Gravel Culture: Stohk – Not just a beer company

Posted By Gravel Union On 9 March 2021

Who are Stohk? How do you pronounce their name? What makes them tick? We recently spent an evening chatting digitally with them over quite a few chilled Test002 beers and this is what we discovered.

GU – Could you introduce yourselves and tell us what your role is in the business please?

Matt - It's quite helpful to bring this up, actually, because we now have to work this out!

Gareth – There are four of us. Matt and I are school friends. So have 25+ years - sort of friendship veterans. Aled and I are brothers.

Matt - I'm based in Amsterdam. I wound up working with Robbo in different kind of forms, and then we've ended up riding bikes together as well, so the two things have kind of intertwined perfectly.

Gareth - If I've got any speciality in the team, then I’m the beer guy. My background is in beer, having been MD for a while at Brewdog and Curious Brewing - I'm probably the beery guy.

Aled - If I've got a leaning outside of this, it’s towards working in finance, keeping the bank manager happy. My other area of expertise is to advise Gareth how to change a bike tyre, general bike maintenance advice - and driving. I've done quite a bit of driving so far as we've been up and down to the brewery a lot.

Robbo – I’m 35 and I’m a Leo. I’m a strategist by trade and I guess I play that same role here too. Trying to help us get under the skin of the customer or consumer or community that we want to be part of. I also say no to things a lot!

Matt - I have a more advertising/branding background, so I'm bringing that side of things to the table. Helping bring the brand to life and working with the guys on that side of things.

GU - Now we've got your backgrounds out of the way, let’s talk about bikes! If we gave you unlimited money but said you can only have one bike in your fleet, what would it be?

Gareth – Fortunately I have my dream bike already. For the last three months, I've been in possession of a Mason Bokeh in orange. The only colour a Mason should come in, let’s be pretty clear on that.

Matt – It would be easier to answer, what am I riding? In terms of gravel, I'm on the Santacruz Stigmata, which is great fun and recently just swapped back to nobly gravel tyres again. And what I love about it is during the summer months, I'll swap that out to some 25s/28s for the road and it is just a totally different bike. And then I'll put the tubeless gravel tyres on when it gets muddy again - it's great.

Aled - I guess my dream bike is kind of influenced by a lot by long distance touring stuff - bikes that are going to be used in events like the TCR, would be on my dream bike list. My everyday bike, which I will keep until I die is a steel Kona gravel bike. It’s based on a Kona Sutra, but it’s a bit of a chameleon. That bike, especially this winter, has been absolutely brilliant. It is the one that feels as if it was if it was made for me, you know.

Robbo – I’m going to answer really pragmatically. I ride to a DeRosa Idol 2016 fitted with Campag Chorus and a Basso Fastcross 2014 on SRAM Force 1x. The Basso started off as a “groad’ bike - I built that with spare parts that I’d collected

GU – Where does your name come from (and does everyone pronounce it correctly…)?

Matt - The pronunciation thing is kind of funny! I guess the feeling came from us talking about what we wanted or where we wanted to be as a brand. We talked about this kind of unifying feeling that everybody experiences after an epic day outdoors. Everybody comes home and you have this feeling and this glow about you. The idea of Stohk is something that feels like it kind of encapsulates that quite nicely. As soon as we hit on Stohk, we were just like OK. We wanted to fuel this feeling of stoke. How can we prolong this moment, where everyone gets back and has this kind of euphoria about themselves? But also, how can we then stoke the kind of inspiration to get out there and make sure you're doing stuff as well? So, it has a bit of a two-fold thing going on!

GU - Where your inspiration came from for the imagery that you use on your Instagram account?

Matt - This past year in particular, we've all ended up spending more time on Insta because you end up living vicariously through other people who live in other places or you've got friends on the other side of the world who are riding in the sunshine when it's snowing here. We just ended up showing the kind of imagery that we're loving ourselves. As our audience is growing, what’s been quite nice as we're getting new kind of friends and followers is that we are starting to feature some of that imagery as well. We end up featuring stuff that we're loving, in places that we'd really love to go as well. It's just kind of feeding the fire that way, which is quite nice.

