Enter Night, People - God DAMN!
Words: Steffan Chirazi
Video: Brett Murray
So there he is, Lars, hopping around loudly and brandishing a table tennis bat with an expression that can best be described as “determined” whilst the man on the other side of the table is Rob Trujillo. One of these men – the “winner” – will shortly play table tennis with Greg Koch.
“We’ll chat about Enter Night, we’ll have a tasting with Greg, it’ll be a good time!” Lars had told me days before when I was trying to gauge the evening’s projected parameters. I should’ve known where it would all end up, yet sadly I made what might best be described as a rookie error. Like a double-wide asshole, I drove to this gathering (this meant my drinking brakes were sadly applied early) and I am a shitty ping-pong player. I have the swagger but minimal talent…anyway, let’s first roll things back a few hours to a time when the ping-pong bats were tucked away and we were all sitting around a table, about to embark on something of a beer-laden series of discoveries courtesy of Koch.
First things first. Lars is genuinely obsessed with Enter Night Pilsner. Not simply because it is Metallica’s designated craft beer, he is obsessed because it is a fucking good beer, plus Koch is so fiercely evangelical about it that I believe he’d happily poke your eyes out with a sharp, shitty stick if you attended one of his tastings wearing a Budweiser shirt. Lars has always loved a fellow obsessive, and there is no doubt that Koch is every inch his nickname (the Beer Jesus).
I also think that Lars loves the path Greg has taken to being the unofficial King of the craft beer world. Greg is his own man, and it is safe to say also one of life’s thinkers. He loves the smell of pontification in the morning, and is also quite obviously very, very smart. But Greg also loves beer.
And if you apply that intense, zany intelligence to a love of beer, you end up with a beer maker of fierce artisanal uniqueness who (despite himself) ends up spearheading a giant fucking brewing enterprise that refuses to think that way. Yet his first interactions with the magic liquid were not infused with even an ounce of hopped-up knowledge.
“I had my first beer in the ’70s and my understanding of beer was almost nonexistent,” laughs Greg as he reminisces over his first brew. “There was no brewery nearby, and my parents, like James’ [Hetfield], were Christian Scientists. So I grew up in a completely non-drinking family and alcohol was something that I would see on TV and movies from time. I didn’t really understand what it was, and I had no direct experience with it at all. I discovered a beer in a random field as a kid with a buddy in Chicago when we were visiting to go see King Tut. We drove from central Ohio, so it was probably a four- or five-hour drive, and I managed to sneak this beer, nervous as you could believe, into the car. I had it under my shirt or something, but I knew it was contraband. I was twelve, thirteen maybe, and I was mortified I was gonna get caught.”
I wondered if he remembered the brand of said-stray beer.
“It was just a random brand,” he replies. “Somebody had drunk four or five out of the six-pack and for whatever reason got distracted and left one behind, so I squirreled it home, snuck it from underneath the back seat of the car and put it in the rafters. I was too scared to even do anything with it for a couple of weeks, until one time I felt my mother was gonna be out of the house for long enough, me and my buddy retrieved it from the eaves and cracked it open. It was the most godawful thing you could possibly imagine!”
I was interested to hear from Lars and Rob what their first beer interactions were.
“I had my first scent of beer growing up in Copenhagen, [because] about 300 meters from where my house was when I was a kid was the main Tuborg Brewery,” starts Lars. “So from second grade, I’d bike myself to school at about 7:45am, and when I got over to about the train station about couple hundred yards from the house, that’s when the wave of malt hit, just that smell. And it was ever present in that same specific zone. And growing up in Hellerup, which is where the Tuborg breweries were located in I guess the ’60s and ’70s, that was the scent that hung over the whole neighborhood. And so [subsequently] for me, there was nothing before Tuborg in a bottle.”
Rob, meanwhile, will later speak of Coronas in his early youth, but his first? Not quite a Corona.
“My very first beer was actually non-alcoholic, it was near beer,” he chuckles. “I bought it on the way home from school and I thought I was really cool. There’s no alcohol and I was by myself, of course. I was 12 or something and I could buy it, even though the legal drinking age was 18. But I could buy near beer! That is really strange.”
Koch, being the inquisitive “seeker” type of guy, was never going to tolerate supermarket beer for too long, but when he discovered that beer could be so much more, it set off a genuinely angry fire inside him.
“I moved to LA in ’83, and it was in ’87 at Al’s Bar in downtown Los Angeles [a little hole in the wall punk bar] that I had my first Anchor Steam,” he says. “I had two reactions with that first Anchor. That was the first time I’m like, ‘Beer can taste like this? Wow. This is amazing.’ And the other was that I was angry. I was pissed off because I realized at that moment, all of my previous beer drinking years had been stolen from me by the lies of ‘the man,’ telling me that other stuff was beer.”
Koch’s eyes start to get mean, and it is clear he isn’t waxing lyrical or creating an image for my benefit.
“I actually was mad, like holy shit, it could be like this and nobody told me? Why didn’t I know this?”
