It’s been almost two and a half decades since Greg Koch and Steve Wagner opened Stone Brewing Company just outside San Diego, offering a distinct and wildly innovative style. Craft beer was still fairly rudimentary back in 1996 but Stone quickly began changing that, pioneering the West Coast IPA and releasing the first year-round bottled Double IPA. Experimentation was essential in growing the brand, helping Stone ultimately evolve into the country’s ninth-largest brewery.
Even now, there’s always something being cooked up at Stone’s facilities in the hopes of continuing to bring abundantly flavorful and unique efforts to the masses – and it’s the task of Steve Gonzalez to discover the next style. Gonzalez, 49, is the Senior Manager of Brewing and Innovation (Small Batch) at Stone, working out of the company’s Napa location. He’s the guy behind some Stone’s most delicious beer, like Fear. Movie. Lions.
Gonzalez’s passion for beer ignited right after college while working for northern California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and, after earning a master’s degree in brewing and turning down two separate job offers from Stone, he eventually joined the crew in 2012. He soon oversaw the pilot brewery, the barrel warehouse and specialty production – Research and Development. It led to the creation of more beer than Gonzalez can even remember, however a limited release right after he started spawned a massive series and proved the company’s undying devotion to freshness.
“I think for so long we said we don’t do seasonals,” Gonzalez admitted. “For a long part of Stone’s history we refused to call them seasonals and now, as a response to that, all of a sudden we have Enjoy By which is as seasonal as it gets, you know. It’s tied to a specific date.”
First brewed in 2012, the Enjoy By series was originally just one brew and it was limited, with the intent of being consumed in a quick turnaround. Double IPAs don’t typically have a long shelf life, thanks to aggressive dry-hopping, and this particular flavor profile just popped for Gonzalez and his team, thanks in part to Motueka and Nelson Sauvin hops – both found in New Zealand. Back then, these hops were new on the scene and Stone wasn’t sure that it could get enough to make a significantly sized batch of Enjoy By.
“We didn’t know if we’d ever make it again,” Gonzalez added. “It’s really something to see Greg Koch, our executive chairman, because when he’s inspired by something, he’ll come up with 20 marketing ideas right there. He’s really good at selling beer and he just fell in love with that beer.”
With one of Stone’s co-founders inspired and in love with the Enjoy By beer, the series was born, however there was a significant problem. How would the brewery ramp up the amount for a national release? Gonzalez tried changing the recipe ever so slightly and taking down the amount of those New Zealand hops but, as the brewer admits, the beer “just didn’t pop the same way.” Instead, he added other new school hops from the United States for a total of 12 hop varieties.
Each of the beers in the series are similar, checking in at 9.4 percent ABV and 90 IBUs, with Gonzalez and his crew adding subtle nuances to select batches. The most recent iteration, Enjoy By 07.04.20 was an Unfiltered IPA, offering drinkers the series-standard 37 days to get their hands on it. The hop-loaded, dry and intensely tropical beer followed a previous iteration on April 20 – better known as Weed Day – as well as special releases celebrating New Year’s Day and Halloween. But how does the beer producer decide what dates are worthy of an Enjoy By release?
“We know [Fourth of July] is a big beer drinking weekend for people and they want something special and then kind of the American flag cans just look really sharp,” he said. “We looked at doing some more obscure holidays for small releases. We were thinking about doing a Texas-only release, at one point, that was for Texas Independence Day. It never happened. I think International Cat Day was one that got thrown around for a while, like just for the fun of it. I worked on that prototype with catnip, believe it or not, in the beer – which is in the mint family.”
Prototypes are part of Gonzalez’s everyday life, constructing typically five new recipes a week for Stone’s various upcoming trials. Those recipes have also included some interesting takes for the Enjoy By series, including a gunpowder tea IPA and a chocolate and coffee IPA. The latter was created on the popularity of Mocha IPA, which was a 9.0 percent ABV IPA that had some of the faint characteristics of a Stout. But even with all the experimenting, Gonzalez knows what flavor works best for the series.
“Citrus is, for me, always kind of an easy pairing with a lot of these hop varieties. The hop varieties in Enjoy By are very citrusy anyway, so there’s a lot of synergy there. I just like citrus in all beers and the tangerine is still probably the most popular variant.”
From brainstorming to hitting store shelves takes four to eight months. Gonzalez and his crew work on a six-barrel system at the pilot brewery and, he claims, it offers about a 95 percent certainty. Sometimes ideas are spurred from gaps in the company’s portfolio and other times from popular fan feedback. Making each beer in the series conform with the same technical components for alcohol volume and bitterness isn’t too challenging, thanks to an addition of dextrose in the fermentation. Brewing typically starts two to three weeks ahead of packaging and once it’s packaged, it’s in stores the next day. That isn’t always an easy task, with the series reaching 50 states and several countries, but freshness is top priority.
It doesn’t matter if it’s California or Australia, the goal is getting it to drinkers fast.
“One of the really fun things is we want to sell it in Australia and it’s like, ‘Well it takes a long time to get our beer to Australia,’” Gonzalez chuckled. “We now air-freight it to Australia, so they can actually get it on the same day it releases in this country.”
As for what will be the next beer to grace the Enjoy By series, well Gonzalez was pretty tight-lipped on the subject, though he hinted at potentially new fruited variants as well as some recent trials to try and make a hazy effort.