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Mutineer Interview with Jim Koch

Jim Koch Smelling Hops

Jim Koch of Samuel Adams

“I want to put the best possible glass of beer in front of the American beer drinker.”

Coming from a family of brewers, Jim Koch was captivated at an early age by beer and the brewing process. Koch, Founder of The Boston Beer Company has had one goal since he started his company: to produce the best beer possible. Since the beginning of his career as a brewer, Koch has strived to be the best in the business, and when you consider that The Boston Beer Company is the largest craft brewer in the United States and continues to win awards, his dedication to the craft is apparent.

One might think that the success of The Boston Beer Company would change Koch’s vision for his company. His business has grown throughout the years, but his heart is still that of a homebrewer. It is this drive to innovate and experiment along with superior quality control that has kept Jim Koch a step ahead of the rest. From attempting to perfect Sam Adams Boston Lager to creating the most extreme beers in the world, Jim Koch’s vision for craft beer has led the way for the thousands of other brewers to pursue their dreams.

What was your involvement with beer prior to founding Samuel Adams?

Well, I drank regularly and more importantly I was the sixth oldest son in a row to be a brewer here in the United States. I grew up around beer, my dad was a brewmaster, and my grandfather was a brewmaster. I had my first beer when I was four because my parents were very strict and they wanted me to wait until I could at least say a few words. I actually made beer at home with my dad when I was a kid when it was illegal, and then I became a home brewer. I guess beer was in my blood, .06 so it was legal, but definitely in my blood.

Jim Koch Giving a Tour

Jim Koch giving a tour at the brewery

What inspired you to go ahead a start your own brewery?

You know, I had a good job, but I asked myself, “It’s good money and a good job, but do I want to do this the rest of my life?” And I said, “No.” I thought if I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life, I probably don’t want to do it tomorrow, so what was I going to do? I immediately thought about what other choices I had to make a living. I was a quality control manufacturing consultant, and I didn’t want to work for a big company. I wanted to work for myself, and I knew how to make beer.

This was in 1983 and I thought, “Gee, I know how to make beer and you really can’t get good beer in the United States.” At that time, you could get the mass-produced domestic beers, which were very consistent but more like the fast food of beer. Back then, if you wanted a gourmet beer, you would buy an import, but they were typically stale and skunky. There were a handful of [American] craft brewers that were making beer that was occasionally good and occasionally a science project.

I felt that I could genuinely make the best beer in the United States, and I could see my way to doing that. I knew about brewing, and I had my family’s recipe – I wasn’t trying to start from scratch. I had a recipe that had stood the test of time. It was just in the 19th century, my great-great-grandfather had made it for several decades. I had a time tested recipe that was a very good example of what American beer was like in the 19th century’s golden age of American brewing.

Describe your vision for Samuel Adams.

I want to put the best possible glass of beer in front of the American beer drinker. That means ingredients, recipe, brewing process, care, attention and freshness are really the essential elements. Those have really been the guideposts ever since I started.

Are there any stages in the beer production process that you feel are misunderstood as it relates to quality?

I think there are probably a lot. Freshness is a really big one, with very few exceptions like Utopias, beer only lasts four or five months. A beer without an easily readable freshness date is always in jeopardy of being a bad beer when the consumer gets it. I always look for a date on a beer, but sometimes you can’t because not all brewers make their freshness dating available to the drinker. To me freshness is an ingredient, and so we pull literally millions of dollars worth of beer off the shelves every year. We budget for it just like we budget for hops or malt. We were the first brewer to have consumer friendly freshness dating on every bottle of Sam Adams. The freshness date is on the left side of the label, it says, “For brewery fresh taste purchase before the month notched.”

When did you implement that program?

I believe ’87 or ’88, over twenty years ago and that was revolutionary when I started doing it.

How has your company’s growth affected your ability to control quality?

It has gotten significantly better as we have grown. When we were little we weren’t yet a big buyer of hops. Today, we are the largest buyer of the noble hops that go into our beer, so when I am selecting the lots, as they call them, of our hops I pick first. As we have grown we have been able to get the first pick of hops. As you grow you can afford more testing and quality control capabilities. As your sales grow your beer turns over faster, so your beer’s going to be fresher, and every year we always do little tiny improvements to the beer. It can be things as small as a new liner for the bottle caps that keeps oxygen out more effectively or it can be keeping the hops cold from the time we select them until they go into the brew kettle. Now that we have grown we have our own custom malting, so our barley is malted just for us. We have a unique malting process that is just used for Sam Adams.