It was around this time that Greg first met Steve Wagner, the co-founder of Stone Brewing. Steve was in a band, Greg knew his bandmate and they were briefly introduced, a quick meeting that was to resonate loudly with both of them later at UC Davis.
“About three years after that brief meeting, we were both at the same Saturday class ‘A Sensory Evaluation of Beer’ at UC Davis,” furthers Greg. “Basically a beer geek class. You know, this diagram of the tongue, of the palate, that you taste bitterness here and sweetness here, all this has actually been debunked…but that’s a technicality we don’t need to bother with. The thing is, we were there learning about ‘off’ flavors in beer and all the technicalities of beer. Steve was also in that same class, we saw each other and that started our conversation. He had been a home brewer at that point for several years. So we got together and home brewed. Then a little later, Steve agreed to move down from Portland, Oregon where he’d been, to San Diego and start the brewery with me in ’95. I was 32 when we opened and sold our first keg on July 26, 1996.”
One thing Koch has a habit of doing is making things sound easier than they possibly were. For him, this was a simple thing to achieve because he had a burning desire to achieve it. Me? I’m left wondering how he got the gear together to even brew a decent sized batch?
“Our brewing gear? Well, it was just basically large stovetop pots,” says Greg. “That’s how Steve liked to do it. But then when we started to build the brewery, he and I both did a lot of research – mostly Steve because that was his technical expertise at that point – [and then came] the actual brewing equipment. We would go to the once a year trade show that we now call the Craft Brewers Conference and meet with equipment manufacturers. We selected one and Steve started designing the system, and we started with a 30-barrel system which was pretty large. It was kind of a bold move for that time, and I [managed to] convince my father [to provide the money].”
Greg and Steve’s working relationship is a perfect yin and yang, two different personalities who come together immediately on specific shared passions. It is, as Lars has been saying, very similar to the nature of the creative relationship he and James have enjoyed for decades, thus another similarity which Lars recognizes and greatly enjoys.
“Steve’s not an angry guy, he’s more of a focused guy,” explains Greg. “He loved the art of brewing beer, he loved what he was creating, and he loved what was possible. I loved that too, but I was also kind of the ‘angry young man’ type. I wanted to tell them the truth, right? I wanted to pull that wool off, tell them, ‘What you’re being sold is bullshit, let me show you. Who’s gonna listen? Wait a minute, nobody’s listening?’ I figured maybe I needed to talk louder, shout louder from the street corner, get a megaphone.”
Which Greg has often done, literally grabbing a megaphone and mounting places with a height advantage – tables, cars, that sort of thing – before literally preaching the values and importance of craft, artisanal beer.
“I really believe it,” he says sternly. “And frankly I think we were right. We were making awesome beer, not just us, craft beer [generally] was making awesome stuff, and history will bear that out as we’ve gone from being around the 850th brewery to open up in the United States and now it’s getting close to 7000! And the styles that Stone helped forward, IPAs, double IPAs, American Strong Ales, have become the dominant craft beer style around the world. Steve and I are very different people, but we locked together when it came to our feelings and taste for beer. It just became this natural thing and we just believed it. But I had no idea ever that it would be available anywhere outside of southern California. I had no idea ever that we would become a regional, national, and international reputation.”
I ask Greg to break down the fundamental difference between commodity (commercial) and artisanal beer in definition.
“‘Commodity’ goes to the consumer and says, ‘What can I get you to buy which I’m gonna make the highest profit [out of]?’ What is the lowest common denominator? I mean that phrase exists for a reason, right? It’s the denominator by which the most people can possibly accept it, that offends the fewest people possible. ‘Artisanal’ says, ‘I want to focus on making something that I think is great. I hope you like it. If you do, great. If you don’t, I’m not going to change for you, that would be a mistake.’”
Within Stone’s artisanal frame sit two very distinct families with two very distinct personalities. Perhaps the most famous Stone Brewing beer is Arrogant Bastard, a name which certainly does not suggest hippiedom.
“Over the years, Arrogant Bastard Ale really developed and wanted to maintain its own very strong and slightly antisocial behavior pattern,” enthuses Greg before embarking on what that means. “This is an aggressive beer, you probably won’t like it, it’s quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. Further, we would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory, maybe something with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless, fizzy, yellow beer will give you more sex appeal. Perhaps you think multimillion-dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Questions or comments? If you don’t like this beer, keep it to yourself. We don’t want to hear from any sniveling yellow beer drinking wimps because this beer wasn’t made for you.”
That’s the Arrogant Bastard Ale personality.
“Now at Stone, as a company, as people, as things we do with our Stone Brewing, Bistro Gardens, and all this stuff, we’re very inclusive. We are not standoffish or attitudinal in the way the Arrogant Bastard Ale is. And it came to a point where as we grew, people were getting confused. They would walk into Stone and our restaurant, where we’re about organics, creativity, the menu, friends, family, and all this kind of thing. People [would] come in and think that they were supposed to act arrogant! I’ve literally said ‘hello’ to somebody and then heard them whisper to their friend, ‘See, I told you how arrogant he is.’ I’m like, wait a minute. I said hello and I actually meant hello. So the personalities were starting to step uncomfortably on each other. Let’s let Arrogant Bastard Ale be its thing, and let’s let Stone be a much more friendly, inclusive thing.
