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Jim Koch on 10 Years of Brewing the 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.

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.”

“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 Credit: Flickr/mroach)

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