As you first got Samuel Adams underway you fell under fire concerning contract brewing while you built your own brewery. Now it’s an acceptable practice, what are your feelings on this?

We pioneered a lot of things that people were surprised by because they were unconventional ways of making great beer. The contract brewing came about pretty simply. I worked at a small brewery in Albany, New York in 1984 when I was getting this [brewery] underway and after working there I realized it was impossible to make world-class beer consistently in the kinds of breweries that were being built back then. There was no small scale brewing equipment, so the original microbrewers were putting equipment together that was never meant to make beer like dairy tanks, soda pop bottling lines and plumbing that couldn’t be sanitized, which is the reason that most of the early microbreweries went out of business. They weren’t making quality beer consistently. If you go back to ’83 or ’84 and you look at the microbreweries that were around, they are all almost gone now. Of the first 25 [microbreweries] I think only Sierra Nevada has survived with their original ownership intact because Sierra was making good beer and the others weren’t making good beer consistently. The original idea was to make world-class beer and give it to the American beer drinker fresh and the only way to do that was to find a brewery that had world-class sanitation and quality control. My dad was a brewmaster and he knew brewmasters at other breweries and when I talked to him about this he said, “Why would you want to build a crappy brewery and make bad beer? I know lots of breweries that aren’t brewing seven days a week and we can find some real jewels that would love to make this beer.” And that was what I did. That was what really set Sam Adams apart, we had world-class beer every batch from the beginning. That’s why we won all of those awards and I think that’s why Sam Adams is one of the leaders of craft brewing. We introduced a lot of beer drinkers to craft beer because you could drink a Sam Adams and you were going to get a great beer.

So it’s consistency?

Exactly, ‘cause American beer drinkers are not used to bad beer. The big brewers never have a bad batch anymore than you’re going to get a bad Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. You can go to McDonald’s your whole life and never get a bad meal, you’ll never get a great meal, but you will always get constant quality. The big brewers are good at that and my hat is off to them. From the beginning I didn’t want to do this unless I made sure I could always give the drinker a good experience. Contract brewing was a part of that and it was something that people hadn’t really thought of, but it was a great solution to how you make great beer. Since then it’s been adopted by many people and become part of normal brewing practices for a lot of craft brewers, however it took twenty years for people to accept something new. Freshness dating was very unusual and some of the other brewers complained about it to me because that meant that we all had to maintain a high standard of freshness. It meant that we had to spend money taking beer off [the shelves], that we couldn’t just put the beer on a truck and let the consumer buy it if it was six months later. Seasonal beers was something else that we pioneered and people thought that was crazy. They asked me, “How can you do that? You have four different beers and one is going to run out, the other is going to start and that’s going to be really hard to manage.” To me a big part of the fun has been pioneering new things in beer, and one that has become part of craft brewing is extreme beer and Sam Adams Triple Bock was the first extreme beer.

What does the term “extreme beer” mean to you?

It was a term I coined around ’93 or ’94, when extreme sports were just emerging and the X-games had come out. People didn’t know what to make of extreme sports and I thought this is the same thing, this is extreme beer. I meant for the term to mean a beer that pushed out the boundaries of the brewers’ art. Introducing flavors, ingredients and brewing processes that had never been used before, as opposed to just making a double IPA or an Imperial Stout, which is basically taking something and just amping it up.

Samuel Adams 2007 Utopias & Riedel Glass

Samuel Adams 2007 Utopias

What inspired you to begin brewing extreme beers?

It was a desire to sort of break the sound barrier of beer that had existed for centuries. People believed that you could not get beer over 13 or 14% alcohol because no beer had ever done that. I knew I could take it to 17%, and I could see a way to do it. I wanted to take beer to a level of fermentation that had never been done before. It was like breaking the sound barrier; all of a sudden you were in a different world, different flavors, no CO2. There is just a totally different world of flavors and tastes at that level of alcohol.

At 27% alcohol, Utopias could be considered the ultimate extreme beer. How would you explain this to someone unfamiliar with it?

That it is completely unlike any beer you have ever tasted or even imagined. Because it has a lot of fermentation character and is never distilled you get a unique set of flavors that is somewhere in between a vintage port, an old sherry and a fine cognac. It occupies this unique space between those three beverages.

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