Interview with Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) founder Jim Koch

Sam '76 photo courtesy of Boston Beer Company

Two months ago I was on my rare once-per-year vacations to Montreal and I received an email from an awesome rep asking me if I'd like to interview Jim Koch from Boston Beer Company (AKA Sam Adams), one of the founding fathers of the American craft beer industry, so of course I couldn't say no! In fact, I've been wanting to interview Jim for this website even back before this site was and just the Cranky Beer Blog way back when.

Over ten years ago, I went down to North Dakota with family and instead of picking up incredibly cheap American macro beer, I decided it was time to open up my palate and try some American craft beer - the first American craft beer I ever tried was Sam Adams - I believe it was a Summer Ale or a Belgian-style witbier. When Sam Adams made its debut in Manitoba a few years later, I was quite giddy because I could finally get the product here and some of them were my seasonal staples while they were available (such as their Alpine Spring Lager (or just known as Spring Lager in Canada)).

I interviewed Jim back in late May, the day after his birthday and the day after Boston Bruins' Game 1 win over the St Louis Blues so we started our chat about the Bruins success this season - he was absolutely excited about it as it's been seven years since their last Stanley Cup.

This past spring, Boston Beer Company released their newest core product called Sam '76 - a lager/ale hybrid that brings together the light, citrus aroma of an American Ale with the clean finish and balanced drinkability of a Lager. This innovative new beer took more than 13,000 hours and 60 trials to create. This beer was sampled at this year's Brandon Beer Festival, likely before just about anywhere else as I looked up the beer on beer-based social networking sites and it appeared that it was so new to Canada that the Brandon Beer Festival may have been the very first place in the country to feature the beer! (PS: you can see my review of the beer here!)

The beer started out with a vision with a beer that had the flavour and hop character of an IPA with a finish that was clean and crisp, something that no brewery has done, which he described it as like the front end of a Ferrari with the back end of a pick up truck. It took a year and half of work to perfect the recipe as they tried out many brewing practices and trying to perfect the hop character of a New England IPA - it's a fusion of a lager and an IPA. For the beer they used both ale and lager yeast strains for the beer, which makes them one of the only breweries to use both in a single beer. One reason why it took a year and a half to create the beer was because they wanted to create a beer that tasted like multiple different styles all at the same time (which I feel they did well).

Since the beer took 60+ trials to perfect the recipe so I wanted to know if he ever felt the beer wasn't going to end up working out - According to Jim, near the beginning after the first few trials he wasn't too happy with how the beer was turning out, it was difficult to get all the flavour out on front but since they were experimenting with something completely new, there was a lot of trial and error to get out certain notes of the yeast and hops to make it just right. After all the trial and error, '76 ended up turning out exactly like he wanted.. or better.

In this day and age, the craft beer industry is much more crowded than it was even a year ago so Koch is incredibly proud to come out with a beer that's something that nobody else has done with Sam '76. Brewers don't always want to drink an IPA nor do they want to drink something like Labatt or Molson, so brewers are wanting to come up with something easy to drink and a style that they typical gravitated to were Pilsners - a style that many beer snobs would completely write off as being bland/boring. Sam Adams has made many Pilsners over the years, but they wanted to create their own unique beer that was more flavourful than a Pilsner, which Sam '76 does with a crisp, light profile yet a bit of pine and mango to it.

I asked him what sort of trends he liked/disliked and he stated "I'll never forget what my father who was also a brewmaster told me - all beer is good Jim.. some beers are better, but all beer is good!" But he absolutely loves the innovation and creativity that's occurred in beer over the last several decades.

Since Jim was a pioneer in the craft beer industry, I had to ask him what he thought about the early days of the Canadian craft brewing industry. He remembers starting up the Boston Beer Company in 1984, at the time there were a couple of craft breweries in Canada already open or about to open up, mentioning Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria and Brick Brewing in Waterloo, so while Canada had a very small craft brewing scene at the time, it was much more ahead of its time than the American craft beer scene back then and that the pioneer breweries of the time didn't have a high survival rate as it was such a new industry.

According to Jim, Canada is a strange place when it comes to selling the Sam Adams brand as each province has a different approach to selling his beer. Here on the prairies, Sam Adams and other Boston Beer Company products sell quite well while some other Canadian markets are hard to predict, like in Ontario where Boston Beer Co has to sell to not only the government (LCBO) but also its brewery's own competitors (The Beer Store), so agencies like The Beer Store are going to be pushing the latest Bud Light fruit craze before they will ever will even consider a Sam Adams product.

