Robyn Gilmour visits the East Coast home of West Coast giant, Stone Brewing, to talk history, hops, and haze
Saturday 24 September 2022
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Stone USA & Friends
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It’s rare, when visiting breweries, that my nerves migrate beyond the realms of excitement, into nervousness. That said, if there were ever a brewery to warrant such a response, it’s Stone. This stalwart of West Coast IPA has been making waves on the US’ brewing scene since American hops first came into significant use, and the first semblances of craft beer as a concept and community began to take shape.
Greg Koch and Steve Wagner set up shop in Escondido, San Diego County in 1996, and for the ten years to follow, vied with other legendary West Coast breweries of its generation – Sierra Nevada, Green Flash, Russian River, Alesmith and Ballast Point – for the IPA with the highest ABV, the boldest used of American hops, and most astringent bitterness. Since throwing shapes now definitive of West Coast IPA, Stone has remained a steward of the style and a brewery whose impact on the international craft beer movement has shaped the industry as we know it today.
After twenty years of unrelenting success, Stone’s aspiration to supply all fifty states and branch more significantly into European markets required an expansive leap onto the East Coast. Out of 26 sites considered, close personal links, easy access to the I-95, and an already burgeoning craft beer scene made Richmond, Virginia the perfect place to host Stone’s second home. Escondido’s sister brewery in Richmond ran its first brew date on 26th May 2016 and has been supplementing and supporting production in California ever since.
Pulling off the road’s melting tarmac, into a carpark connected to the brewery by a tastefully designed cage-like bridge, I feel the significance of visiting the brewery, and I’m not alone. The bridge’s steel beams are plastered with stickers that mark this site of pilgrimage with the branding of breweries who came to pay homage from around Richmond and far, far beyond.
At the door to the brewery-adjacent taproom, I’m met by Sean Monahan and Robert Kuntz, Stone Brewing’s chief operating officer and its brewery director, respectively. In other words, this pair comprise the brewery’s dream team, though neither accepts the title when I offer it. Instead they claim only to be coach and cheerleader to the tireless brew team wrangling 130,000 barrels (around 152,552 hectolitres) a year from the mammoth brew kit just through the taproom’s wall.
Richmond produces a subset of what’s made in Escondido, mostly focusing on Stone’s core range, and is responsible for supplying 65% of what’s shipped internationally. So, if you’re drinking a Stone beer anywhere outside the US, it was made under the watchful eyes of Sean and Robert.
We quickly get down to business; I’m keen to know more about how the West Coast giant has navigated life on the East Coast, and how the Richmond brewery fits into Stone’s existing story and future trajectory.
DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES
It’s not the case that the East and West Coast breweries are sisters. “They’re identical twins, that only the parents can tell apart”, says Sean with a grin, when I ask if there’s a detectable difference between the beers being brewed. “There's a monthly calibration between the breweries that Sean and I sit in on with a group from Escondido.” Robert continues. “Then, every day there's ‘a true to type’.” This initially involves sampling beers from the other brewery, and then a number of different panels assuring quality and accuracy of flavour before hops are added, while the wort is hot, then cold, before it’s filtered, while it sits in the bright tank and after its packaged.
While precise reproduction of the Stone style and flavours across sites is its highest priority, I am fascinated to learn of the differences between the two locations’ methodology, equipment and, to some extent, approach.
The two facilities’ yeast, hop and malt profiles are exactly the same, as are their specs. Escondido and Richmond’s water treatment processes obviously differ because they have to. Escondido has to juggle alkalinity and mineral content from three different water sources, including water from the Colorado River Basin and desalinated sea water. All of Richmond’s water comes from the James River basin.
Escondido has a Rolec brewhouse while Richmond uses Krones. California uses a dry malt mill while Virginia uses a wet mill, but both breweries have the same methodology for how to slurry and inject hops into the tank, and both use a centrifuge and perlite. “We have different filter technology, but we're using the same media to deliver the same beer,” says Robert.
I must labour this last point because it positions Stone within a wider, and very interesting conversation concerning sustainability. It feels an immense privilege to witness the very first usage of Richmond’s recent installation of a dynamic mixer while on my tour of the brewery.
