Q & A With Steve Wagner of Stone Brewing
TheFullPint.com is proud to bring you a one on one interview with Steve Wagner, Brewmaster & President of Stone Brewing Company. Stone Brewing Co was founded in 1996, and started in San Marcos, CA. Stone is famous for larger than life brews, painted on labels, and their gargoyle mascot. Behind these great icons is Steve Wager, Greg Koch and the entire Stone Team. Now, located in Escondido, CA, Stone is looking to sell over 90,000 barrels this year, and keeps pushing the limits on making creative, tasty ales for the country to enjoy.
TheFullPint: Stone is going on it’s 12th year. What was it like for you at the beginning of this journey?
Steve Wagner: At the beginning we were so darn busy, it was hard to think much as to what was going on. My initial tasks were putting the brewery together, designing it, purchasing the equipment, and making it all come together, and then furiously brewing beer. When it started out, it was just Greg (Koch) and I and a friend of ours that helped us out at the beginning, so there was three of us. It was pretty crazy, especially the startup phase. Once we got brewing beer, all the pressure shifted onto Greg to get out there and sell it. Once that kicked off, I had more time on my hands I then took on some of the financial roles in running the company. That was my first big mistake. It didn’t seem so complicated back then. It was a lot different then it is now. We have a great team of real talented people that help us get stuff done. When we started, I knew I made good beer, but we had no guarantee we could sell it. It seems like a real long time ago.
TFP: Could you describe the hierarchy between yourself, Greg, and Mitch, and why it has been so successful?
SW: We were partners when we started this (Greg and I). I was the guy who makes really good beer. He was the guy with a lot of the marketing ideas and the guy willing to go out and sell it, and make it work on that end. That is our division of labor. I have taken a more operational role now. I am now supervising other departments and keeping an eye on the financials. I learned what I know working at Pyramid Brewing in Washington. The last year I worked there was ’95. We probably did 90,000 barrels. I worked in a pretty good sized facility, learned some pretty good techniques and learned how to do brew it consistently on a pretty good scale, but as fast as we were growing I felt I was getting a little over my head. We kept hiring people with the same level of comfort as myself, and needed to find someone who could brew on a larger scale. That’s were Mitch came in. Besides being a good guy and being really passionate about beer, and having experience in craft brew, he brought his 14 years of knowledge from brewing for Anheuser Busch. I feel really lucky that we were able to have him join the team.
TFP: Have you guys fully settled in your new facility? Too big, too small, or just right?
SW: You know, its been just right for the last two years, but we are in the process of having another building built next door. We are continuing our expansion. We need room for new tanks. We just put in the last two fermenters in April, but it is taking up room needed for dry and cold storage. We have an option with our developer to build us another building next door, so we are exercising that option. We are in planning a building in the 50,000 square foot range, so we can move our dry storage and make room for more fermenters. With our brew house here, we did a little under 70,000 barrels last year, we are on track to make 90,000 barrels this year. Our brew house can eventually do 250,000 barrels, but we need the fermentation space. We are growing faster than we expected.
TFP: Your beers are being distributed all over the country. If you had to compare your distribution goal to one of these two breweries, would you be leaning towards what Sierra Nevada has done, or more like what Samuel Adams has done?
SW: Sierra Nevada has definitely been a role-model and hero to us. They have the one brewery in Chico, and they can increase capacity there. I think that’s all they’ll ever have. As a brewer, I like that model. You just have one central location, and can control quality better that way. Never say never, but I like it this way better. With Samuel Adams, its made in different breweries by different brewers, and the quality can’t be controlled as much.
TFP: Let’s talk about hops. As a southern california resident, I can’t get enough of the San Diego hop bombs. There are beer traditionalists who think the West Coast style is unimaginative and merely a shortcut to making a good beer. What is your response to the hop bomb haters?
SW: (Laughs) To the hop bomb haters. I don’t know. Each person only knows what they like. I don’t disbelieve that is what they feel. A lot of art, a lot of variation and creativity goes into very hoppy beers, and San Diego is the poster child for that. It brings a very unique drinking experience. There is lot of interesting things that can be done that way, hoppy beer isn’t the only beer I like. Mitch and I got to travel to England recently, and brewed a beer there. We had a fantastic time drinking Fullers Chiswick Bitter, a 3% abv beer, not extremely hopped, just a wonderful beer.
TFP: How has the recent grain and hop shortage affected Stone?
SW: Basically, it has increased our costs. We are fortunate that we will get all the varieties we need, it just is costing a heck of a lot more. We are still waiting to see the affect of our price increase that started February 1st. It is very possible that it slowed down our sales. People might be forced to spend a little less on beer. It gets tough when a six pack goes from $7.99 to $8.99 to $9.99 and gas being $4.00 a gallon. Interesting times for sure. That being said, we have had to raise our prices, but we expect our costs on raw materials to go down in the next few years, and hope to pass the savings on to the customers.
TFP: Is the Oatmeal Stout coming out for the 12th Anniversary a direct result of the hop shortage, or did Stone simply want to veer away from the IPA’s that have been released the last two years?
SW: Thats a really good question. It’s a really bit of both. We paint ourselves in a corner with our hoppy beers. We have changed that up a bit after the 5th anniversary, but of course we brought back the hoppy beer at 10th anniversary. Because we are barely covering our needs this year with the shortage, we decided it would be a great time to do something else. In fact, people should be understanding, and might even expect it. I actually have a half pint on my desk of it right now. We used some real bitter chocolate.
TFP: How do you feel about some of Stone’s special release Vintages found on eBay?
SW: I don’t know much about it. I think it is gouging, but it is a collectors thing. We came up with the Vertical epic idea too late. We wanted to do an 01-01-01, but didn’t come up with the idea until 12-01. I am not a big ebay guy, so that isn’t something I can really speak on. I am from the music business originally, and understand what collectors will pay for something that might not really be of that value.
TFP: What is your favorite regular run Stone brew and your favorite special release?
SW: The beer I drink most, day in and day out is Stone IPA. Mood and food also plays a part. Some things call for a smoked porter. My favorite special release is the Russian Imperial Stout. It really fits my lifestyle. After dinner, I like to kick back, have an Imperial Stout, and smoke a nice cigar.
SW: I can definitely drink Greg under the table based on body weight alone. In England, Mitch and I had some late nights at the pub, and he can hold his own. I am not exactly sure right now.
TFP: Coming from Anheuser Busch, does Mitch get teased?
SW: Absolutely. When we were interviewing him, we do a tasting. Greg had one of our guys gather a handful of mass marketed beers, and made Mitch pick out the AB beers from the line up. If you are going to fit in here, you have to find that stuff funny.
TFP: How does it feel to be at the top of the California craft brew scene?
SW: It is good times in craft brewing right now. We just had the Craft Brewers Conference, and to have all of our peers come visit, and have people more and more interested is amazing. I am kind of a pesamist, and wonder if it can’t get any better than this in Craft Brewing, but I am really inspired by whats going on. I can relate it to when there is a hot music scene and everyone in the scene tries to take it to the next level creatively.