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Lessons learned from Stone’s exit from Berlin venture

Stone Berlin

Brick buildings, lower left, and tower, right, were part of Stone’s sprawling Berlin compound, which was still under construction in this September 2015 photo.

Few call the Escondido brewery’s transatlantic leap a “smart move” and when news broke of Berlin brewery sale, flamers set Stone ablaze on social media.

A year ago, Food & Wine listed “The 15 Most Important Craft Breweries in Europe,” citing buzzworthy brewers like England’s Beavertown, Denmark’s To Øl, Belgium’s Cantillon and Stone Brewing Berlin.

“This expansion into Europe was a smart move,” wrote the magazine’s George Koutsakis, “as Stone looks to make its mark on Europe, with freshly brewed beer.”

After last week’s news that Stone is selling its Berlin site to Scotland’s BrewDog, few call the Escondido brewery’s transatlantic leap a “smart move.” On social media, flamers set Stone ablaze.

Rather than heat, let’s shed some light. Five lessons from Stone Berlin:

1. You can’t beat das Rathaus (city hall)

Innovators face many obstacles in Germany, Oliver Lemke noted in an email to Stone co-founder Greg Koch, from a stifling regulatory culture to high taxes.

“Not knowing this great entrepreneurs like yourself, from all over the world come, try and fail, again and again,” wrote Lemke, brewer/owner of Brauhaus Lemke, “so please don’t take it personally. This is just no country for entrepreneurs.”

2. Germans will try our craft beers, but on their own terms

“What Mr Koch got wrong — seriously wrong — is the German beer market,” Ina Verstl wrote in Brauwelt, a German beer publication. “He only sold his beer in cans, whereas domestic retailers prefer beers in two-way bottles. What is more, his beers were deemed far too craft-forward and too expensive.”

3. Smaller is smarter

Shedding its massive, costly operation, Stone keeps a smaller, more affordable presence in the German capital via a tasting room in the trendy Prezlauer Berg district. And BrewDog’s agreement to produce some Stone beers in Berlin enables Stone to continue distributing fresh beer to select European markets.

4. Revolutions take time

Building an audience for Stone’s bistro and beers six miles from central Berlin was not going to be an overnight development. Yet when BrewDog assumes control May 1, the place will be five months short of its third anniversary.

5. Focus

Craft beer, both in San Diego and the U.S., owes Stone a great deal. Besides trailblazing beers like Stone IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale and Enjoy By, Stone elevated the brewery dining experience with its bistros. Despite a hyper-aggressive image, Stone always championed other worthy breweries, pouring them in their bistros and tap rooms.

Stone’s distribution arm is another under-sung hero, bringing to market hundreds of craft beers from scores of breweries.

Even in the post-Berlin era, though, the company will be responsible for production breweries on both coasts (Escondido and Richmond, Va.) and tasting rooms on three continents (North America, Europe and, thanks to its Shanghai spot, Asia).

There’s a danger that, while roaming the world, Stone is losing its focus on its home market. The world can wait. San Diego, where Stone is a craft beer cornerstone, cannot.

Read more from Peter Rowe’s Brewery Rowe column here.