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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Beer. I like beer. I like good beer. A lot of other people like good beer, too. Craft brewing — that is, makers of better beer than can be had from Budweiser or Miller — is growing like crazy. Over a hundred new craft breweries and brew pubs opened in this country last year. It is a $7 billion industry — again, in this country. Which means there’s a whole lotta room for international expansion. One of the big guys in craft brewing, Stone Brewing out of Escondido, Calif., is looking to expand up and out of the U.S. market, into Europe — a place known for a fiercely, shall we say, traditional attitude about beer. Thin watery lagers, mostly. There are a couple of dozen crafters exporting their beer to Europe already. But Stone is looking to actually build a microbrewery on the continent itself — the first American craft company to do that.
So in the interest of getting the story for you and getting it right, I made the difficult decision to take a day off the air, drive down to the Stone Brewing, just north of San Diego, and have a look around — and, maybe, take a taste or two.
Greg Koch giving tour: The brewhouse is where the active part of the brewing process happens…
Stone co-founder Greg Koch gave us the tour of where and how Stone makes its beer, brews that are on the denser and chewier side, it must be said. A then, we sat down to talk about his plans to expand and about the changing perceptions of American beer.
Koch: A lot of people used to think that America was the land of fizzy yellow beer nonsense, strictly. We were kind of the laughingstock of the world when it came to beer and beer culture. Now, America is looked at as being the leading brewing region in the world.
Ryssdal: So where are we in the Stone expansion process?
Koch: We have a colleague who is out over there now, just hit the ground this past Monday. We’re looking for an existing brewery site to retrofit their brewery to brew the style of beers we brew, would like to be a region where people would want to visit, good quality of life. But frankly, somewhat of it’s in the “I’ll know when I see it” category.
Ryssdal: Why do you have to make it there? Why can’t you just take those bottles that we saw inside on the line, put ’em in a carton, put ’em on a boat and send ’em over to wherever you want in Europe?
Koch: We could, but we don’t want to for a variety of basic, fundamental reasons. One is the time that it takes to ship our beer over there, and our beer is best when it’s fresh — and we steward that religiously. Now, when it comes to doing that and sending it refrigerated to Europe, that’s extraordinarily expensive. And so, when it gets all the way over there, that’s going to be quite an expensive equation for the consumer. But I think the primary reason is the carbon footprint. I think it would be irresponsible for us to send high volumes of beer from one country another and completely ignore the carbon footprint.
Ryssdal: Let’s get some beers and open them up, and I want you to run me through sort of what you taste, and how that might appeal.
Koch: This one is Stone Smoked Porter. This is quite interesting. Of course, you can see, nearly dark black. Not quite, it’s got a little bit of ruby hints around the edges. We use a little bit of specialty peat smoked malt — gives it a little smoky character.
Ryssdal: A little smoky, not quite stout, but nice. Alright, this is?
Koch: Our most popular, our biggest selling beer is Stone IPA. And I imagine that that probably will also be, if not the highest seller, one of our flagships in Europe.
Ryssdal: I can see these two actually selling really really well over there. But you are going into a market where they drink a lot of fizzy yellow stuff, ‘kay? Would you conceivably change the style of beer you make to hit the European audience?
Koch: We will be brewing Stone and Stone-style beers only. I have no idea what the market wants. The market has not idea what it wants. I mean, look at what they drink. That’s a testimony that they have no idea what they want. Our competition is the limited thinking that people, consumers, have about what American beer is capable of. And it’s like the old joke, how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is one, but the light bulb has to want to change. You have to be looking and interested, or we’re not for you.
Ryssdal: How are you gonna know that beyond the dollar amounts, that Europe has been a success for you?
Koch: We measure success in our ability to continue. Are we making enough money to be profitable? Are we making enough money to grow and add? And are we making great beer? So, it’s a passion play, and part of that passion is we love the idea of going and starting again. And that’s exciting to us, as entrepreneurs and beer enthusiasts.
Ryssdal: Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of the Stone Brewing Company, talking about his plans to expand into Europe. It occurred to us that we could talk all day about what Europeans may or may not want. But why not just put the question to actual Europeans?
Barry Southern: I think American beer is a lot lighter. It has a fizz. If you would have a hot dog or a hamburger, you would then associate that with American beer.
Matt Wright: You wouldn’t go for an American beer. You’d go for Stella, wouldn’t you? Or a Kronenbourg, a European beer.
Chris Hubbard: I think if they could just offer something unique, as long as the quality is good, I think people would take it up.
That was Barry Southern, Matt Wright and Chris Hubbard at the Shoot Star Pub in London. We put together a photo slideshow of our time down at Stone Brewing. You can check it out on our website. And by all means, send along recommendations for your favorite beers as well.
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