Sunday, December 12, 2010

Is Stone Brewing Still Worthy?

If you are like thousands of other craft beer fans, your tastes will likely have passed through the revelation of Stone Brewing’s beers along the way to forming your beer identity. You most likely remember your first taste of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale—possibly your first exposure to beer beyond the light lagers of the majors—and its reckless use of hops and strength as they assaulted your palate onto the next level.

Stone entered the nascent craft beer movement with a big splash in 1996 with their rebellious image, the omnipresent gargoyle icon filled with disdain and a chant of “You’re Not Worthy” emblazoned on every bottle. They made their mark mocking the “fizzy yellow beers” by shunning adjuncts and making some style-defying products, most of which pushed the boundaries of flavors with a newfound brashness in brewing and earned for them legions of eager craft beer fans.

Now almost fifteen years forward, look back on their works of the past decade and a half. Their core products are still among the best-reviewed and most-favored in the craft beer world. Beers like the Stone Pale ale, IPA and Ruination, the Smoked Porter, Imperial Russian Stout and Old Guardian Barley Wine stand out as excellent representatives of each of their respective styles. Of these listed here, I am still a huge fan and regular consumer.

However, look across at some of their “edgy” product ideas such as the Vertical Epic series, which has met with only lukewarm critical response. Designed as a dozen-beer series to be collected, aged and enjoyed at the end of those twelve years, some have been quality stand-outs but with many of these not nearly as good as anticipated, bordering on mediocre. This latter group certainly will not improve with time, much less age well enough to make the end of the series as intended.

Even some of their “new” products are not truly new, much less innovative. Arrogant Bastard has been oaked. The Double Bastard Ale is almost by definition merely a doubling of the original Arrogant Bastard recipe. Stone Ruination is nothing more than a re-issue of their Fifth Anniversary Ale, formulated as a year-round product. Even their newest releases of the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA are reworks of their Eleventh Anniversary Ale and one of the Vertical Epic editions, respectively. Just about the only original standout of the past decade has been the Stone Levitation, a mild amber ale.

The latest sign of trouble comes just recently with an announcement of their “Odd Beers for Odd Years” series. Stone plans to vary the yeast in two solid flagship products, the Old Guardian Barley Wine and Russian Imperial Stout, releasing specialized versions of each in odd-numbered years going forward. Although in some cases such experimentation can be viewed as innovative and progressive, a move such as this that displaces two highly in-demand beers comes across as almost desperate—especially in light of the lack of other original ideas.

More than facing problems simply with the origins of new beers, Stone suffers from a tremendous house flavor. Breweries often become accustomed to using the same ingredients from the same suppliers, and many maintain a particular favored yeast strain used as a base for most if not all of their products. If not careful with recipe formulations, breweries can inadvertently develop the same flavors throughout their product lines no matter the individual style of beer.

Unfortunately, Stone has fallen into the trap of house flavor not only with brewing but also with their thinking and business practices. Their rebellious new beers come across with flavors not innovative and desirable but that are yawningly familiar variations upon an often-abused theme of “extreme brewing” while searching for some sort of style identity. All I am able to taste recently are tinkering experiments with the Arrogant Bastard base recipe that are wholly uninspired and unoriginal.

Stone may have been “extreme” early in their history but as the rest of the craft beer industry has caught up (if not passed them by), Stone has remained static while resting on the same business formula with which they started years ago. Their image has become dated and self-mocking, and their talents have become a creative shadow of the bad boys of brewing they once claimed to be.

20 comments:

Cold Future said...

This is sadly, absolutely true about Stone. In fact, their recent attempt to infiltrate a well known colloquial neighborhood full of local bars and warm San Diego attitude with a "Stone Store" shows just how corporate they have gone. Its like looking back on 80's hair bands.

Greg Koch said...

I'd be happy to talk with you on the phone if you'd like to help clear up any of the misconceptions or factual errors in your article (although I'll have to leave the resolution of the several times you seem to conflict with yourself in your own article up to you for resolution).

