Four men stand at the front of the room, three looking predictably San Diego: toned-down formal, eschewing ties, or jackets, or both.

Then there’s the fourth. His style looks part open-collared coolness and part Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

The man with the the frizzy, gray-flecked, shoulder-length beard and matching tangle of locks, Greg Koch, is the CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co. He’s outlining a hope for the local tourism industry. He tells an audience of suits and flannel that he wants the San Diego region to become as synonymous with craft beer as Napa is with wine. Not to sell more beer, he says, but to draw more tourists.

He throws down this accusation: Grand Rapids, Mich., is doing a better job promoting its breweries (“they’re wonderful!” he notes) than San Diego. He cites an online poll to determine Beer City, USA. Grand Rapids got 27,005 votes. San Diego got 300.


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Koch (pronounced Cook) stands out, in the room and his industry. He organized the event, called the San Diego Craft Beer Tourism and Hospitality Economic Summit, a reflection of his outspoken role within his maturing sector.

As the craft beer industry has grown and become an economic force here, people have begun listening more closely to Koch. His summit drew candidates and councilmen, assemblymen and tourism officials.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

“Greg is the spokesperson for the craft beer industry,” says former mayor Jerry Sanders, who spoke at the event. “He’s a larger-than-life personality.”

Greg Koch is 49, lives in Solana Beach with his partner, Sara Tobin, and drives a Tesla Model S. He’s a self-identified righteous young man, who despite his age and success still believes things are run by The Man. In his world, it’s us-versus-them, and they’re winning.

“It is a fight,” the Orange County native says. “There’s no question about it. They threw down the gauntlet first when they told us we should expect less and don’t deserve better. There is a conspiracy of low expectations in this country.”

Koch, a 1987 University of Southern California grad, is the mouthpiece for Stone and its line of strong beers, with names like Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and Arrogant Bastard Ale. Their bold personality is in him and his in them. They don’t advertise. Customers find Stone, not the reverse.

Koch, his beers, their branding, all implicitly proclaim: We aren’t afraid to piss you off. “You can’t be afraid to fire a customer,” he says.

He learned what it meant to be a businessman from his late father, who owned an auto-interior manufacturing company in Ohio, where Koch grew up. Koch was a mediocre student, one for whom drafting a resume was an afterthought. He can’t remember if he ever gave it out.

He says he became passionate about beer after he understood what it could be. His first lightbulb moment came in the mid-1980s at Al’s Bar, a Los Angeles dive, where he drank his first Anchor Steam. It didn’t taste terrible when it warmed up.

Though he co-founded Stone with Steve Wagner, whom he got to know after taking a day-long sensory perception of beer class at UC Davis in 1989, Koch is the front man, the lead singer, an enigmatic showman with a dramatic flair. He stabs open a 150-pound bag of sugar at a TEDx talk in La Jolla (equal to our annual intake, he tells the crowd).

He shows up at an event featuring Stone beer at Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park one Saturday, jumps up on the bar with a megaphone and launches into a spiel about the need to embrace craft beer – not the fizzy yellow alternative. When he finishes, he stage-dives off the bar.

Scot Blair, Hamilton’s owner, calls Koch “the beer messiah,” a man with his own personal brand and yet his own fallibility and goofiness.

“Is he an arrogant bastard? Yeah, maybe,” Blair says. “But he also exhibits intelligence and humility.”

Koch’s persona sits right there on the outside of every bottle. He writes the labels, which serve as condensed versions of his dystopian worldview but also play to his beer-geek base.

“You probably won’t like it,” reads the Arrogant Bastard Ale label. “It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory–maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beverage will give you more sex appeal.”

That’s, of course, what The Man wants. Koch sees the world this way. His narrative: Industrialized food conglomerates sell processed crap that our brains have been unwittingly programmed to crave. Doughnuts as breakfast. Fizzy yellow water as beer. Processed cheese product as cheese.

We buy them and our health pays the consequences. Our stomachs feed profits to corporate shareholders, who care nothing about the resulting public health crisis. During our interview at Stone’s Escondido restaurant, Koch teased an employee for leaving Cheez-Its on the bar. Don’t you know, he said, that they’re just cardboard flavored with salt and fat?