While designed primarily to homogenise remaining yeast and hops after dry hopping, it also makes for a more consistent clarification and/or density of haze, which enables more beer to be recovered from the filtration process. If the dynamic mixers can consistently recover 2% of a brew from the hops that absorb and routinely lay claim to a significant volume of the beer it flavours, then the rest of Stone’s East and West Coast fermenters will be evaluated with retrofits as well.
KEEPING UP WITH STYLES
It’s all very impressive, but even the best, most efficient kit in the world won’t exempt brewers from sometimes putting in the hard yards. Sean and Robert recall – with plenty of sighs and a good natured laugh – the struggles faced and overcome over the years, and it’s good to see the human side of this legendary brewery.
This is definitely the case when I ask about the explosion of New England IPAs on the craft scene, particularly along the east coast. Robert sighs. When the Richmond site was designed, its focus was to be high volume brewing of Stone IPA, with the flagship beer accounting for 75% of production. By the time it was built, the sands of taste were already shifting and NEIPA was going stratospheric, along with other previously niche styles like sour and wild beers. “You have all this strategy for building and raising capital, and then in comes the market and pretty much changes right out from underneath your feet,” Robert says, “so the challenge here has been how to manage the mix”.
In practical terms, this has presented challenges in every area, from propagating more strains of yeast to using large tanks to make and scale up styles that hate hydrostatic pressure. It’s a challenge, but it’s not like Richmond is flailing; the Escondido site has a wider variety of tank sizes, allowing it to be more flexible in piloting new styles and flavours. In this regard, each brewery complements the other perfectly.
“What's really interesting”, says Robert, “is that in any given month, we'll make more Delicious and Stone Hazy on the West Coast, and more Stone IPA and FML here, with FML being our first entry into that hazy category. Then in some months, traditionally May or June, both breweries are making more Buenaveza Salt and Lime Mexican-style Lager than any IPA.”
If anything, this brewery has been designed to thrive in a challenging environment. Making ‘more’ is its purpose, so the only limiting factors have been market trends and volume requirements. A fact that surprises me – and clearly lives rent free at the forefront of Sean and Robert’s minds – is that although the site has the floorspace to produce around 750,000 barrels (approximately 868,373 hectolitres) a year, it only has the tanks to make the 175K; that’s just a little over what it currently generates.
That’s not to say that there are empty tanks sitting around gathering dust, far from it; the expansive production floor is laid out in a grid that will allow additional kit to be added seamlessly and quickly when the volume requirement calls for it. At the time of my visit, just 25% of allocated fermenter space and two thirds of bright tank capacity has been filled.
The cellar ceiling features circular cut-outs, covered by concrete slab seals that can easily be removed and additional fermenters added when the need for them arises. Several walls in this room are marked with a large spray-painted X to indicate where to break through when the time for expansion comes.
It’s one thing to move into a brewery that gives production room to grow, but this is quite another; the extent to which this colossal facility is future proofed, leaves me completely dumbfounded.
All this considered, Stone’s recent acquisition by Sapporo’s is completely understandable; the brewery itself seems to be buzzing with pent-up energy, eager to stretch and flex muscles that are capable of more. This ambition comes directly from the attitude and ethos of the team itself, which wants more Stone in more bars in more countries. It wants more from itself, for itself.
At the time of my visit, around 8% of the beer Stone produces is dispersed among international markets, with the goal of getting that to 15% in the next year or two, and 20% as soon as possible thereafter. Through the networks made available by Sapporo's buyout, this aspiration can become a reality, and the funds that follow will justify filling out the brewery with all the bright tanks and fermenters it was built to hold.
As part of the Sapporo acquisition, the Stone team will additionally take responsibility for Anchor Brewing; a staggering privilege, given that the historic brewery, which was also acquired by Sapporo in 2017, was the first ever to make commercial use of American hops, in the production of its Liberty Ale.
It’s a time of change for Stone, but they are in good stead and sure to fill our futures with classic and contemporary styles that have been stamped with creative risk-taking, revolutionary spirit and fearless leadership.
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