By Mike Raven
It was my pleasure to spend the morning talking with The Boston Beer Company’s founder and brewer, Jim Koch. Jim began in 1984 with a generations-old family recipe that had been uncovered in his father’s attic. Inspired and unafraid to challenge conventional thinking about beer, he brought the recipe to life in his kitchen. Pleased with the results of his work, Jim decided to sample his beer with bars in Boston in the hopes that drinkers would appreciate the complex, full-flavored beer he brewed fresh in America. That beer was aptly named Samuel Adams Boston Lager, in recognition of one of our nation’s great founding fathers, a man of independent mind and spirit. Little did Jim know at the time but Samuel Adams Boston Lager would soon become a catalyst of the American craft beer revolution. Here is how the conversation went.
Mike Raven: You actually come from a long line of beer aficionados. Is it true your dad gave you the recipe from your grandfather that he used in the 1870s in St. Louis? When did you come up with the idea to do it for real?
Jim Koch: It was, let me see … we made the first batch in 1984, so 31 years ago, and released it commercially in early ‘85. This was just a very different time; this beer wonderland we enjoy today was a beer wasteland 31 years ago. There were basically just imports and domestics. And the domestics were (they’re consolidating now) … you might find an old Stroh or an Old Style or a Schlitz.
I grew up on Stroh’s, being from Detroit.
Yeah, exactly, but they were all losing the war. Then it was all Bud, Miller and Coors. And massive TV advertising. Then you had Heineken, Becks, Molson and Corona.
Were they mostly pilsners?
Well, really they were light American lagers. It was basically a light beer – whether it was called Budweiser premium or not, they were all light beers: light color, light taste, light flavor, light aroma. So into that wasteland (laughing), I appeared with a beer that wasn’t like anything else out there, at least in the eastern part of the U.S. It had color, it had taste, it had malt and it had hops. It also had no advertising, no distributor and no identity.
You had nothin’ (laughing).
That’s right! I couldn’t get a distributor to carry it. So in Massachusetts, you can self-distribute if you have a brewer’s license. You can actually go sell it to retailers. So that’s what I did. And when I started, I couldn’t afford six-packs so all I had was loose cases of bottles. And I couldn’t afford kegs. So I could really only sell to bars and restaurants – so that’s how I got started.
No, no kegs. Interestingly, back in ‘83, ‘84, ‘85, the keg beer tended to be like the cheap stuff. The bottles were the quality beers.
Yeah. Now that you mention it, I drank a lot Heineken is those days.
Yeah, you put it into a glass and it all looks the same – no badge to it. Heineken really didn’t like draft; they wanted the badge – that green bottle on the bar. Otherwise the drinker wasn’t making a statement with it. So, I couldn’t afford kegs anyway so it wasn’t really much of an issue for me (grinning). At the time, there were no guideposts or benchmarks for where this was going to go. Now we look backwards and say, well, there was this whole craft beer revolution starting.
But there wasn’t a craft beer revolution even in the making in those days.
Exactly. If you were a beer drinker and you wanted a higher quality beer, you drank an import. You sure didn’t drink an American beer. And here I show up with an American beer that broke the mold.
How did you make it in those days? Did you brew it at home?
Well, I started home brewing it, but my family were commercial brewers. My dad was a professional brew master; my grandfather and great-great grandfather were; so, you know, I grew up around breweries. And when I started, I didn’t have enough money to build or buy a brewery of the quality I was used to. Home brewing is fine but you try to scale up home brewing techniques to a commercial scale and you’re asking for trouble. Because as a home brewer, you don’t worry about things like sanitation, infection, stability and consistency. It’s okay if every batch is different; the beer only has to last a week or two in the bottle. And if a few bottles blow up, well, that’s kind of what happens (laughing). Usually you keep your home brews in a closet or down the basement so when they start going off – and they go off like grenades: boom! (laughter) – when you start to hear that, you just stay away for a while.
