Koch at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido
Jeff "Turbo" Corrigan from Pacific Magazine
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.”
The two began brewing beer together, toying with the idea of opening their own brewery.
“This was, I think, ’92. We talked about it and planned and did research…over a span of several years. I analogize it to climbing a mountain of knowledge, then walking along the top edge for a while, looking down, and not being sure whether or not to take the leap to the other side, saying, ‘I don’t know, it looks pretty rocky down there.’ Eventually, we did it.”
Steve and Greg weren’t sure whether they wanted a production brewery or a brew pub. They were also on the fence over location.
“I didn’t want to stay in L.A. I was done with the music industry and was completely enamored with beer. Steve was living in Portland and didn’t want to move back to L.A., either.”
On a beautiful weekend in late March 1995, Koch drove down to Solana Beach to attend a friend’s party. “I called up Steve and said, ‘Hey, how about San Diego?’ He said, ‘I like San Diego.’”
In May, Koch moved into a Solana Beach condo and began the search for a warehouse for their brewery. In October, Wagner moved south as well. They began brewing test batches in Koch’s condo and later leased the space in San Marcos where Lost Abbey is now. They’ve since outgrown that location and moved operations to a larger facility in Escondido.
“Where Lost Abbey has their bottling line is where my desk used to be. We took occupancy the beginning of February ’96. I was able to bring in some money I had saved up from my business [Creatively Downtown Rehearsal]. I lived very conservatively. My father also made an investment. That was our seed money. We built the brewery and released our first beer on July 26, 1996.”
When the reality set in that they were in fact owners of a brewery, Koch worried over how to sell their beer. The year that Stone Brewing opened, craft-beer brands were on a downward spiral.
“We opened at a time when people didn’t want craft beer. It’s hard to think about today. Especially now, when someone can open a little warehouse in the middle of a pain-in-the-neck-to-get-to portion of San Diego and have people waiting in line.”
In 1996 retailers were discontinuing craft brands and carrying imports in their place. The bottom of the industry fell out, and the craft-beer bubble burst. As a result, Stone Brewing Co. lost about $30,000 each month during their first year of operation.
“I was, like, Oh, shit. I have a brewery. We’re making beer, and we’re putting that beer into kegs. I suppose I have to sell it. I had zero experience. I started going around to bars and restaurants. I think one of my arms is longer than the other from carrying a keg around with me. I would be kicked out of bar after bar after bar. The polite version would be them patting me on the head and saying, ‘Sorry, kid, my customers don’t drink that kind of beer,’ or ‘Don’t you know that micro-brews are dead?’ The not-uncommon version was being yelled at when I told them I wasn’t going to give them a free keg, because that’s illegal. The beer industry is known to sometimes be ethically challenged.”
The first keg Stone Brewing sold was to Solana Beach’s Pizza Port.
“I remember going to Pizza Port that first night and seeing Stone Pale Ale up there on the tiles. A Japanese couple bought the first pitcher. I went up to them because I was so excited. I was waiting to talk to someone who would say, ‘I heard about this beer. I read about it in the paper, and I’ve really wanted to try it!’ There was none of that. When I asked why they bought the beer, the man stammered out in broken English that he liked the name. He thought it was interesting.”
The name, Stone Brewing Co., was not hit upon easily. Koch and Wagner tossed names back and forth for years.
“In retrospect, some of the names don’t look so good — like, Old Shoe Brewing Company, Midnight Brewing Company. The one I was really pushing for was Kushenbogner’s Sublime and Beautiful Great California Paradox Ale Brewing and Trading Company, Incorporated. The idea was for it to be a point of pride to someone who could actually say it. I thought we could develop a bit of a culture around that.”
There is indeed a culture around Stone Brewing Co. They have 99,402 Twitter followers, 200,641 Facebook likes, and 22,276 Instagram fans. They went from selling 960 barrels in 1996 to 177,200 barrels in 2012. They are the tenth largest craft brewery in the United States.
While Koch wouldn’t confirm his salary or how much Stone Brewing Co. made last year, over on Stonebrewing.com they project that in 2013 Stone will sell 210,200 barrels.
At this point, Koch is not pushing his company toward a goal or figure. He says his focus has always been — and will remain — on producing quality beer.
“I wondered, back in our early days, if we could ever become as big as Anchor. I had so much respect for them. [Anchor] was my first real beer, and I looked at them as a model. In the last 15 or 20 years, they did something like 90–100,000 barrels a year. We actually surpassed them a few years ago. It caught me off guard. It felt like we were in uncharted territory because I looked at them as this thing, off in the sky, to shoot for. When you find yourself on the other side of it, you think, Okay, now what? I don’t think it’s relevant for us to pick a point in the sky to go for. Instead, the way we operate is that we focus on what we do. That’s our ideal.”
As for all the breweries popping up around San Diego, Koch is optimistic.
