Stone, Cold

In 2013, the founder of The Crafty Pint was invited to Washington DC to give a presentation at the annual Craft Brewer's Conference. The subject of the talk was Australia's growing, but still comparatively nascent, craft beer scene and the opportunities that existed for American brewers looking to export Down Under.

The general gist was that, yes, there was demand, thus opportunity, and that there were several ways in which to enter the local market. The presentation ended with a request that if you did plan to export to Australia then it would be better not to simply load a bunch of beers onto a boat and watch it sail off into the sunset but to do it properly. And by "properly", the inference was to follow the path trodden by many other international brewers who have found success here: follow your beers. In other words, visit Australia to host events, get involved in brews, share a beer with drinkers, build excitement for your beers and beer in general and get a firsthand feel for what's really happening here.

Alongside this plea was advice garnered from a number of people in different areas of the beer business regarding the logistics of getting beer from the US to Australia, much of it focused on freshness and the benefits of refrigerated transportation; as Chuck Hahn advised at the time, sending beer across the equator unrefrigerated had a similar impact to driving it across the Nullarbor unrefrigerated.

Around this time, on the opposite side of the US, Johnny Latta, general manager of the rapidly expanding beer distribution business Experienceit Beverages, was midway through what would become a three year courtship of Stone Brewing. The brewery, based in Escondido just outside San Diego, is led by its famously outspoken co-founder Greg Koch and is one of the most highly regarded in the American craft beer scene. For nigh on two decades Stone has forged a reputation as a producer of IPAs par excellence, built in part thanks to an unwavering and unapologetic attitude to quality.

To emphasise the point, they've gone so far as to invest in their own distribution channels. In short, they run a very tight ship when it comes to exporting their beer, therefore putting it in one and sending it to the relatively small Australian market – across the equator and full expanse of the Pacific – was hardly a key part of their plan. The argument against it was fairly simple and reasoned: their hop-forward beers, so reliant on freshness as a defining character, would surely suffer from travelling via uncontrolled distribution.

So no Stone beer made it to Australia. Except, it did.

Where there is demand, there are always those willing to meet it and Stone's beer arrived through the grey market – legal but not necessarily official distribution channels also referred to as parallel importing. Thus, if you wanted a bottle of Stone's flagship IPA you could simply pop down to a specialty beer store once a shipment had landed and pick one up with little trouble, though perhaps for a few extra dollars.

Stone's wasn't the only in demand international beer landing in Australia by this method, although it was Greg who was the most vociferous critic. Long before Experienceit's courtship began, he spoke to Australian Brews News to put his argument across in a video chat that caused much debate when published in November 2010. Watch and listen here.

Heading a business which sought to build a reputation on importing big name beer to Australia with a focus on quality, Johnny was all too aware of the grey Stone situation. So, in 2012, he had taken the opportunity to approach the brewer at the Craft Brewers Conference and argued his case for bringing their beer Down Under under better conditions. Stone politely refused, citing a lack of interest in export and the familiar concerns about the quality of the beer, not only during transit but its subsequent treatment at venues which didn't, or don't, have the facilities to store their beer cold – a particularly pernicious consideration in Australia's warm climate.

But every three months Johnny would follow up the request. “Every time, the answer was similar," he recalls, “but we could see them slowly coming around to the idea, so we pushed on."

As time passed, the trickle of grey market Stone to Australia grew steadily stronger until the brewer finally felt compelled to stop it dead by opening up to official distribution. It seemed a natural step and, no doubt relieved that their persistence had borne fruit, Experienceit happily announced via social media that it would be importing Stone beer legitimately. Then, as Johnny recalls: “All hell erupted over a simple tweet that copied Greg."

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“We had an order in and POS (Point of Sale) on the way," says Johnny, “but in the end it turned out that, despite being told we could move, some breakdown in the internal chain of communication meant the final approval hadn't actually been given. At this point we could have given up, but we felt strongly about supporting and working with Stone, so we arranged another trip to San Diego to spend time with Greg and his crew."

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Yet again Experienceit put their case forward but, despite all of their advances, Stone didn't opt for the most immediately available suiter. Says Johnny: “In the end, they went out to market and did an RFP (Request for Proposal) to a number of distributors. But in the end we won out again."

However, getting that commitment was far from a straightforward process, as evidenced by the list of requirements outlined by the brewer. Johnny recounts: “We had to increase our staffing and support, install a reefer (refrigerated container) at our Sydney warehouse, install a second storage option in Melbourne to have both climate controlled and chilled, renegotiate all our freight deals and put in place an airfreight option. It was a huge job, but one we feel was worth the effort."

From the outside it might appear a sycophantic arrangement with the big name brewer using its brand power to dictate terms, but, says Johnny, this is more of a genuine partnership than it may seem.

“Our aim from the start was to develop a portfolio of the world's best brewers and work with partners that actually want to be involved, not just sell us beer and walk away. Partners that take an active role in marketing, sales, business development and feel passionately about their product," he says. "Stone is one of the best examples of this. To have them bend over backwards to fix issues that a lot of other export brewers would wash their hands of is amazing and validates why we put all the effort into this."

When he says Stone are bending over backwards, they're not empty words. The point was underlined during recent strikes affecting US ports which meant beer destined for Australia under the new distribution deal would have sat idle on America's west coast for weeks. Without being asked, the Stone Brewing team began replacing stock every couple of days to ensure that, when the container was finally collected, the beer would be as fresh as possible. As Johnny says: “Very few brewers would go to this effort in support of their partner."

