewery and gastronomy was such a bold and ambitious move and investment, it really put a lot more eyes and ears on craft beer in Germany and showed what is possible. While I don't agree with some of the initial PR stunts (yes, the infamous Stone throw), Stone really helped put Berlin on the international craft beer map. I remember sitting outside of our half-finished BRLO brewery during a construction site meeting in summer 2016, when Greg cycled by with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing. All three huge names in craft beer and here we were 1.5 years into our brewing adventures, hanging out and showing them our brewery. Pretty cool! Greg and his fantastic team were always extending their hand to contribute in the spirit of the craft beer community and we developed a wonderful Stone-BRLO friendship. I was extremely sad at the news that this adventure and vision didn't work out in the end. One of the first things I angrily thought was: oh, the Schadenfreude that so many nay-sayers and told-you-sos will be feeling right now.
Craft Beer has not been "exploding" in Germany like it did in other countries. It is developing, but at a much more steady pace. For BRLO, it has been a wonderful journey so far, but also a challenging one. When we started 4,5 years ago, I had to explain countless times a day what an IPA was - we have come a long way in that respect, especially in Berlin. But we are still fighting to get more taps into bars, to convince bars and restaurants to carry beer menus and to have a decent beer selection and adequate storage in retail. Not to mention the comparative price level of beer (and people's price sensitivity) in Germany... We have to work together to change the hearts and minds and tastebuds of Germany, to show how different and diverse beer can be. Thank you for everything, Team Stone, and see you soon!"
Cihan Caglar, owner of Biererei, one of Berlin’s best brew shops, and a craft beer pub across the street that focuses on both fresh and (nearly unheard of in Germany) vintage beer styles:
"I was pretty disturbed reading the news today. You can’t imagine how important and invincible Stone Brewing was in my eyes. When I’ve first heard about the idea of Stone Brewing coming to Berlin I was excited and proud being able to welcome as a Berliner one of the most important craft breweries from the states in Berlin. I felt the energy you were bringing with you to push the whole craft beer scene on levels which were not possible without you in Germany. You truly acted like the Gargoyle bringing good beer to the people. I believed this idea and wanted to contribute as much as I could do with my small business. I wish the brewery would have survived longer. Thank you so much for everything. I hope you’re fine and you’ll show yourself in Berlin soon again!"
Stefan Kruger, co-founder of Berlin Beer Week:
“I’m really sad to see this happening and I am happy that I could be part of this rollercoaster journey. I was born and raised in East Berlin, and emigrated to West Berlin just five months before the wall fell. I’ve lived here my entire life. I thought I knew beer. After all, I’m German. My journey into craft beer started in the US in 2011 when a friend of mine gave me a Stone IPA and I was introduced to Greg Koch and had an interesting & eye opening conversation with him about German beer. Back then I, like many, fell for the advertising lie of big companies, that German beer is the best because of the purity law (which is a farce if you actually take your time and research it) and when I came back to Berlin that year, for the first time ever I realized how monotonous the German beer landscape really was (and alas still is), while walking through the aisles of the beer section in my local super market. Style wise there was not much else than Pilsners, Helles, Weizen and the occasional (just colored, because it's legal and cheaper to do so according to the Reinheitsgebot) dark beers. Naturally I was stoked to hear that Stone Brewing had chosen my home town Berlin as the location for their European expansion plans.
In these 5 years since Stone announced Stone Brewing Berlin, this city has gone through a rapid transformation in terms of availability and perception of craft beer. Back in 2014 we had only one really dedicated craft beer bar with more than 10 taps and that one had just opened two months before the Stone unveiling event in July 2014. Now the numbers are double digits and you can find craft beer in a lot more "normal" bars than ever before. Back then there was probably one or two handfuls of craft breweries operating out of Berlin. Now I think we have more than 20 if not even 30 (including the ones that don't own their own equipment).
Stone Brewing making such a big investment into Berlin gave all of us a lot more confidence, that our passion, good beer, will prevail, even in Germany, where beer is unreasonably cheap and it jump started everything. It encouraged many of us to take that final step and open a bar, brewery, distributorship etc. or in my case establish the annual festival "Berlin Beer Week" together with two other craft beer enthusiasts in 2015, with Stone being super supportive from the beginning and even hosting the closing event of the very first Berlin Beer Week on their construction site in 2015.
Together we have accomplished a lot in terms of the acceptance of artisanal ales for sure in this city and also the rest of the country in the past 5 years. However, based on my observations in these 5 years I think Stone and everyone of us underestimated two things in regards of the German beer market.
- It takes time to change peoples habits. Even more so when these habits stem from centuries of tradition. I think we Germans are among the most change reluctant people on this planet. Now put 500 years of brewing tradition into the equation and it takes even more persistence to change a behavior.
