At Home With Greg Koch & Sara Tobin
Posted September 27, 2013
Greg Koch, the self-described “beer-geek-gone-pro” greets us at his Solana Beach home, a serene spot that he shares with girlfriend Sara Tobin, a yoga and acting teacher, overlooking the San Elijo Lagoon. “It’s kind of our oasis from the fray,” says Koch, who with business partner Steve Wagner has built Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company into the 10th largest craft brewery in the country, and helped to make San Diego County, arguably, the nation’s leading region for craft beer. Along that 17-year journey, he has taken on mass-market beers, “challenging the tyrannical overlords who were brazenly attempting to keep Americans chained in the shackles of poor taste.” At least, that’s what Koch declared on the label of one of his brews, Arrogant Bastard Ale, a message that is both funny and in your face, a manifesto embraced by thousands of beer drinkers who, thanks to Stone, now prefer big and bold to yellow and fizzy.
But here at home, away from the fray, Koch and Tobin have carved out a peaceful life, sharing a passion for environmental and social sustainability. Light filters through skylights and windows in the great room, a soaring, two-story space finished with stone floors and warm woods. Much of the furniture is from Thailand, wood reclaimed from a river widening project in Chiang Mai. Koch climbed around “a pile of what looked like wood junk,” choosing pieces that resemble sculpture. Two large monkey wood dining tables are the focus of the open living/dining room, and consoles in the entryway are formed from hollowed-out tree trunks.
In a corner off the main living area, a vast picture window overlooks their garden, with the lagoon just beyond. It’s a favorite spot for relaxation and contemplation. Koch stashes his guitars nearby, ready to play. A former music producer and band manager — he also built recording studios — Koch describes himself as a “wannabe guitar player.” Tobin insists he’s just being modest.
Scattered around the house are a few treasures from travels (not too many – Koch doesn’t believe in filling the house with “stuff,” no matter how cool). There’s a carved elephant from India, for instance, and bone knives and stone hatchets from Indonesia. The well-traveled couple, who’ve visited ten countries in the past two years, are now planning a six-month sabbatical, beginning in Maui, with stops to visit friends, many from the craft beer community, around the world.
They met through friends, in fact, at the Belly Up Tavern while listening to the band, English Beat. “I saw her,” says Koch, “and I was taken.” Tobin, who has acted at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Lamb’s Players Theatre, knew nothing about his brewing background at the time. Told he owned an organic farm (which is true), Tobin remembers thinking “I bet he does yoga.” (He didn’t then; he does a “little bit” now.) The evening ended late at the local Denny’s, where they talked for hours.
The couple also shares a passion for food that is organic, farm-to-table and sustainable. “I’m definitely a food philosopher,” says Koch. “All people should have access to good, clean, fair food.” Long an activist against over consuming processed foods and sugars, he recently set a personal goal: no desserts, no sodas, no candy. In short, no added sugar — a daunting challenge, he has found, even for someone with his resources and food knowledge. “The volume of processed sugar clearly is killing us,” he says, “but you can’t escape it.” When the couple dines at home, “We try to keep it simple and healthy,” says Tobin, which usually means vegetarian, such as quinoa and fresh vegetables, or perhaps, fresh fish. “Sara is more the cook than I am,” says Koch. “More the cook? I am the cook!” Tobin teases. They make their own homemade version of power bars, with nut butter for quick energy on the road.
Favorite restaurants include chef Matt Gordon’s Solace & the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas and the recently opened Sea & Smoke in Del Mar. Other North County favorites: Real Food & Spirits, Pizza Port, Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria, the Craftsman New American Tavern, Delicias, and Prepkitchen.
But no matter where they eat out, good beer on the menu is a must. “If a place doesn’t have a good beer selection, especially in this day and age, especially in San Diego,” says Koch, “what else are they compromising on that is not so obvious?”
The couple also believes in sustaining community. Stone Brewing’s recent 17th anniversary celebration raised $250,000 for the Surfrider Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs, among other causes. On November 1, billed as “Shave the Date,” Koch takes off his mustache and beard, which have been two years in the growing. It’s all part of “Movember,” an effort to raise funds and awareness for men’s health issues, in particular, prostate and testicular cancer.
Given his passions, it’s no surprise that a painting of Don Quixote, Cervante’s eponymous hero, hangs in the living room. Like the mythical Man of La Mancha, he strives for visionary ideals. But unlike literature’s would-be knight, Koch isn’t tilting at windmills. “I’m fighting giants,” he says. “It’s part of my life.” Andrea Naversen
Photography by Vincent Knakal