We’re so excited about our most recent interview with Jim Koch – founder of Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams, and father of the American Craft Beer movement.
Quick history lesson – our country used to have many, many breweries that eventually faded away.
What else faded away? The types of beer they brewed.
What replaced them was a fairly homogenous, watered down beer, produced by large breweries.
Why do we call Jim Koch the father of the American Craft Beer movement? During the mid-1980’s, when imported beers were almost the only beer you could get outside of a macro-brew, Jim made and sold craft beer.
Going door to door, bar to bar, Jim convinced enough places to give his beer a shot. Clearly the public agreed that there was a need for a flavorful and fresh beer, brewed with high quality ingredients. That first beer was Samuel Adams Boston Lager®, and the recipe was one of his great-great grandfather’s. The rest is history.
Ok, ok, let’s hear from Jim:
BeerSnackBlog: Before founding the largest American Craft Brewery, you were a management consultant with a great company. What gave you the confidence to leave such a well-regarded and cushy job?
Jim: I didn’t really have a lot of confidence. After all, in 1984, when I first brewed Samuel Adams Boston Lager in my kitchen, there were really no role models for success in craft brewing. Most of the craft breweries that had been started had either failed or were struggling. But this was something I really wanted to do so I just went ahead and did it.
BSB: While you were a management consultant and keeping an eye on the beer industry, how did you know the timing was right for a higher quality American craft beer? Would it have been different if you were five years earlier or later?
Jim: At the time I was starting out, the brewing business was bleak. Small local breweries had closed all over the country and the industry’s mega-breweries were selling mass-produced, lighter beer. Samuel Adams was so drastically different than any beer available. I decided to go into the beer business with that passion for creating a full flavored, craft beer—and people were ready for it. I don’t think it would have mattered if it was five years earlier or later. From the beginning, our success has been tied to high quality ingredients and the passion for brewing great beer, and that wouldn’t have changed.
BSB: Can you tell us about when you and your father chose the family recipe that your great-great grandfather had made originally in the 1870’s? I picture a great bonding experience with a father and son, digging through family boxes.
Jim: My Dad was pretty skeptical about this ever succeeding. He had been a brewmaster at small breweries in the 1940’s and 1950’s and the big guys had run them all out of business. I think he felt my chances of success were pretty slim so I should at least have a great recipe to start with.
BSB: Were there other recipes you were considering? Did you brew a couple of them? How did you know this was the one?
Jim: As a home brewer, I would imagine beers that I wanted to drink and then I’d work to create them, always trying new ingredients and different recipes. Two things happened when I first brewed Samuel Adams Boston Lager in my kitchen in 1984 after finding my great-great-grandfather’s recipe – the steam peeled the wallpaper off the walls, and I fell in love with the taste of this beer. I thought that if I could taste this beer every day of my life, I’d be a happy man.
BSB: Can you tell us about your first days trying to sell your Boston Lager door to door? Any rejections (I’m sure they probably carry it now and kicked themselves if they ever did say no)? If so, for what reason? Also, any advice for entrepreneurs thinking of doing the same thing, whether it’s beer, hand crafted bicycles or in our case bar snacks?
Jim: As for advice, when you start a business, you have to do everything, and it’s important to focus on the activities that provide the best return on time invested. So we focused on the things that mattered – making great beer and working hard to sell it. But I had my share of rejections. After all, the bars I was calling on were doing perfectly well without my beer. So most of the time, I got a “no”. But I knew I had a great beer that was unlike anything available in America at that time and I got enough “yes” responses to avoid going broke. And now I’ve got twenty eight years of “yes” from beer lovers all over America.
BSB: I understand your belief in top-quality ingredients and that you fly to Bavaria each year to select your Noble hops. Your dedication to quality and taste is well documented. Many founders of companies have an intense, almost relentless eye towards detail. The late Steve Jobs, for example, has been described as highly critical and blunt while making sure all the details were “great”. You seem like a fun guy to hang out with, so, in terms of management, how do you ensure high levels of quality in all the details without coming off as a jerk?
Jim: All of us at Samuel Adams have a shared love of beer. Since I started the company, Samuel Adams has certainly grown, but our passion hasn’t changed and our dedication to creating a high-quality, flavorful American beer is as strong as ever. My philosophy has always been to do what’s right for the beer. I make decisions based on the beer, not the bottom line, and we’ve instilled that into our brewing and operations and every aspect of our company. I think it’s easier to get people committed to making something great than it is to get them to compromise. From the people to the product, I am as involved in the company’s day-to-day operations as I was when Samuel Adams started more than 25 years ago. I still taste every batch of beer we make before it gets into our drinkers hands.
BSB: I heard you speak at the National Restaurant Association a couple of years ago discussing American’s change in food tastes. Much of America’s food now seems to be infused with flavors from around the world like Mexico and a variety of Asian countries. You mentioned that many of these flavors go better with beer. Can you elaborate?
Jim: Beer drinkers today appreciate craft beer in the same way they would a fine wine (i.e. smelling, tasting, and pouring properly). Drinkers have more sophisticated palates and are experimenting more with the wide range of flavors that craft beers offer. Not to mention, craft beer comes in such a variety of styles that it can complement any meal, possibly better than wine for that reason.
In many ways, the growing appreciation for American craft beer parallels the development of appreciation for wine thirty years ago. Drinkers are looking beyond the wine list in restaurants across the country, knowing many great flavorful meals are better paired with a full-flavored beer like Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
Exotic, spicy foods like Mexican and Thai encompass a wide range of flavors with their spices and heat intensities. In my opinion, beer is the superior pairing for these foods, because it provides that combination of sweet and spicy. A zesty hop note will match the heat, while malty sweetness calms the palate and prepares it for the next bite. As the spiciness increases in the dish, you can dial up the malty sweetness.
BSB: What is the future of the craft beer industry? We have tons of small breweries popping up in Chicago, and everywhere around the U.S. Large macro-beer companies/conglomerates are buying up craft breweries (like Goose Island) fairly frequently. How long can this sustain? How does a home brewer, who is looking to make it into a full-time business, navigate this changing landscape of beer?
Jim: The craft beer industry as a whole is going through a renaissance right now and growing at an explosive rate with more than 2,000 craft breweries at this moment —50 times as many as the mere 40 or so breweries that existed in 1984. As well, the number of American breweries is higher today than at any other time since the late 1800s. Despite decreased overall beer sales, most craft brewers are continuing to see strong growth in production, sales, brewing capacity and employment, which provides a great foundation for home brewers looking to branch out. In the end, it’s a business like any other business – in the beginning, the focus should be on making an excellent product, making it consistently and finding ways to sell it.
BSB: Let’s end on a lighter note. What does Jim Koch do in his spare time? I read that you taught adventure skills at Outward Bound. Do you still hike or climb?
Jim: Just a little. My life is pretty full with my work and my family. I’d probably like to have more free time but I have no complaints. I’m a pretty lucky guy.