So what I did was an innovation. My dad knew breweries and said there are plenty of good breweries that have excess capacity. So we would go and bring our own ingredients, we had our own recipe, and we would make the beer at someone else’s brewery. So that’s what I did. It was called contract brewing or sometimes it was called partner brewing. It’s gotten lots of names over the years. It was finding a brewery with the right equipment and the right quality control, bringing my ingredients and making my beer; and then five or six weeks later, packaging it and selling it. So that’s how I got started. We eventually bought our own brewery. We built this brewery in ‘88.
Was the only beer you had then Boston Lager?
Yes, it would be several years before I got a second beer. It is still our largest selling beer today. So I kind of launched it, never expecting to succeed at this level. My original business plan was to get to 5,000 barrels, which is about 65,000 cases a year, with eight people and about a million dollars in revenue, and then it would level off. Because, I thought, there was a little niche for something like this and it probably won’t appeal to a lot of people. I didn’t have a ton of resources to grow it and I thought it probably isn’t growable anyway but there will be people who want a higher quality beer and want it fresh, and I can do that. And, long story short, six weeks after it came out, it was picked as the best beer in America and it just took off. It wasn’t like the Corona phenomenon or anything like that. It took us 10 years to do what they did in three. I remember the day we grew 50 percent. (Both of us belly laughing.) It doubled when I hired Rhonda and again six months later when I hired Dean, so I thought that was pretty fast growth. Yeah, so it began, and it helped lead to something much bigger that was this craft beer revolution, which today is transforming beer, not just here in the U.S., but in the rest of the world. The rest of the world today is looking to America to learn how to make beer.
Back in the day, people would look to Germany or the likes of it, to learn about beer, right?
Exactly! People would look at my beer and say it can’t be that good because it’s not imported. In Germany, they’ve been making beer for a thousand years; they know how to do it. Come back in a thousand years, maybe we’ll take your beer (laughing). If you look at the craft beer revolution and what it’s already done, it is truly extraordinary – particularly when you go back to this handful of “out of the mainstream, semi-misfits” that started this revolution. You know, I was like a dropout from consulting. I had a good thing going – I have three degrees from Harvard. They got a lot of my money.
So you went to your local college, huh?
Exactly – Harvard, the local community college (joking). But I dropped out of the consulting business. I mean, these were people that dropped out of something. A guy who dropped out of the Navy started New Albion, which is really what got this whole thing going. Another brewer, Vinnie Cilurzo, made the first, true, American IPA. He was talking about his brew house and he said to me, “Yeah, I got it from this guy in Bisbee, Arizona.” I said, “Did you get it from Electric Dave?” This guy, he called himself Electric Dave, so he started Electric Dave’s brewing but he had to sell it because he was going to federal prison for marijuana trafficking. That’s what I’m saying – these were out of the mainstream people. There was a handful of small American brewers who eventually changed the way the world thinks about beer.
Do you think this had any influence on the current craft whiskey movement?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, I don’t know if you know the head of the American Distillers Institute, Bill Owens?
No, I don’t.
He publishes Craft Distiller Magazine. Bill is one of those early pioneers. He started the first brewpub in the U.S. He had the idea that if I can do small-scale brewing, could I get a license to just sell it right there? I don’t have to go through a distributor, don’t have to worry about packaging and so on. Brilliant idea – there are thousands of them now.
Bill Owens was the same kind of mainstream dropout. He was a photojournalist and a well-known photographer in American photography in the second half of the 20th century. I saw him about 10 years ago and he had an exhibit of his photography at Yale. He was also a photographer for Rolling Stone but there wasn’t enough money in it for him, so he dropped out and started this brewpub. Anyway, he was one of the founders of the craft distilling movement. He is a physical link to the beginnings of craft beer and craft distilling.
Actually one of the first craft distillers was a fellow named Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam. He made Potrero gin like 15 years ago. In fact, Rhonda, my first hire, is opening a craft distillery in a few weeks on Boston Harbor. So absolutely.
Speaking of your ingredients, do you still use the German hops in the lager? I’m not sure how to pronounce it.
Hallertauer Mittelfrüeh. Yeah, hops are to beer like grapes are to wine.
Never thought of it that way.
