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Stone Berlin's Failure Shouldn't Surprise Anyone

Joe “Thirsty Pilgrim” Stange, writing for Good Beer Hunting, goes behind the headlines with an insightful story on the failure of Stone Berlin, reviewing, among other things, the difficulties the California based brewing company faced when putting together their brewery in the German capital.

Though there’s no doubt that the delays and unexpected costs contributed its ultimate fate (and I sympathise Koch’s frustration with the builders), I believe that, even if everything had gone according to plan (which hardly ever does), the enterprise was doomed for the simple reason that it had arrived way too late. Let me explain.

The first time I head about Stone’s plans to set up shop in Europe was ten years ago – and it’s possible that even Berlin was being mentioned then. To put it into perspective, this was a time when Brew Dog was still using their first brewery and their Punk bullshit was taken seriously by not few; a time when De Molen, Meantime, Nøgne Ø, Birrificio del Ducato, and Cíbeles were proudly independent breweries, and new; a time when the Craft Beer scene in Spain, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and maybe even England and Italy were still pretty much in their infancy, and in some cases, like Spain’s for instance, there were still doubts about the sustainability of the fad, not to mention the overall quality of the products. That would have been a perfect time for Stone to disembark on this side of the pond. They would have found a market that was a lot less crowded, with few breweries producing the beers that had made them famous in the US, at least not consistently, and where they would have been surely seen as exciting and innovating, even; and ideal landscape for a new brand with European-wide ambitions.

Compare that with the environment they found themselves in. The scene in the countries I mentioned above, and in several others, is in full swing, populated by well-established and well-regarded brands, some of which have become household names, enjoying success that goes beyond the beer enthusiast crowd and their domestic markets. Just to give you an example of what’s happening here in Czechia: when I first heard about Stone’s plans, Pivovar Matuška was brewing with a 5 hl kit in the garage of the founder’s mother’s house. Since then, they have expanded massively, becoming a benchmark for Czech Ale producers, clients and consumers, and last year, they made a collaboration brew with Plzeňský Prazdroj that was sold in hundreds, if not thousands, of Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus pubs around the country, as part of the Volba Sládků series, in October; it was called První, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Republic. At the same time, your could count with your fingers the number of multi-tap pubs in town, now, not only there are dozens of them, but you can also find piva z minipivovarů in pizzerias, burger joints, cafés, fancy restaurants, cinemas, and, of course, neighbourhood pajzly – at one of which I recently overhead a conversation between the tapster and a middle-aged štamgast about the merits of a sour beer from Pivovar Kamenice nad Lipou.

Joe, in his piece, gives another good example of what I’m saying: "On a 2016 visit to Poznań, Poland, I visited a sleek bar called Ministerstwo Browaru. One of its 14 taps was Stone IPA. A half-liter of it cost 24 złoty—a bit less than $6. While that may sound reasonable to most U.S. readers, the catch was that perfectly decent, locally brewed IPAs were going for about half that price. So was another German beer on the menu, the Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier. Poznań is only about three hours from Berlin." Change the particulars, and you can probably tell the same story about many European towns.

Stone never had a chance to compete with that, and with the other big names distributed across the continent, especially considering that, outside beer-geek circles, it remains a largely unknown brand, most drinkers can’t relate to. Now, instead of pioneering and envelope-pusing, the brand is not much more than another expensive beer taking up tap space. Yeah, some punters may give it a go, out of curiosity, or to add the name to their Untappd profiles, only to perhaps realise that they could’ve spent half the money on a local beer that’s probably every bit as good.

To be fair, however, Stone’s ambitions were not entirely unrealistic, the thing is that projects like theirs take years iof planning before groundwork can really begin, and there’s no way they could have foreseen how much and fast the Craft Beer brand would grow almost everywhere in Europe. Nevertheless, it’s still a shame for them that they were not able open the Berlin brewery a few years earlier. For the consumers, on the other hand, we already have more than enough to choose from and I don’t think much has been lost. Speaking for myself, I had almost forgotten about Stone Berlin before this news.

On a side note, for Brew Dog this is fantastic. They got their hands on a fully functional, still fairly new, and quite large brewery that they can start using as soon as they get the keys to pump out some of their flagships for the nearby markets, and a base of operations in Continental Europe safe from any of the possible consequences of the shitshow that is Brexit. However much they’ve paid for it, it was a bargain.

Na Zdraví!

Comments

  1. As I work in construction project development at a scale a few times the Berlin project, I am mostly struck by how naive their excuses for the failure are. Not having experienced local counsel in the early stages of the development and missing issues like the absence of a customer pool and like the realities of local construction practices is bizarre. As you say, a gift for BrewDog.

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