“We were self-distributing [our beer] in the beginning because none of the wholesalers would take us. We had no choice. It took us a while, but over the years we got good at it, and we started distributing for other brands. We’re the largest craft-beer reseller in Southern California. We distribute for about 35 amazing craft-beer brands. It’s a point of pride for a significant number of breweries that we work with. It’s what we believe in. I look at other great breweries not as competitors but as compatriots. Today people are, like, ‘Hooray, a new brewery!’”
“All our owners live this brand.”
At Saint Archer, a brewery that launched on April 19, 2013, in Mira Mesa, CEO Josh Landan tells me that one day he plans to be as big as Stone. He doesn’t see this as a dream but as his company’s future reality.
“Of course, for sure, that’s where we’ll be,” Landan says.
9550 Distribution Avenue, San Diego
Interview with St. Archer CEO Josh Landan
Josh Landan, CEO of St. Archer Brewing, talks about the founding and marketing of the company, its connection to action sports, and the ongoing challenges of building a brewing company. Also featuring bottling line footage.
With dozens of breweries opening up in San Diego, it will be a challenge to compete, but Saint Archer is unique in that Landan shares ownership with a slew of A-list athletes, including skaters Mikey Taylor and Paul Rodriguez, and surfers Dusty Payne and Taylor Knox. On top of that, Saint Archer secured distribution with Stone before they poured a single drop of beer.
“It’s really hard to get distributing — it’s insane how hard it is. Six months before [we launched], I emailed Steve Wagner a one-sheet on Saint Archer. He got right back to me and invited me to lunch. I think that Steve saw a lot of parallels in Stone to Saint Archer. In the late ’90s, they were going against the grain with beer. Greg and Steve gave the middle finger to the rest of the beer industry, saying, ‘We’re going to brand it like this, and these are the kind of beers we’re going to make, and we don’t really give a shit what everyone else is doing.’ That was appealing to me. For us, it’s the same thing, so to have them as our distributor is ideal. I just didn’t want to let them down. I want to make really great beer.”
So far, Saint Archer has done well, with over 300 tap handles in San Diego. They’re sold in Trader Joe’s, Vons, and Whole Foods, and have just secured a deal with Albertsons.
“When Steve Wagner was in here, and I was telling him all that stuff [that was] going on, he told me it took them three years to get to where we are now,” Landan says.
“We have built this brand solely on Instagram,” says Saint Archer Brewing’s Josh Landan. “We have more followers than Sierra Nevada.”
Saint Archer’s use of social media is a key element in their success.
“We’ve built this brand solely on Instagram, 100 percent. We have more followers than Sierra Nevada — five million followers across all of our owners on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Our brand was built on that. All our owners live this brand. When we do things [at Saint Archer], they promote it and put it out there on social media.”
At Saint Archer Brewery, most of the walls are painted black, while Landan’s office is a masculine shade of gray. Hung on the walls are two signed skateboards by Paul Rodriguez and Mikey Taylor. A framed Thicker than Water movie poster hangs opposite, signed by Emmett Malloy, Jack Johnson, and Chris Malloy.
Thirty-four-year-old Landan wears jeans, skate shoes, and a Saint Archer logo T-shirt and hat. He has the beginnings of a beard and a surfer’s casual patter. On more than one occasion, he refers to me as “dude.”
Within minutes, Landan is name-dropping. He lists a number of famous athletes who are his “best friends.” That’s no surprise; Landan launched his career as a sports-documentary filmmaker. Two of his films, Against the Grain: A Documentary on the Life of Tara Dakides and FLOW: The True Story of a Surfing Revolution, were awarded best documentary at the X-Dance Film Festival, which showcases action-sports films and runs alongside Sundance in Salt Lake City.
Landan was born and raised in Ventura. Taylor Steele, the surf documentarian who ignited the careers of Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian, was Landan’s role model. “Taylor Steele was my hero. Because I grew up surfing and was from a neighborhood of surfers, I wanted to become a surf filmmaker.”
When Landan was 18, he drove to the home of the three Malloy brothers — all were well-known surfers — and knocked on their door. “I said, ‘Hey, I want to film you.’ Now it seems crazy, but, you know, I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
The Malloys told Landan to meet them at the beach sometime. Landan knew where they liked to surf, so for months he showed up there every morning at 6:00, until one day, the brothers arrived with fellow pro surfer Timmy Curran.
With a faint smile, Landan recalls, “They remembered me. I filmed Keith Malloy. He wanted to watch the footage right away. It was a nerve-racking moment [for me] at 18, [being there] with the Malloy brothers and Timmy Curran, but they liked it. At that time, Taylor Steele was making a new film called Loose Change, and Keith said, ‘Do you want to film me and my brothers and Timmy for [him]?’ So I met Taylor Steele and ended up filming a lot of Loose Change.”
