Four men stand at the front of the room, three looking predictably San Diego: toned-down formal, eschewing ties, or jackets, or both.

Then there’s the fourth. His style looks part open-collared coolness and part Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

The man with the the frizzy, gray-flecked, shoulder-length beard and matching tangle of locks, Greg Koch, is the CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co. He’s outlining a hope for the local tourism industry. He tells an audience of suits and flannel that he wants the San Diego region to become as synonymous with craft beer as Napa is with wine. Not to sell more beer, he says, but to draw more tourists.

He throws down this accusation: Grand Rapids, Mich., is doing a better job promoting its breweries (“they’re wonderful!” he notes) than San Diego. He cites an online poll to determine Beer City, USA. Grand Rapids got 27,005 votes. San Diego got 300.

Koch (pronounced Cook) stands out, in the room and his industry. He organized the event, called the San Diego Craft Beer Tourism and Hospitality Economic Summit, a reflection of his outspoken role within his maturing sector.

As the craft beer industry has grown and become an economic force here, people have begun listening more closely to Koch. His summit drew candidates and councilmen, assemblymen and tourism officials.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

“Greg is the spokesperson for the craft beer industry,” says former mayor Jerry Sanders, who spoke at the event. “He’s a larger-than-life personality.”

Greg Koch is 49, lives in Solana Beach with his partner, Sara Tobin, and drives a Tesla Model S. He’s a self-identified righteous young man, who despite his age and success still believes things are run by The Man. In his world, it’s us-versus-them, and they’re winning.

“It is a fight,” the Orange County native says. “There’s no question about it. They threw down the gauntlet first when they told us we should expect less and don’t deserve better. There is a conspiracy of low expectations in this country.”

Koch, a 1987 University of Southern California grad, is the mouthpiece for Stone and its line of strong beers, with names like Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and Arrogant Bastard Ale. Their bold personality is in him and his in them. They don’t advertise. Customers find Stone, not the reverse.

Koch, his beers, their branding, all implicitly proclaim: We aren’t afraid to piss you off. “You can’t be afraid to fire a customer,” he says.

He learned what it meant to be a businessman from his late father, who owned an auto-interior manufacturing company in Ohio, where Koch grew up. Koch was a mediocre student, one for whom drafting a resume was an afterthought. He can’t remember if he ever gave it out.

He says he became passionate about beer after he understood what it could be. His first lightbulb moment came in the mid-1980s at Al’s Bar, a Los Angeles dive, where he drank his first Anchor Steam. It didn’t taste terrible when it warmed up.

Though he co-founded Stone with Steve Wagner, whom he got to know after taking a day-long sensory perception of beer class at UC Davis in 1989, Koch is the front man, the lead singer, an enigmatic showman with a dramatic flair. He stabs open a 150-pound bag of sugar at a TEDx talk in La Jolla (equal to our annual intake, he tells the crowd).

YouTube video

He shows up at an event featuring Stone beer at Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park one Saturday, jumps up on the bar with a megaphone and launches into a spiel about the need to embrace craft beer – not the fizzy yellow alternative. When he finishes, he stage-dives off the bar.

Scot Blair, Hamilton’s owner, calls Koch “the beer messiah,” a man with his own personal brand and yet his own fallibility and goofiness.

“Is he an arrogant bastard? Yeah, maybe,” Blair says. “But he also exhibits intelligence and humility.”

Koch’s persona sits right there on the outside of every bottle. He writes the labels, which serve as condensed versions of his dystopian worldview but also play to his beer-geek base.

“You probably won’t like it,” reads the Arrogant Bastard Ale label. “It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory–maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beverage will give you more sex appeal.”

That’s, of course, what The Man wants. Koch sees the world this way. His narrative: Industrialized food conglomerates sell processed crap that our brains have been unwittingly programmed to crave. Doughnuts as breakfast. Fizzy yellow water as beer. Processed cheese product as cheese.

We buy them and our health pays the consequences. Our stomachs feed profits to corporate shareholders, who care nothing about the resulting public health crisis. During our interview at Stone’s Escondido restaurant, Koch teased an employee for leaving Cheez-Its on the bar. Don’t you know, he said, that they’re just cardboard flavored with salt and fat?

