Samuel Adam’s Jim Koch on the Craft Beer Movement
How America’s pioneer of the craft beer movement has embodied the spirit of innovation for the past 30 years (and counting).
Introduced in 1984, the core purpose behind Samuel Adams — the flagship brand of the Boston Beer Company, a brewer founded that same year which, today, stands tall as the second-largest craft brewery in the United States — can be summed up as inspiring the pursuit of better.
For Jim Koch, the American entrepreneur, co-founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company, that very purpose is deeply rooted, finding its origins even, in the power of a good idea, something he believes is greatly underestimated by people.
When it came to Samuel Adams, Koch was inspired to create a charismatic full-flavoured beer for American drinkers. Up until then, the options for beer consumption consisted of mostly mass-produced, lighter varieties. He knew there was a gap in the market for something truly unique. Something that would be in a category of its own and easily be distinguished from the rest.
The way Koch tells it, back in 1984, while you could get mass domestic beers Stateside, they weren’t meant to be flavourful or satisfying, only to be drinkable. “They’re like the fast food of beers,” he adds. Or, you could get the imports, but typically they were skunky because they came in green and clear bottles. “They were stale. Nobody paid attention to freshness.”
The sixth-generation, first-born son to follow in his family’s brewing footsteps, Koch set out to change that, brewing his first batch of beer in his kitchen, using the original family recipe and ultimately giving rise to the craft beer movement.
“The idea looked like it was crazy,” he recalls. “There I was, coming in with a beer that looked, smelled and tasted different than anything on the market, and it was truly disruptive — with a lot more hop character, a lot more malt. A much different flavour profile, much darker.”
Clearly, this spirit of innovation has also been a part of the brand’s DNA since day one. And representative of that hallmark Samuel Adams spirit of innovation is Sam ‘76, which recently launched in Canada.
A great tasting and sessionable import beer — perhaps the most refreshing and easy-drinking beer in the Samuel Adams portfolio — Sam ’76 has been called a revolutionary lager; an ale hybrid that offers Canadians a completely new way to enjoy beer; an unmatched combination of refreshment, flavour and aroma. Brewed by using a unique brewing process with both ale and lager yeast, it took more than 13,000 hours and 60 trials to create.
“That’s a groundbreaking beer,” Koch proudly beams of the latest creation. “Just taste-wise, it’s mind-blowing because it starts with big hop character and hop aromatics of an IPA, then it finishes just immaculately clean like a regular domestic beer. It’s kind of like the front end of a Corvette and the back end of a pickup truck.”
Indeed, Sam ‘76 delivers a distinct flavour that showcases the slight fruitiness of an ale with the balanced drinkability and smoothness of a lager. Cascade, Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe and Galaxy hops impart a tropical citrus aroma that gives way to a bright, juicy citrus hop flavour without the hop bitterness.
In conceiving Sam ‘76 and all the other Samuel Adams variants before it, the intersection between craftsmanship and entrepreneurship has always been one thing that intrigues Koch. After all, conception is one thing. Execution is another. And disruption, of course, is a whole other ballgame.
“The art of a brewer — one part of it is conceiving of something wonderful and beautiful, and the other is going through all the practical hurdles and difficulties that you have to overcome to actually bring it into the real, physical world we all inhabit,” he reasons.
Being an entrepreneur, according to Koch, draws on the same mental capacities as being an artist. “You’re trying to imagine things that are really cool that don’t yet exist. But you haven’t really done anything if all you did is a big thought experiment of, wouldn’t it be cool if?”
In other words, the real payoff is to be able to find a way for the cool new thing that doesn’t yet exist and actually bring it into existence.
Still, at the end of the day, for Jim Koch, the man considered the godfather of US beer and of the country’s micro-brewing process, it still all boils down — or better yet, brews — back to the power of a good idea.
“People get all ideas all the time, so you have to constantly be questioning what exists. But you have to be patient,” he reminds us, “because most of your ideas are bad ideas. The key almost is filtering it for the handful of good ones, and they don’t come along all that often.”
“If you have one, and you ride it, you can ride it for 40 years.”