Landan went on to direct music videos. Later, he launched an action-sport management career. His lineup included 14 surfers, among them Taylor Knox and Mick Fanning.
As with his start in the film industry, a year ago Landan knew nothing about making beer. The idea for Saint Archer sparked while he was managing Taylor Knox’s career. “Taylor had been approached by beer companies for endorsements but none were the right fit. I said to him, ‘Dude, what about craft beer? You actually drink it. That would be killer.’’’
The idea took off from there. While working on a skater film with Mikey Taylor, Landan mentioned starting up a craft brewery to Taylor and Paul Rodriguez. Both came on board.
“I thought, What if we could get all our best friends from skating, surfing, snowboarding, filmmaking, photography, art, and music to invest in Saint Archer and call it our own? There’s never been a company that’s spread through the entire action-sports industry that has been owned by everyone.”
Landan set out to become that brand. It didn’t take much convincing for his friends in the action-sports world to get behind Saint Archer. Big names in skating — Sean Malto and Bryan Herman — surfers Josh Kerr and Chase Wilson, and snowboarder Todd Richards forked over funds and signed on as co-owners of Saint Archer Brewery.
“For [them] to put real money in and for me not to just say, ‘Hey, give me five grand and I’ll give you some equity; or just ride for me and I’ll give you a piece of the company’... I knew that if they invested real money, they’d put their lives into it.”
Landan declined to confirm the exact amount raised to open Saint Archer, saying only, “It was a couple of million.”
While Landan had the idea for the brewery, he didn’t have the experience.
“We didn’t know anything about making beer. A lot of companies contract brew when they start out. We drove all around California, going to breweries that said they would make our beer. We just didn’t fall in love with anything. I told Mikey and [Rodriguez] that craft beer is like skating: it’s core and authentic. Once we started seeing the parallels of the two industries, we fell in love with it. We were patient and raised as much money as we could, and we built our own brewery in San Diego and made our own beer.”
Landan even managed to secure two craft brewers, Yiga Miyashiro, formerly of Pizza Port, and Kim Lutz, lead brewer from Maui Brewing Company.
“With Yiga and Kim, we couldn’t ask for two better brewers. I mean, I can sweet-talk, but at the end of the day, they believed in what we’re trying to do. They believed in us. We got lucky.”
Birthing an idea over a couple of craft beers
Best friends Andrew Rowley and Rob Knauf got the idea for San Diego’s popular web series A Trolley Show after throwing back a couple of craft beers at the Live Wire in North Park.
“We know exactly when we decided to go forward with A Trolley Show, because we drunkenly made a Facebook page for it,” Knauf says with a laugh.
“It was November 8, 2011, and we birthed an idea,” Rowley says. “No one even saw it — or liked our page — for a while.”
The Trolley Shows
Andrew Rowley and Rob Knauf, who take well-known local musicians and have them perform on a crowded trolley, talk about the experience of the Trolley Shows.
That Facebook page now has nearly 2500 likes.
The idea was simple: have well-known local musicians perform on a crowded trolley and see what happens.
Knauf and Rowley have gained a cult following and now film A-list acts, such as Lisa Loeb, the Dunwells, the Sheepdogs, Little Hurricane, and the Burning of Rome.
“In the beginning we did it guerrilla style,” Knauf says. “We weren’t going to ask for permission from MTS; we were just going to ask for forgiveness. We did three episodes of the trolley show. MTS saw it and loved it. They sponsor us now and give us tickets. ”
For the twosome, A Trolley Show is a passion project.
“We don’t get paid for it,” Rowley explains. “I mean, we have some endorsements with Taylor Guitars and Audio-Technica; they give us equipment and stuff like that. It’s led to other things. One of our original goals with the show was an entryway into having bands see us work, to see the final product. Our ultimate goal is to make films and music videos. A lot of live performances at the Casbah and Belly Up have spawned from A Trolley Show. We’re in talks to film a music video right now.”
ZZ Ward - "Put The Gun Down" - A Trolley Show
ZZ Ward performs her song "Put The Gun Down" on A Trolley Show.
Adds Rowley, “The show has been its own crazy ride. The connections we’ve been able to make and the people we’ve been able to meet have been awesome. We’re on Sound Diego. We’re in talks with Planet X to have a series on there. A Trolley Show definitely opened a lot of doors, not just for the music stuff, but for our company as a whole. We’re going to keep pushing forward. We figure we’re putting ourselves out there so much, one of these things has to take off.”
The duo created their own production company, Rowlberto Productions (a hybrid of their names), shortly after launching A Trolley Show. It seemed like a no-brainer. Roommates for three years, Knauf and Rowley spend most of their time together. During his college days at SDSU, Rowley hosted 91X’s Loudspeaker, a show for local bands, and he works as a video-content specialist at Slacker Radio. Both jobs have given him extensive connections in the music industry.
