It was during this time 30 years ago that Jim Koch began earnestly cobbling together the Boston Beer Co., makers of the iconic Samuel Adams brand of craft beers. Since that winter of 1984, he has been lionized and demonized, his beers derisively dismissed and slavishly imitated, served in the White House and in your house, the single most popular craft-beer brand on Earth by almost any measure: sales, sales accounts, brand recognition. Order a Sam Adams in Paris, Texas, or Paris, France, and they at least know what you’re talking about, if they don’t have it on tap or in bottles.
With the possible exceptions of Fritz Maytag, the founder of the modern Anchor Brewing, and the critic Michael Jackson, Jim Koch should be considered the single, most important figure in American craft beer.
Why? For starters, because of the aforementioned popularity of his Sam Adams beers. He conceived of the first one, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, through family lore and with a little help from Joseph Owades, the biochemist who developed the first recipe for light beer and who Koch hired as a consultant in Boston Beer’s nascent stages.
The recipe, legend has it, came via an ancestor who was a brewer. Koch’s father, Charles, had been a brewer, too, though he grew disenchanted with the consolidating industry that was dominated after World War II by the sort of fizzy bastardized pilsner his son would one day describe to me as “alcoholic soda pop.” The elder Koch left brewing in the 1950s to co-found a company in Cincinnati that distributed brewing and industrial chemicals.
He tried to dissuade his boy from brewing as well, when Jim Koch visited from the Boston area to tell of his plans for a brewery. “We’ve spent 20 years trying to get the smell of a brewery out of our clothes,” father said to son. But father also had an idea when he saw son was intent: Work around the start-up costs; rather than build a physical brewery, rent excess capacity and labor at America’s dwindling number of under-taxed regional breweries, the sort being swallowed up or left for dead by Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller. Koch obliged and contract brewing entered the American craft beer life stream in its biggest way ever and since.
Koch poured the money he saved from not starting a physical brewery into marketing his brand. And this, too, along with beer itself and the way he made it (through contract brewing), renders Koch one of the three most important figures ever in American craft beer. In this glorious epoch of thousands of independent breweries, of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages related to said breweries, of RateBeers and BeerAdvocates, of apps and All About Beer, of homemade honey ale at the White House, it’s easy to forget the arctic information climate that confronted the craft-beer consumer in 1984 (never mind the small number of such consumers). Koch manned the rhetorical ramparts as often as radio, the newspapers (this was an era, children, when people still got their news from newspapers), or even TV allowed him.
He was the one individual, more than any other before or since, who provided a context for the consumer when it came to understanding craft beer. He talked of hops and malts and bouquets and Reinheitsgebot at a time when more than 80 percent of the nation’s beer was made by five breweries and the number of craft breweries in America could be counted on two sets of hands. In this pursuit, Koch was fearless.
Here he was on PBS’ MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour in August 1986, going after Heineken, then a well-respected import, for allegedly adulterating its beers with adjuncts like corn and preservatives: “What I’m doing is obviously very risky. I’m directly attacking very powerful, entrenched interests—imported beers and imported brewers, beers that sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of beer here. And I’m pointing a finger directly at them and saying they’re a fraud.”
Sure there was a dose of self-aggrandizement—he was selling a product, after all—but also a certain admirable bravado in service of that product, which by no means then was a sure thing commercially; several craft breweries making fantastic beers had gone unceremoniously out of business in the previous decade. Craft brewing was a way to lose money, not make it. Take away Koch’s PR stands in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and you take away a sizable chunk of American craft beer’s growth. David Geary, co-founder of Maine’s first craft brewery (which bears his name and which is now the oldest east of the Mississippi), put it like so when he saw Sam Adams bottles land on that state’s shelves in 1988: “Now we have a category.”
With the bravado, though, came a prickliness that did not endear Koch to his fellow craft brewers. Anyone attempting to place “Boston” and “beer” anywhere near one another in a brand or company name could expect a letter from his lawyers (if not a visit from Koch himself). Some of the beers Boston Beer churned out were forgettable schlock, if not brazen heresy, like Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic, which was both. To connoisseurs, including brewers, a beer should only call itself a lambic on the label if it originated from an area of Belgium southwest of Brussels, much like Champagne is just that: sparkling white wine from Champagne, France. Koch called his beer a lambic anyway, explaining it was an “interpretation” on the classic Belgian style.
In his promotional lust, he also actually tried to trademark the phrase, “The Best Beer in America,” for his Boston Lager after it won a string a consumer preference polls at the Great American Beer Festival in the late 1980s. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office turned him down—as did a federal court he appealed to. And, when David Geary defended Koch at the Craft Brewers Conference in 1996 (in Boston, no less) as the man who taught Americans about craft beer, the audience of fellow brewers booed him.
Through it all, the general quality of Sam Adams, especially the flagship Boston Lager, buoyed Koch’s reputation in the industry and, especially, outside of it. From the moment it dropped commercially 30 years ago, people knew it was special. Someone intimately involved with the craft beer industry back then put it this way to me: Boston Lager was “a clean, clean beer. It was gorgeous. [Koch] put it out there: nice color, good head. All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a good draft beer.'” In an earlier era of occasionally iffy bottles, when quality control was not yet sacred writ in the craft-beer industry, the consistent quality as much as the taste and its seeming ubiquity put Sam Adams over the commercial top.
Koch learned such an adherence working at the management consultancy, the Boston Consulting Group, in the magisterial skyscraper One Boston Place, which counted private equity groups and law firms among its other tenants. He advised clients like International Paper and General Electric on quality control and manufacturing efficiency. He also followed the pre-World War II rise of the Japanese economy, its industries girded by a similar adherence to quality; he grew frustrated, in fact, with American business executives who saw Japan’s success as the fruit of anything but quality control—robotics, docile unions, calisthenics after lunch; anything but solid, reliable products.
He came to fervently believe this: that a product had to be either better or cheaper to succeed. As Charles Koch put it to his son as Boston Beer germinated from an idea to a full-going concern: “People don’t drink the marketing.”
Jim Koch could have had a good life through the Boston Consulting Group. He was pulling in at least $250,000 annually after six years and the firm was expanding (his Boston Beer co-founder, Rhonda Kallman, turned down a chance to help start the consultancy’s New York office to partner with Koch). He had earned three degrees from Harvard, as firm an assurance of affluence as any in America’s old meritocracy. But he chose a different path.
Now, 30 years in, Koch remains a force in American craft beer, still its most recognizable spokesman. Perhaps chastened by an Anheuser-Busch-underwritten expose on contract brewing in 1996, he has become more avuncular than atavistic, a fellow craft brewer once telling me that he had grown by the new century “tired of being hated.” He is much more likely to advise and fund than sue and browbeat. His company was instrumental, in fact, in steadying the industry after the Great Shakeout of the late 1990s, when as many as one-third of the craft-brewing operations in the U.S. went belly up and it all looked like such a fad.
Koch is undoubtedly comfortable after three decades in the business—American craft beer’s first billionaire—and in little need of proving himself or his beer any longer. Still, there Boston Beer was earlier this year, in its 30th year, releasing its first ever iteration of that great American beer interpretation: the British-born India pale ale. Koch’s name for the first Sam Adams IPA? Rebel.
· It Was 17 Years Ago Today That American Craft Beer Met Chris Hansen [TomAcitelli.com]
· St. Patrick’s Day Special! The Early History of Craft Beer in Boston [TomAcitelli.com]
· Sam Adams Creator Becomes Billionaire as Craft Beer Rises [Bloomberg]