Just for one example, I couldn't help but to notice that Stone Ruination IPA was both good in your book (one of your favorites...very cool to know), AND derivative / not original (incorrectly identified as a re-release of our 8.5% abv Stone 5th Anniversary IPA). Really, not 'original' even though it was the FIRST full-time production double IPA on the planet? And as if it was even possible, for us to plagiarize ourselves, how would you refer to the literally hundreds and hundreds of double IPAs that followed? Personally, I’d call them tasty. While it’d be incorrect to call Stone THE progenitor of the double IPA category, we were unquestionably one of the first handful of breweries that went in that direction, and also perhaps the brewery that first really popularized the style.

You’re also critiquing us both for having a definitive ‘house’ style, while also finding fault in the fact that we’ve been breaking away from that house style with a variety of yeast strains for more eight of our last fourteen years in one of the most sought-after series in craft beer. If you call having one ‘B,’ one ‘B+’ and the other seven at ‘A-‘ on BeerAdvocate a “lukewarm critical response” and “mediocre,” then sign us up for lukewarm and mediocre!

Deep breaths. It’s just beer. Have fun. Enjoy the ones you like. I’m sure there’s hundreds at least, no? For me, there is! Sorry, that you’re not favoring every twist and turn that we make, or that we’re not making enough, or...whatever it is. That’s OK brother! Really it is.

Let me know if you’d like to clear up any of the myriad of other points. I'd be more than happy to talk with you.

Cheers,

Greg

Greg Koch said...

Hey Cold Future, that's kinda odd to make a comment like that about our South Park venture. I've conducted two workshops there and got nothing but "When are you opening!" and "We can't wait" responses. The owner of the two bars on the block is a friend and I asked him what he thought months ago before we ventured forward, and he was excited with the idea of us coming into the block. The new wine bar next to the proposed location has chosen to feature Stone and the other craft beers we distribute. We've got a great relationship with everyone in the neighborhood, and the ONLY negative feedback we've gotten is one anonymous post...yours. Sorry I rubbed you the wrong way at some point in the past. Ultimately, we're just trying to do cool things and participate in the community. If you would like to call me corporate, you can do it to my face...there's plenty of opportunities as I'm around town all the time! It's pretty easy to find me. Hell, we can even share a tasty beer when you do it. Maybe it'll take the sting out of my quizzical-look-plus-a-*shrug* response.

Seriously, we work hard to get along with folks while making a difference in this world. The South Park location will be a grand "location #2" for us. That's a whole TWO in fourteen years. Wow. Hold on! (True, we have other cool stuff on the horizon too.)

Cheers,

Greg

Iron Krausen said...

I once waived the "Stone hasn't made anything new since Lee" Flag with reckless abandon. Then I thought about what I was actually complaining about.

Their reworking of flagship beers produces some of my favorite one-offs and seasonals. The end product is always substantially different, and I would be fairly shocked if a panel could guess the base beers.

Rebranding of previously released beers is also a practice I have grown to love. I mean, complaining about Stone 11th becoming a year round offering is like complaining about having too big of a penis. Sympathy will be lost.

As the brewing industry takes off into multiple directions, with many breweries charging $15+ for questionable "new" beers that are beyond hit or miss, It's nice to see Stone going a different route. Their consistency in releasing great beers at competitive prices keeps me coming back.

Anonymous said...

What about the collaboration brews? How about the new 10/10/10 vertical bee? It wasr was not only interesting with the addition of wine grapes one of my favorite beers of the year. You article seems to have no real value or constructive criticism.

D -

Lunchbox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lunchbox said...

