Craft beer guru Greg Koch raises the bar

Greg Koch, co-founder of America’s Stone Brewery Company, raises a glass to the craft beer culture in Mumbai and Pune

Shailendra Bist, CEO of Independence Brewery in Pune, has his task cut out — he has to create pin-drop silence in order to start the scheduled interaction with Greg Koch, owner of the ninth largest brewery in the US, Stone Brewery.

The tasting session that precedes the talk has led to loose tongues and high decibels. "Please stop servings for some time," Bist announces, effectively ending the chatter.

Greg Koch at Independence Brewery in Pune
Greg Koch at Independence Brewery in Pune

Dressed in a teal Indian kurta and cream pyjamas, 51-year-old Koch looks like an older version of George Harrison, with a fan following of another kind. Craft and home brewers from Mumbai and Pune have taken a Tuesday off to listen to the TedX speaker, who holds a stake in the Pune brewery.

"In 1987, I had my first craft beer in San Franscisco, and was amazed that beer could taste like this. My next reaction was anger, as I had wasted so many beer-drinking years consuming homogenised, commercial beer. I went to the library to find out where the breweries were, and this started my quest for good craft beer," says Koch who founded Stone Brewing Company in 1996 along with Steve Wagner. "I put in all my savings and took a reluctant loan from my dad. I thought I was too late to make a mark as there were 800 craft breweries in the US back then. But, I was wrong; today there are 4,400 — it’s literally pouring craft beer," smiles Koch, who broke the norm of brewing light beers such as golden ales, white lager, dry stout, red ale to head to the bitter end. "We wanted to make a bolder, more bitter stout, which no one was making. But the tide shifted, and I repaid my father’s loan," says Koch, who will launch the first American brewery in Belgium, Germany, next year.

"In the early days, people wrinkled their nose when they tried our beer. Bitterness is nuanced, and can taste delicious, when you teach your palate to appreciate it," says Koch.

When we admit that we too had a tough time trying craft beer, he says, "Trying craft beer is like learning about rock and roll for the first time. You have to walk into the record store and start listening. If you don’t like the first few you try, don’t give up. You may not have faith in yourself, I have in myself."

Koch also raised a toast to the home brewers, who he said, are the ones pushing the innovation engine in the industry. Among those who were present was Sameer Madan, a 44-year-old IT engineer from Pune. He says a taste of Hefeweizen beer while in America was a jolt to his system. "I came back to India in 2005, and till 2010 I was restless. I decided to break my own cookie, and took to brewing beer at home," says Madan.

And for this, he only needed four ingredients — malt grain, a leaf from the hops plant, yeast and water. "On brew day, one needs to be in the kitchen for three to four hours. Like people who like to bake, or cook, this is my stress-buster," he adds.
In 2013, Madan started a group for home brewers called HOPS, and they meet once a month to try each other’s experiments.

One member is 25-year-old Sagar Chokhawala, a lab equipment trader by day and home brewer by night. "I started brewing in 2013 and have made 250 batches. I have created a software, to measure and document my calculations. Most home brewers are engineers or microbiologists. They are putting their degrees to good use," he says.

So much beer. How do you avoid a hangover, we ask the beer guru "Don’t drink s**t beer. If you have good quality spirits, it is tough to get a hangover, unless you are drinking beyond your limit. I have not had a hangover in a long time," Koch promises.

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