Scout Q&A: Sam Adams Founder Jim Koch

You recognize him as the friendly fellow from the beer commercials, but when it comes to his hoppy creation, he’s dead serious.

The Boston Beer Company and Samuel Adams—the beer that launched America’s craft beer movement—turned 30 this year. Founder Jim Koch tells us how he grew a kitchen-made homebrew into a $3-billion empire, and what it’s like to have the greatest job on the planet. Grab a pint and listen up.

When did you fall in love with beer?
I think I was around four. No, really. My dad was a brew master in Cincinnati and gave me a beer that he made. I thought it was so cool. Love at first sip.

When did you make your first batch of beer?
It was in the late ’70s with my dad. It was actually illegal then. But we bought some Pabst Blue Ribbon malt extract, and my dad brought home some yeast and hops. Making this stuff, putting the yeast in, and watching it come to life was fun. And it tasted pretty good.

So you always wanted to be a brewer?
God, no! I came to Boston in 1967 to go to Harvard for this program for masochists where you get a business and law degree at the same time. Brutal. After a few years I dropped out, and went out West as an Outward Bound instructor. I did lot of climbing and odd jobs. But eventually I went back and finished. I never did pass the bar, but for six years I was a manufacturing consultant for a big firm in Boston. I knew after a while I was just doing the same stuff over and over. I get bored easily and I quit—when I was pulling a quarter of a million. Yeah, no one thought that was a good idea.

You quit without another job?
Sure did. I just knew I wanted something else, maybe start a small business. I was homebrewing all the time. Not a lot, it was like my Saturday project. And I thought I could go commercial. And back then, this was not a reasonable step. I mean, no one sold ingredients or equipment. No road map at all. But I thought I could do it.

Was your first release—Sam Adams Boston Lager—a homebrew?
It was. I messed around with a lot of recipes. Then my dad gave me this recipe from my great-great grandfather. I made it in my kitchen, tasted it in my kitchen, and it was like, Wow, this is unique, there’s nothing like this in the U.S. today. I remember that taste to this day. I knew I wanted to make this beer. I made two cases of it, passed it around to friends, and I got mixed reactions because no one ever tasted beer like it. You have to remember, 30 years ago there weren’t really flavorful beers in the U.S. You had Bud, Miller Coors, Strohs, Pabst, and Old Style. And if you wanted something better, it was like a Molson or Heineken.

Were you worried it was too unique?
Um, yeah, you could say that. When I started there were five beer wholesalers in Boston. They all turned me down. They weren’t crazy, because there was nothing like it, no one ever heard of it, and it was twice as expensive as Heineken. Then, six weeks after I started, we were named the best beer in America. But it didn’t help—wholesalers still didn’t want it. I started thinking, “Is anyone going to take my beer? Wholesalers know this business, maybe they’re right.”

What did you do?
One day I just decided they were right, there is no market for my beer, so I have to make a market for it. I believed there were people out there like me, who wanted a big, flavorful, fresh American beer. And to sell it, you need a wholesaler’s license. So I got one. Then, I literally would put cold beer in my briefcase everyday and go bar to bar. A few bartenders and managers took me under their wing and bought my beer. I’d go back at night and talk to customers and servers and tell them about beer traditions and history and how it’s made, ultimately educating them on quality. Soon bars started calling me—we didn’t even have an office. Ten years later, in 1994, we were in all 50 states.

How much is your company worth now?
I started with $240,000, of which $100,000 was my savings. Now we’re publicly traded. We’re worth about $3 billion. Not bad.

When did you know you’d never have to go back consulting?
I thought it would take like five years to really be OK. But it took a little over six months. It was then I had that moment and realized this is my last job—I don’t know where it’s going to go, or how big it’ll get, but man, this is my dream job, and it’s working out way better than I thought. Pretty sweet.

With that bankroll, how do you stay motivated?
At this point in my life, I don’t need more money. I’ve already accomplished way more than I thought I ever would. But I still want to do cool stuff. And if I’m not doing something cool, man, I’m not coming to work. I like to be innovative, do things no one has done before. From creating new brewing methods to new can designs. Plus, all the new beers we release every year. Last year we made 30 new ones, and I still taste every batch. Which, of course, is still the coolest part of the job.

How does it feel to be called the godfather of craft beer?
It means you’re doing something good. For a while it was lonely out there. Now there are 3,000 breweries in the U.S., and it’s great to have company. I felt like a fish in a teacup. Now it’s a vast ocean. And it’s a real community; we all help each other out to get better. It’s really exciting. America has become like the Silicon Valley of beer in the world. It’s pretty cool to be a part of that.

Any tips for fledgling brewers?
Believe in your beer, and love it. A beer has to have someone who loves it and takes care of it. And you have to be passionate and intense about it, because you have to keep brewing the stuff. It applies to anyone’s work. You should love what you do. And if you don’t, you’re just working a job.

Do you ever run into any of your old consulting colleagues around Boston?
I actually saw one last night on a plane! Poor guy’s still traveling. Except there I was too! That was my first thought, “Oh, gosh, he’s still traveling.” And then, “Oh wait, I am too.”

Yeah, but you’re traveling to sell—and drink—your own beer.
Yeah, it was actually pretty cool because it was Jet Blue and they have Sam Adams.

Did you have one?
Of course! He didn’t, though. He was drinking coffee, because he was writing a presentation.

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