Here in Canada, Boston Beer Company distributes through Moosehead, which like Boston Beer Company, is competing against an intensely fiercely competitive brewery market from MolsonCoors and AB InBev (Labatt) so Koch feels like their partnership has been amazing as both breweries have gone through some of the same challenges over the years and Moosehead does a great job promoting their products in Canada.

Several years ago I heard that Sam Adams' beer sourced a good deal of their malt barley from the Canadian Prairies so being the son-of-a-farmer I am, I just had to ask Jim about it - yep! According to Jim, the Canadian Prairies are the premier region for malt barley in the world so they source a good deal of it from here. With a bit of chuckle, he stated "Oh gosh! One of the towns is called Biggar.. they have this slogan with 'You've been to New York but this is Biggar!'" Being from the prairies get represented in the international level even if we may not know it, and a lot of beer (and spirits) consumed around the world contain grains sourced in my own back yard.

In 35 years, a lot of breweries have either closed, been bought out or consolidated so he's seen the industry change a great deal, he's incredibly proud that after all that time that his brewery is still able to innovate and come out with new and interesting products every year. One beer that I remember Sam Adams came out with was their Utopias, which at the time when I bought it was considered to be the strongest beer in the world at 28% ABV, not something you see every day!

In the early days of Sam Adams, it was hard to not only convince consumers to open up their palate and try something new, but also to convince stores and bars to carry the product so Jim had to hand deliver Sam Adams to see if anyone would drink it. Also, it was hard to get hops back then as only the larger breweries had a monopoly on the hop industry, and brewing equipment was near impossible to find so they had to build their own equipment themselves - all are things that are very easy to get now.

One thing I noticed while in North Dakota several years ago was a taster pack of beers brewed by home brewers, it's the Longshot Homebrew Contest where American homebrewers from all over the United States get the chance to showcase their beer and have a chance for the beer to be released nationally by the brewery. When I first learned about it, I thought it was an insanely cool idea because generally you would never get to try these homebrewers beers otherwise. Many of the homebrewers have opened up their own breweries after their success from the program, serious props to Sam Adams, I wish such a program existed by a Canadian brewery.

I forget yet still remember the first beer I ever had from Sam Adams way back when, it was a seasonal Belgian-style witbier with notes of coriander and spices that reminded me of my favourite brewery, Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly a considerable amount. I got shivers down my spine when Jim was mentioning that Unibroue was one of the pioneers of the craft beer industry but was unfortunately bought out by one of the big beer companies (Sapporo), I was sipping on some Unibroue Noire de Chambly as we were talking about this as my anti-anxiety pills weren't enough to shake off the interview anxiety!

Thirty five years of being in any industry is a long time so I just had to ask Jim if he still happened to brew beer himself in this day and age - He actually still does occasionally, but just not at home anymore. The brewery has a nanobrewery where he can experiment with 10 gallon batches with a good amount of automation so he doesn't have to do everything all manually. As for styles he likes to brew in this day and age, he likes to try styles that others haven't really ever done - such as when they were developing their New England IPA, it was a very rare style at the time, as well as recently working on a kombucha.

Since he mentioned brewing kombucha, I noticed that a lot of breweries in the Montreal area happened to brew kombucha while breweries on the prairies weren't really experimenting with it yet, so I asked him if he felt like kombucha was going to be the next big thing in the craft beer industry but he wasn't sure even with over three decades in the industry, it's tough to know what will be a hit or miss. He feels like it should be as it's not bad for calories and is satisfying and not too filling.

Any plans to collaborate on beers with their Canadian distributor Moosehead in the near future? Nope, Moosehead has done an amazing job doing their own thing and has been incredibly successful on their own with it being the oldest independent Canadian brewery.

I just had to ask was about the recent merger with Dogfish Head Brewing - is there any plans to bring the beer to Canada? Yes it will be! One of the main goals of the agreement is to bring it into Canada so I can't wait to see their 60/90/120 Minute IPAs to come to Canada!

Lastly: what's the perfect Sam Adams beer for a good poutine? Jim says the classic Boston Lager as it's complex, balanced and does well day after day, year after year.

I'd like to thank the legendary Jim Koch from Boston Beer Company for taking time out of his insanely busy schedule for the interview, as well as Linda for setting this interview up. I wish I could've posted this sooner rather than later but unfortunately there's been a lot of stuff happening this summer that's made me put this on the back burner for a bit.. I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I enjoyed chatting with Jim!

Check out my review of Sam '76 here!

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