Yes, the quality of your beer can only be as good as the quality of your hops and malt, just as in wine. For a winemaker to make a great wine, they need great grapes. Once a year, I go to the area called Hallertau – that’s the name of the region – in central Bavaria.
So this is like an appellation for hops?
It is just like an appellation. It is legally controlled and you have to get certified. There are 14 sealing villages, meaning they are authorized to put a seal on the hops certifying that they are grown in that soil of that variety. The German government legally controls it.
Do you buy a lot of these hops?
Oh yeah, we are the largest buyer in the world now of this special hop.
Is it expensive?
Yes, and difficult to grow. You have to really build relationships with the growers and the hop dealers there. When I first started going there, they had an official (seal master) that would put a red wax seal on the hops depending on which of the villages they came from. There are five varieties of hops that are legally considered noble hops. Like noble grapes, they are historic varieties and have to be grown in their original soil. You can’t transplant them and grow them somewhere else. Hallertauer Mittelfrüeh is one of the five, another is Tettnang – those are the two noble hops that go into Boston Lager.
Do you still look forward to going there every year?
After thirty something years (pause, laughter), I do. It’s in the fall, so it’s peaceful. You get on a plane at 9:00 at night – there’s a non-stop to Munich – sleep, land and you’re in another world. I’ve been going there a long time and know a lot of people there. It’s intense; the farmers have relatively small plots. In the U.S., you’ll get farmers with 500 to 1,000 acres. In Germany, you are a big grower if you have 15 acres. So that means, to assemble all the hops we need for our beer, I go through hundreds of lots.
The crop goes to the hop dealer and he has a certain sampling technique to present the hops to the buyer from that grower for the year. It’s generally in a hop warehouse, so it’s not exactly glorious: You get in a lab coat and they will lay out, say, 100 farmers’ lots. They are on purple paper (yes, purple paper) because it makes the green of the hops more pronounced. You go from lot to lot; most have an analysis of the hop but you can’t buy them off of a chemical analysis. You first do a physical inspection, looking for stems and leaves and things that shouldn’t be in there. Then you pick them up and feel them; you do “the rub.” You want a certain moisture content – 10 or 11 percent, roughly – so you want them to feel a certain way; you want them to compress and bounce back. If they are too dry, they won’t bounce back; if they are too wet, they are too bouncy. (He goes on to show me how he rubs the hops in his hands and puffs on them to extract the aroma and the oils that are in the lupulin glands.)
I’ve does this thousands of times, maybe ten thousand. I close my eyes and I have two boxes in my mind, two numbers: One is for the intensity of the aroma and the other is for the quality of the aroma. So for each lot, we’ll have three numbers: physical inspection, intensity of the aroma and the quality of the aroma. The hop selection is absolutely crucial in the quality of your beer. (He goes to say how they keep data and statistics on each farmer, the scientific part of the selection. The feeling I got was it is mostly done by his experience and expertise in the selection process.)
Somewhere I read you taste every batch of Boston Beer before it is released.
I taste every batch of every Sam Adams beer. I know, it’s a little weird.
My question is, when was the last time you had to throw one out because you didn’t like it?
Well, yesterday (both of us were roaring laughing).
Well, that answers that question! I didn’t think that would be the case! Does it happen often?
No, not that many. Pretty funny. In this case (he showed me a picture of a “crown” [cap] of a beer), can you see the little mark in the cap? That’s an imperfection in the liner of the crown. And the beer didn’t taste right.
Because it was oxidized?
Yes. I got this bottle and it looked like the fill was low, and a little bit of beer was on the outside of it, so it probably leaked out from the foam. I thought, there’s something the matter with this beer – and I’ve done this enough to know. It had a bad fill, so I wondered, did we not fill it right or what was wrong? We did some research with the numbers that were on the bottle because that will tell me the exact minute that it was bottled and the filler, so we can trace that back and find not only which batch of crowns we used, but every stage the beer went through. One case of crowns is 100 gross, so that’s about 600 cases of beer. That’s ironic you asked that question; yes, it was a Boston Lager.
I get sent every release of Sam Adams beer – some for public release and some that are experimental. It makes me wonder, just how many beers are you currently releasing for sale?
