I spin the beer glass by its stem with my right hand and then take a sip. It’s the Great American Beer Festival gold-medal-winning Tetravis we’re drinking on this sunny afternoon, just a little past 2 p.m. at MJ O’Connor’s Irish Pub in Boston’s Seaport District. The beer is Jim Koch’s own creation — a Belgian quad at over 10% alcohol — and he’s embracing it with the same passion a parent would a newborn kid. He sticks his nose in the glass rather emphatically and presents me with the bottle for closer inspection.
“Mmm”, he mumbles, his nose as far as it will go in the glass, eyes closed. “Yup. Pretty good.” He inhales through his nose deeply, audibly, dramatically, to the point where I wonder if there’s an audience behind me. “There’s a bit of detergent left on the glass, but it’s pretty good.”
Last year, Samuel Adams celebrated its 30th anniversary on the heels of more than doubling the sales of the second largest craft brewery, Sierra Nevada, in 2013. There were over 2,000 breweries in America operating within the craft beer market, and the closest anyone came was halfway there. That’s pretty damn impressive, and most of the credit falls into the lap of Koch (pronounced “cook”). While all the craft beer pioneers of the late ’80s and ’90s spoke about the importance of understanding the business of beer — not just making good beer — no one actually did until Koch. His beer sales back it up, as does the fact that he became the craft beer industry’s first billionaire in 2013.
But Koch’s success, determination and growth did not come without criticism from others within the industry who were less than impressed by his driven, all-bets-off approach. Much of the reason Sam Adams grew so dramatically is due to the fact that Koch was the first — and still only — craft brewer to use radio and television advertisements to promote his beer. This approach was something many craft brewers resented, as it seemed contradictory to the then-tiny craft beer industry’s altruistic quest to rise above the corporate-run breweries that dominated the American mainstream market.
“Call me jealous, or a curmudgeon”, Brooklyn Brewery’s Steve Hindy wrote in his new book, The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers Is Transforming the World’s Favorite Drink, which recounts the history of the craft beer industry. “But I always thought Koch’s goal was to dominate — to own — the craft brewing revolution.”
Other accusations have not been as diplomatic. Hindy outright called Koch a “nerd” in his book, and recalled tales of other brewers who were frustrated by his aggressive marketing. Indeed, there is no figure in the craft beer industry more polarizing than Jim Koch. Some idolize him for his success in turning a family recipe into a billion-dollar business — something they themselves would like to achieve. Others see him as the opposite of a craft brewer: a Harvard graduate with a business-first attitude that goes against everything the industry set out to destroy.
As it turns out, the craft beer mentality is a bit ironic. No one wants to be talked about in the same breath as a corporate national brewer, yet everyone gets starry eyed over the idea of their beer being on tap across the country. Koch was the first brewer to achieve the best of both worlds. He’s mastered the art of marketing and sold his beer across the country, but yet, despite the grief he may or may not receive because of that, no one in the industry doubts the quality of his beer.
Perhaps that is one thing that gets lost in the Jim Koch debate: He brews very good beer. Some of you may be raising an eyebrow. Boston Lager is all right, but let’s not get carried away, right? Well, see, that’s the thing. If there’s one way that Koch may have shot himself in the foot with his initial push of Boston Lager, it has been that hardly anyone realizes the depth of the beer he brews. But don’t take my word for it. Consider this article, published last year in Boston, which discusses Koch’s attempts to correct that perception and how even local Bostonians don’t realize how badass their hometown brewery really is.
Each year, in addition to the crowd favorites of Boston Lager and Octoberfest, Koch cranks out specialty brews and bombers as part of a Belgian-influenced Barrel Room Collection: the aforementioned award-winning Tetravis, a raisin-y, rich quadrupel; the cherry-infused American Kriek; the chocolate-and-coffee-flavored Thirteenth Hour Stout; and the Kosmic Mother Funk, a blend of micro-organisms and yeasts “found throughout the brewery.” One sip of any of these will change your entire perception of Sam Adams, which, if you’re like most people, starts and ends with an easy-drinking lager (Boston Lager) and a spicy seasonal (Octoberfest). Another newbie this year is the Rebel IPA, released in honor of the 30th anniversary.
And despite his status as a billionaire and an insatiable thirst to remain at the top of the industry, Koch is not exactly leaving everyone in the dust. Twice per week, he meets with and advises startup craft brewers (as well as other food, beverage and hospitality enterprises) on how to run their businesses as part of Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream. He also supports the city of Boston with the yearly creation of the Boston 26.2 Brew, a Gose-style wheat beer served on tap only in Beantown every April during the Boston Marathon, with all proceeds going to charity.
When I met with Koch, I was very curious to see whether Hindy’s claim that he is a nerd had any legs. What was he like in real life? What I found was that he is a charming mix of nerdy and gnarly, both aspects equally represented in almost everything he does. The immediate example was the combination of drinking a 10% ABV beer at two in the afternoon while listening to him complain to the bartender that the dishwasher has left some detergent on the glass.
Then we have his life history, which is a nerdy-gnarly case study in itself. Yes, he earned joint J.D. and M.B.A degrees from Harvard, shared a classroom with Mitt Romney, and had a multi-year corporate career at Boston Consulting Group. But did you know that he took a sabbatical and worked for Outward Bound? As Koch puts it, his “drinking buddy-slash-climbing partner” turned him on to Outward Bound during his second year at Harvard and inspired him to spend the next three years rafting in Texas, kayaking in Minnesota, mountaineering in Colorado and surviving the snowy forests of Oregon.
In the ’90s, as he was busy taking the beer biz by storm and filming those controversial commercials — the ones Hindy describes as “nasally” — he began tackling other tall mountains, summiting Chile’s Aconcagua and California’s Mt. Whitney. He told me that some of the lessons he learned in the outdoors have translated over to his brewery. Like his “String Theory”, which reasons that the more you give someone in the wilderness, the more they will waste, which is why he gives his employees just enough materials to spark their creativity. As we stood up to leave, I asked him if there was anything else.
“Well”, he said, creating a rock climbing analogy, “You want to be in the lead. That’s where the good scenery is. The guy below you is just staring at your ass.”