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Food Week

How This Hopped-Up Brewery Is Bringing American Craft Beer To Germany

Stone Brewing, one of America's largest craft breweries, wants to sell Germans on the virtues of some very un-German beers.

How This Hopped-Up Brewery Is Bringing American Craft Beer To Germany
[Photo: Flickr user André Hofmeister]

In a converted gasworks building in western Berlin’s Mariendorf neighborhood, American craft beer brand Stone Brewing is engaged in an unusual project: Selling Germans—and Europeans in general—on the joys of bitter, hoppy beers like Stone IPA and the company’s popular Arrogant Bastard Ale. Germans have traditionally enjoyed lagers and wheat beers that are a far cry from the IPAs that are fashionable on the American scene, but Stone hopes Europeans will go gaga for the alternative.

IPA stands for "India Pale Ale." First invented as a spoil-proof variety of beer for export from Great Britain to India during the colonial era, IPAs enjoyed a resurgence in the United States thanks to brewers like Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn Brewery, and Stone. Despite their British roots, IPAs are nowadays primarily associated with American and Canadian breweries.

Meanwhile, until 1993, Germany abided by a collection of regulations called the reinheitsgebot that restricted beer ingredients and discouraged brewers from significant deviations from traditional formulas. Deregulation has given brewers more leeway, leading to homegrown brewers like Schoppebraeu creating beers that owe much to foreign styles like Californian IPAs and Belgian Lambics. But Stone faces a challenge in Germany—the beer audience skews largely traditional.

Stone Brew GargoylePhoto: Flickr user Bill Selak

Stone, one of the largest American craft brewers to survive a recent binge of craft brewery acquisitions by multinationals AB InBev, Heineken, and MillerCoors, is opening both a brewpub and a larger commercial beer operation at the Berlin facility. It will serve as the center of a European operation that, as of press time, includes distribution in Germany, France, Finland, and the Netherlands. There will be some changes from the American model—the recipes, which are still being finalized, will include more European ingredients and beers come in cans rather than bottles.

According to Stone's president and cofounder Steve Wagner, the brewery is opening in the German market by selling four different IPAs and Arrogant Bastard. He added that "We're not holding ourselves to perfect flavor matching. We would like to use more local ingredients and they will be as close as we can make them. The hops will be identical and imported from the United States, but with more malted barley from Germany and Europe."

It’s not only American beer that Stone’s bringing to Europe—they’re also bringing a very specific combination of American beer culture and marketing savvy. Their German headquarters in the old gasworks is a combination brewpub, restaurant, and packaging facility that’s approximately 10 blocks from the nearest U-Bahn stop. The facility, which is opening after months of delays, cost more than $25 million to renovate and is at the center of a much larger marketing push into the European market.

When I spoke via Skype to Greg Koch, the company’s CEO and cofounder, he was on site in Germany. He explained that the Berlin facility was getting ready for opening in a few months, and told me about the latest unexpected development: An asbestos-lined pipe found underground that wasn’t shown on any maps and had to be safely removed. Wagner noted that the age of the facility made renovation more of a challenge than the company expected: Berlin buildings simply have those issues more often than Stone's nerve center back in Escondido, California.

Koch also quickly made appeals to craft beer culture. I asked him about one central issue Stone faces—the fact that Stone’s hoppy beers are pretty much the opposite of every Pilsener or Kolsch I’ve ever had in a German bar.

"It’s cool to know that we're going to be a major part of a shift in European awareness of American craft beer," he said. "A lot of people over here have an outdated mindset that all America makes is cheap industrial beer, and it’s fun to watch the expression on peoples faces when they taste amazing craft beer for the first time."

From a business perspective, this attempt is happening at a crucial time for Stone. While it remains independently owned by Koch and Wagner, the company has been in the middle of its own expansion and shakeup. This past autumn, Koch announced plans to step down as CEO (although he has not left as of press time) and for the company to search for a new executive; Stone is also building a second production facility in Virginia that will brew beer for East Coast customers in the next few months.

The Virginia facility is opening at almost the same time as the European branch. Wagner told me that the situation was "not how we planned it but it’s how the timeline turned out," thanks to delays in opening the German branch and faster-than-expected progress on the East Coast. As of press time, Stone says they are the ninth largest craft brewery in the United States and that their beers are sold in 41 states.

In the meantime, Stone’s short-term goal is simple: Sell Europeans on the virtues of American craft beers. While IPAs might not show up at Munich’s Oktoberfest or in the pubs of Belgium anytime soon, the company sees a market in Europe for these hoppy drinks.

Stone's Berlin brewpub is scheduled for a summer opening.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that, although Stone is searching for a new CEO, Koch remains the company's CEO; in addition, while Wagner was Stone's original brewmaster, he currently serves as president. It has also been updated to reflect that Stone has not finalized the recipes for their Berlin beers.

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