Listen close as he makes his arguments, and you’ll pick up some of the tension in Koch and his preaching. People may know junk food is unhealthy, but people still like it. Koch calls himself – and indirectly, the rest of the country – idiotic for having ever eaten it. He may be right, but he isn’t politely life coaching the masses to get healthier. He’s insulting them a bit, too. One of Stone’s mottos is “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.” In Koch’s narrative, those who disagree are automatons doing what mass marketing conglomerates tell them.

His proselytizing draws criticism that he’s an elitist, preaching to the choir, reinforcing decisions made by those who can afford to make them. An example:

“Greg Koch is a precocious snob, who would be lucky to be as brash and unappealing as his company’s marketing is,” reads one critical ode. “I am personally not a fan of freeze dried coffee and store bought bread, but I’m lucky to have the good fortune to be in that position.”

Koch doesn’t bite. Good choices (like backyard chickens) can be cheap, he says. He blames the elitism label on those faceless corporations, who he says have dismissed our growing locavore desire to eat real food and not its processed, plastic-wrapped relative by casting it as something negative.

There’s an unusual contrast in Koch. He isn’t the CEO of a health food company. He makes a living selling beer. But our brains don’t react to salt, sugar and fat the same way they do alcohol, he says. “There’s no disconnect. Moderate alcohol drinkers are the longest lived segment of the population.”

He doesn’t tell people they should drink, he says. He offers them a better, tastier alternative if they do.

Koch brings personal experience to his fight. He says he suffered acute, chronic gastrointestinal problems throughout high school and college because of his junk food consumption, a health problem that he says left him depressed, isolated and afraid to be in social situations.

No doctors asked about his diet. When he realized junk food might be causing his problems and stopped eating it, “I literally got out of jail,” he says. “It had gotten so bad that my movements were restricted. Going out for any period of time – I could feel very unpleasant with no notice. I was in a form of detention.”

His lesson from it all: “I learned to distrust The Man.”

His attitude about major beer manufacturers makes you forget that he’s not the underdog he was when Stone’s reach was smaller, even if he says he still is. Stone Brewing Co. is real. His company is a success, both in San Diego and across the nation.

Stone is the country’s 10th largest craft brewer, employing 873 people. Since its founding in 1996, the company has gone from delivering 400 barrels of beer to an expected 210,200 barrels this year. That’s the equivalent of 11.5 million six-packs. The company keeps most sales figures private but says it netted $84 million in revenue in 2011.

Stone and the craft beer industry are growing older, bigger and more mature. While craft beers are still a single-digit percentage of the country’s domestic beer consumption, the industry has a $300 million annual economic impact in San Diego County, according to a recent study by the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Though Koch’s influence in San Diego is growing, his message hasn’t always resonated in its more traditional business community (where you don’t find many shoulder-length beards).

Mark Cafferty, CEO of the San Diego Economic Development Corp., a local business group, says Koch is clearly brilliant. But Cafferty questions his push to have others market San Diego as a craft beer destination while boasting that Stone doesn’t spend money on advertising.

“I do find some irony in someone who’s told numerous audiences that San Diego should be doing all it can to advertise San Diego as the Mecca of craft beer, and that groups like us should be marketing that – and yet he says things about needing no marketing,” Cafferty says. “There is a bit of a mixed message.”

Koch says his message is clear. He wants tourism agencies to start by doing the same grassroots-style marketing that Stone does (with a website, social media presence and promo appearances). “That alone would be huge,” he says, “and there’d be a huge return for it.”

Koch has been clear about his plans for his own fast-growing company, which he says will never sell out to major corporations.

Before he leaves on a six-month, off-the-grid trip in February, Koch says he’s taking steps to ensure Stone’s fate is set for years to come. He’s long damned the conglomerates that snap up or try to imitate fast-growing companies like his.

He’s currently going through legal machinations to lock that ethos into the company’s bylaws. Industrial companies won’t be allowed to buy it as a result, he says.

“I can’t tell somebody how to make a decision in 2089. But what I can do is tell them here’s why we think these things are important to us — and now I’d like you to apply those principles in your world,” he says. “The only way Stone Brewing Company will be allowed to exist is if we maintain our standards.”

    This article relates to: Beer Policy, Business, News, Share, Tourism, Tourism Economy

    Written by Rob Davis

    Rob Davis is a former senior reporter for Voice of San Diego. He is currently a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at robdaviswrites@gmail.com or 619.259.0529.

