Beer: Stone's tap takeover
When several East Coast pub owners asked Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co. to host beer tastings, Koch decided to “take it to the next level.” And that’s why, last Monday, 40 taps at ChurchKey were dispensing 40 different beers from the Escondido, Calif. brewery best known for its Arrogant Bastard strong ale.
Koch, the company’s CEO/president, calls it the Total Tap Tower Takeover Tour 2010. He had just arrived on Amtrak from New York City. The next day he would take his road show to Chicago, which presents a special challenge: There isn’t any bar there that has 40 draft lines. So he planned to split his beers among three branches of the Windy City’s Small Bar, running a shuttle between the sites. After that it was on to Charlotte, N.C., and finally Redondo Beach, Calif.
Koch believes he’s set a record for most draft beers from a single brewery served simultaneously at one location.
At ChurchKey, it was a veritable Baskin-Robbins for beer lovers. The list includes brewery mainstays like Stone IPA; multiple vintages of the same beer (there are four versions of Koch’s Double Bastard, dating back to 2003); collaborations like Saison du Buff, a beer Stone brewed with Dogfish Head and Victory Brewing Companies, seasoned with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; beers aged in bourbon, wine and brandy barrels; and beers that have been tweaked with the addition of an extra ingredient (i.e., Stone Smoked Porter flavored with vanilla beans).
Beer director Greg Engert says he spent the previous evening flushing out the tap lines to prep for the event. Unfortunately, he couldn't linger: He was scheduled to speak at the National Beer Wholesalers Association convention in Chicago and had a flight to catch. (The theme of his talk was “What Does the Customer Want?”)
Many of the beers on tap are single-batch brews, and the supply is dwindling. I ordered a taster glass of one I’ll not likely be able to sample again: GK Mad Man Mix. The beer menu described it as a blend of several vintages of Koch’s Imperial Russian Stout along with his black IPA (Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale), and some sage and chipotles thrown in. The sage is subtle, overshadowed by the roast and hops; the hot peppers reach a crescendo way back in the throat, singeing the uvula.
One Stone beer wasn’t on the list: Vertical Epic 2010. Koch has been brewing these once-a-year, over-the-top strong ales since 2/2/2002, whenever the digits in the date match up. He describes the newest Vertical Epic as “a strong Belgian-style golden ale brewed with triticale, chamomile, and Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Riesling grapes.” The beer was already in distributors’ warehouses, Koch maintains, but it was embargoed until yesterday, when the calendar registered 10/10/10.
I told him that unless someone adds a 13th month to the year, we can expect only two more beers in this series. Koch nods assent, but he’s not lacking for projects. “The laundry list of breweries I want to collaborate with is longer than we have room for in our schedule.” Due out in early 2011 is North Country 78 Corridor, a joint brew to be formulated in conjunction with two other California beer makers, Pizza Port and Green Flash Brewing Co. The style has yet to be determined. Koch also wants to do a collaborative beer with Belgium’s Brasserie d’Achouffe.
As of early September, small breweries’ sales are up over 11 percent over last year, and variety seems to be fueling this locomotive.
A generation ago, even the largest breweries would have been reluctant to place so many different beers in the market. Introducing a new brand was just too expensive. Koch admits that during his first couple years, he limited his product line to four beers: “We were very concerned about confusing the public.”
Now, it’s a free-for-all. Koch, who employs just 12 sales reps to cover a 35-state territory, says he relies on web sites like beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com, as well as social media like Twitter, to get the word out.
At 4 p.m. on a rainy Monday afternoon, ChurchKey threw open its doors to the public, and a line of at least 25 people was patiently waiting to be ID-ed.
“I bet there’s going to be one person who has no clue what’s going on and is going to ask for a white wine spritzer,” said one of the bar staff with a laugh.
-- Greg Kitsock