with Jim Koch
Founder, Boston Beer Company, Boston, MA
How did you decide to get into brewing?
One might have to ask, why did it take me so long? My grandfather was a brewmaster. My father went to Siebel in 1948. His timing was terrible: he got out of brewmasters’ school when there were probably 800 breweries in the United States. But what they didn’t see on the horizon was the fairly brutal consolidation of those 800 breweries into three big breweries that make 90 percent of the beer in the United States. With those 800 breweries went 800 jobs for brewmasters.
When I was 18, I was very lucky, because Harvard was just beginning to take people from outside the Northeast; basically Harvard was transitioning from educating the sons of the northeastern elite to becoming a national institution with admission based on merit. I was lucky enough to be part of that transition.
Where did you grow up?
Outside of Cincinnati. I was very fortunate to have opportunities outside of brewing. I didn’t have to go to Siebel to get a job.
What was going on in the US beer industry really took all the attractiveness out of being a brewmaster. When you talk about the big, mass production breweries, the brewmaster ceased from being the most important person in the brewery to being a production supervisor who spent more time filling out manning charts and dealing with union grievances.
My grandfather said, “The owner of the brewery makes an appointment to see me.” The brewmaster was a Teutonic god in these old breweries. That role didn’t exist any more.
When did the light bulb go off for you?
In ‘83, I remember seeing a story in Inc. Magazine about Fritz Maytag. I was clerking at a law firm in Seattle when Miller was suing Olympia over the use of the word “light.” Because I knew about brewing, I worked on that case. And when I was a management consultant, we had Coors as a client, so I still had some connection to beer.
These little microbreweries were starting up and that really got my interest. I actually worked in Bill Newman’s brewery in Albany. He was the first guy who started a microbrewery east of Boulder. I came away thinking, OK, the idea is right. I knew that it was possible to make world-class beer here in the United States. The only people who were trying were microbrewers and the failure rate was probably 60%, with as many closing as opening.
After I saw Bill’s brewery, I knew why. It was pretty simple: the product wasn’t very good. The beer was inconsistent and often infected. It went bad pretty quickly. Consumers were getting a lot of bad beer, and they did what consumers do: they refused to drink it.
I knew there was an opportunity, but I didn’t have a lot of money to build a proper brewery. I wasn’t going to do what everybody else was doing, in my mind, which was to try to succeed on marketing, meaning “Well, the beer’s not very good, but I make it in small batches by hand right here. So forgive me for giving you a glass full of bacteria, but I did make it myself!”
My dad used to say, no matter how good the marketing is, somebody’s got to drink it. I believed that if I could give people a great glass of beer I didn’t need great marketing stories.
If I make great beer and give it to people fresh, some fraction of the beer drinking population will drink it. If I could get a fraction of one percent of the beer drinkers in eastern Massachusetts to drink it, I could survive. I focused on how to deliver great beer all the way into the consumer’s glass. Because anything less than that will result in failure. No matter how good the story is, the beer has to deliver.
I went to a few breweries in the northeast. I had this old recipe [from his grandfather] with a few intricacies in it—krausening, decoction mash—so you needed a certain brewery configuration. Not every brewery could make it, but there were a few who could. I settled on Pittsburgh Brewing.
I needed the best brewing mind that I could get, which was Joe Owades. My dad knew who he was. You ask around and there was no one else in the business like him. He was the first microbiologist/scientist to get into brewing. When I met him he’d been involved in brewing for 35 years. And he was a genius. Not only did he know his stuff but everybody respected him.
At Pittsburgh Brewing, it was very valuable to go with Joe. Four or five years earlier, he’d basically saved that brewery by developing IC Light. They thought he was a god. So if I would ask them to do something, they would question it. Then Joe would say “He’s right,” and they’d do it.
I couldn’t afford him. So I paid him what I could afford and I offered him a piece of the company. He called around and realized that I knew what I was doing and I was serious about it, so he signed on.
I’ll be he was very happy he opted for equity in the company. That sounds like a good decision.
He was very happy. He did very well, way more than if I’d paid him.
There’s an irony here. You’ve said if you made good beer, you didn’t need good marketing. And yet today you are more intimately connected with the image of your brewery than anyone in the craft beer sector. You have a marketing story that is very much the story of Jim Koch. Do you take that approach to personalize the brewery?
No, if I’d wanted to personalize it, I would have put my name on it. I never had any desire to do that. It’s called Sam Adams, not Jim Koch. To some extent, it’s the media that wants to personalize the industry.
But you do your own radio ads, and your voice is recognizable and connected to your beer.
Do you know how that happened? I came up with the idea of doing radio ads, and went to find somebody to do them. It turns out that you needed to hire union talent, and that means they have to work under the union contract. You can’t just pay them a thousand dollars to do the ad. You have to pay them residuals, which means you have to track every time the ad runs. Back then, the whole company was four or five people, and I was damned if I was going to hire somebody just to track radio talent so I could write them a check every quarter.
