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Jim Koch on 10 Years of Brewing the American Dream

Jim Koch 10 Years Brewing American Dream

In the past few decades, few industries have epitomized the spirit of American entrepreneurialism like craft brewing. In times of recession, brewing kept booming, serving as an avenue for upward mobility in a stagnant economy. Stories of successful brewers who started in the garage or basement and ended up on the public stock exchange read like working-class fables. Such is the case for The Boston Beer Co. (BBC) founder and original Sam Adams brewer Jim Koch, a sixth-generation brewer who launched what would become one of the most iconic craft brewing operations of all time in 1984 from a kitchen stove pot.

Unlike the relatively craft-conscious world of today, Koch brought Samuel Adams Boston Lager into a market that viewed "craft" as a term for macaroni pictures held together with Elmer's Glue.

In some ways, building up The Boston Beer Co. resembled such a craft project. Koch had to piece together accounts one by one, bar to bar. How well his product would "stick" depended on consumer education – sharing the humble origins of Boston Lager, a 4.2 percent ABV Vienna-style lager based on great-great grandfather Louis Koch's family recipe.

The battle to redefine the American beer sensibility is one he has been waging ever since. Whether it meant showing wine aficionados that beer could be just as refined, or convincing the layman that enjoying flavorful beer was an everyman's right, Jim Koch became the embodiment of the craft brewing spirit. In doing so, he essentially applied the famed "Unalienable Rights" to his brewing and business mentality.

"I’ve said this before," Koch told The Beer Connoisseur, "but people in business often think, 'I’m only successful if I start a business that makes me rich.' The reality is, getting rich doesn’t happen for most people. But if you reframe it and say, 'What if I start a business that’s going to make me really happy?' That’s success. I tell everyone getting rich is life's biggest booby trap. It comes down to what would you rather be, happy or rich? I say do what's going to make you happy."

Odds are, if you see Jim Koch, he’ll be smiling. While his work has made him a wealthy man, he’s smiling because he chose to pursue a passion, and he has seen it grow into a positive entity for innumerable others. In the long-run, the mentality of craft can't be faked.

Beer For The People
For a company built on relating to the common man, remaining true to its roots is the crucible within which it will live or die. How do you keep a 4-million-barrel-a-year, 1,300-employee company on the ground floor of an everyman's market?

You try to maintain as much of a dialogue with the consumer as possible and look for ways to give back to the community that helped build you.

To that end, Koch became deeply involved in the craft business community, becoming a key figure in the Brewers Association. Over the years, as his company grew and stretched the limits of what a "craft company" meant from a size perspective, his influence led to a new definition of the term itself.

Simultaneously, through Sam Adams, Koch strove to push the craft envelope through experimental and themed beers, such as the inimitable Utopias. First brewed in 2002, it was the strongest commercial beer in the world, punching in at 24 percent ABV.

The concept of Utopias helped reimagine what a beer could be. Brewed with caramel, Vienna, Moravian and Bavarian smoked malts and four varieties of noble hops, then matured in scotch, cognac and port barrels, the result was an uncarbonated, liqueur-esque elixir unlike any other beer. Utopias vintages also helped redefine the monetary value that could be attached to a beer, with some batches fetching upwards of $300 dollars in retail.

Sam Adams also remained a consistent leader in the production of seasonal offerings, maintaining a large roster of beer brewed over the course of a year. The company's Jamaica Plain-based pilot brewery in Boston helped it develop a cornucopia of beer flavors and styles while getting direct feedback from the public. With an ear to the ground, Koch and Boston Beer were able to simultaneously keep customers happy and expand their vision of what craft could be, eventually opening up huge markets for craft cider and spiked seltzer, among other offerings.

samuel adams brewing the american dream collaboration pack
In the summer of 2017, Sam Adams released the aptly named “Brewing the American Dream Collaboration Pack,” a limited release 12-pack featuring collaboration brews from past winners of the Brewing and Business Experienceship.

United We Stand 
Willingness to work together has long been a key factor in Sam Adams’ success, exploring avenues of collaboration grounded in the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats.