Gareth – What we really want to be is an outdoor, physical, active brand that participates and at the moment it’s trapped! We’re trapped in Instagram, because of Covid19. Until we can get back out there and have a physical community and see people face-to-face, then we’re just doing what we can in Instagram.

Matt - I think without getting too philosophical, there's an element of learning and finding out what the brand is and who we are and doing that ‘live’ in public on Instagram. You’ll notice on the beer as well - it’s called Test – Test001, Test002. I think that, as a sort of as a philosophy, runs through lots of the things that we do. What you see coming through Instagram is really just us testing and learning with regards to who we are.

GU – Had we better talk about your beer?

Gareth – We should! And probably importantly, why beer? From really early conversations, we settled on Stohk living in this moment. It goes back to teenage years surfing in Croyde, to snowboarding in Chamonix, through to recently doing big rides around the Peak District. There is this evocative ‘moment’ that just happens at the end. Which commonly for us is centred around beer! We get together and start telling the stories of the day and beer is inevitably centre of it, fuelling the stories in a kind of “social glue” type of way.

So, we knew we wanted to do this lifestyle brand that was about outdoors and about adventure and played to the stuff we love - riding bikes and running down mountains and jumping in the ocean. The other thing we love is beer. But we're not trying to be the next big craft brewery or craft beer brand. We're trying to be an outdoor brand and adventure brand. It just happens that first our first product is this is kind of unifying sort of product in beer that sits in this moment really comfortably. That's probably really important in terms of what you'll seeing coming out from us - you'll see the things we love doing and beer just happens to be there at some point in that story.

Aled – There’s been an awfully long gestation period for the idea of the beer. We talk about the fact that we're an outdoor brand first and that's true. But, there's been a long period of time where Gareth has been mulling over beer recipes with this in mind. We were running an ultra down the Thames path last year and we both stopped somewhere. And I said, oh God, we should stop for a beer there. We talked through the ideas of what would ‘that’ beer taste like? I think there's an awful lot of that whole product evolution and a long, long gestation period in Gareth’s head

GU – Why is your beer called an XPA?

Gareth - It's an extra pale ale. We didn’t want to just brew another IPA. But it essentially sits between Pale Ales and IPA’s. For some people it's about colour. For some people it's about taste and bitterness. For me, what I really love about the XPA when it's done really, really well, is it can occupy this sweet spot between lager and IPA. And we’re doing some stuff in our brewing process, for example colder fermentation temperatures, that mean we get a crisp, super refreshing beer, but still with all that kind of vibe that you get in an IPA. Most importantly we’re trying to brew a beer that perfectly sits in this moment – when you’re telling these stories and the storytelling must go on. So, you want a beer that passes the ‘another one of those please’ test!

GU - Where are you going next? If you don't want to become known ‘just’ as a craft brewer, what plans have you got for the future?

Robbo - It feels weird to say it, but I think pragmatically just getting together and having a beer together – that feels like a foundational thing for the start of a brand and the business and it just hasn’t been able to happen so far. I think that will be the next step.

Matt – Totally! Because of Covid19 we haven't all been able to meet together as a foursome yet! That hasn't happened. We’ve never even done a ride together. We've done it as pairs and trios, but we’ve never all met.

Gareth - We started to bounce the ideas around for Stohk in early summer last year. It was a point when, we'd still feasibly think, let's get together in August or September and do an epic ride all the way down to Bodmin in Cornwall where the brewery is. We still haven't had the opportunity to do that yet because of what’s been going on in the world. It’s a super important ‘birth’ moment for us to do at some point. We still consider ourselves un-launched. As and when we get to do that, we would definitely to get some people along for the ride.

Matt - We've read this story about like the most remote pub in the UK, which is somewhere in Scotland. Wouldn't it be amazing to deliver those guys some Stohk beer and turn that into a bit of an adventure for ourselves – we could pedal a delivery all the way to the far corner of Scotland.

