Germans are rightfully proud of their centuries-old beer brewing tradition, so selling American brew to the experienced German public might seem like a business-losing proposition.
Not to Greg Koch, even though some questioned the sanity of Stone Brewing Co.’s co-founder when he told them of his plans to bring U.S. craft beer to Berlin.
Skeptics said: “Beer? To Germany? But you’re an American!”
Yet Mr. Koch, who started his brewery in 1996, is confident Stone’s “Smoked Porter,” “Cali-Belgique” and “Arrogant Bastard Ale” will feel right at home next to Warsteiner and Becks.
“This will bring courageous, characterful beers to a country with a brewing tradition deeply rooted in its history,” Mr. Koch said on Saturday in Berlin, as he announced plans for the San Diego-based company’s first European brewery.
The $25-million (€18.5-million) facility in the sleepy southern Berlin neighborhood of Mariendorf will be housed in a redbrick former gasworks dating back to 1901. Encompassing a brewery, beer garden, restaurants and shops, it is expected to open in 2016.
“We’re really going to have a brewery in our neighborhood – it’s a memorable day,” said Angelika Schöttler, the local district mayor, before playfully suggesting Stone Brewing could create a Berlin-themed brew called “Spree Bastard,” playing off the name of the city’s river.
With his shoulder-length hair and graying beard, Mr. Koch looks like someone who brews beer in his own garage. That was once the case, but now his garage is the 10th largest craft brewery in the United States.
By definition craft brewers are small, producing less than six million barrels annually, according to the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group for the industry. More than 75 percent of craft brands are owned by actual craft brewers.
“The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation,” the group says on its website.
Berlin as a Gateway to Europe
Building on its remarkable domestic success, Stone Brewing is hoping its new Berlin headquarters will be a bridge toward conquering the European market. But the Americans will first have to win over Germany’s notoriously finicky beer drinkers.
Previous attempts to get Germans to quaff American beer haven’t gone over very well. There was nationwide outrage when Budweiser was served in soccer stadiums in 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup. But craft beer’s growth in the United States stems from Americans’ rejection of mass-brewed brands like Budweiser in favor of smaller producers like Stone.
“Once the Germans taught us brewing,” Mr. Koch said. “Now they can learn from us how to produce individual beers.”
And many German beer aficionados feel Germany’s long brewing tradition has also hampered innovation, leaving it open to both domestic craft beer upstarts and foreign brewers.
Germany’s purity law from 1516 stipulates beer may only be made from hops, barley and water, but brewers are not obliged to stick to it.
Though still home to what are widely considered to be some of the best beers in the world, Germany has seen several microbrewers crop up in recent years, as beer drinkers have yearned for hoppy flavors and experimentation that runs afoul of the country’s famous 500-year-old beer purity law.
“Stone is known for its spirit of innovation and creativity,” said Sylvia Kopp, director of the Berlin Beer Academy. “They’ll create momentum and pull craft beer in Berlin in their wake.”
By some estimates, U.S. craft brewers are 20 years ahead of their German counterparts when it comes to using innovative brewing techniques. With any luck, Stone’s new European headquarters could become a cooler version of Munich’s gloriously traditional Hofbräuhaus.
There is money to be made as well. Craft brew sales rose 17.2 percent in the United States in 2013 over 2012 and exports were up 49 percent, according to the Brewers Association. When Mr. Koch started Stone Brewing there were 1,149 craft brewers in the States. That number more than doubled by 2013, when 2,822 breweries were producing these innovative brews.
For all the current attention, a stunt by Mr. Koch at the site of his future Berlin brewery likely did not go down smoothly with all German beer drinkers. Behind the wheel of a forklift, he dropped a huge boulder on a crate of common German beers to illustrate the craft beer “revolution” heading Germany’s way.
With reporting by Tassilo Hummel.