We will release, commercially, 60 a year. Many of them are very small batches, like those barrel room collection beers. They’re in limited distribution. You will find them in ABCs, Total Wines and such, where you may find 20 different Sam Adams beers. Whereas if you go into a Publix, you won’t find twenty but quite a few; and in a 7-11, God willing, you’ll find Boston Lager and a seasonal. A Yard House may carry six or seven Sam Adams drafts you won’t find at your neighborhood bar. So, for us, it’s fun to make these beers. They’re cool, like this experimental nitro-style beer, which took us over a year to perfect.
What was with the HeliYUM video that you put out last year?
That was an April Fools’ prank (laughing) about a new beer we were making called HeliYum. I nearly asphyxiated myself breathing helium so I could talk like that. That was just for fun. It got over a million views. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Tby91aTGF4).
We put it on ITM.com and got a slew of views from it.
Yeah, we’ve never released anything that got a million views in a couple of days. It was fun. Some people asked if it was real!
Well, you never know with you – you’re making all kinds of stuff!
What it highlights is there are two pillars of this craft beer revolution. One is tradition, bringing back traditional styles and traditional quality. The other is innovation and creativity. Craft beer rests on both those pillars. And you see it with the Boston Brick Red (only available in Boston) classic style beer, very malty, largely forgotten even in Ireland, then revived by Sam Adams. It’s all malt, so we are able to coax that red color out of the malt. There’s nothing in there except roasted malt. We have a special roast to get that gorgeous red color. That is a very faithful version of a classic traditional style. Then on the other hand, we have this new nitro beer, making beer do things you’ve never seen (tasting his new experimental nitro beer). You’ve seen a lot of beer in your life and I bet you’ve never seen a beer like that.
It actually changed color as the nitrogen dissipated. It looked very pale but gained an amber hue as it sat.
Yeah, it is a lot of fun doing these really cool things that nobody’s done before. For us, it means we are continuing to provide leadership to the craft category, coming up with new ideas, new styles – pushing the envelope.
I get the feeling you want everyone (in the craft beer trade) to be successful.
I’ve learned that we are either going to succeed together as craft brewers or not at all.
I think it’s pretty evident it’s happening. I wouldn’t worry about going out of business tomorrow.
I think we worry about that because all 3,500 of us still have only 10 percent (of the market) and then there’s the two 800-pound gorillas that have a 90 percent or 80 percent share. When my father was in the business, there were a thousand breweries in the U.S. and they all went out of business because the big guys took over. Who’s to say that won’t happen again? Not tomorrow, not this decade, but in our lifetimes maybe. There’s no God-given right to this business. If you’re in business, you are never entitled. You’re only entitled to what your customer is going to give you.
Speaking of creating and sharing innovation, don’t you share the Sam can design with your constituents? What’s different about your can?
If you look at it, the top, you can see it’s extended and it has an hourglass shape to it. The lid is bigger than the normal lid. The hourglass shape opens your mouth up vertically and the bigger lid opens it horizontally.
Next time you drink a pop (soda for us Southerners), notice that you basically form a seal with your mouth and you kind of half suck it out. That means you don’t get air, which means you don’t get aroma. What this can does is, when you drink from it, it opens up your mouth so you get air intake – so you get the aromatics of the beer in your drinking experience. If you notice, it’s more like drinking from a glass; you’re not sucking it out. Yeah, that was a year of engineering.
Everything seems to take a year.
It does, but we have a lot going on. We had a lot of false starts with it. (He goes on to explain they used a design firm they have used for other projects called IDEO, the same firm that developed Apple’s mouse.)
The glass had the same issue. This was the first beer glass that was designed around the function of taste. Beer glasses are designed to be pretty or interesting, as opposed to wine glasses, which were designed to change the sensory experience. Everybody knows if you drink a good wine, you drink it from the proper glass; you don’t drink it from a pint glass. Same thing goes for beer. If you’re going to drink a good beer, you’re not going to optimize the taste of it from a pint glass.