With the ports now open again, refrigerated containers filled with Stone beer have hit the water and beer is scheduled to be available to Australian customers from next week. Following closely behind them will be a steady stream of brewers and representatives from Stone to host events in the main centres. And this comes on the back of Stone's power-named brewmaster, Mitch Steele [pictured above right with Nomad brewer Brooks Caretta], having already been to Australia for a pre-launch launch and collaboration brew with Nomad Brewing.

When you consider the effort both Stone and Experienceit have gone through to get the beer to Australia in good condition and the schedule of events lined up to support the beer's launch, it's as close to a "proper" way to do things as you might wish for.

But is it necessarily what everyone Down Under is wishing for?

The resurgence of the Australian craft brewing industry can be viewed as something of a normalisation, pulling people away from big beer brands, both foreign and domestic, and back towards small breweries producing beer for their local market. Within that context and with the local industry needing all the help it can get, it's legitimate to question why the arrival of Stone is being trumpeted so loudly. They certainly aren't a local brewer and with four breweries operational within the next year, 100 brewing staff and 287,000 barrels (approximately 34 million litres) produced in 2014, they aren't a small brewer by any measure. However, where Stone is concerned, the underlying issue is not one of size or provenance, but freshness, a message that is relevant wherever beer is being brewed and enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, consumers are beginning to understand that, particularly with hop-forward styles such as pale ales or IPAs, beer should be consumed as fresh as possible – straight from the brewery if you can manage it. And, as consumers become more educated about beer quality, venues must ensure their facilities can handle what's required.

Unfortunately, while it is great to see more Australian venues embracing craft beer it is a reality that some are ill-equipped to do so, whether physically or in terms of staff education, and there are instances where beer will be stored at an ambient temperature then simply chilled at the point of hitting the taps. It might seem an innocent process but, particularly in the case of unpasteurised beer (which includes the majority of craft beers), it has been likened by brewers to taking delivery of milk, leaving it unrefrigerated for days or weeks, then cooling it just before you drink it. It's not a situation brewers or drinkers should be expected to accept and it's those sorts of practices with which brewers like Stone are concerned, hence why they go to such pains to control their distribution.

And they aren't alone. Here many others preach "Drink Local", "Drink Fresh" and similar mantras through their marketing and packaging.

Feral Brewing, perhaps as close as Australia has to a no-nonsense champion for freshness in beer, underlines the point with its bi-annual Tusk Day. These occasions see the Swan Valley brewer brew an Imperial IPA, keg it and release it immediately. Venues in their home state of Western Australia tap the beer that same day while others across the country receive the beer within days – cold transported all the way – with strict instructions to tap it immediately. Tusk is, in the brewery's words, “the ultimate in freshness and hit back against the swagger of aged, oxidised, imported versions of these hopped up styles of beer being brought into Australia" – just the kind of description you might apply to a Stone beer purchased on the grey market.

The similarity in the breweries' approach is obvious when comparing Feral's Tusk to Stone's 'Enjoy By' IPA, a beer that has a date by which it should be enjoyed printed in large type on the face of the bottle, thus demanding immediate consumption. On its sole appearance in Australia to date in February, the entire shipment of Enjoy By was pre-sold, airfreighted for quick transport, then rapidly distributed to venues.

“The industry is maturing," says Mitch Steele, when we spoke to him on the day of his collaboration brew with Nomad Brewer. “And we're driving the message home: drink it fresh."

That statement, at least in part, could explain why the arrival of Stone has an impact beyond allowing beer geeks to get their hands on some of the most sought after international beers in good condition. The San Diego brewery is relentlessly focused on quality and consistency, pouring resources into developing its beer and poring over the results. Mitch referenced the analytical approach he's taken to this: “Growing the lab, with six people working in Quality Assurance."

Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing at Nomad Brewing

For some perspective, most Australian craft brewers' labs are rudimentary at best, if they have a lab at all. On the plus side, talk to many of the elder statesmen of the local microbrewing world and you'll find that it is quality control, consistency and lab setup where much focus is now targeted. It's not before time as, with a growing market for beers from small, independent brewers, there are more mouths that need to be impressed and more that can be turned off by a bad experience, whether that's from poor beer or wild inconsistency.

In the case of Stone, the attitude to quality permeates the company beyond the brewers and is echoed by their International Business Development Manager, Stephen Houck, who says: “I see how much effort the guys put into brewing these beers and making them the best they can, so on the other side we do everything we can. We don't want these beers to fall down at the last hurdle."

When looked at objectively Stone's beer should, at least in a technical sense, be better than what many small brewers in Australia currently offer. Their history, resources and general attitude demand it. But the truth will be in the tasting, something that's previously not been possible to do with any meaningful degree of reliability. Now Australian consumers – and brewers – can get easy access to some of the world's foremost IPAs and measure them against local versions.

What's certain is that Stone's arrival Down Under confirms that Australia's beer market has matured enough for the brewer to change its long held opposition to export. That in itself is significant. But if, like other long-established, high quality internationals that take steps to get their beers here as fresh as possible, their beers can offer a reliable benchmark, it has the potential to help the local industry raise its standards beyond those already achieved in recent years.

And, at the very least, if you want to make a bit of noise about treating beer right it doesn't hurt to have a brewery like Stone yelling on your side.

The beers of Stone Brewing will be officially launched at events across Australia between April 20 and 24. See the Events Diary for details.

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