If you are like thousands of other craft beer fans, your tastes will likely have passed through the revelation of Stone Brewing’s beers along the way to forming your beer identity. You most likely remember your first taste of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale—possibly your first exposure to beer beyond the light lagers of the majors—and its reckless use of hops and strength as they assaulted your palate onto the next level.
Stone entered the nascent craft beer movement with a big splash in 1996 with their rebellious image, the omnipresent gargoyle icon filled with disdain and a chant of “You’re Not Worthy” emblazoned on every bottle. They made their mark mocking the “fizzy yellow beers” by shunning adjuncts and making some style-defying products, most of which pushed the boundaries of flavors with a newfound brashness in brewing and earned for them legions of eager craft beer fans.
Now almost fifteen years forward, look back on their works of the past decade and a half. Their core products are still among the best-reviewed and most-favored in the craft beer world. Beers like the Stone Pale Ale, IPA and Ruination, the Smoked Porter, Imperial Russian Stout and Old Guardian Barley Wine stand out as excellent representatives of each of their respective styles. Of these listed here, I am still a huge fan and regular consumer.
However, look across at some of their “edgy” product ideas such as the Vertical Epic series, which has met with only lukewarm critical response. Designed as a dozen-beer series to be collected, aged and enjoyed at the end of those twelve years, some have been quality stand-outs but with many of these not nearly as good as anticipated, bordering on mediocre. This latter group certainly will not improve with time, much less age well enough to make the end of the series as intended.
Even some of their “new” products are not truly new, much less innovative. Arrogant Bastard has been oaked. The Double Bastard Ale is almost by definition merely a doubling of the original Arrogant Bastard recipe. Stone Ruination is nothing more than a re-issue of their Fifth Anniversary Ale, formulated as a year-round product. Even their newest releases of the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA are reworks of their Eleventh Anniversary Ale and one of the Vertical Epic editions, respectively. Just about the only original standout of the past decade has been the Stone Levitation, a mild amber ale.
The latest sign of trouble comes just recently with an announcement of their “Odd Beers for Odd Years” series. Stone plans to vary the yeast in two solid flagship products, the Old Guardian Barley Wine and Russian Imperial Stout, releasing specialized versions of each in odd-numbered years going forward. Although in some cases such experimentation can be viewed as innovative and progressive, a move such as this that displaces two highly in-demand beers comes across as almost desperate—especially in light of the lack of other original ideas.
More than facing problems simply with the origins of new beers, Stone suffers from a tremendous house flavor. Breweries often become accustomed to using the same ingredients from the same suppliers, and many maintain a particular favored yeast strain used as a base for most if not all of their products. If not careful with recipe formulations, breweries can inadvertently develop the same flavors throughout their product lines no matter the individual style of beer.
Unfortunately, Stone has fallen into the trap of house flavor not only with brewing but also with their thinking and business practices. Their rebellious new beers come across with flavors not innovative and desirable but that are yawningly familiar variations upon an often-abused theme of “extreme brewing” while searching for some sort of style identity. All I am able to taste recently are tinkering experiments with the Arrogant Bastard base recipe that are wholly uninspired and unoriginal.
Stone may have been “extreme” early in their history but as the rest of the craft beer industry has caught up (if not passed them by), Stone has remained static while resting on the same business formula with which they started years ago. Their image has become dated and self-mocking, and their talents have become a creative shadow of the bad boys of brewing they once claimed to be.
Originally published December 12, 2010, at craftbeerusa.blogspot.com.