Good beer is good beer. Not everything has to be a Guava Saison aged in Chardonnay barrels. Stone might not be doing the craziest stuff out there. Not every great brewery is. They care about the product they put out. That's all I care about. As long as they're brewing something new, I'm always going to get it. I might not like every beer they do, but I'm sure you can say that for most breweries. They make great beer, if you don't like it that's fine. However bashing someone on a blog in attempts to gain readers is kind of lame. In the end all I can say is relax, don't worry, have a homebrew.

DougOLis said...

Technically, wouldn't it be your 3rd location Greg?
1. Mata Way
2. Citracado Parkway
3. South Park

The New Albanian said...

Entirely omitted: Levitation Ale, a non-extreme ale, and perhaps the single best extension of the "session" concept in recent memory.

My vote for "best move of the 2000's with greatest significance far beyond what most folks perceived at the time": Mitch Steele goes to work for Stone.

I'm both a beer writer and a small brewery owner (in Indiana). Give me the dependability and versatility of the Stone lineup any day, and we'll conquer the world.

The New Albanian said...

Oops ... not "entirely omitted" at all. My bad. It's still early here in Hoosierland.

Jon said...

I would have to agree with most of the points made in this post. Stone was indeed one of my first, and I do remember the first time I tried their IPA. But I have been disappointed recently, and especially with Lukcy, because of what you called the "house flavor." Many of Stone's beers taste like slightly altered versions of their other beers. Greg, I'd like to see you really branch out, take a risk with something else on a larger scale. For suggestions, take a look at Gordon and Gubna, from Oskar Blues.

Chris Spradley said...

The content of this editorial makes me wonder if the author understands the business of brewing or if he's ever visited Stone and knows what they're all about.

There’s no question that Stone Brewing is well known for beers such as Arrogant Bastard, Ruination and IRS, among others. The gargoyle and “You’re Not Worthy” line appeals to the rebel in all of us. It’s their identity and part of what has made Stone who they are.

So of course Stone keeps making their standard lines of beer. Thousands upon thousands of beer lovers want those beers, me included. AB, Smoked Porter and Ruination are like old friends that I can always count on.

But to say that Stone has fallen prey to a “house flavor” is ignorant at best. They always seem to be pushing the lines of brewing whether it's extreme hopping, barrel aging including with wine barrels or using a variety of yeast strains.

The 11th Anniversary, now Sublimely Self-Righteous (and one of my favorite beers), was one of the first Black IPAs brewed in North America.

When there was a hops shortage in 2008, Stone got creative and came up with the Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout for the anniversary. And that was an incredible beer!

Referring to the upcoming “Odd Beers for Odd Years” as a “sign of trouble” is absurd. Once again, Stone is pushing the boundaries and doing so with their own beers. That is innovation. Plus, it can’t be easy to screw with something that’s already done so well.

And when it comes to the "business" of Stone, you need to know who they are and how much they do for their community. The 14th Anniversary party this year raised over $800,000, all of which was donated to local charities. The facilities at Stone are incredible and an awesome place to enjoy a beer.

Stone also operates as a distributor, on the one hand so they can make sure their beers get to Southern California but also so that smaller breweries can get their beers out without having to fight the BMCs for shelf space. That’s pretty good business too.

Of course I sound like a biased fan but that’s because I am. And I am a fan because they make good beer and do good to the people around them and I will always be a fan of that.


P.S. New Albanian/Rich O’s responded above and they are another brewery I’m a fan of! Great beer and awesome pizza in Southern Indiana! Rock on guys!

Chris Spradley said...

The content of this editorial makes me wonder if the author understands the business of brewing or if he's ever visited Stone and knows what they're all about.

There’s no question that Stone Brewing is well known for beers such as Arrogant Bastard, Ruination and IRS, among others. The gargoyle and “You’re Not Worthy” line appeals to the rebel in all of us. It’s their identity and part of what has made Stone who they are.

So of course Stone keeps making their standard lines of beer. Thousands upon thousands of beer lovers want those beers, me included. AB, Smoked Porter and Ruination are like old friends that I can always count on.