In 1996, Sam Adams launched the LongShot American Homebrew Competition. Winning homebrewers would be able to see their creations taken to market and packaged as part of a mixed "LongShot" six-pack. This move was savvy from a business perspective, positioning Sam Adams as an industry keyholder, and also a great way to build the craft community from its grassiest of roots. Many winners would go on to start their own breweries or hold executive positions in the industry.

“No industry better exudes the collaborative spirit than the craft brewing community, where independent brewers put aside competition to collaborate creatively and challenge each other to push the envelope,” said Koch.

Perhaps the most pivotal year for Sam Adams and its place in the craft brewing industry came in 2008, during a worldwide hops shortage. Small brewers with less buying power could not get access to the hops required to continue production. Koch agreed to sell 20,000 pounds of The Boston Beer Co.’s hops supply at cost to 108 different craft brewers, allowing them to continue brewing and stay in business. BBC would again sell hops to craft competitors four years later, a strong demonstration of the brewery’s focus on collaboration over competition in craft brewing.

“The perfect world to me is where the small, independent brewers, from Samuel Adams to the latest nanobrewery start-up in a garage, are thriving and making great beer available to drinkers,” said Koch, “and every time a beer drinker goes to buy beer, whether it’s at a tavern or their local brewpub, they have a great selection of flavorful, high-quality beer made by independent American brewers.”

people waiting for a tour outside samuel adams brewery
“The perfect world to me is where the small, independent brewers, from Samuel Adams to the latest nanobrewery start-up in a garage, are thriving and making great beer available to drinkers." - Jim Koch
Photo Courtesy Flickr/mroach

Brewing The American Dream
Drawing from his own experience building a company, Koch hadn’t forgotten how hard it could be for budding entrepreneurs to breathe life into a small business. The same year Samuel Adams helped defuse the hops crisis, the company launched the Brewing the American Dream program in partnership with Accion, the nation's largest nonprofit microlending network. The goal was to provide entrepreneurs in the food, beverage and craft brewing industries with the essential ingredients to achieve their dreams of successful business ownership.

“When I first started out, I knew a lot about beer but very little about starting a business,” Koch said. “I applied for loans through traditional banks but was repeatedly turned down and lacked the nuts-and-bolts advice that’s crucial to starting a small business. I find many aspiring craft brewers are in the same boat I was nearly 35 years ago, which is why the Brewing the American Dream program was born. What makes this program so impactful is that it provides entrepreneurs with tools and resources they can put into practice immediately – from loans to business advice from professionals. It also provides an immediate network or our own Boston Beer Co. professionals to ask questions about every part of the beer business – from brewing to sales and marketing. There really is no other program like it.”

In the 10 years since its inception, BTAD has mentored more than 8,000 small business owners and provided over 1,500 loans, totaling $22.4 million in micro-financing in 35 states. These initiatives have created and supported upwards of 5,900 jobs around the country, including over 1,300 in 2017 alone. The economic contributions of this program, coupled with a 97 percent repayment rate on BTAD loans, have led to recognition from the Clinton Global Initiative and a White House event on the future of corporate service.

jim koch talks with brewing the american dream brewers
"What makes the ​Brewing the American Dream program so impactful is that it provides entrepreneurs with tools and resources they can put into practice immediately – from loans to business advice from professionals," Koch said. 

Brewing the American Dream extends far beyond a simple loan and a handshake, aiming to guide entrepreneurs through the rigors of business ownership through hands-on training. Speed coaching events, which are held in about 15 cities per year throughout the country, pair small business owners with Samuel Adams employees and local area experts. Jim Koch himself has served as one of the many coaches who provide real-world professional advice based on their areas of expertise.

During these events, each attendee has the opportunity to spend 20 minutes in a series of high-impact, one-on-one sessions intended to address problems and issues specific to their business. For example, a business owner who has a question about pricing might meet with a finance coach to get advice on competitively positioning a product.

“Speed coaching events are personally one of my favorite parts of the program,” Koch said. “Our own employees share their professional experience with entrepreneurs. I’ve had people tell me at speed coaching events that some of the best business advice they ever received was through BTAD, which humbles me every time and reminds me why we started this program.”