Listen close as he makes his arguments, and you’ll pick up some of the tension in Koch and his preaching. People may know junk food is unhealthy, but people still like it. Koch calls himself – and indirectly, the rest of the country – idiotic for having ever eaten it. He may be right, but he isn’t politely life coaching the masses to get healthier. He’s insulting them a bit, too. One of Stone’s mottos is “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.” In Koch’s narrative, those who disagree are automatons doing what mass marketing conglomerates tell them.

His proselytizing draws criticism that he’s an elitist, preaching to the choir, reinforcing decisions made by those who can afford to make them. An example:

“Greg Koch is a precocious snob, who would be lucky to be as brash and unappealing as his company’s marketing is,” reads one critical ode. “I am personally not a fan of freeze dried coffee and store bought bread, but I’m lucky to have the good fortune to be in that position.”

Koch doesn’t bite. Good choices (like backyard chickens) can be cheap, he says. He blames the elitism label on those faceless corporations, who he says have dismissed our growing locavore desire to eat real food and not its processed, plastic-wrapped relative by casting it as something negative.

There’s an unusual contrast in Koch. He isn’t the CEO of a health food company. He makes a living selling beer. But our brains don’t react to salt, sugar and fat the same way they do alcohol, he says. “There’s no disconnect. Moderate alcohol drinkers are the longest lived segment of the population.”

He doesn’t tell people they should drink, he says. He offers them a better, tastier alternative if they do.

Koch brings personal experience to his fight. He says he suffered acute, chronic gastrointestinal problems throughout high school and college because of his junk food consumption, a health problem that he says left him depressed, isolated and afraid to be in social situations.

No doctors asked about his diet. When he realized junk food might be causing his problems and stopped eating it, “I literally got out of jail,” he says. “It had gotten so bad that my movements were restricted. Going out for any period of time – I could feel very unpleasant with no notice. I was in a form of detention.”

His lesson from it all: “I learned to distrust The Man.”

His attitude about major beer manufacturers makes you forget that he’s not the underdog he was when Stone’s reach was smaller, even if he says he still is. Stone Brewing Co. is real. His company is a success, both in San Diego and across the nation.

Stone is the country’s 10th largest craft brewer, employing 873 people. Since its founding in 1996, the company has gone from delivering 400 barrels of beer to an expected 210,200 barrels this year. That’s the equivalent of 11.5 million six-packs. The company keeps most sales figures private but says it netted $84 million in revenue in 2011.

Stone and the craft beer industry are growing older, bigger and more mature. While craft beers are still a single-digit percentage of the country’s domestic beer consumption, the industry has a $300 million annual economic impact in San Diego County, according to a recent study by the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Though Koch’s influence in San Diego is growing, his message hasn’t always resonated in its more traditional business community (where you don’t find many shoulder-length beards).

Mark Cafferty, CEO of the San Diego Economic Development Corp., a local business group, says Koch is clearly brilliant. But Cafferty questions his push to have others market San Diego as a craft beer destination while boasting that Stone doesn’t spend money on advertising.

“I do find some irony in someone who’s told numerous audiences that San Diego should be doing all it can to advertise San Diego as the Mecca of craft beer, and that groups like us should be marketing that – and yet he says things about needing no marketing,” Cafferty says. “There is a bit of a mixed message.”

Koch says his message is clear. He wants tourism agencies to start by doing the same grassroots-style marketing that Stone does (with a website, social media presence and promo appearances). “That alone would be huge,” he says, “and there’d be a huge return for it.”

Koch has been clear about his plans for his own fast-growing company, which he says will never sell out to major corporations.

Before he leaves on a six-month, off-the-grid trip in February, Koch says he’s taking steps to ensure Stone’s fate is set for years to come. He’s long damned the conglomerates that snap up or try to imitate fast-growing companies like his.

He’s currently going through legal machinations to lock that ethos into the company’s bylaws. Industrial companies won’t be allowed to buy it as a result, he says.

“I can’t tell somebody how to make a decision in 2089. But what I can do is tell them here’s why we think these things are important to us — and now I’d like you to apply those principles in your world,” he says. “The only way Stone Brewing Company will be allowed to exist is if we maintain our standards.”

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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