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Mutineer Interview with Jim Koch

Samuel Adams Kettles

Kettles at Samuel Adams

Is Utopias the most extreme beer you will ever brew?

No, I’ve got some more beers in me. It may be the highest alcohol because we are pushing some physical limits in terms of the alcohol level.

Is the challenge mostly trying to keep the yeast alive at that point?

Yeah, the yeast is just stunned. It’s not only keeping it alive, but also keeping it active. We are pushing the extreme boundaries of what yeast can be made to do. This is aged for many years and when we do a release of Utopias it’s very different from making a normal beer where you brew it, you ferment it, you age it and when it’s done you put it in a bottle. Utopias is made from a blend of dozens of casks, the oldest of which is now 15 years old. So that’s why it’s different with every release, because with every release we are having older and older casks that we are blending in with the new ones.

That sounds like a Belgian style of blending, like making Geuze. What inspired the blending of the Utopias?

What happened is, when we started making Triple Bock we started to get this high alcohol and we were in a whole different flavor world. The alcohol was beginning to become a somewhat harsh flavor element. So I was trying to figure out how I was going to soften this high alcohol level and I realized that 200 years earlier backwoodsmen in Kentucky had faced the same problem with their moonshine, which they softened with oak barrels. I grew up in Southern Ohio and they called that Bourbon. Basically, the charred oak softens the alcohol. So we started aging Utopias in charred oak Bourbon barrels, and as we learned more about barrels, we realized that a lot of the Bourbon barrels get shipped to Scotland to age Scotch. By law you can’t use a Bourbon barrel more than once and by law Scotch has to be aged in either used Bourbon barrels or used Sherry barrels. Then we started bringing over Scotch barrels that began as Bourbon barrels then some Scotch barrels that began as Sherry barrels, some port barrels, some cognac, some brandy and all these different woods were all having a different effect on the beer. Then we started blending to get more complexity.

You obviously experiment with different ingredients and brewing techniques. What is the biggest beer disaster that you have experienced?

We made a lot. There are your sort of garden variety disasters of stuck mashes where you just jam so much malt into the lauder tub that you couldn’t lauder it. That happens – everybody has had a stuck mash or two. We made and actually released a colonial recipe from Sam Adams day that was for a root beer an 18th century root beer made with roots. That one was historically interesting but you didn’t crave a six-pack.

What is the biggest challenge for craft brewers in America right now?

I would say it is educating beer drinkers about craft beer. Basically, today the best beers in the world are being made in the United States by craft brewers, but even a beer aficionado doesn’t know that. There is this slavish slobbering over imported beers particularly from small unknown, out of the way breweries. People will give me these beers and say, “This is unbelievably good,” and it will be some small European brewery that nobody has ever heard of, and the reason that it tastes so unusual is that it’s a year old. It’s oxidized and it’s starting to pick up cardboard and sherry notes and things like that. To me, the biggest challenge is just to get American beer drinkers to recognize how good American craft beers are. They are the best beers in the world.

What are your thoughts on new beverage media as it relates to beer, such as blogs and podcasts?

To me, it’s all good. The more people that are talking about beer and the more people care about beer, the more drinkers there are going to be for Sam Adams and other craft brewers. People ask me, “Who is your competition?” my competition is not other brewers it’s ignorance, apathy, people who don’t know about beer and people who don’t care about beer. Anything that makes people more knowledgeable and more passionate about beer even if it’s not exactly correct from a purist point of view like mine I think is good.

In your opinion what sets Samuel Adams apart from other craft brewers?

I don’t know if there is anything that sets us apart. I think we have all been proud to be one of the leaders of the craft brewing movement in the United States and I think we are just at the beginning of the creation of a beer culture in America.

What do the next couple of years look like for Samuel Adams?

This month and next month we are bringing out an Imperial series, the first of these big beers we have been making for over twenty years which is Double Bock. These are 9-10% abv, and the first one we made in 1988 so this will be the twenty-first release of Double Bock. We accompanied it with Imperial White Ale and Imperial Stout which all run about 10% abv.

Samuel Adams 2008 Long Shot Variety Pack

Samuel Adams 2008 Long Shot Variety Pack

Why did you start the Samuel Adams American Homebrew Contest?

We started that back in about ’94 or ’95 because I started out as a homebrewer and I knew that there were some great home brew recipes out there. My motivation was to bring some of the great home brew recipes to beer drinkers, both to give them some interesting beers and to show the average beer drinker just how good homebrewers are. People sometimes make jokes like, “What did you make that in your basement?” and that really isn’t mindful of just how good homebrew is. I wanted to tell people, “Hey wait a minute homebrewers are making some great beers.” Here are three of them [winning homebrew recipes] two from the general homebrewing community and the third comes from one of our people. At Sam Adams most of the people are brewers; this is a company of brewers. Most of the employees, whether salespeople or delivering the beer or whatever they do, they are into beer and they make their own beer. For the third beer we wanted to pick an interesting beer that was done by somebody here at Boston Beer Company.

Is Sam Adams Boston Lager best enjoyed out of bottle or draft? Why?

First it’s best enjoyed from a glass, you wouldn’t drink a great wine straight out of the bottle and you shouldn’t drink Sam Adams straight out of the bottle. You just get more hop aroma and taste out of a glass. After that a great Sam Adams on draft is as good as it gets. On the other hand a Sam Adams draft from a draft system where the kegs aren’t kept cold and the lines aren’t clean is about as bad as it gets. There is more variation in the draft beer experience, but the bottle beer experience is more consistent.

Talk about the new Sam Adams pint glass.

That was very gratifying. A friend of mine that is a Master of Wine, I asked him about wine glasses, “Does the glass really affect the taste of the wine? Or is this just more of the wine drinker snobbery?” And he said, “No, no, no. It’s real. You can taste the difference.” So I did some experiments and it was true. I realized if it was true for wine it had to be true for beer. You’re dealing with the same physiology of taste, you’re dealing with the same kind of flavorful liquid and nobody had really designed a beer glass to maximize the flavor. There are different beer glasses out there that are mainly for branding and marketing purposes. They are not designed purely and simply around the function of enhancing flavor. We put together a team of several brewers, two PhDs in sensory science and one in materials and a professional tasting panel who could evaluate the glasses. The glass is based on a fair amount of science and a lot of tasting. It is the first glass that genuinely enhances the flavor experience of a specific type of beer, in this case Samuel Adams. Hopefully that will lead people to treat beer with the same respect that they treat wine.

2009 is the 25th anniversary of Samuel Adams, do you have anything special planned?

We probably should, but it’s like when you’re busy and you forget your birthday. I’m pretty busy so I’ll just have an extra beer or two.

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