Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing in California, is a man on a mission, a search for the authentic, no matter if it’s beer, food, or any other of life’s facets.  

“Mediocrity is dumbfounding to me,” Koch said. “One day, the thought of overly commoditized beer will be confusing for people. They’ll say ‘What? You actually drank that?’”

Stone hit the Twin Cities market in a big way this past week with a flurry of events and promotion around some of their decidedly non-mediocre beers including Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Ruination IPA, and the bold Stone Imperial Russian Stout. During a press event at the Happy Gnome I attended yesterday, Koch spoke on a variety of craft beer and industry topics, including preemptively addressing the room full of media by noting “in answer to the question that’s inevitably out there…they sold out years ago.” I failed to ask Koch what WAS his favorite Goose Island beer.   

Founded in 1996 in San Diego, Stone is the 15th largest craft brewery in the country, with international designs that include opening a full-scale production brewery in a yet-to-be named European locale (it’s down to Berlin or Bruges, according to Koch). The brewery is one of the fastest growing in the country, expanding production from a relatively meager 400 barrels in its first year to more than 115,000 in 2010. Not surprisingly, a “significant” amount of the brewery’s overall sales come from its home state, according to Koch. Yet with their rapid expansion, that number is presumably evening out with Minnesota marking the 34th state “to have the distinct honor and privilege of delighting” in Stone’s offerings, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the brewery’s famous “you’re not worthy” attitude and slogan. Tack on its wildly popular Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, an oasis of a gastropub in a sea of chain restaurants that Koch said has helped make a significant economic impact in San Diego thanks to increased beer tourism (ahem, Surly!), and it’s easy to see how Stone has made some huge ripples in the beer industry pond.

“Craft beer is a thing of joy, adventure, and creativity. I’m very proud to be a part of what we do,” Koch said.

Last year, U.S. craft brewers saw volume and sales increases of 11 and 12 percent respectively compared to 2009, according to the Brewers Association. It’s a continuing upward trend for the segment, despite the overall U.S. beer market remaining flat. Yet, craft beer market share by volume still hovers in the 5 percent range, with commodity brewers making up the vast majority. This doesn’t dissuade Koch, however, as he noted Oregon’s craft beer market share is nearly 30 percent, a potential window into what could be possible here in Minnesota.

“Places that do good business, do good business,” Koch said. “If a dozen breweries opened up here and the beer sucked, that would suck for all of us. If we operate on the artisanal side of the equation, the category will succeed. … As Sam (Calagione of Dogfish Head) likes to say, ‘together we are heavy.’”

Personally, I’m pretty pleased to see Stone here, as it saves me a trip to Hudson. Although, I’m having a bit of trouble squaring Koch’s nearly fanatical stance against the likes of Anheuser Busch Inbev while he simultaneously uses ABI’s local Twin Cities distributor to get his products to bars and retailers. Strange bedfellows, I suppose (and not sure what the alternatives might be, Stone is able to self-distribute in California). But with a deluge of out-state breweries flooding the local market recently (with more to come like Brooklyn), it remains to be seen if Minnesota beer drinkers will embrace these new offerings alongside their locally produced brethren, or be paralyzed by too much choice.

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