Remember When Stone Was Cool?

I was talking with a friend last night, and he made an almost plaintive pitch for how good Stone's recent beers are. He was encouraging me to do a blind tasting so I could verify that the brewery was capable of making great IPAs--that it was remaining modern and relevant. At some point in the conversation, I started to reflect on how bizarre the premise was. Stone? This was one of the three or four breweries that defined cool for a generation of beer drinkers. For the better part of two decades, its beers were the standard against which other breweries were measured. How was it possible we were even having this discussion?

In the mid-1990s a new generation of brewers introduced a kind of verve and edginess to beer. What we would come to call craft brewing had been around a long time, but it was a marginal force in American society. The early pioneers had introduced the concept of "microbrew" to beer drinkers, but it didn't have the flavor of a real challenge. They formed a natural opposition to big beer, but they were too tiny to engage the enemy; more like pirates, they nipped at the edges of an empire rather than engage the armada. The new generation were also tiny, but they were brash and had big ambitions. Some, like Dogfish Head, aspired to transform beer. Sam Calagione was miles ahead of his contemporaries in anticipating that experimentation would one day drive sales. Others, like Stone's Greg Koch, promised to crush big beer. Even when Stone was tiny, Koch brought the attitude: "you're not worthy," he told drinkers of that old, fizzy yellow lager.

It's not going too far to say that this wave created the modern image of craft brewing. (Whether it's the image of even the near-future is another matter.) Until then, so much of the discussion of craft brewing came with condescension--they were little or micro, they were "boutique" (with all the baggage that carried), they were "quirky." The mid-90s breweries, which include Lagunitas as another charter member, did not defer to big breweries, nor accept their marginal status. They were cocky and confident and brought the kind of cool to beer Sid Vicious and Exene Cervenka once brought to music. "Microbrewing" had matured enough that the bad-boy danger they broadcast contained actual menace. Big breweries took notice and were legitimately concerned. This was, remember, the moment Anheuser-Busch bought stakes in Redhook and Widmer. If anyone ever described Stone as a "boutique" brewery to Greg Koch's face, I bet they only did it just the one time.

It took this kind of ambition to push craft into public consciousness. The constant challenge for small breweries had been to coax people to shift from familiar, bland beer into a thicket of confusing names and stronger flavors. They approached it incrementally, with pale and amber ales and sweet brown ales and porters. The mid-90s breweries took a different approach, appealing to consumers who wanted extreme flavors. To create the market we have now, these breweries realized they had to make a complete break with mass market lagers, not come to some kind of compromise. This was the moment when the market hit its first plateau, and the number of breweries actually declined. But when craft started growing again in the aughts, the breweries leading all the growth were those that had embraced (and defined) the new market.

Debuting in Berlin, Stone literally smashes the competition. Photo: Theresa Patzschke

But that moment of opposition has passed. Now every brewery claims to be edgy and different. To be against big beer is required as an article of authenticity. The notion that breweries must be different and unique has been internalized. Every brewery press release emphasizes how "innovative" they are (a claim now so distant from actual beer one hardly knows what it means). And just as it happened in rock and roll, once everyone's a punk, no one is--which brings us back to Stone.

Stone emerged as a revolutionary force. The problem is, once you've deposed the king, what comes next? Those mid-90s breweries set out to change the market, and they succeeded. In 1996, there were 1,149 US breweries, and annual production of craft beer was around 2.5% of the overall beer market. Now craft is closing in on 15% (and a quarter of sales dollars) and there are 5,300 breweries. Big beer companies long ago acknowledged the power of the craft segment, and is now buying into it. The notion of what beer means in 2017 has entirely transformed from its meaning in 1997.

For large, legacy craft breweries, there are many challenges in hanging onto customer bases that sprawl across the country. Smaller, nimbler local breweries can target customers surgically, a million cuts that slice off tiny pieces of market share from Widmer Brothers and Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. But it's a special challenge for breweries that once defined cool. Now entering middle age, they must redefine themselves. Stone's approach--directly engaging the competition on quality and flavor--is almost certainly the best choice. But it means going through an awkward phase when customers no longer recognize them as the cool kids, nor yet as the accomplished elder statesmen. Cool has moved on, and Stone's trying to figure out how to grow gracefully into middle age.