A recently released study by CardHub ranked San Diego among the bottom five cities in the country in which to work for a small business, pulling in low scores on cost of living, number of small businesses per capita, unemployment rate, hours worked, and industry variety (the top two spots went to Boston and Denver, cities whose climates can’t compete with sunny San Diego). The silver lining is that San Diego ranked fifth nationally in terms of net small-business job growth over the past four years.
A large chunk of that growth may be due in part to our growing craft-beer scene. A separate study by the National University System Institute for Policy Research found that craft brewers generated nearly $300 million for our local economy in 2011.
Many locals cite Stone Brewing Co. as the father of San Diego’s craft-beer scene. It’s estimated that Stone Brewing grossed $103.4 million in 2012.
In his early 20s, Greg Koch, CEO and cofounder of Stone Brewing, dropped out of Ohio State to move to California to attend guitar school.
1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido
Stone Brewing: Greg Koch's love affair with artisan beer.
Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing, talks about the growth of the business and the philosophies that guide them.
“I wanted to be a rock star,” Koch says, “and it seemed like the path to help me achieve that. I stuck to wanting to be a guitar-player for at least eight years, when I suck horribly — and that’s not just modesty. I have that entrepreneur’s characteristic of being unrealistically positive about the way I think things can turn out.”
Koch’s father was an entrepreneur and built his own company in Ohio, primarily in manufacturing automotive interiors.
“When you grow up in that environment, it becomes your reality. I was used to the concept of working for myself. Having my own company seemed normal.”
At Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido, Koch wears blue jeans, a green T-shirt, and suede saddle shoes. His scruffy brown hair is tucked behind his ears; a thick beard adds a hint of Rip Van Winkle. When he pulls up a chair to sit across from me, nearby diners recognize him. They swivel in their seats and gawk.
“It appears you’re a bit of a celeb,” I say.
Koch shrugs. “No, I just look like a homeless man.”
Koch tends to overshare, and when he gets excited, he sprinkles his sentences with expletives. He seems completely unencumbered, a quirk of personality that, over the two hours we spend together, I find charming. And clearly, when Koch is passionate about something, he is consumed.
Rock stardom may have been out of his reach, but Koch created a niche for himself in L.A.’s music industry: after graduating from USC with a degree in business management, he managed a few up-and-coming bands; at the same time, he started a company that rented rehearsal space to bands in downtown L.A. The idea for the business came to him when one of his bands needed somewhere to practice.
“All the places I found were awful dumps. I thought, Man, someone needs to do this, and do it well and not shitty. So I found warehouse space in downtown Los Angeles. I got permits, and I built rehearsal studios. It was a profitable company. I built it up over the years — I actually still own that company. I first opened my rooms in ’89, and we’re still going strong. It’s going to be [my] 25th year of operation this November. [The business is] called Creatively Downtown Rehearsal.”
Koch hoped to become a successful band manager and nearly achieved his goal with a band called Life, Sex, and Death — LSD for short. Koch describes them as a hair band whose sound was a mixture of the Sex Pistols and Cheap Trick.
“I really saw myself becoming one of these big managers, very important around Hollywood. I managed LSD through the biggest bidding war that Hollywood had seen in ten years. Everyone wanted them. Ted Field from Interscope Records, a multibillionaire, came over to my loft in downtown Los Angeles to have a meeting, and I let him park his Bentley Turbo in my spot. That was in 1991. It was a fascinating time.”
The band dumped Koch after they signed with Warner Brothers, then hired a high-profile manager who’d overseen the careers of Stevie Nicks and the Cult. In the end, LSD never made it big.
“That kind of shit happens all the time,” Koch says. “If you think you can do better somewhere else, then, you know, ‘Nice knowing you.’ I was kind of ticked.”
Still, he kept up his relationship with the band and even handled their tour management for a few weeks. There were issues... “I decided I would never fucking be a tour manager again,” says Koch. “It’s babysitting. The guitar player [had] a Napoleonic personality. Stanley, the singer, never changed his clothes. He wore an old suit. If he walked in downstairs right now, heck, if he got out of a car outside, I’d be able to tell that Stanley was here. He’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever met in my life, but... They played a nice theater in North Hollywood, a big gig, 3000 people. I was out back, trying to get [Stanley] on stage — they were supposed to be on 20 minutes before — and he threw a paper plate of poo out the window and barely missed me. He once threw up all over himself and didn’t even react.” Koch laughs.
While his rehearsal studio spaces were becoming a lucrative operation, Koch says he was getting interested in beer.
In 1987, he stumbled upon Al’s Bar, a dive joint in downtown L.A.’s gritty artists’ district. “They had Anchor Steam on tap. That was the first time I had a real beer. I was inspired. That was kind of it. In the late ’80s, early ’90s, I discovered brew pubs and going to brew festivals.”
Koch signed up for a Saturday extension class at UC Davis called “A Sensory Evaluation of Beer.” There he connected with his now business partner and co-founder, Steve Wagner. “During the break, he came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Greg from Downtown Rehearsal?’ His band had rented a room from me. That’s when we started talking about beer.”