On Innovation and Stone Beer

As I type these words, I have before me a glass of Stone-Maui-Ken Schmidt Kona Coffee, Macadamia, Coconut Porter. Aside from being quite tasty – sweetish, coconutty coffee with hints of dark chocolate on the nose; a complex and creamy body with loads of dark chocolate and mocha notes, some hints of sweet, nutty caramel and bracing alcohol, mild to moderate hop bitterness and toasted coconut in the finish – and boasting about the longest name of any beer I can think of, it is also, from what I understand, at least, quite rare.

This might make it expensive – I haven’t checked eBay for bottles, but it’s probably there – but it does not make it innovative. Collaboration beers are great, but a dime a dozen these days, and surely the idea of adding coffee or coconut or some sort of table nut to a beer has been done not quite to death. It’s still a good beer, remember, extremely good, in fact, just not innovative.

In contrast, a couple of weeks ago I sampled with some friends the 2009 Stone Vertical Epic. It was also quite tasty – burnt wood, faint smoke, vanilla and dark, dried fruit on the nose; the body a roasty-smoky-spicy mix that kicks some hoppy, roasty bitterness and warming alcohol in the finish – but in contrast to the Stone-Maui-Schmidt, it is innovative. Just not in the way you might think it is.

If you’re not familiar with what the Vertical Epic is all about, check it out here. To put it in brief, however, it is a series of one-off brews released every year on the day the dates of day, month and year line up, as in 09/09/09 (September 9, 2009). This began on 02/02/02 and is scheduled to continue until 12/12/12, at which time collectors of the whole series will be able to hold a vertical tasting of the entire range. What’s more, Stone is publishing the recipe for every beer on the brewery website and even sponsoring a Vertical Epic Clone homebrew competition each year.

So far as I am aware, none of the eight “Epic” beers released have been the product of any great innovation in the brewery. However, taken together, as a project, they are a true marketing innovation in that they form a neat and original concept that enables the brewery to involve and connect with their customers in several very different and very real ways.

Does it make any of the individual “Epic” beers a great beer? No. Does it further the science of brewing in any way? No. Will it lead to a better beer world for us all? Maybe, but probably not.

What it most definitely does accomplish, though, is the formation of a close, almost intimate bond between the brewery and the beer drinker (and homebrewer), which is the Vertical Epic’s ultimate innovation. Because drinking beer is only rarely all about what’s in the glass. Rather, most often it concerns the beverage, the person drinking, the people surrounding her, the locale of the consumption, the food, the weather, the time of day, and even the sentiment of the imbiber towards the brewery that created the beer. Alter that dynamic and you change the beer drinking experience.

13 Replies to “On Innovation and Stone Beer”

  1. I tried this beer at a beer tasting in Lansing, like many other things made by stone, it was really good. Though my favorite is still plain old Arrogant, this one is excellent as well.

  2. “However, taken together, as a project, they are a true marketing innovation …”

    Well, that might come as a bit of a surprise to the automobile industry, which came up with the “model year” concept almost 100 years ago.

    While this may not be a marketing innovation, it is a marketing campaign. It has always been my impression that marketing was done for the benefit of the producer, not the consumer. Even if you were correct that this campaign results in “the formation of a close, almost intimate bond between the brewery and the beer drinker”, how would this benefit the beer drinker?

    1. Ah, but you’re mistaking the concept of an annual or seasonal (ie: the “model year”) with that of an eleven year connected project. It’s the whole thing that’s the innovation, not each individual part.

      And as for how the consumer is affected, the answer to that is contained within my last paragraph. Whether it’s a benefit or not will depend on the individual drinker, but what Stone has undeniably done is alter the relationship between brewery and beer drinker, which necessarily will change the way these beers — and possibly other of Stone’s products — are perceived by many consumers. As I’ve written many times before, we do not drink in a vacuum.

