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Den Stein ins Rollen bringen: Stone Brewing in Berlin

Harris King, July 28, 2014 -   

In what will prove to be a milestone in American craft brewing, Stone Brewing announced last week that it will open a European-based brewery in Berlin by 2016. When I first heard the news on Twitter, I was stone sober but was nonetheless blown away. I immediately started texting my closest beer-drinking friends (so all of them), and imagined the ripples the announcement was going to cause throughout the US and Germany.

Over the last few months, I have thought a lot about Stone, mostly about whether their east coast location was going to be in South Carolina* and how, by God, was I going to get my hands on the latest “Enjoy By” (there is one currently in my fridge**). That impending decision has caused a lot of excitement here in South Carolina, a state that is also home to the BMW manufacturing plant in Spartanburg.

But whereas nobody would blink at the idea of a German car company producing vehicles in the United States for Americans, the thought of a young, upstart American brewery heading over to the German capital to, in essence, show Germany how to brew good beer is unimaginable.

Readers of BeerGraphs, however, will recognize that a rolling stone gathers no moss as Eno, Alex and I have all written posts describing the various struggles of a very mature beer market. The main point that we kept coming back to was the lack of innovation. As a result, Germany is more than ready for something new, and Stone wants to be at the forefront of an emerging German craft beer movement.

I recently scanned the German press and was fully expecting to find a few instances “Oh mein Gott!” “Das geht nicht!” or “blöde Amis.” But what I discovered was overwhelmingly positive. I found one article, Amerikanisches Craft Beer bald in Berlin, in the Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel, but the bulk of the coverage was from progressive blogs and magazines dedicated to forward thinking and positive lifestyles, i.e., in keeping with Stone Brewing’s philosophy.

As I discovered in my research, Stone has been looking to expand to Europe for at least a couple of years now, if not longer. For example, in December of last year in an article discussing the emerging craft beer scene in Berlin, Spiegel Online mentioned that Stone's founder Greg Koch was in search of a location for overseas expansion.

But it goes back even further than that. The German magazine, Mixology, Magazin für Barkultur, reported in its interview with Koch, that “we already found the location four years ago by the way, It just took this long to tie up the loose ends.” That is, even if the news on July 20 seemed to be out of the blue, Koch and Co. have by no means left any stones unturned in looking to expand beyond the borders of the United States.

Nonetheless, the recent announcement of when and where was top secret. The attendees to the press conference in Berlin’s Tempelhof-Schönberg section of town in the abandoned Mariendorf Gaswerk (gas works) received very cryptic invitations and were unaware of what was to take place when they arrived. By handling the announcement in such a way, the Stone founder was able to kill two birds with one stone: the Escondido, Ca brewery was able to announce their ambitious plans while at the same time creating a necessary buzz for such an occasion.

Der Tagesspiegel reporters, Anke Myrrhe and Kai Röger, formulated it best: “The announcement of an announcement then. At a secret location, at which a still secret plan would be introduced, one that would ‘change the Berlin brewing scene and economy in a lasting manner.’ Included was the urgent request not to talk about this with anyone. And right after that a confidentiality agreement in the finest English legal language.”  

Anne Forssmann and Julia Manzke of the blog, Green Friday, echoed Myrrhe and Röger with their excitement about a secret occasion concerning craft beer: “Anna and I received a mysterious invitation last week, whether we would like to come to a secret location in order to be there when craft beer history would be written. What kind of question is that? No matter what was going to happen there, we would be in the front row if it had to do with good beer.”

That Stone chose Berlin is not a surprise when you start looking just a smidgen below the surface. Berlin is a European capital where property prices are much below similar cities in Europe. After 40 years of isolation behind the Berlin Wall, Berlin has been blossoming politically and culturally for the last 25 years since the fall of the Wall in November of 1989. Berlin is a center for music, the arts and progressive lifestyles. A lot of criticism comes to Berlin as being terribly hipster, but the city backs it up with its cultural output.

Another reason is outlined by the blog Hops Hysteria, which explains that “a further interesting factor is the still young world of craft beer in Berlin. The boom is just getting started here. People are just now learning how to appreciate and love the ‘other’ beer. A large brewery like Stone can seize the day and provide the necessary enlightenment in such a setting.”

Koch goes even further in the Mixology interview by explaining that “the location is exceptionally special. And Berlin itself also has a unique combination of history and tradition. It’s probably even accurate to say that part of Berlin’s tradition is that somehow nothing here is really traditional. The nature of this city is that it never stands still, that it’s always moving forward. The energy here is enormous.”

As has often been the case in many craft beer success stories in the US, the development and revitalization of cities has gone hand in hand with the opening of new breweries. Stone’s plans in Berlin are no different. The Mariendorf Gaswerk has been empty since 2006 and that section of town in Tempelhof-Schönberg is in need of economic stimulus. The mayor of that section of Berlin, Angelika Schöttler, is more than bullish on the prospects of the Berlin version of Stone Brewing’s World Bistro and Gardens. At the announcement, during a photo-op with the Stone Founder, she was quoted on the Berlin city website as being “excited about the upcoming changes at Marienpark. Stone Brewing's concept of sustainability fits perfectly in Tempelhof-Schönberg. My greatest hope is that this is the impulse for further development in this section of town.” The location itself is beautiful, and I recommend clicking through the links, including Brew Berlin blog, in this post for all the wonderful pictures that were taken.

While writing, I was just made away aware of the coverage of the Berlin tabloid Berliner Kurier which is dubbing Koch as “Der Bier-Jesus aus Amerika”. I find that to be outstanding. While the slant is still mostly positive, it is nonetheless more provocative as evidenced by the quote they included in their article about the above-reproach German Reinheitsgebot from 1516. Koch explains, “the purity law is used by industrial macro brewers as an excuse to brew boring beer. We simply want to make beer that tastes good.”

In other words, as Myrrhe and Röger of the Der Tagesspiegel describe it, “when it comes to innovative brewing techniques, the Americans are 20 years ahead of us. Whether Mariendorf becomes a Mecca for foodies and hipsters is still to be decided. But the new tourist highlight will be more than an ultra cool version of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus for Berlin’s thirsty inhabitants.”

One dissenting voice comes from Hops Hysteria, which questions whether “Stone beer will remain Stone beer," that is, “it will be a different brewery in Berlin, the processes won’t be the same, the raw materials won’t be 100% the same, as well as the Brewmaster …the water in Berlin is definitely different than in California …that is probably of no concern to the normal IPA fan, but the ‘hardcore beer nerd’ might be able to tell the difference.” But even the writer at Hops Hysteria admits that this is “high-level moaning” and is just as excited about the prospects as we all should be.

In closing, Here’s to “Bier Jesus” and here’s to the first American craft brewery making its way to foreign lands as a production facility. The craft beer revolution is still young and there are many roads to travel. Only the German beer drinkers with hearts of stone will not be excited about this news.

Prost!

*While writing this post, it flashed across my Twitter feed that Stone will not coming to South Carolina. That decision appears to be carved in stone.

** Half way through my writing, it may have been opened for inspiration. But since you are at BeerGraphs, I know you won’t be throwing any stones from your glass houses.

Currently residing in Upstate South Carolina, Harris has lived 12 years of his adult life in Germany. And despite learning how to drink beer there, he firmly believes the best beer in the world is being brewed right here in the US of A. You can talk beer, Braves and baking with him on Twitter @ohkiv. Kraftwerk is his Zeppelin.

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