- Big beer in Germany put millions of Euros down since the 80s to ensure everyone knows how "great" German beer is because of the purity law.
Number 2 also worked well on me until my friend gave me my first craft beer. Up until then, even when abroad I was always looking for big German brands to drink because I thought anything else is crap.
I think it was too bold to assume that German beer drinking behavior could be transformed in such a short of time that you need to make a big venture like Stone Berlin financially stable, but then again in hindsight we are always smarter.
I am sad to see Stone Brewing Berlin being transferred over to Brewdog, but I am also happy to know that the legacy will carry on with the Tap Room in Prenzlauer Berg."
Nina Anika Klotz, founder, writer and publisher of Hopfenhelden, Germany’s leading beer blog and first craft beer magazine (you can read ‘why’ she started it here: https://www.hopfenhelden.de/en/):
"I was excited to see Stone coming. I had just realized something like a craft beer movement existed, and that it might come to Germany. A big company like Stone would make it happen faster. Make the craft revolution more of a thing. Some people saw it as a big American company coming to a country that’s very proud. Most German beer drinkers think they’ve been drinking the best beer ever because it’s Bavarian. We never thought there could be anything else—dark beer, sour beer, crazy and new beers. I’m absolutely sure Stone changed the German beer culture. People started to see beer in a new way. Stone helped beer be discussed in German media and TV shows. They started a conversation about variety. The grassroots craft beer movement will prosper from what Stone did."
And then there was this next one from Oliver Lemke, founder of Brauerei Lemke, Berlin’s oldest and largest German-owned artisanal brewery. In my previous post, I expressed frustrations about our contractors in Berlin. It was an element of our compound fracture, and other German entrepreneurs I spoke with often expressed such sentiments. So it needed to be said. Because if no one says it, nothing changes. I include Oliver’s statement not to pile on, but to show that we weren’t just pointing fingers. And we were definitely not alone.
"Just saw the news! I want you to know that I´m really sorry… You had great influence. As sad as it is, I really had to smile when I read your statement, because it contains so much pitiful truth about my country and believe me—you missed the worst parts. With the experience of being an entrepreneur in Germany for 20 years myself, I can honestly say that for many reasons—the regulations, work laws, authorities, widespread stinginess, the unwillingness to try new things, the combined tax burden and numerous other things—this is probably the last country in the western world somebody should open up a business in. Not knowing this, great entrepreneurs like yourself come from all over the world, try, and fail—again and again. So please don’t take it personally. This is just no country for entrepreneurs. Looking at Germany from the outside this might seem hard to believe, but the truth is: We owe our success as a country to our fathers and forefathers and the awakening will be soon and hard. I’m sure you’ll find other spots in this world where your commitment is appreciated."
Wow. Seems harsh perhaps to the casual observer, but I get it. This entrepreneur thing is hard.
And finally, this last statement, written in his native German, is from Stephan Michel. Stephan is well known in American and International craft / artisanal beer circles. He’s the owner and brewmaster of Bamburg’s storied Mahr’s Braü, which started in 1671 and operates inside the beautiful capital of Franconia with a classic German brewery and attached pub (English version):
"Die Mahrs Bräu ist traurig.
Seit vielen Jahren sind wir eng mit Stone Brewing verbunden. Eine innig gewachsene Freundschaft und einige Kooperationen in der Vergangenheit verbinden mich Stephan Michel Geschäftsführer der Mahrs Bräu mit dem "Beer Jesus" Greg Koch.
Ich bedauere zutiefst, dass Greg Koch Mariendorf verlässt. Was er auf die Beine gestellt hat, ist verrückt, atemberaubend und erfordert viel Mut und Optimismus. Wir Visionäre haben es nicht leicht, weil wir leben, was wir tun.
Bierkonsum ist stark mit Emotionen verbunden, für den Brauer wie für den Konsumenten. Im traditionsverbundenen Deutschland - in dem es seit 500 Jahren das Reinheitsgebot gibt und die Leute sehr loyal zu "ihrem" Bier sind - ist es nicht leicht Fuß zu fassen. Der Biermarkt hier ist recht gefestigt, man trinkt gerne lokal, unterstützt "seine" Marke. Das war auch Greg klar. Trotzdem wollte er den Deutschen das amerikanische "Craft-Beer" ans Herz legen und ihnen den "Stone Brewing Spirit" mit auf den Weg geben. Und obwohl klar war, Marienfelde ist nicht Berlin-Downtown, die nächste Bushaltestelle ist nicht unbedingt um die Ecke und die Deutschen bevorzugen vielleicht lieber regionales Bier, hat er 2016 25 Millionen investiert und daran geglaubt, dass die Gegend um Berlin in Europa der richtige Ort für die Umsetzung seiner Ideen ist. In Franken, klar - da ist so etwas noch schwerer, um nicht zu sagen unmöglich, denn der Franke ist noch eigener mit "seiner Hausbrauerei". Aber in Berlin? Das ist doch "der" Markt für einen kalifornischen Bier-Superstar, wie Greg Koch! Leider hat er es nicht ganz geschafft. Aber es liegt wahrscheinlich gar nicht unbedingt am mangelnden Zulauf, auch die deutsche Bürokratie trägt sicher eine Mitschuld. Ich kann solche Entscheidungen verstehen und stehe dahinter. Werden einem immer wieder Steine in den Weg gelegt, sind den Ideen irgendwann die Hände gebunden und man muss seine Strategie neu planen. Dieser Energieaufwand macht müde und man muss sich die berechtigte Frage stellen, ob sich der Aufwand noch lohnt. Heutzutage muss viel mehr getan werden, um den Konsumenten bei Laune - und beim guten Geschmack - zu halten. Der Bierabsatz geht zurück und eine erfolgreiche Brauerei zu etablieren oder fortzuführen ist eine massive Herausforderung, die man erst mal meistern (wollen) muss.
