San Marcos, Calif.--IT'S a pugnacious little operation.
Stone Brewing Co., a San Diego County outfit that started up just a few years ago, ridicules its customers for their low-brow taste and prides itself on its powerfully bitter brews that would send Bud Light drinkers running for the hills.
The brew master is an ex-rock musician. The chief executive, a feisty business school grad. The star brew? Arrogant Bastard Ale.
You'd expect all this to make Stone the toast of beer geekdom. And it is. But lately, it's begun climbing out of the beer underground, out of the class of the cult and into the mainstream.
Beeradvocate.com, with 13,000 members one of the largest consumer-based beer rating sites on the Internet, will anoint Stone America's best brewery when it releases its "Best Of" list in July. Beeradvocate.com's current list of the world's 50 highest-ranked beers includes five Stone products, and a sixth is on the verge of inclusion.
Another site, Ratebeer.com, which claims 7,200 members, ranks Stone as the best brewery in North America, and the third best in the world behind two Belgian producers. It is the third straight time that Stone has been so honored in Ratebeer.com's semi-annual compilations. (Another San Diego County brewer, AleSmith Brewing Co., ranked sixth-highest in the world and third-highest in North America.)
Stone, whose beers carry dark, forbidding labels that depict fierce gargoyles, has spread to 17 states and can be found in the coolers at Pavilions and Whole Foods Market stores. Selling for $3 to $5 per 22-ounce bottle, the brewery's ales, porters and stouts are characterized by tongue-stinging bitterness, massive loads of malt fruitiness and brain-rattling alcohol levels.
"If you like the yellow fizzy stuff, it's definitely not for you," says Joe Tucker, executive director of Ratebeer.com.
Stone Chief Executive Greg Koch says that he and the brewery's co-founder, Steve Wagner, "set out a set of standards for ourselves and we've stuck to them rigidly."
"We brew, not beer that people want, but beer that people deserve," Koch added.
Stone Brewing scorns the notion of light, easy-drinking beers. On releasing its least heavy beer, Levitation Ale (alcohol level 4.4%), in September, Koch sought to assure devotees that the new brew was not a "more drinkable" beer devised by "marketing weasels." In a statement, he pointed out that "we never really cared too much for what the average consumer thinks they want. After all, what ... do they know? ....This isn't some silly light beer. For beginners, we think light beer is for pansies."
The brewery's official hubris reaches its apogee in Arrogant Bastard Ale, whose slogan is, "You're not worthy." The back of the label, which, like most Stone products, is found mostly in big bottles or on draft at serious beer bars, reads thus:
"This is an aggressive beer. You probably won't like it. 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 beer will give you more sex appeal. Perhaps you think multi-million dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Perhaps you're mouthing your words as you read this."
Among its six year-around beers and five special releases are brews named Double Bastard Ale (a more intense version of Arrogant Bastard, with an alcohol quotient of 10%) and Ruination IPA (an India Pale Ale that might be the single most bitter beer on Earth; it is named for the effect it is likely to have on a drinker's palate).
Beer geeks eat up Stone's stagy hubris. It reflects their own contempt for the bland, mass-produced beers that most Americans drink. Noted beer author Stephen Beaumont cautions that such aficionados "tend to be overly impressed by big beers, and Stone makes a great many very big beers. Still, for the most part, they do so with skill and as much finesse as these massive brews allow."
From rock to hops
Stone's in-your-face, take-no-prisoners style no doubt has roots in the 39-year-old Koch's background in rock music. Before settling on a business degree from USC, he attended the Guitar Institute of Technology, and is a devotee of the harder strains of rock, which reverberate in all corners of the brewery.
A tall, fair-haired man, both affable and intense, Koch abandoned songwriting when he realized that he was better suited to business than to music. In his mid-20s, he started Downtown Rehearsal, a company that has converted two large warehouses near Los Angeles' artists' district into 267 rehearsal rooms for bands.