    29 comments
    jkaranop
    jkaranop subscriber

    Rob,  thank you for your article.  Being an almost 60 year old San Diegan, I love our Beerism that we are growing here in SD.  I think it brings us back to a better time in society when we actually went out to converse with our friends at local establishments.  One of the things I'm most proud of in our city is the local pubs and tasting rooms we have.  I share that excitement with my friends when they visit, they always talk about how much fun it is to have this industry in our city.  We just need to make sure we keep the standards of the product high and not push to hard to alienate our neighbors that live by these facilities. 

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    The whole concept of craft beer as a tourism draw is flawed. Do tourist drink fancy beer? Sure, some do, but i's not what brings people here, any more than portapotties on the beach are what bring people to the beach, although with use statistics you could make a ridiculous case for portapottie tourism. Marketing our city as a beer destination will cost more than what it brings in, but if that's what breweries want to do with their money more power to them. Just don't waste my tax dollars on it. Sun, surf and seaworld is what brings people here, and wherever they are from the beer is likely as good (or better, having lived near Boulder) but the weather ain't. .

    Nanelle Newbom
    Nanelle Newbom

    Jim, Craft Beer in San Diego is already a tourist draw, and to mis any opportunity for diversifying our draw is short sighted. People do travel for the sake of great food and wine, and there is no reason not to apply the same ideas to beer. Napa relies heavily on wine for tourism, but it is not just the tourism itself that is important, but the reputation of their regional products as a whole that make investing in the promotion of San Diego beer culture a good choice. By promoting us as a beer mecca, we also increase the value of our products outside the county, which draws dollars into the county. On top of that, the elevation of Craft Beer bleeds over into other culinary arts, and makes the environment better for everyone by virtue of elevated expectations. San Diego has great beaches, but we have to go farther and do more with what we have.

    Rob Smithson
    Rob Smithson

    Sorry Jim, that may have been true 20 years ago but it definitely isn't the case now. Beer tourism is exploding and Greg is right - San Diego, similar to your outdated mindset, is missing the boat. Denver, Portland, Grand Rapids, and Ashville (NC) are all catering to beer tourists and the numbers are increasing. Belgium and Germany have drawn beer tourists for decades. San Diego was able to log over 1000 out of town visitors for Beer Week last year. Times have changed!

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    The whole concept of craft beer as a tourism draw is flawed. Do tourist drink fancy beer? Sure, some do, but i's not what brings people here, any more than portapotties on the beach are what bring people to the beach, although with use statistics you could make a ridiculous case for portapottie tourism. Marketing our city as a beer destination will cost more than what it brings in, but if that's what breweries want to do with their money more power to them. Just don't waste my tax dollars on it. Sun, surf and seaworld is what brings people here, and wherever they are from the beer is likely as good (or better, having lived near Boulder) but the weather ain't. .

    jsimon
    jsimon

    Mark Cafferty, CEO of the San Diego Economic Development Corp., misses the point...marketing San Diego as a beer destination brings additional tourists to the city. This helps San Diego's Economic Development in numerous ways, not the least of which is tourists spend money on more than that which they came here for. Think hotels, food, entertainment & shopping to name a few. But, most importantly tourists return home with personal stories of how great a city San Diego is; that which us lucky few call home! That is the best return on investment any Economic Development Corp. could ask for.

    John Anderson
    John Anderson

    Love Mr. Koch's enthusiasm and unabashed manner of stating that Stone does world-class work in their industry. San Diego would be well served to have more business leaders talking about their companies in the same way.

    John Anderson
    John Anderson subscriber

    Love Mr. Koch's enthusiasm and unabashed manner of stating that Stone does world-class work in their industry. San Diego would be well served to have more business leaders talking about their companies in the same way.