Umso mehr hält die Mahrs Bräu daran fest, Visionäre wie Greg Koch zu unterstützen. Man muss öfter mal über den Tellerrand schauen um am Ball zu bleiben. Das ist doch mit allem so. Und es ist doch auch spannend, wie andere Länder ihr Craft-Beer inszenieren. Das ist einer vieler Gründe für die Mahrs Bräu, von Zeit zu Zeit mit Brauern aus der ganzen Welt zusammenzuarbeiten, gemeinsam ausgefallene Biersorten zu brauen und dadurch außergewöhnliche und andere Geschmackserlebnisse in die Bierstadt Bamberg zu holen.
Wir brauchen visionäre Brauer wie Greg Koch und ich bin dankbar, dass es in der Brauerszene (noch) Persönlichkeiten wie Greg Koch gibt. Was er in den letzten 25 Jahren geschaffen hat, hat auch mich stark beeinflusst und begeistert und verdient allerhöchste Anerkennung. Er kann mächtig stolz sein. Egal ob wir uns zum nächsten Mal auf dem riesigen Gelände in Mariendorf treffen oder einen gemütlichen Tap Room in Prenzlauer Berg. Er ist mein Freund."
A few weeks ago I found myself in Richmond, Virginia (RVA). I was there to connect with our brewery team, and attend a screening of the documentary film that chronicled the trials and tribulations of building Stone Berlin. Our Stone RVA and Stone Berlin were sibling projects, both commissioned in the summer of 2016. The Stone RVA brewery is American in scale—a much larger project (a factor of 3x in cost) than the Berlin one. RVA was finished on time, on budget.
It’s interesting to reflect on the differences between the beer cultures in these two cities. As one might guess, it’s much stronger in one than the other. One city is clearly in the “up and coming” category, with a slow-yet-determined march towards becoming a bonafide “beer town.” The other seems awash in beer festivals, beer bars, beer restaurants, breweries, cideries and meaderies. Anyone who’s visited both cities and has taken even a cursory glance at their scenes can easily see and taste this.
Richmond is the 97th-largest city in the U.S. — one-tenth the size of Berlin. Berlin is not just the largest city in Germany, but will become the most populated city in the EU once the UK Brexits. And yet, Richmond has far more breweries (+/- 2x, which makes it a whopping 20x the beer scene when measured in per capita). In RVA you won’t just find a more robust beer scene, but also a much deeper conversation about the possibilities of beer. This is now the norm in cities and towns across the length and breadth of the US. We’re a goddammed bona fide beer country.
I’d love to see Berlin get there. Stone is still expanding in Berlin, in Germany, and Europe as a whole. There are great craft beer voices there. We’ll continue to help crank up the volume of those voices.
As for Mariendorf, we extend one more heartfelt and emphatic THANK YOU to our people—whether you welcomed us, worked with us, drank with us, or encouraged us.
Once more, for the record, Stone has not left Berlin. Or Europe. We very much believe in its craft beer scene, and our future there. We will sell more beer in Europe this year than last. We will sell more beer there next year than this year.
As often happens with conversations like this, the positive voices are frequently drowned out by the negativity of a few. However, one might suppose that the detractors deserve to be heard too. So, to encourage feedback from both camps, I offer this format….
Below is the place to leave your POSITIVE feedback. If you liked what we do, and would like to offer supportive words, here’s the place to do it. Note that ALL negative feedback will be removed.
Here is the place to leave your NEGATIVE feedback. If you think I’m an idiot, let’s hear it. If I should go straight to hell, yep that too. If I clearly don’t understand the basics of the world, of beer of…whatever…you can tell me about it here. You’ll have an audience of the schaudenfruede-seekers. I won’t promise I’ll be one of ‘em.