      (And I’ll add it before someone like Jack or Jay does it for me: “You can’t possibly drink in a vacuum, it’s far too cramped in that little bag.”)

      1. “It’s the whole thing that’s the innovation, not each individual part.” Oh, you mean like a Limited Edition.

        Stephen, the concept you are describing as “innovative” is the child of the model year concept (as is the Limited Edition). These are all variations on the same theme. (“Here’s a set, kids, be sure to come back each week and collect all the parts!” – didn’t they have those when you were a kid?)

        The “connection” in your last paragraph does not connect for me: “alter the relationship between brewery and beer drinker” (I don’t see that at all) and “not drinking in a vacuum” (totally agree). To be clear, it’s the relationship-vacuum connection I don’t see.

        You are assuming that this marketing ploy will somehow be attractive to large numbers of people and that they lack the intelligence and independence of thought to see this for what it is: an attempt to sell more product with a minimal expenditure.

      2. I grant you that collectors sets have existed since the dawn of time, but tell me of a project like this in beer. Perhaps you can think of one, but I cannot.

        Is it marketing? Absolutely, as I noted at the outset. Is it a ploy? I very much doubt it. In fact, given the hassle of creating, packaging and releasing each of these beers, then organizing the homebrew component, I very much doubt that Stone is making much money on this project at all.

        I really don’t think there should be any question about the relationship of the drinker to the brewery affecting the former’s perception of the beer they are drinking. Somebody sympathetic to a specific brewery is bound to overlook certain faults, view some beers more fondly, etc., than they would were they not so inclined. It’s a simply dynamic, as I see it.

  3. If innovation is related with using strange ingredients, then probably here in Italy we have the most innovating breweries in the world. But I agree with you, innovation is different, it’s like experimenting something new with a clear idea in mind to reach a specific goal. In my opinion, most innovative beers in Italy are the Muse (Muses) from Birrificio Italiano http://www.beer-chronicles.com/beers/65/the-muse-from-birrificio-italiano-and-alma-from-gilac/ and the Woodwork Serie from the brand new brewery Revelation Cat http://www.beer-chronicles.com/breweries/185/revelation-cat-a-new-brewery-on-the-outskirts-of-rome/

  4. (It’s a shame the “reply” button disappears after a certain point.)

    Another brewery: Fuller’s. They have a Vintage Ale series. I’m sure there are many more examples.

    I am really quite surprised that you fail to see the connection between Limited Edition and the Stone campaign.

    Personally, I don’t have any relationships with breweries. I know a couple of local brewers and I like them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do wrong and it doesn’t mean that I won’t complain if they do.

    The relationship you describe sounds more like something one would find in a church than in a pub.

    1. Again, Mike, I fear you’re missing my point, on two levels. First, the Vertical Epic is not a Vintage Ale series or any other limited edition beer, but a series of connected but distinct beers the release of which just happens to be spaced over a period of years. In a word, it’s a project, not a brand (like the Fuller’s Vintage Ale).

      Secondly, while neither you nor I may have relationships with breweries, the concept lies at the very core of the vast majority of all beer marketing, large and small, since pretty much the dawn of advertising. Stone’s innovation was in developing a new way to affect it.

      (And BTW, if you hit the last “reply” button in any given thread, the program will automatically put your answer in order at the bottom.)

      1. (Thanks for the “reply” button tip.)

        Your first paragraph above, reads something like this to me:
        I just got a fabulous new gown!
        Hang on, that looks just like my Harry de Palm gown!
        Not at all. Your is red, mine is blue and the buttons are on the left, not right.

        The goal of any business is to keep its customers. The goal of any customer is to get the best product.

        I like good beer. I don’t care who makes it. I seriously doubt I am in the minority (at least in my environment).

  5. Then we’ll have to agree to disagree, Mike, because I find a none-too-fine distinction between the two.

    And “good” is entirely subjective, and determined for most people by any number of factors, both internal and external. Brand and brewery are two of those factors.

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