We designed a glass around the Sam Adams Boston Lager flavor experience. We had three sensory scientists that I worked with to come up with this glass. It’s an unusual shape. It’s the first glass designed to optimize the flavor of a beer, applying the wine glass principle to beer. It has things like an outward curved lip that puts the beer on the front of your tongue, where the sweetness is most easily tasted, so you get the body and the sweetness of the malt before the spiciness and bitterness of the hops kick in. We lasered in nucleation sites on the bottom of the glass to release bubbles, like a Champagne glass, so you keep a little foam all the way to the bottom. This bowl, it turns out, is the best shape to capture, concentrate and focus the aroma of the beer. Actually it looks a lot like Riedel’s sommelier glass. Almost the same size and shape, ‘cause that actually turns out to be a really good size and shape for capturing and concentrating aromas. It even has this turbulator – there’s an internal bead; you feel it? Like a bump? That creates turbulation in the beer. It flows over it like a ski jump and that turbulence releases carbon dioxide just as the beer hits your mouth. The CO2 will then carry aromatics into your retro-nasal and nasal, where you smell. So the taste experience gets a little amplification.
There’s a lot to that little glass.
Yeah, like I said, there were three PhDs – two in sensory sciences and one in materials engineering – to actually produce it. And now, interesting but Riedel really wasn’t involved in beer glasses before this. After this came out, I think it sparked their interest in developing beer glasses and Georg Riedel himself actually came to this brewery and worked with us to develop a Riedel glass for a very special beer we make called Utopias. Utopias is the strongest true beer in the world; it weighs in at about 60 proof. And it sells for about $200.00 a bottle. Georg Riedel had some, and he offered to come to our brewery and design a special glass for it. I think that was the first custom beer glass. It looks somewhat like a bourbon or Cognac glass.
Last question: You have a system with your people to help make sure the beer on the shelf or in the bar or restaurant is fresh. Can you dwell on that?
I feel like the consumer holds the brewer responsible for the quality of the beer in their glass. And it doesn’t matter if the retailer left the keg out in the sun for a week (laughing) or the wholesaler didn’t rotate properly, someone over-ordered or the beer sat on a display for six months. None of that matters to the consumer. To the consumer, the name on the bottle is everything. We have taken this seriously. It isn’t enough to say I’ve made great beer and I put it on a truck, and if the consumers didn’t get great beer, then that’s somebody else’s problem. Because as a brewer, you actually do have a lot of influence over what happens to your beer. So we were the first brewer to put legible freshness dating on beer. It used to be, even today, many brewers don’t make it easy for the consumers to know if the beer is stale. In fact, Budweiser is now finally, after 20 years, putting true freshness dating on the beer.
It used to be a “born on” date, but it would give you a date, say February 15th, and then say it was good for say 110 days. Huh? It’s May 20th – is that beer still fresh?
You gotta do the math (laughing).
Yeah, I would struggle with that. When you look at our can, it just says September 15, 2015. That’s the expiration date. And on the label of every bottle it says, for brewery fresh taste, enjoy before, say, September 15th. So you know whether you’re getting a fresh beer or not. We spend about $5 million a year on taking back old beer, destroying old beer, buying it back from wholesalers and so on. We budget for it. To me, it’s an ingredient and quality just like hops and malt. It’s part of the cost of guaranteeing the customer a great, fresh Sam Adams.
We train all our salespeople to do draft quality audits. All our salespeople can go into a bar and look at the draft system for problems. They’re trained to know what to taste for, how to evaluate it and if there’s a problem, to then diagnose it and fix it, or call a draft tech or someone to get to the bottom of it. Every account that sells a significant amount of Sam Adams is going to get one of our people in there on some kind of rotation. (He goes on to explain the production of short runs and the Freshest Beer Program for wholesalers to reduce inventory backlogs. They have also reduced the shelf life by a month, to three months on IPAs instead of four. All these procedures add up to guaranteed freshness.)
Thirty-one years later we’re still innovating, raising standards and continuing to lead. And having fun doing it! I would get bored if I wasn’t doing that.
Thanks so much for your time. Can I get a picture with you before I leave?
You bet! Let’s go into the brewery.