Gareth - The entire concept is basically writing itself publicly - like the Field Test approach. This is a brand, in development, in the public eye. If people like how we go about things over the next three months or six months or twelve months, we'd love to expand on this idea of being an outdoor brand. That might be turning up at events, that might be turning up on the side of Winnat’s Pass. These experiences out there are ones we’d like to participate in, to facilitate and to host. Maybe in a couple of years down the line, it would be a venue which is not like a standard bar, but a venue that hosts ‘the moment’. So, it could be a workshop. It could be a place to hang out with your family and talk about the adventures you've just been on. It's a bit unwritten still - it's a bit ‘dreamy’ if you like. But it's writing itself as we go.

GU - You've got 22 or 23 Stohk “rules” on Instagram - how did you come up with the idea for them?

Matt - I think initially we were kind of writing some unofficial rules for ourselves. And at some point, those became something else. So, we thought well, we're putting ourselves out there in the world, why don't we start to interact with the audience a little bit and start to have a little bit of fun putting these unofficial rules out there. As you know, a lot of brands have put rules out there before and the world that we're living in right now is full of rules. I think how we've been approaching it is to look at this as more of a kind of more positive, glass half full kind of system of rules.

Although we call them rules, I think we just like to think of them as something a bit more positive and inspiring rather than “you have to do this or that”. The stuff that we want to put out there is just to put a smile on people's faces. If and when we put a rule out there, we just want it to be something that people take as inspiration rather than a reason to feel bad.

Gareth – One of the things about this for us is that it there’s no need to take ourselves or this brand or what we do too seriously. A year ago, Aled, a friend Paul and I were riding up Holme Moss in the Peak District. We're all at totally different standards, different levels of experience, different kit. As we climbed up out of Holmfirth the wind starting picking up and by the time we got to the top it was blowing a gale. Everybody's experience by the time we got to the top was the same, but we all got there in totally different ways. Our story of getting up there was really different but equally brilliant. What we hope is that Stohk should be accessible in that way. And it shouldn't be rules that say you can't come and play and it should be rules that say aim for the puddles, because that's something we can all do and is fun.

Aled - But in the meantime, we’re still trying to educate Gareth on the appropriate length for his socks…

Gareth – I’m a runner. Ankle socks are fine right?! I really only got into cycling in any sort of way in the last 12 months or so. It’s gravel riding really that's got me interested. When I historically looked at packs of road cyclists chasing after segment times on Strava and looking at their power outputs and stuff like that, it always felt to me like it was quite elitist, quite exclusive. Then this world of gravel kind of opened up to me where it was okay to stop and take a photo. The “take only photos” kind of mindset is just a bit more prevalent and a bit more welcoming in gravel riding and is something that I found really inspiring. It’s got me into cycling as a result in a big way which, I probably wouldn't have done to the same extent otherwise.

GU - How did you get into gravel riding?

Aled – I started out as an MTB rider, then I got into road riding and then I came back into gravel. I remembered my first off-road rides and trying to perform before people like Apidura sprung up. At the time, in the UK, there really weren’t any gravel bikes, any bags or anything, so we spent our time butchering mountain bikes and strapping bags on the handlebars and falling off a lot because you got your straps caught in your front wheel. It was all a bit of an experiment, but it was brilliant fun. We were going on big rides like the South Downs Way and having pretty epic adventures. They were usually a bit hit and miss - getting lost quite a bit. Falling off quite a lot. Drinking a lot of beer. Sleeping in a hedge. You know, it was that was kind of thing.

Over time gravel riding has become more of a thing and it's made things a lot easier. The bikes are better than ever. I think for all of us, we have found gravel riding as a route into the outdoors. A way to get off the track a bit. It's just fun - exploring the tracks wherever you live. We all just kind of like going off of the beaten track and finding something new.

Robbo - It was sort of the lack of rules that attracted me to gravel riding. I grew up as a roadie. But I realised just wanted a bit more of an adventure. Through age and for practical reasons, we just got to the point where a less pressured, more open kind of style of cycling was preferable. I know it's a bit of a cliché, but I think the freedom of gravel riding is quite interesting. Also, being based in the Netherlands (which Matt can probably empathise with as well) - it's really flat. You can't change the elevation, but you can change the surface under your wheels. Gravel riding is definitely a way of exploring and finding new things.

