Samuel Adams Founder Jim Koch Talks Beer And Boston

Maybe you’ve heard that Amazon was looking for a location to build a second headquarters. Cities from all across the United States made pitches to woo the online retail giant. Boston was right in the mix, trumpeting its higher education, mass transit system and airport as major selling points.

We won’t profess to be experts in the world of high-stakes bidding, but if we were leading Boston’s campaign, we would have highlighted the city’s impressive beer scene on at least one of the PowerPoint slides.

Jim Koch wouldn’t have minded the gesture. As the founder of Samuel Adams beer and, indirectly, the father of this country’s craft beer movement, Koch has watched his company grow from a dream in his kitchen to a $900 million independent behemoth that is now almost as synonymous with the city as Tom Brady and clam chowder.

When we spoke to Koch, a Cincinnati native who moved to the Hub to attend Harvard, he had a lot to say about beer, Boston and living out of a suitcase. Amazon may not be particularly interested in alcoholic beverage industry trends, but Jeff Bezos’ company will want to play close attention to what Koch has to say about his adopted home city.

You named your company after Samuel Adams for the independent spirit he displayed. Does your company still have that spirit today?

That’s a good question. I guess I would say we are continuing to lead the craft beer revolution that we helped start 33 years ago.

You know, we’re still an independent company. I’m still here making the beer, running the company. We’re continuing to bring out innovative beers, and I’m still having a lot of fun.

How do you feel about the trend of small craft breweries being bought out by larger brands?

Well, to me, it’s always a little sad and sort of disappointing that fellow craft brewers aren’t committed or not as committed as I am, I guess, to continuing this movement.

I mean, it’s been more than just a business — it’s actually a revolution. It’s a movement. It’s a cultural phenomenon.

The reason that I’m still excited to come to work after 33 years of Sam Adams is that it’s more than just a product that you send to a market. It’s a passion and a commitment. So, I’m disappointed when people sell out.

I think we see that in lots of things, whether it’s beer or music or movies or other parts of the culture. It’s just disappointing.

The Boston Beer Company

Inspecting the Hops

Are there emerging beer areas around the country that we should be paying attention to?

I gave the keynote speech to the Florida Brewers Guild. It was their first-ever guild meeting, and it looked like there were over 100 people there. Florida has really arrived with lots of breweries. They’re starting to fill out the brewing scene in Florida with a lot of new entries, so that part is kind of cool.

I was in Chicago judging a home brew contest. I was talking to some fellow judges who are kind of aficionados — beer writers who are very knowledgeable — and they were excited by a new style of beer that is just starting to be known — though it’s been known to us in New England for a long time — called New England IPA.

It is hazy and juicy. It’s not just cloudy. It’s opaque. You can’t see through it because it’s got a lot of hops and protein, and some yeast elements. It uses hops in such a way to create a very juicy flavor, almost like it had orange juice in it.

Speaking of New England, I know Boston has a special place in your heart. What makes it such an amazing city?

It does have a special place in my heart because I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in southern Ohio. But I came here to go to [Harvard]. Fifty years ago in a month or so.

To me, what makes Boston so special is that it looks backward and forward with such power, by which I mean that you come to Boston and you’re surrounded by history. Boston, and this part of Massachusetts, has been the core of the history of America, whether it was the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock or the beginnings of American independence with Samuel Adams and the other patriots in Boston that started the revolution.

We are all familiar with the Declaration of Independence and July 4, 1776, but at that point, Boston had already been at full-scale war with England. You know, the battles at Lexington and Concord and “The Redcoats are coming” and Paul Revere. That was in April 1775, 15 months before the rest of the country got around to it.

We were already at war with those guys. And then you can go forward into John Adams, the president, and John Quincy Adams, who were really instrumental in the beginning of the country. Boston was the epicenter of the abolitionist movement that helped provoke the Civil War. You’ve got all this history.

I live in a normal house in Newton, Massachusetts — the home of the Fig Newton. I go to get a cup of coffee and park my car in a parking spot. I put my quarters in [the parking meter] and look 25 feet away and there’s this stone that is kind of covered over with weeds and stuff.

I went and looked at it a few years ago, and it marked the place where “America the Beautiful” was written. This is just next to the CVS!

You mentioned how you just got back from Florida and Chicago. How do you feel about packing and plane hopping so much?

I’ve been on the road my whole adult life. I’ve never had a job, since high school, where you come to the same place every day and do the same thing. So, for me, it’s just been the price to pay to have a job that’s interesting and exciting every day.

I’m always happy to get home. I mean, I got home last night at like 1:30 [in the morning], but I was happy to get home.

On Delta, I have 3 million [frequent flier] miles. And that’s just one airline. I remember a year or two ago, I got on a Delta flight and there was a snowstorm and everybody’s trying to get out of where I was. I think it was Cincinnati.

I got on the flight because they ranked you by medallion. I’m a lifetime medallion [member] on Delta and the gate agent checked me in and said, “Thank you for being a medallion member, and it looks like you have almost 3 million miles.”

And those are hard miles because I’m not flying to Abu Dhabi and knocking off 8,000 miles in one day. This is 100-mile flights. I’m on about 200 flights a year, so I average close to one flight per business day. That’s my life.

I think about it like driving to work. It’s just part of the deal.

The Boston Beer Company

Having a Barrel of Fun at the Job

On those 156 other days, are there places that you like to go to get away?

For the summertime, I go to this place in Massachusetts that nobody knows about, nobody goes to. It’s called Buzzards Bay. And it’s like Cape Cod was 50 years ago, maybe 75 years ago. It’s on the ocean. It’s an hour and 15 minutes from Boston.

You don’t have to deal with the cape and the traffic and all that stuff. It’s beautiful. It’s fields and farms and forest and fishermen. It’s not that developed.

I can go in my kayak and paddle and, in an hour, be someplace where you can’t see anything made by man. There is just nobody there. Maybe every once in 10 times I’ll see somebody. That’s where I go for R&R.

But when I get on a plane, it can be anywhere. I mean, oh gosh, two weeks ago my wife decided the weather was really crummy and we were looking at the flight schedule and she said, “Let’ go to Quebec City. The weather’s good up there right now. We’ve never been there. Let’s try that.” So, we did that.

On Saturday, I’m leaving for Kilimanjaro because my daughter asked me if I would climb it with her. So, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro in a couple weeks.

Do you have a favorite fall beer from Sam Adams?

Oh, absolutely. That’s a no-brainer: It’s Sam Adams Oktoberfest. We’ve been making it for 20 years. It’s actually become the largest, most popular Oktoberfest beer in the world. It outsells all the German Oktoberfests.

Generally at the end of September/beginning of October, I go to Bavaria every year. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. Every year I go to select the hops that go into Sam Adams. I will go over there and spend most of a week hand-selecting, lot by lot, from hundreds of different farmers the best Bavarian hops to use principally in our lager beers like Boston Lager and Octoberfest.

That’s always a fun trip because you avoid the big tourist destinations in Bavaria; you’re out in the Bavarian countryside. I know a lot of the farmers. I know people in the village where we stay. They have their own Oktoberfest.