“So we said look, we’re just gonna have two different families. It’s really like a Jekyll and Hyde. It’s the same entity, but two completely different personalities. And one is Arrogant Consortia, that’s where Arrogant Bastard Ale lives, barrel aged Arrogant Bastard Ale, and that’s [also] where Enter Night lives. It’s the cranked up, the more aggressive, more in your face style…”
Enter Night is most certainly a part of the Arrogant Consortia, sharing a spin on the company gargoyle as its logo.
“Gargoyles are protectors!” announced Koch firmly, “So our gargoyle protects our beer from the modern-day evil spirits of beer. Chemical preservatives, cheap ingredients, pasteurization, and selling you out as a beer drinker.”
If you don’t understand by now that Koch is not only for real but somewhat of a mad beer genius/zealot, then you’re more in need of an Enter Night than I thought. That Enter Night you need, by the way, is a pilsner. Which to me means it is a lager and not a “beer” as such. I share that nugget of ignorance with Greg and he tries not to laugh too much at how much I’ve simplified the matter.
“So beer is all a family,” he explains. “Essentially, it’s beer, and then the next branch down is either ale or lager. And then under that there’s a whole variety of ale styles and there’s a whole variety of lager styles, so a pilsner is a lager, and you can have a beer called a lager but that’s almost a bit generic. It’s like wine. Oh, you have a wine? What kind of wine?”
So why make Enter Night a pilsner?
“A lot of people want to drink beer like Arrogant Bastard throughout, but it’s a little hard to maintain at 7.2 percent, so we wanted to create is a beer that had a lot going on but was not gonna just absolutely pummel you as Arrogant Bastard Ale is designed to do,” says Greg.
“We said, ‘Look, let’s make a pilsner!’ We were thinking about hanging around with your buddies, cranking up the tunes, going to tailgates…”
“At some point you said Enter Night is a great beer for tailgating!” chimes in Lars, “[That] it’s a great beer for rock shows, parking lots, getting prepped, getting psyched, ‘We’re gonna go see a band, we’re gonna go fucking rock, we’re gonna hang with our friends.’ It’s a communal thing. It’s, ‘We’re going out,’ and it’s about what can happen, friends, comrades in arms, the whole thing.”
Greg is in full agreement as Lars takes another glass of Enter Night and throws out the Enter Night toast (which in case you have not seen it on video goes, “Enter Night, people…God DAMN!” I thought it would be interesting to ask Greg to offer both a scenario and conditions where Enter Night could be best enjoyed beyond the tailgate.
“On your back patio with your buddies, right?!” he says almost incredulous that a writer would even ask where to enjoy a great beer. “And you’re pulling ’em out of the cooler, out of the fridge. I think a normal refrigerator temperature, you wouldn’t want to serve it in a frosted glass. Frosted glasses are for amateurs. So you would just use a room temperature glass and then you pull the can from the refrigerator.
“But you know what? If your personal tastes are a little bit warmer, I think you oughta drink it that way. I’m not gonna be standing over your shoulder. You’re not gonna look and see Greg behind the bushes, the back patio, watching, going, ‘Wait a minute!’”
Stone Brewing is the Bentley of breweries, but continues to defiantly behave like Steve McQueen’s ’67 Mustang from Bullitt. Greg is not interested in your projections of hugeness or proclamations of how successful Stone Brewing is, unless you preface it by saying his beer is off the fucking hook rad and that all commercial beer which had previously enjoyed safe harbor in your house will forthwith be dumped down the sink. And with all that said, before we get to table-tennis shenanigans, let’s leave Lars to ask the final (and relevant for you, dear reader) question.
“Greg, let me ask you one question, when the big rollout happens in January of 2019, where’s Enter Night available? How do we get it to people?”
“We are gonna fast-follow the markets you’re playing, plus roll it out everywhere else, so I would expect by January, February, March at the latest you’ll have Enter Night. And it’s been slightly erroneously presented by some of the press stories I’ve seen where this is a special limited release? No! It’s a permanent release. This is a new beer that we have available full time, available for everybody. Me mostly, but other people also… and if you raise your hand, you too!”
“Six months ago there was a pickled herring party in Copenhagen… now in San Francisco you know what it is? It’s Enter Night, people…God damn!”
And with that, at least the tenth Ulrich Enter Night proclamation, we have tasted the array of excellent beers which Stone Brewing creates. And we have also taken the “blind commercial beer taste test,” which after the Stone stuff really does taste like horrible, headache-inducing, chemically-loaded, empty, tasteless shite. Which is, of course, the cue for more Enter Night, the music to crank up, and for me to tell you we are now back at the place this story began. God DAMN indeed…