Another unique element of BTAD is the pitch room competition, which teaches up-and-coming food and beverage craftspeople how to perfect the art of the sales pitch. Contestants give their two-minute pitch to judges ‒ including retailers, wholesalers, restaurant owners and other small business experts ‒ who provide real-time feedback. The winning pitch receives a $10,000 business grant and a year of intensive coaching from the Sam Adams team.

jim koch listens to a potential brewing the american dream member during his pitch
Another unique element of BTAD is the pitch room competition, in which contestants give their two-minute pitch to judges ‒ including retailers, wholesalers, restaurant owners and other small business experts.

Setting Sights on an Experienceship
Every year, Sam Adams BTAD chooses one craft brewer to participate in The Brewing and Business Experienceship, a program designed to help craft brewers strengthen and grow their business. The winner travels to the Boston Brewery and works alongside the Sam Adams team, learning the ins and outs of the business of craft brewing and rounding out their experience by producing a collaboration beer.

In the summer of 2017, Sam Adams released the aptly named “Brewing the American Dream Collaboration Pack,” a limited release 12-pack featuring collaboration brews from past winners of the Experienceship, including Roc Brewing Co. (Rochester, New York), Bosque Brewing (Albuquerque, New Mexico), ChuckAlek Independent Brewers (Ramona, California), Woods Beer Co. (San Francisco, California) and Brewery Rickoli (Wheat Ridge, Colorado). All participated in the program and received a loan to kick-start or grow their craft breweries and participated in the Brewing and Business Experienceship, receiving individual coaching from the team at Sam Adams.

“One of our most successful breweries is ChuckAlek in San Diego,” Koch said. “They participated in the Experienceship portion of our program in 2015 and have grown their business to two locations and built a strong community around their brewery. That’s what I love to see out of this program – breweries and small businesses building communities together.”

Another of Koch’s favorite BTAD success stories is that of entrepreneur Kris Schoenberger.

“He was laid off from his job and sort of fell into starting his own business after catering a friend’s wedding because his product – BBQ – was that good,” Koch shared. “Less than two years after catering the wedding, he grew the small enterprise into a full-fledged operation. He turned to us in 2012 for a loan to help purchase a new trailer and equipment, and now has a fleet of four trucks and has evolved BBQ’d Productions into a full-service party business. Talk about someone who was down on his luck and turned it into a positive.”

jim koch discusses brewing the american dream with prospective brewers
"At speed coaching events, our own employees share their professional experience with entrepreneurs," Koch said. "I’ve had people tell me the best business advice they ever received was through BTAD speed coaching events, which humbles me every time and reminds me why we started this program.”

A Craft Home Run
Jim Koch’s story is a series of big swings and big scores. Though the size of his company today makes it difficult to view as a craft entity, The Boston Beer Co. continues hitting big for craft. Most recently, Samuel Adams replaced Budweiser as the official beer of the Boston Red Sox. The eight-year deal will last through 2025 and will allow BBC to use the Red Sox Logo for marketing purposes and run Red Sox-related contests. The realm of professional sports has long been dominated by big beer, and partnering with the Sox is just the latest in a decades-long run of Sam Adams’ domino-toppling plays for craft over macro.

Aside from resounding success, the common thread that ties Koch’s business initiatives is his focus on community and collaboration. So, what do we expect to see next?

In 2018, BTAD is partnering for the first time with The StreetShares Foundation to provide military and veteran-community entrepreneurs across the country with access to capital and mentoring through Street Shares’ Veteran Small Business Awards. These services will provide a total of $100,000 in grants to veteran-owned businesses and will fund one-on-one mentoring and speed coaching events for veteran entrepreneurs.

Despite relatively stagnant overall numbers for the industry in 2017, his outlook is positive.

“There’s never been a better time to be a brewer or a craft beer drinker in the U.S. than right now,” he insists. “When I first started brewing Boston Lager in 1984, there were about 50 breweries in the U.S. Now, there are more than 6,000 breweries operating in the U.S., which is amazing for both the craft brewer and the craft beer drinker.”

Photos Courtesy The Boston Beer Co.