All Revolutions Begin With A Rabble-Rouser: Q&A With Jim Koch, Founder & CEO Of The Boston Beer Company

craft beer pioneer jim koch of sam adams dunk tank

What has commonly been called rebellion has more often been nothing

but a manly and glorious struggle in opposition to the lawless power of

rebellious kings and princes.”

– Samuel Adams (1722 – 1803)

Samuel Adams – the one from the American history books – contributed to a famous revolution, in Boston during the 1770s. In 1984, a man named Jim Koch helped to spark another kind of revolution in the same city, although he may have not known it at the time. His was a beer revolution. Most of us today call it the craft beer revolution.

Jim was no stranger to the beer business – he came from a  family of brewers. According to The Oxford Companion To Beer, he was originally discouraged by his father from entering the brewing business. Charles Koch, Jim’s father, believed that in the United States there were too many big brewing companies, potentially making it a losing proposition for anyone trying to compete with them.

Instead, Jim decided to attend Harvard, but he left before he graduated and went out West to work as an instructor for a nonprofit that taught troubled teens. He would eventually returned to Harvard and graduate with BA, MBA, and a JD degrees. He then worked for nearly seven years at a business called the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and [presumably by divine intervention (not really)] decided to go into the brewery business. Koch believed he could find a special 1% niche in the beer market not being covered by the larger breweries at the time. Jim’s father wasn’t too pleased.

He told Reader’s Digest, “When I told Dad I was hoping he’d put his arm around me and get misty about reviving tradition. Instead he said, ‘Jim, that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!’” Even so, his father was one of the first to invest in Koch’s business.

So where does the whole Samuel Adams thing come from?

Koch said, “I always admired Samuel Adams’ role in the American Revolution. As the rabble-rouser, he was the most independent-minded of the founding fathers.”

Maybe like Adams, Jim has a bit of rabble rouser in him. That might explain a bit about his decision to take on the giant beer brands of his day. So, along with Rhonda Kallman, Jim founded The Boston Beer Company in 1984.

jim koch sam adams craft beer lager cases

A proud Jim Koch standing by the first ever cases of Sam Adams Boston Lager.

It has been over 20 years years now since the Boston Beer Company released its flagship beer, Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Jim brewed it on Patriots Day, which remembers the first battles of the American Revolution, and it was a recipe originally brewed by his great-great-grandfather, Louis Koch, in the mid 1860s.

Today the Boston Beer Company  produces 1% of all beer produced in the United States. According to Boston Beer’s 2014 annual report, that translated into $903 million in revenue and 4.1 million barrels of beer sold in 50 U.S. states and some 30 countries. The demand for Samuel Adams beer is met by the brewing that happens in its two breweries in LeHigh Valley, Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, Ohio. The Boston brewery, of fame from commercials and Massachusetts tourism, serves as a small-batch research brewery.

It’s pretty amazing all this was achieved – in a fairly short time by comparison – from Jim Koch brewing his family lager recipe at home in his kitchen. He’s an inspiration to homebrewers and craft beer entrepreneurs everywhere – and a trailblazer. He went from pub to pub, trying to convince tough Boston pub owners to sample and sell his product, which proved a sales and marketing model for every modern small brewer.

The Boston Beer Company is still controlled by Jim Koch (not some other large company trying to cut into the craft beer market). He personally samples beer from his breweries, sometimes twice a day. That’s to keep the standards high. He even has a fund to help others trying to break into the craft beer market called Brewing the American Dream.


Q&A With Another Craft Beer Legend and Pioneer, 1st Part In The Series


I recently put some questions to Jim Koch about the craft beer revolution that he was, and still is, very much a part of.

craft beer sam adams jim koch


The Samuel Adams brand has expanded into a plethora of styles, from top selling seasonals to popular selling IPAs.

Eugene J. Arlotta: What is your favorite beer/style?

