Stone Brewing – Wishes For Act III
I write this on the heels of the news broken by Brewbound and Worst Beer Blog, that Stone Brewing’s CEO Dominick Engles has parted ways with the company. It’s been a strange few years during the Engels era as Stone has grown from a rebellious, counter-culture brewery in San Diego to an internationally distributed alcohol beverage company. They are hanging in the Top 10 Craft Breweries by production list among heavy hitting conglomerates, many of which are being propped up by private equity or heavy bank loans.
One topic that I’ve touched on plenty here on The Full Pint is the importance of a craft brewery having an intimate connection with the people buying the beer in order to stay loved and relevant. What seems like many moons ago, but prior to Mr. Engels tenure, Stone Brewing had fun beer, but more importantly, they had a stacked cast of characters. They had the lovable sensible dad played by Steve Wagner, the approachable, universally admired brother in Brewmaster Mitch Steele, and the eccentric yet charming madman in Greg Koch. Anyone jumping into craft beer in this era would be able to gravitate to which ever character they identified with those most. As the distribution and expansion plans got greater, and as Greg Koch bowed out of the CEO role to “let the grownups make the business decisions”, the calculated but seemingly organic connection that Stone made with the consumers became broken.
Stone has increased their consumer base but has also increased their debt considerably. For many reasons I’m not going to get into, Stone expanding to Germany and China didn’t work out for them. The craft beer market changed drastically in the middle of their, and many other regional craft breweries expansion. Stone, like other big players such as Dogfish Head and members of CANarchy, have partnered with Private Equity. According to the SEC form filed by VMG Partners, the co-investment into Stone is to the tune of $89,500,000. I am well passed the notion that there is any private equity partnership that doesn’t end with a sell off. “But we are craft beer” is not a real reason why a private equity funded brand would not be sold. Dogfish was sold four years after the private equity partnership. Stone is on year four (almost to the date) with VMG’s investment and there has been no sale announced. This could be a clue as to why Dominic Engels has parted ways. While I’m not the author of the story of Stone Brewing, I can’t help but notice the correlation between Stone’s current place in beer culture and all the negative or “not fun” news stories Stone has been a part of in the last four years. We’ve seen a brash legal battle between MillerCoors over trademark, the closure of the Berlin location, a horrible slant on Stone laying off hospitality and production workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as of recent, a public trademark spat with an unknown brewery in Kentucky.
I’m not here to judge who was right or wrong in any of these very public matters, if anything Stone might be conducting solid sound business that unfortunately has bad optics in the eyes of the very few people left who think craft beer should be held to some special standard that other for profit businesses are not. The problem is, they are making the news for everything except what they should be making the news for, which is the beer they make.
Stone sits upon strong IP in the form of their beer and branding. Stone IPA should be mentioned in the same sentence as Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Russian River Blind Pig, Cigar City Jai Alai, Pizza Port Swammi’s and even the dated Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. Instead it’s an afterthought. Right now, when beer enthusiasts think of the best easily obtainable IPA, Stone is not what comes to mind. When beer enthusiasts think of Stone, they usually have the latest news soundbite come to mind, not the beer.
I can pretend all I want to not care about Stone and my buying habits would lead one to believe I don’t as I don’t drink their beer at all, but in fact, I do care about Stone. On the eve of Stone’s 24th Anniversary, I have simple, but maybe lofty wishes for this company moving forward, no matter who the next CEO is, or who they sell to. I wish that Stone would go back to their playbook of talking about the beer. That they introduce some new characters for us to fall in love with. Give us another larger-than-life Brewmaster like Mitch Steele, that we can pretend is brewing every ounce of every bottle and can of beer. I wish that Stone presented and revered itself more like Sierra Nevada Brewing. Sierra Nevada isn’t a cool hype brewery. They don’t really market, they don’t pound their chest, they don’t make the news for trademark disputes unless they are the victim (think Lagunitas in 2015.) For all we know, Sierra Nevada has a cutthroat sales team that aggressively places Sierra Nevada Pale Ale into chain restaurants and drug stores, but by God, we never hear about it. Not a peep. You’ll never hear about a publicity stunt or long-winded blog post from Ken Grossman. That’s what Stone needs to strive for, being untouchable makers of world class beer. Right now, they appear to be infamous and the last thing their fans or themselves are talking about is the beer they make. The story of Stone Brewing is not over, and it is my wish that their third act in this story ends happy.
September 4, 2020 @ 5:00 pm
I can’t belive it
August 21, 2020 @ 2:25 pm
Stone took a turn for the worse after Mitch left. For the last 3 to 4 years, most of their new releases or growler fills releases have been almost undrinkable with a weird yeast/hop aftertaste that is not pleasant. I think it has been 3 years since I went to Stone to get a growler fill. I used to be addicted to their Enjoy By series but it has definitely changed since it first came out and I can barely make it through a six pack yet I buy every release in hopes that things will change. I opened their 24th anniversary IPA last night. The aroma on the beer was great and I thought they might had turned the corner but unfortunately it left the same weird taste in my mouth like all their other beers. Even their remake of Ruin Ten was a slight disappointment as it is not the same as it was before. I used to eat drink and breathe Stone but now I find myself reaching for Beachwood and Pizza Port as they seem to have mastered making really good IPAs on a consistent basis.