But to say that Stone has fallen prey to a “house flavor” is ignorant at best. They always seem to be pushing the lines of brewing whether it's extreme hopping, barrel aging including with wine barrels or using a variety of yeast strains.

The 11th Anniversary, now Sublimely Self-Righteous (and one of my favorite beers), was one of the first Black IPAs brewed in North America.

When there was a hops shortage in 2008, Stone got creative and came up with the Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout for the anniversary. And that was an incredible beer!

Referring to the upcoming “Odd Beers for Odd Years” as a “sign of trouble” is absurd. Once again, Stone is pushing the boundaries and doing so with their own beers. That is innovation. Plus, it can’t be easy to screw with something that’s already done so well.

And when it comes to the "business" of Stone, you need to know who they are and how much they do for their community. The 14th Anniversary party this year raised over $800,000, all of which was donated to local charities. The facilities at Stone are incredible and an awesome place to enjoy a beer.

Stone also operates as a distributor, on the one hand so they can make sure their beers get to Southern California but also so that smaller breweries can get their beers out without having to fight the BMCs for shelf space. That’s pretty good business too.

Of course I sound like a biased fan but that’s because I am. And I am a fan because they make good beer and do good to the people around them and I will always be a fan of that.


P.S. New Albanian/Rich O’s responded above and they are another brewery I’m a fan of! Great beer and awesome pizza in Southern Indiana! Rock on guys!

Anonymous said...

Greg koch crushed you!!

Anonymous said...

Paul, Paulie, Paul Hightower. Or should I say assurbanipaul on Beer Advocate.
I guess Beer Advocate was just not enough room to spew your fact-less rants.
Your site is tagged with the line "Observations of Craft Beer". Not so much.This is not an observation as much as it is an ill informed attack on a Brewery that you obviously have done no research on. At least it is not evident in this case.
And I quote...
"Unfortunately, Stone has fallen into the trap of house flavor not only with brewing but also with their thinking and business practices." Please enlighten us all with your deconstruction of how Stone is following a failing business practice. I am sure Greg Kock would love to know where he went wrong. As for the "house Flavors"...right, I am sure you are more than qualified to make that statement.
They are one of the fastest growing companies in the business and they are planning to open a brewery in Europe to spread the taste of great american craft beer. I can't wait to read your article on how they are failing at that as well. With of course never visiting the market first hand to conduct any research.

And my favorite paragraph of them all...
"Even some of their “new” products are not truly new, much less innovative. Arrogant Bastard has been oaked. The Double Bastard Ale is almost by definition merely a doubling of the original Arrogant Bastard recipe. Stone Ruination is nothing more than a re-issue of their Fifth Anniversary Ale, formulated as a year-round product. Even their newest releases of the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA are reworks of their Eleventh Anniversary Ale and one of the Vertical Epic editions, respectively. Just about the only original standout of the past decade has been the Stone Levitation, a mild amber ale."

Wow! How could someone get so many things wrong in four sentences. The Vertical Epic(Cali-Belgique), 11th Anniversary(Sublimely) and as you misinformed, the 5th Anniversary(Ruination) were all created in the last decade. Simple math really.They were all renamed and brought back after huge demand from fans.

The fact that you are the Dallas Craft Beer Examiner,
http://www.examiner.com/user/146816/articles ,
makes me cringe for the people that reside in Texas

To quote Greg Kock ...

"Deep breaths. It’s just beer. Have fun. Enjoy the ones you like."

Jeremy Banas said...

n review of this article, it seems to be less of a review or editorial on Stone and the state of craft beer, than it is an out right slam on one particular brewery. I am curious as to what brought this on.

Let’s examine the points brought forth:

- Stone has house flavors. I’m not sure where the information is coming from, but Stone has a wide variety of yeast strains that are not only not creating a house flavor, but giving that creativity you say is lacking. The Smoked Porter is drastically different from The Ruination IPA, with no similar flavors. Check out ‘Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation’ for more information on yeast and how it works.