    Colin Parent
    Colin Parent

    Great profile! During my high school job working for the East County Economic Development Council, I persuaded Stone Brewery to list itself on our Connectory, a database of (then-San Diego area) primary industry companies. Their listing had the same verve and irreverence as I later enjoyed from their beer. Our office was somewhat scandalized (and thoroughly entertained) with their off-color entry. I lived in Greenwich Village during law school, and several times I encountered Arrogant Bastard on local bottle lists. Ordering the gigantic and gothic bottles never failed to impress my friends. (Stone's Connectory entry seems to be a little toned down today: http://www.connectory.com/profile_view.aspx?connectoryId=5708&pl=p01p02p10)

    Colin Parent
    Colin Parent subscribermember

    Great profile! During my high school job working for the East County Economic Development Council, I persuaded Stone Brewery to list itself on our Connectory, a database of (then-San Diego area) primary industry companies. Their listing had the same verve and irreverence as I later enjoyed from their beer. Our office was somewhat scandalized (and thoroughly entertained) with their off-color entry. I lived in Greenwich Village during law school, and several times I encountered Arrogant Bastard on local bottle lists. Ordering the gigantic and gothic bottles never failed to impress my friends. (Stone's Connectory entry seems to be a little toned down today: http://www.connectory.com/profile_view.aspx?connectoryId=5708&pl=p01p02p10)

    bigstar1
    bigstar1

    My brother emailed this article to me (last name Stone:)...Anyway I live in Grand Rapids, MI and used to be a beer snob. Only Bud/ Bud Lite for my husband and myself, that is until we started sampling craft beer. It's taken us a few years to enjoy and appreciate them...we still occasionally revert back to "normal" beer but the varieties of craft beer is awesome. If Grand Rapids can become Beer City USA, San Diego can certainly come close:)

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster

    The beer is very good. The restaurants are excellent. The promotion is vaguely entertaining. I wonder though how he plans to address the ills of the world he identifies? By having a business making beer? Where's the Patagonia style 1% of proceeds for the planet and advice not to buy clothes you don't need? Maybe he has become The Man, with his USC degree, a fancy car, and an outsized income?

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    The beer is very good. The restaurants are excellent. The promotion is vaguely entertaining. I wonder though how he plans to address the ills of the world he identifies? By having a business making beer? Where's the Patagonia style 1% of proceeds for the planet and advice not to buy clothes you don't need? Maybe he has become The Man, with his USC degree, a fancy car, and an outsized income?

    David Hall
    David Hall

    It's beer. Big deal. People have been brewing beer for a long long time. Guy needs to get over himself.

    Catherine Green
    Catherine Green

    I'm not much of a hops head either - but I don't think we should underestimate just how many people are. Craft brew buzz is huge nationwide - and that $300-million boost here in SD County is nothing to sneeze at. I can see the merit in taking advantage of that beer destination status.

    Rob Smithson
    Rob Smithson

    you pretty much missed the entire point of the article...well done

    Nanelle Newbom
    Nanelle Newbom

    I couldnt disagree with you more. It´s not just beer, and that brown liquid in your cup in the morning is not just coffee. There is no reason to get over enforced mediocrity. The proposal that beer tourism is good for San Diego is a no-brainer, in that it serves to benefit countless other industries that bank on tourism dollars, and more important to further diversify income to the county. Those beers draw dollars to the county, and employ local workers. This is not something to be gotten over, but something to be pumped up and promoted and backed with enthusiasm. This is something to be pushed.

    amy roth
    amy roth

    You bet, Catherine! (Some people just have to say no)

    David Hall
    David Hall subscriber

    It's beer. Big deal. People have been brewing beer for a long long time. Guy needs to get over himself.

    amy roth
    amy roth subscribermember

    You bet, Catherine! (Some people just have to say no)

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons

    One big opportunity here is to leverage Greg's passion around nutrition to really impact what's going on in the San Diego region around food security and public health. He has a large microphone and isn't afraid to use it for things other than his own benefit. If that attitude can spread, we can collectively do some very good things to reduce the epidemic of obesity everyone knows exists. As for the tourism/craft connection, it's a good way to tip the scales when people consider where to vacation or hold business trips. Candice Eley in the San Diego Tourism Authority is really an essential component of making this effort work and both industries are, I think, starting to see the real upside. Here's to hoping the SDTA has a big presence in the hotels around the GABF!

    Nanelle Newbom
    Nanelle Newbom

    I could not agree with you more Omar. Its not just about the beer (which is fabulous) but a way of viewing the world, and a passion for doing things better, including how we eat, and out purchasing choices. it is about a word view. He is presenting a very valid argument for expanding San Diego tourism angles, a task we must take on to remain competative. The action could serve to benefit not just Stone and other Craft Breweries but other related businesses such as restaurants and hotels. His approach and language are spot on for any sane person. He is promoting a way of producing and purchasing food that is not just healthier for people, but also for the local economy in that more of those food dollars recirculate locally. Greg Koch may be a brilliant businessman, but he is also putting forward ideas that have a downside for nobody of interest (I dont really care what happens to bud or mcdonald´s as they harm everyone), and huge upsides for everyone of interest (People with a stake in quality of life in San Diego).

