Stone Brewing

• • • Technical Brewing Award • • •


My first visit to the San Diego headquarters of Stone Brewing in 2016 changed the way I saw craft brewing, and what it could be. First was the beer itself, of course; that initial taste of a truly fresh West Coast IPA made sense of this landmark style for me, so different from the somewhat limp bottles I’d got my hands on back in the UK. Second was the sheer ambition, technical sophistication and scale of the place, far removed from the scrappy but charming UK breweries that had been the sum of my experience to that point.

Today, Stone ships a dizzying range of styles across the world. Its success rests on an uncanny ability to brew beer that is utterly distinctive, yet consistent regardless of where you buy it. I suggest to Stone’s director of brewing operations, Robert Kuntz that this level of technical accomplishment is only made possible by the technical brilliance of the brewer, high-end brewing kit and the lab. 

“Lab equipment doesn’t make beer. Humans make beer,” he corrects me, gracefully. “One of my mentors when I was attending grad school, Charlie Bamforth – a former technical director of Bass and well-known in craft beer circles – used to say to us over and again ‘if you take care of the people, the people will take care of the quality’. Two decades later, I’m still learning how important that is, and I would say it’s the fundamental element of our quality at Stone.

“What I’ve seen a lot of in the UK, and what I think a lot of people see when they think of craft, is this quite narrow focus on the brewer, and maybe the laboratory. But as soon as you start to scale, that’s not enough. We make over 165,000 hectolitres at our production brewery in Richmond, where I am, and in San Diego it’s double that. Over the next three years we’re on a trajectory to triple that volume here, so the question then becomes ‘how do you make a technically proficient beer that you can ship to many nations and still have it taste great?’ The answer is that it takes a very technically talented team.”

At Stone, training across each of its “functional departments” – brewing, packaging, quality, maintenance and warehouse – takes 28 months; a figure that will shock many smaller breweries. For Stone though, a high level of technical competence does not and cannot end with the brewing team. “We can have all the great raw materials in the world, but the warehouse team needs to be on top of them, making sure it's all first-in-first-out, that it's there when we need it, watching the expiration dates. The maintenance team makes sure all the equipment is in good working order. The quality team has an overview, through a rigorous programme around all that instrumentation you saw on your visit. If any of these areas aren’t running properly everyone feels the strain.”

If this all sounds a little unromantic, I’d argue you’re missing the point. We’re all inspired by creativity – that’s the genesis of every beer we’ve fallen in love with over the years – but translating genius into something that can be enjoyed by millions is also a massive technical challenge.

“I have a print in my office from the photographer Ansel Adams. Now, somebody out there is making many prints of this photograph, just like mine. Their job is to produce these prints beautifully, but there's only one Ansel Adams. Production brewing is a lot like that; everybody here knows intuitively that their job is to produce a faithful recreation of what goes through the innovation process, which is led by Kris Ketcham and Steve Gonzalez.”

These two sides of the equation don’t exist in isolation though, and Robert talks about the “feedback loop” between the creative and the technical. “We meet regularly on Mondays and then there's a monthly taste panel,” he concludes. “Kris and Steve work very closely with the production side, to strike the right balance between faithfully recreating their recipes and the need to get it out to beer lovers across the world. That’s where both artistry and technical brilliance really come into play.”

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