Matt – A few years ago I travelled to Tasmania to do what was billed as a road ride. I packed up my beautiful road bike to do a week and a half of riding down there with some friends. The whole reason that most of us travelled there was these epic photos on Instagram of this climb called Jacob's Ladder. This climb was supposed to be the climax of the ride on day 8 or 9 of our trip. It was the whole reason that everybody had travelled from all around the world to do this. We spent the whole week and a bit riding on 25mm road tyres. And then on the final day, we did the Jacob's Ladder climb and had no idea that it was actually a gravel climb and spent an hour and a half climbing on gravel to the foot of those famous switchbacks that you see in the photos.

It was fun, but it was ridiculous and it was like one of the most painful warnings ever! There were guys coming flying past on gravel bikes, mountain bikes - just kind of laughing at these idiots on 25mm road tyres. We dragged ourselves to the top and then had to also come back down as well, because there’s no way down the other side. You get to the top and then you kind of like count your blessings that you're alive and then you have to try and brake into the corners of this really deep shale going down. So that was my first introduction to gravel riding!

GU – Once you are allowed to travel again, where will be the first place that you'd want to go to do a ride?

Robbo – I’d like to go back to South Wales and ride the Bwlch climb It is funny because during the last 12 months, stuff that is normally quite close to home, suddenly looks quite exotic. The idea of suddenly all of the borders opening and everyone being able to grab their bikes and head over is very strange.

Matt - The idea of the four of us getting together and doing a ride together kind of seems like the ideal right now. Aled has some nice routes up his sleeve for getting to the brewery in Cornwall.

Gareth - A couple of months ago, we spotted Grinduro in Wales and said this is going to be it! It's going to be July. The lockdown will have eased and that's going to be our chance to get together and go do something that's a bit of fun. It will be pretty much our one year anniversary, so we’re thrilled to finally be able to go. I live in Northampton, UK and at the minute, everything outside of my county border looks like a dream to me!

Aled - I’ve been getting other people's views on this question - that first weekend when you’re free from lockdown, where are you going to go? It's really inspiring just to feel the energy and excitement that people have when they start to think about where they're going to head to. I think hopefully 2021 is going to be the year when people can put their tents on their bikes and just go! Everywhere seems to be already booked up. There's not a single place you can go to stay anywhere. So, you're basically going to be getting your tent out, packing up your bike and just riding somewhere.

GU - What do you think we'll all be doing on gravel bikes in the future?

Matt – Riding in groups of more than two!

Aled – I'm hoping it's people trying to put together more of those routes that can join together and go cross-country. It's amazing how that's grown recently. If you think of all the long distance trails there are now - the King Alfred’s Way was the big one last year. But then the South Downs Way, North Downs Way, all the ones in Scotland, the Badger Divide, the Two City Divide. It's just quite a long list, isn't it, now, even in the UK?

Gareth - I think it just keeps growing. If that is the outcome, that there's more routes that are being created, either just purely by individuals being creative with the likes of komoot, or really decent funding coming in and enabling the improvement of these routes and better access of these routes, then it will lead to such a positive vibe around it. I want to get other people along to see if we can do a bit more of that over the next couple of years. I can’t wish for anything more because that's what's growing the inclusivity. People have fun and smile from ear to ear when you're doing it. And, you know, that‘s a great result I would say.

GU – Is there anything else you would like to add to finish off our chat?

Gareth – We’ve talked about how we four can't wait to ride together. But I think we just want to put out the message that we can't wait to get out and meet the Gravel Union readers, too. That's a really big part of what we want to start to be. We're very much looking forward to just getting out, hanging out with people on the rides that they love to ride, the routes they love to ride. And then talking about the stories at the end of the day with them.

Robbo - This is embarrassingly trivial, but as someone who's worked in marketing for their entire career and helped other people to sell their products, I just want to share a beer with someone that I’ve been a part of making. I know it’s so small and simple, but it's quite amazing really just to be part of that.

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