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    One big opportunity here is to leverage Greg's passion around nutrition to really impact what's going on in the San Diego region around food security and public health. He has a large microphone and isn't afraid to use it for things other than his own benefit. If that attitude can spread, we can collectively do some very good things to reduce the epidemic of obesity everyone knows exists. As for the tourism/craft connection, it's a good way to tip the scales when people consider where to vacation or hold business trips. Candice Eley in the San Diego Tourism Authority is really an essential component of making this effort work and both industries are, I think, starting to see the real upside. Here's to hoping the SDTA has a big presence in the hotels around the GABF!

    Fotis Tsimboukakis
    Fotis Tsimboukakis

    While most may not disagree with Koch, He seems to produce and price food/beer for the financially "better off" segment of the population. The price of his beers,how and where he lives DRAMATICALLY contrast with that of his NOT well paid employees. A close friend from Rancho Santa Fe told me once that if everybody ate $40 a pound steaks instead of commercial grade we'd all be healthier. Shows the DETACHMENT of the wealthy,of any political/ideological coloration from the ordinary folk. While he can rightfully knock the quality of the fizzy yellow beers he can't knock their better paying jobs and benefits. He,perhaps,can re-examine some of his views during his six months off the grid. This from a 30 year beer veteran,from the fizzy yellow beer side,who supports his local brewery,Manzanita,on quality AND price.

    Nanelle Newbom
    Nanelle Newbom

    Brilliant assumption to make. My reply was spoken from the angle of an entrepreneur, who was the lowest paid management at the company I owned. FYI, My net value is below zero. It is the 1% ers who run the great corporations that would have you believe that their cheap prices are good for the economy Walmart is cheap. How are profits distributed? what is their net effect? To say that small businesses should have prices in line with the giant corps is litterally to say that you believe the only choices should be to join the other corporte drones, or to be a starving artist who gives their stuff away and reaps no benefit. In calling me a 1%er you demonstrate your lack of understanding of who and what class is, and the hard work, risk, and bravery that small business entails. PLEASE study who the 1% are and what they sell. It isnt Craft Beer. In Americehow can we begrudge the financial success of one guy, who is fundamentally pushing very good ideas, and use it as a way to make the true giants look like they represent the common man because they put out a cheap product

    Nanelle Newbom
    Nanelle Newbom

    The beer is just too damn cheap. As a former owner of a Coffee Roasting Company focused on sustainability at source, and delivering an uncompromised product I was continually assaulted for my alleged snobbery, and disconnection from reality. This from people paying what is technically a higher cost per pound for pure crap that was purchased for pennies per pound and was the result of a process that generaltes increased poverty at source. Did workers at folgers Etc make more than my roaster? probably. Im not sure, but what I am sure of is that the belief that asking a high price for your goods is snobbery is just plain wrong. By definition it places small business at odds with the community, and reverses reality to make cheapness as an expectation, which only those who are either huge enough to work with the economy of scale, or willing to live in poverty themselves and provide their beer as a service can meet. It says that in order to eat you should join a big company, and never expect anything for yourself. I am a low income person. I buy expensive and delicious food exclusively and it is my chosen lifestyle. I highly recommend it. The beer is too damn cheap. When can we get some properly snobby coffee here in San Diego? Bring it.

    Fotis Tsimboukakis
    Fotis Tsimboukakis subscribermember

    While most may not disagree with Koch, He seems to produce and price food/beer for the financially "better off" segment of the population. The price of his beers,how and where he lives DRAMATICALLY contrast with that of his NOT well paid employees. A close friend from Rancho Santa Fe told me once that if everybody ate $40 a pound steaks instead of commercial grade we'd all be healthier. Shows the DETACHMENT of the wealthy,of any political/ideological coloration from the ordinary folk. While he can rightfully knock the quality of the fizzy yellow beers he can't knock their better paying jobs and benefits. He,perhaps,can re-examine some of his views during his six months off the grid. This from a 30 year beer veteran,from the fizzy yellow beer side,who supports his local brewery,Manzanita,on quality AND price.