Beer Summit Beer Summit
News

Beer Summit

by Jaime Wolf

August 14, 2009

Jim Koch, founder and chairman of The Boston Beer Company, brewers of Samuel Adams Beer, is a pioneer of the American palate as well as a quiet leader in conscientious capitalism.

If a local microbrewery opened in your vicinity sometime in the last 20 years, you have Koch in large part to thank. Establishing Samuel Adams in 1984, Koch kicked off the craft beer movement, awakening American drinkers to the vast potential of taste and sophistication in beer beyond the bland mass market offerings of Miller and Busch. Along the way, Koch has continued to innovate with flavor, alcohol content, cask aging, and ingredients to concoct offerings that extend the traditional definitions of beer. Koch is also deeply involved in community issues, and defines his company's mission to include a reinvestment in the ecosystems of which it is a part, whether the greater craft brewing movement or the Boston area where they are headquartered.GOOD: How is beer the new wine?JIM KOCH: When I came of legal drinking age in 1967, the number one selling wine in the U.S. was Thunderbird, a cheap brand that cost 80 cents a bottle.  The word "wino" meant a derelict, homeless person. The preferred drinking vessel was a brown bag. There were no custom-made fancy glasses to enhance the flavor. So, if you look at the sophistication of the contemporary drinking public, and the wines that are being made, beer is going through that same transformation. It's really only the beginning. In sales volume, craft beer is still just 4 percent of the overall market.G: Before the craft beer movement, was American beer ever good?JK: In the 19th century, American beer was considered the equal of European beers. Pabst Blue Ribbon, for instance: the blue ribbon was a big deal. It won the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, a highly contested competition with beers from all over the world. But when Prohibition came in, brewing skills went away. During Prohibition, people brewed lighter beers that were easier and quicker to make, so tastes changed after 1918. Then, after World War II, brewers couldn't get enough barley and they started putting more corn in. They discovered making it lighter costs less, people will drink more, and you can sell it for the same price.G: Just as there are certain optimum places in the world to grow wine grapes, beer also has a geography. Your beer, for instance is brewed primarily with aromatic Hallertau mittlefrou hops harvested in Bavaria.JK: There's a certain latitude which determines day length during growing season, roughly where you get 16 to 17 hours of daylight at solstice. You need someplace that gets adequate water, because hops are vines, [but] it can't be too humid. They're not really grown in coastal areas because they'll get mildew and bugs if it's too humid. And then, certain soil conditions have to prevail. The ground has to be loamy enough to hold water, but not too rich. Bavaria, Germany; Kent in the U.K.; Bohemia in the Czech Republic: These are the classic growing areas for fine aroma hops.G: What's needed to grow quality hops in the United States?JK: We need to develop unique American aroma hops. For years we would try to grow Hallertau, Tettnang, Kent, and other cultivars that came from Europe, but it they never achieved the quality of the originals. What you see now are American cultivars developed at research universities. Oregon State and Washington State have programs to develop aroma hops in the United States. We're making test brews with a number  of different American hops and the results are getting much better.G: A couple of years ago, when adverse growing conditions created a worldwide hops shortage, you made 40 tons of surplus hops that you had contracted for in advance available to other craft brewers at no additional cost.JK: I knew it wasn't going to last forever. We came into the market at a time when hops were cheap and easily available, and this was my way of reminding the newbies that we help each other. There's lot of mutual support among craft brewers.  It's like if you needed advice, or someone needed to borrow your welding equipment-we're yeast neighbors.G: Since last year, you've also been funding a microlending program, providing grants and support service to New England entrepreneurs who want to start food or beverage-related businesses. Tell us about your commitment to conscientious capitalism.JK: I learned about adding value from Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's. It's very easy to support an appealing charity and write them a check, but very quickly you run out of the ability to write checks. If you're doing something that adds value, you create a renewable resource. In our case, something we've been involved with since the beginning is our brewery in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston. It's a traditional, historic brewery, dating back to the 1860s. When I first saw it, I fell in love, but the neighborhood was dangerous and depressed, the site had been neglected, trees were growing out of the facade, and squatters lived in some of the buildings.So we got together with a community-based nonprofit neighborhood development corporation and set out to renovate the site to provide jobs for local residents, who were largely recent immigrants. That was 25 years ago. To this day, we're still a tenant. Our landlord is a community-based nonprofit corporation. We never wrote them any big checks, but we helped turn around the neighborhood and created more than 200 jobs at the brewery. Ten years from now, those jobs are still going to be there.I feel this kind of thing may have limits-when a company grows past a certain point, or becomes absorbed into a larger corporate structure, the social mission can't really be sustained. Ben Cohen got forced out when Ben & Jerry's was bought by Unilever; Stonyfield Farm was bought by Danone. Coming up in the '80s and '90s, there were a bunch of companies whose founders I met at some point-the Body Shop, American Girl, Tom's of Maine, Nantucket Nectar, Stacy's Pita Chips-and all of them were founded with some social mission, but at some point they all sold out.One of the things that's unique about craft beer is that none of us has sold out: Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams are all run by the original founders, and we've all turned down offers for enormous amounts of money. I like to think it says something about the passion that brewers have for their product. Brewery photo by Wikimedia Commons user Kafziel
Recently on GOOD
The
Daily
GOOD
Sign up to receive the best of GOOD delivered to your inbox each and every weekday
Beer Summit