- The Vertical Epic series is not ‘edgy’. Really? That’s kind of the definition of this series. When evaluating a beer it’s usually best to look at whether the beer is a good representation of the style. You may not like it, but if it fits the style and is brewed properly, then it’s still a good beer. As to whether they will improve with time, let’s wait and let time pass first, unless we’re able to predict the future. (See BA guidelines on reviewing beers).

-New beers are not really new. AB has been Oaked, Ruination, Cali-Beligique and Sublimely Self-Richeous are re-releases. Where’s the problem with this? IF the original special release was original, then became popular enough to release as a year-round beer, then it’s still original. Oh, and they were done within the last 10 years. Math 101.

-Odd Beers for Odd Years is desperate and un-orignal. Really? Not sure I have seen this done before. The beers themselves are special versions that are being released on the odd years, not the regular versions themselves.

Jeremy Banas said...

_A static business formula. Again not sure where the information is coming from, but that business formula seems to be working pretty well. personally, I am not privy to the business plan, however they seem to be more recognized and sought after than 14 years ago even. Looks good to me. The goal of any business is to become successful.

-Although many breweries are doing collaboration brews, Stone led the way with this a number of years ago and does quite a few now. These collaborations have produced some very original ideas and innovative brews. That’s new if you ask me.

Basically, we are all entitled to have an opinion of anything in this world, however we all need to keep in mind that we should be factual in what we say, check our facts and give positive feedback if we disagree with something. Not make it personal.

The wonderful thing about craft beer is that you can do whatever you want. The versatility of beer allows that more than almost anything else. Relax, don’t worry, have a brew. Homebrew, craft brew, but have a brew.

Bob Mack said...

I cannot entirely disagree with the article and I don't deny the author his opinion, but I think it's pretty evident that Stone makes great beer.

House flavor, sure. Not as many one-offs as some other brewers, sure. But I don't see (or taste) any of that as a negative. I would simply point to the obvious positive - Stone makes great beer.

I'm guessing that this article is representative of a significant issue in the craft beer world where drinkers seem to get bored with beers and breweries in a constant effort to find the latest, greatest and hottest new thing in beer. Maybe it's like Christmas morning when even the lamest of toys seems exciting only to lose it's appeal later that day. I'd argue that a great brewer is a great brewer whether they're brand new or they've been around for a while.

Beyond that, I think that some of us tend to lose focus on the beer, which even the author concedes is still terrific in Stone's case. So Stone Brewing is a little bigger these days than they were in 2002 and so they have product in a lot of states. Isn't the beer still good? Is there some sort of perception that Stone, or other long standing craft brewers, are too "corporate" that becomes more important to us than great beer? And why would we think of Stone as being "corporate" to begin with?

beer news said...

Can't speak for whether it was in full-time production at the time but Moylan's Moylander came out in bottles first according to Beer Advocate's review database.

That shouldn't discount Stone's role in helping the style's popularity progress though.

juan said...

Don't know about the other points, but I have to agree on the house flavor thing. The last couple of times my girlfriend and I have been to the Stone Store in Pasadena at the Del Mar rail station, we tried several of the ipas and stout and we agreed it was weird that, yes they're all different, we've drank enough beers to have the palate to distinguish, but somehow, they all tasted the same. They all had this one same flavor in the finish. All I can remember to describe it is that it's like a subdued bitter bacon flavor. Woah! Maybe they use bacon!
No but seriously, it tasted like that.
From those days forward, my interest in Stone beers diminished. I have not stopped buying Stone beer however. Personally I freaking LOVE their freakin Green Tea IPA. That is right up my alley, and their Xocoveza was a perfect representation of a Mexican chocolate beer. If I could get these two beers all the time I would. Sure some of their classic beers have that "house flavor", but Stone is still is making tasty new beers! Now i want some Green Tea IPA! Cheers!