August 21, 2020 @ 9:30 am
Hard disagree with all the backlash against Stone nowadays. Their beer is freakin’ solid in an industry full of decaying quality and unimpressive hype beers. I still buy Stone IPA regularly… Why? Because it’s good. The people who winge about them “going after the little guy” when the company is forced to defend their name do not understand trademark law. Bravo to Stone for sticking to their guns and staying independent, when the rest of the industry has been forced to rely on private equity – or worse – hard seltzer production to prop their bottom line.
August 17, 2020 @ 9:47 am
This is a great article. Sadly as a former employee I have to agree 100% that the heyday of Stone is long gone. I use to love working there. I was proud of the products I sold and the team I worked with. But somewhere along the line things shifted. Sales were priority over quality of product. “Team Stone” was truly a family. But over the years we became just another number. When I was let go amid Covid (along with 300+ others) it was via text, telling me to return my ID card and pickup my last check… I had worked there for 10 years. They have no respect for the employees that made their company what it is.
August 10, 2020 @ 4:35 pm
Show me a company that hasn’t had problems…
I was with A-B when it was the family business, and we had a identity problem with bud light, but we showed the world a party animal dog and away we went…
So, walk away from the b.s and watch….
August 7, 2020 @ 11:54 am
right on Brother Dan!!! You may not “save the world”….. but you may encourage Greg and his merrymakers to realize that Stone is quickly becoming irrelevant to many 50+ beer drinkers who still LOVE and DRINK alot of good beer. My experience with the under 40 crowd is that Stone is just “another” good beer amongst hundreds of others.
August 7, 2020 @ 10:29 am
One of the breweries Stone is suing, absurdly claiming universal rights to the word “stone” is tiny Sawstone Brewery. Sawstone Brewery is located in a historic, limestone block (sawstone) building in the small east Kentucky town of Morehead. The building was beautifully restored by the three owners. In a short period, it has become a much loved part of our community. This part of Appalachia has seen its share of big city sharks exploiting us and we have survived. I think of Stone brewery and its army of high paid lawyers as just another group of exploiters. Win or loose, shame on Stone Brewery.
Rock E. Stone
August 7, 2020 @ 2:41 am
Well hell, after getting through writing my long comment/ story,as usual, I hit the
” send to Outer Cyber Space ”
key (I’m not really sure which one it is because it is a shapeshifter and must jump around a lot ! All I know is that I have an uncanny ability to find it everytime I write more than 5 words at a time! Ohoh!,how many is that?)
I will push my luck one more time and try to finish this !
I think most guys have a little Arrogant Bastard in them , and if drinking a beer will let them feel a little bit more “Worthy” , then so be it !
Keep doing what you do best , and things will
work out !
How much do you suppose it would cost to buy all the STONE BREWING CO. beer that hasnt been drunk (or is it “dranked”?) yet ? 100 mil.? I say sell it and start over again , with just enough small batches for me and a few close friends! Wow ,its still here! Hurry and hit post !
Rock E. Stone
August 6, 2020 @ 6:26 pm
I visited their brewery in Point Loma, and I didn’t care at all for the vibe. A security guard with an earpiece in confiscated my beer because I accidentally wandered into a courtyard in the middle of the beer garden I apparently wasn’t supposed to. Not a “Hey bud, can’t be over there, c’mon back in.” No, they confiscated my beer. Fuck Stone, and their dated, bitter beers that all taste the same.
August 6, 2020 @ 4:16 pm
Hire me. I’ll work my ass off in bringing stone back to, and beyond, it’s glory days.
August 6, 2020 @ 4:06 pm
Good article. I, too, have noticed that I care far less about Stone these days, and it’s been a weird realization considering how excited I used to get about Stone even just two years ago. I live in San Diego so I do see their beers all over the place and I still get their email newsletters so I’m aware of what they’re up to. While I don’t drink nearly as much beer as I did even two years ago, I still buy craft beer frequently enough and I try to stay informed about what’s new and exciting while also relying on my old standbys for consistency and satisfaction. While I don’t follow the comings and goings of the Stone executive team, I am fully aware as a beer consumer about what excites me and what doesn’t. Sadly Stone hasn’t excited me for at least two years now and I wish that wasn’t the case. I also want to see them move forward and become an exciting brewery once again.
August 6, 2020 @ 11:24 am
Karma is a b**ch.
I say that with some malice, as the law is my profession, and when I see it used as a publicity stunt (vs. Coors for Keystone) or to unjustifiably hammer a tiny, unknown competitor (vs. Sawstone in Moorhead, KY) I get ticked. It’s clients like Stone Brewing that let lawyers give themselves a bad name.
I’ll avoid Stone products, and I recommend others do so as well. Maybe, just maybe, Stone will apologize and repay Sawstone for its legal costs.
But I’ve never known true @$$#°£€$ to fess up.
August 6, 2020 @ 8:33 am
August 6, 2020 @ 7:59 am
Stone will always have a place in my heart. The first true craft beer I fell in love with was Arrogant Bastard and i still occasionally seek it out. However, when Stone filed a copyright case against an otherwise unknown brewery, it really tarnished the brand for me. Perhaps they could salvage themselves by coming out an saying that it was intended to drive publicity to this small brewery, but apparently the case is already set for court, so that is out. They would be better served to sell to *gasp* InBev, than to keep their current business practices going. The one thing that Sierra Nevada does is make good, consistent, beer. So you’re right, they could steal a page from that playbook. Their is no need to for that self-promotion shenanigans in craft beer these days. Just make better beer and be true to your customers and people will buy it.
August 5, 2020 @ 8:23 pm
I am thinking about Stone Ruined Again TIPA. Happy this came back. Fantastic, Love it and still a fan!