So I said, I’ll do it. I can read. How hard can it be? So I recorded them. I couldn’t talk fast enough: I hadn’t learned to talk without breathing. They put it on reel-to-reel tape, then the poor engineer had to splice out all the pauses. They were just weird enough to be distinctive in a good way. They sounded different to any other radio ad. The voice was so clearly not paid talent, and it became part of the message that this beer is not coming from some huge nameless faceless corporation, but it’s a real guy.
So that’s how I got into that. It worked. And it was cheap. It was really cheap! And we could put it on whenever we wanted.
When you’re in the brewhouse at the Boston brewery, do you play any music in there?
We do. You’re trying to find the overlap, something that’s at least acceptable to everybody, even if they don’t get their favorite. We generally find common ground around Johnny Cash, John Prine, Steve Earle, that genre.
What do you dislike most about the beer business?
Oh gosh, for me there isn’t very much. I’ve discovered if I don’t’ enjoy something, then I shouldn’t do ii. We should hire some who actually enjoys it because they’ll be much better at it than I am. At this point, I can fill 90 hours a week every week doing something I enjoy. Here it is twenty after eight and I started at 7:45 this morning, but I don’t feel like I’ve had a long day.
You’re a fortunate man.
I’m a very fortunate man. If I have to work these long days, I sure as hell better enjoy it, otherwise life would really suck.
What’s your favorite beer-drinking memory?
There’s a bunch of them, I guess. I’ll never forget tasting the first batch of Sam Adams in ‘84. That was a magical moment. Realizing this was something that had 120 years of family history behind it, something that nobody had tasted in a century. That was really cool.
In the late eighties, we went to see Pilsner Urquell. The brewmaster showed us around, then he took us to his office and there on the credenza behind him was a bottle of Sam Adams. I thought that was awesome. Even though it was, like, a year old, I made him open it and we drank it.
The first time I every tasted Millennium. It was the first time anybody had gotten alcohol over 20 percent through natural fermentation. So when you tasted it you thought “Oh, my God, in 8000 years of brewing history, no brewer ever tasted these flavors before.”
Then in ‘86 when we won the consumer preference poll again, having a beer with my father and mother there.
You have a busy schedule. How do you decompress?
I try not to compress. It’s been 22 years, and Sam Adams has been successful beyond my wildest dreams. Frankly, if it fell apart tomorrow I would feel like I accomplished way more than I set out to do.
You know, when people ask me about what’s happened in beer in the past two decades, I always point to your brand: There’s a whole generation that has come of age who take the availability of Sam Adams Boston Lager for granted.
More than that. Our generation remembers Sam Adams from its early beginnings. You ask a 25 year-old: as far as they’re concerned it’s been around forever. Because ever since they were aware of beer, it was available.
It’s the most vivid illustration I can give people about how deep the beer revolution goes.
Isn’t it great that a beer drinker can take good beer for granted? That’s what me and a lot of other people worked so hard for. I think it’s great.
Your role in the Hallertau hops story. Why did you become such a warrior for hops?
That and Tettnang were the hops required in [my grandfather’s] recipe. When we started, we weren’t using very much, and the hop wasn’t hard to get. But by the late eightiess it was beginning to show problems. Hallertauer Mittelfruh, the heirloom hop of the German lager brewing tradition, was the hop that defined German lagers. At one point it was pretty much all that was grown in the Hallertau. Slowly, higher-yielding, more disease resistant varieties came in. The Mittelfruh hop has never been genetically altered, which means it has no tolerance for a number of pests, most importantly Verticillium wilt. Do you grow tomatoes?
My husband does.
Tomatoes have had to be bred for resistance to Verticillium. But they couldn’t do that to Mittelfruh hops without changing the flavor and aroma character. So, the 8000 acres were down to about 380 acres by 1993 or 4. Everybody had been telling us: you’ll have to find another hop, growers won’t keep growing this hop, it’s too hard to grow, it’s too expensive, no amount of money is going to get people to grow it because the disease is going to ruin it. That would have meant losing some of the special taste of the beer.
I started asking “why.” You know, in Japanese quality control philosophy, there’s “the five whys”—you haven’t gotten to the problem until you’ve asked “why” five times. So I asked why—why won’t they grow them? It was because the old growth was infected, and they didn’t think they could keep the soil clean.
We know in England that Goldings are subject to the same wilt. The English had changed their growing practices and the Germans hadn’t. That’s why I was convinced we could turn this around. The hop dealers, the growers, the agronomists, had all come to the conclusion that this hop was over and it was going to die out. Asking why it was a problem there and not in England, we realized there were techniques that could be brought to Germany that would help this hop to survive.
We weren’t big, but we got people excited to implement new growing procedures. They cultivated clean cuttings, and moved to new fields. So those 400 acres are now 2000-3000 acres.
You were awarded the order of the hops.
Yea, that was cool, really cool.
A knighthood. You’re Sir Jim?
A chevalier. In the hop world. Ironically, the thing is in Strasbourg, so it’s all in French not in German. It was neat, because it dates back to the 1300s. To be knighted in an order that’s existed for over 600 years, that’s pretty cool. Even in Boston we don’t have anything that dates back that far!