Jim Koch: At Samuel Adams we brew about 60 different styles of beer every year, and I love them all. But at the end of the day, if I had to choose just one, I would say my Samuel Adams Boston Lager. When I get home from work at night, that’s the beer in my fridge. Of course, I’m biased, but it’s a beautiful beer that is well-balanced and complex. I love the balance of malt and hops, its creamy smoothness, and its big, bold flavor.

One of my favorite things to do is take drinkers through an educational tasting of Boston Lager and talking about the color, the clarity, the complexity, and the flavor. When I see someone appreciate the beauty the same way I do, it makes my day.

EJA:  Do you like where the industry/culture is going?

JK: Of course! This is the best time in history to be a craft beer lover and a craft brewer. I love to see so many passionate brewers who are committed to quality and innovation.

EJA: Do you fear that as the founders of the modern beer movement age and retire microbreweries will increasingly sell to macros?

JK: I wouldn’t say “fear”. To me, it’s sad to see brewers sacrifice their passion for financial gain. But, who am I to say, times change, people change. For every craft brewer who sells to the big guys, a slot and opportunity opens up for other craft brewers to take its place. It’s the natural cycle of business. It works for some people, and not for others.

EJA: What do you think could be an answer to this problem?

JK: Maybe it’s not a problem. You have to respect a brewer’s decision. If he or she feels that selling their brewery is the right move for them, then it’s the right move for them. We can’t know what the factors are in an owner’s decision.

EJA: How important do you think home brewing is to the craft beer industry?

JK: God bless President Jimmy Carter who legalized homebrewing back in the late 1970s. Homebrewers are some of the most passionate people you will ever meet and I really can’t think of any professional craft brewer today who didn’t start as a homebrewer. I started brewing Sam Adams Boston Lager in my kitchen more than 30 years ago. Since that time, American craft beer has undergone a revolution, with more than 3,500 brewers currently operating, compared to about 50 in 1984.

We started our annual LongShot homebrew contest nearly 20 years ago to celebrate American homebrewers who continue to create innovative, full-flavored brews and challenge the notion of what beer can be. The steady growth of the industry is thanks in large part to homebrewers and craft brewers who are resilient, unafraid to challenge the status quo, and passionate about pushing the limits of craft beer. In fact, some of our contest winners have gone on to become professional brewers. The most recent example is Cesar Marron, winner of the 2013 LongShot Contest, who opened Sketchbook Brewing Company in Evanston, IL following his win.

EJA: What regret, if any, do you have about your involvement in the craft beer movement? (What could you have done differently?)

JK: I’m always thinking about the future, so there’s not much time to dwell on regrets!

EJA:  What do you think the craft beer culture will look like 10 years from now? (Local and/or worldwide)

JK: I’ve learned not to predict the future. I do know that businesses tend to go in cycles. The first cycle of craft brewing spanned (approximately) from 1984 – 1996. That was followed by a period of slow to no growth until about 2004.  And in the last 10 years, we’ve enjoyed another explosion in craft beer, and I don’t see that changing.

Craft brewers like Sam Adams will continue to innovate and brew high quality, full flavored beers and craft drinkers will continue to enjoy them.

EJA:  Any advice to aspiring nano or micro brewers?

JK: I always say to homebrewers, brewers in our Brewing the American Dream program or anyone who is interested in starting a brewery, make sure you get into brewing because you love it, not because you think it will make you rich.  And I always follow that up by saying, focus on the things that matter, making great beer and working your butt off to sell it.

We can all learn from Jim Koch, especially the entrepreneurially spirited. If you have a dream, follow it and don’t let large, establishment types stop you from trying. There’s probably a rabble-rouser in each of us. So, spend the time to do the proper introspection, and let your inner Jim Koch guide your path.

 

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I live on Long Island with my wife where we raised two sons. I'm a graduate of Stony Brook University and currently a middle school social studies teacher. Family, reading, writing, good company, laughs, sports, homebrewing and of course great craft beer are some of the things I enjoy.

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