Exclusive: Sam Adams founder talks to Metro for Philly Beer Week
Jim Koch founded Samuel Adams back in 1984. It was a time before beer snobs and the craft beer movement — most people were focused on Budweiser and lighter beers. Koch, unknowingly at the time, blazed the trail when he brewed his first Sam Adams Boston Lager. Thirty years later, many credit him for starting the craft beer revolution. Koch, 64, took time out of his busy schedule to do a Q&A with Metro. He’ll be in town next week to participate in a variety of Philly Beer Week events.
Metro: How did you get the idea for Sam Adams?
Koch: Well, the idea was pretty easy. I’m the sixth oldest son in a row to be a brewer. For me, not being a brewer would have been to break from 170 years of tradition. I knew how to make a great, flavorful beer. What I didn’t know if anybody would drink it, or if I could make a living doing it, but I thought maybe America was ready for the opposite of what everybody else was drinking.
Metro: Do you take credit for starting the craft beer movement?
Koch: I’m one of the guys who started it, but, yeah, it’s been a wild ride. I had no idea when I started Sam Adams that 30 years later it would basically change and create the whole craft brewing industry. In the beginning, it was kind of lonely, there were really only a handful of us and nobody really understood what we were trying to do. I certainly couldn’t have it done it alone. I look at fellow brewers, like Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada.
Metro: Did you anticipate it becoming a phenomenon?
Koch: No. I knew from my business plan that it would take five years for us to grow from 5,000 barrels and then we would level off. I thought Sam Adams and craft brewing would always be this little small cult thing. I did realize pretty quickly it was going to be bigger than that. I kind of felt like Adam looking at Eve, kind of looking at her get more and more pregnant and thinking, ‘Wow, how big is this going to get?’
Metro: You are a regular at Philly Beer Week. Why?
Koch: I’ve been coming since the beginning. Philly Beer Week has a legitimate claim at being the first major beer week. To me, it stands out because it does have some tradition. Beer drinkers in Philadelphia know about it and look forward to it. Bartenders and bar owners know about it, and they do cool things. I don’t go to a lot of beer weeks … I’m coming to this one.
Metro: You used to own the property where Nodding Head is, right?
Koch: Sam Adams was the first craft beer to show up back in the ’80s and we were actually the first brewery to open in Philadelphia since prohibition. We opened the first and only Sam Adams Brew Pub in the U.S. [where Nodding Head sits today].
Metro: Why did you place your Brew Pub in Philly?
Koch: It was one of the first markets outside of Boston to accept craft beer. In the early ’80s, the seeds were planted for a good beer culture. You have great people there, like Tom Peters at Monk’s Cafe; Dick Yuengling, always a pioneer, still is; and Dock Street. They went through the hard years trying to create a beer culture and now we can all enjoy it.
Metro: You’re not bashful about your love affair with Philadelphia. You even have a Sam Adams brewery about an hour away [in Breinigsville, Pa.] Why?
Koch: Philadelphia has always been near and dear to my heart — and Sam Adams, the brewer and patriot, our namesake, he realized his dream of American independence there in Philadelphia with the Declaration of Independence.
Metro: Any new brews you’ll be bringing with you next week?
Koch: We’re bringing some Firkins — a firkin is basically an ale that has just finished its fermentation, in the previous day or two. It still has living yeast in it. For Philly Beer Week we will bring some experimental beers and some we just do for fun, nothing significant for commercial release. It’s a chance to showcase fun things for people who appreciate and are looking for interesting stuff … we might only make 20 barrels of it.
Metro: You mentioned Dick Yuengling. Is there a rivalry there?
Koch: No, not at all. I’m one of Dick’s biggest fans. I’ve known him for almost 30 years. What I love about him is he’s just followed his own compass and has been unbelievably successful by doing that. We have this thing where because of the foreign ownership — 90-pecent of American beer is made by two foreign-owned companies — Dick and I go back and forth between who is the largest American-owned brewery, which is comical because we are only about 1-percent of the market. I hope he’s the largest this year, then he has to do all the media stuff.
Metro: With so many new craft breweries — about two new breweries open each day in the U.S. — how do you stay ahead of the curve?
Koch: I’m always looking for amazing things you can do with malt, hops and yeast. There are a lot of really cool beers that haven’t been made yet, and I want to be one of the brewers that makes one of those cool beers. And, maybe if we’re lucky, people will still be drinking it in 50 years.
Metro: There was talk last year at Philly Beer Week about Sam Adams doing a Super Bowl commercial. No craft brewery has ever done one. Would you?
Koch: After 30 years, I’ve learned to never say never … but don’t hold your breath. Not in this decade, probably never — it’s incredibly expensive, so a.) we can’t afford it and b.) we don’t need it.
Metro: What does Jim Koch drink?
Koch: My favorite product is the original Boston Lager. I just want a really good beer when I get home and that’s Boston Lager.
Metro: What is Jim Koch drinking other than his own product?
Koch: There are so many good beers. The Philadelphia area has a lot. I like Victory, Weyerbacher, Stoudt’s, Sly Fox … for me, some of it is knowing the people behind it. When I have a Stoudt’s I think about [brewmaster] Carol [Stoudt]. Thinking of the courage and determination of an extraordinary woman who pioneered the path for women in the industry … I taste her strength and determination when I drink one of her beers.
Metro: Anything else you want to add?
Koch: Life is pretty darn good.
COME MEET JIM KOCH ON JUNE 6
Jim Koch, the brewmaster and mastermind behind Sam Adams, is confirmed for four events at Philly Beer Week on Thursday, June 6:
Beer Brunch with Jim Koch at Khyber Pass Pub in Old City
Koch will unveil his firkins, while Chef Mark McKinney pairs them with brunch items.
Tap Takeover at Moriarty’s in Center City
Tailgate with Jim Koch at Bishop’s Collar in Fairmount.
Grill and drink with Koch in the bar’s parking lot.
Philly Beer Geek Finals at Field House in Center City
He’ll be one of three hosts judging the two-hour competition, with prizes worth more than $2,000.