“We do video stuff all the time for fun, and for our day jobs,” says Knauf. “Rowley works for Slacker, and I freelance [videography]. If we aren’t doing it, we’re talking about it.”
“Rob did all the leg work to make us a legitimate business,” Rowley says. “We’ve been a real company now for about nine months. We had all the equipment already. We didn’t have to buy anything. We work out of our apartment, for the most part. We were doing this anyway, so we thought we might as well become a legit company, to make our clients feel a bit more comfortable.”
The two wouldn’t say how much Rowlberto Productions has grossed thus far, confirming only that they haven’t gone into the red.
Their first gig was with a Southern California band, Oliver Trolley. After the band played A Trolley Show, they asked Rowlberto Productions to film a music video for them at Belly Up.
Recalls Rowley, “[The Oliver Trolley video] was our first official paid gig. We were super stoked about it. That’s what got the ball rolling, getting bands and businesses to pay us for what we do.”
Andrew Rowley and Rob Knauf take well-known local musicians and have them perform on a crowded trolley.
From there, they landed a more lucrative gig with San Diego Oyster Fest.
“I think we learned a lot from [the Oyster festival],” Knauf says. “It opened our eyes to say, ‘Holy shit, we can do this.’ We probably wouldn’t do it the same way [now]. We had our whole crew there, except for one guy — one too many people, maybe. Everyone got paid really well, and we all got drunk by the end of the day.”
Rowlberto Productions has since secured a handful of other jobs, some high profile, some ordinary. Clients include Amazon, Taylor Guitars, and Slater’s 50/50.
Rowley’s favorite gig was filming the band Bad Religion live at the Echo in L.A. “They were one of my favorite bands, growing up. They’re punk-rock legends. It was a sold-out show…I was, like, Wow, this is crazy. We’re in L.A., filming one of my favorite bands right now, making sick videos. It was cool being in charge of a production like that.”
Two weeks later, I meet Rowley (minus Knauf, who’s working a different gig) at the Fashion Valley trolley stop to witness the filming of A Trolley Show. Rowley and cameramen Cory Will and Nate Elegino are sitting on a bench awaiting their musical act.
“Who’s the musician?” I ask Will.
I shrug. I’ve never heard of him.
“He’s the second-place winner from The X Factor,” Will says.
“Never say second-place!” Elegino interrupts. “He was the runner-up.”
A few minutes later Krajcik is spotted walking up a nearby flight of stairs. His assistant — a skinny waif of a man — follows a few steps behind. Krajcik has wild curly brown hair and is unshaven. He’s dressed in blacks and grays, skinny jeans, and a V-neck T-shirt visible under a black military-style jacket, and whimsical-looking Frye ankle boots.
“Look at him,” Will laughs. “He looks so rock ’n’ roll, carrying his guitar while smoking a cigarette.”
Josh Krajcik - The Remedy - A Trolley Show
Josh Krajcik performs his song "The Remedy" on A Trolley Show.
As the introductions are made, Krajcik seems nervous. He turns to Rowley. “How awkward is this going to be? I feel like people are going to think I’m a homeless person.”
Rowley assures him it’s no big deal. “The cameras will give it away. No one films homeless guys.”
Minutes later, we board a trolley headed east. Krajcik stumbles into the first seat he sees and sheepishly removes his guitar from its case. The guys begin filming. Krajcik strums the guitar, but no one on the packed trolley blinks an eye — passengers don’t even turn in their seats. Then Krajcik begins to sing. The trolley occupants drop into a dead silence and everyone turns to watch. A woman takes out her phone and begins filming Krajcik.
When he finishes the song, no one claps. It’s an awkward moment. There’s a general aura of confusion among the trolley riders. Rowley explains the concept behind A Trolley Show, but no one seems to care. Without a word, Krajcik packs up his guitar and exits the train.
We board another trolley and head back to the Fashion Valley stop. Krajcik repeats his performance. This time the response is better. When he starts playing, a group of 20-something guys a few seats away are mesmerized. The homeless man across from me seems put out until Krajcik sings; halfway through, the man begins tapping his foot. When Krajcik finishes, a passenger whispers to me, “Is this guy famous? He’s really good.” Another passenger pleads for another song. Krajcik obliges, and the homeless man bursts into a smile. When Krajcik is done, the whole car erupts in applause.
We exit the train. The show is over. The two cameramen stand around while Rowley packs up equipment. It only takes five minutes. Nearly everything fits snugly into a backpack swung onto Rowley’s shoulders.
“Thanks so much,” he says to Krajcik, shaking his hand.
“My pleasure,” Krajcik says.
“If you want to go out tonight, we’re going to U31,” Will says. “We’re getting free bottle service. “Or we can take you to the Redwing for karaoke.”
Krajcik laughs. “I’m not into karaoke.”