Beer geek road trip: Sam Adams, Jim Koch and me

sam2Now that the Beer Bloggers’ Conference had started, it was all business… if by business, you mean drinking more beer. The first stop the Bus of Beer took us to was the Boston Beer Company, better known as the home of Samuel Adams beer.

The Boston Beer Company has lauded Sam Adams as a Boston “Patriot & Brewer”, and he certainly was two of those things: a fiery revolutionary and a resident of Boston.

HSam Adamsowever, the historical record seems to suggest that he was actually a failed businessman who went to work in his family’s malting business because he was broke. So he was probably a maltster rather than a brewer.

Regardless of historical facts, let’s assume that he probably liked beer, so the illustration of him brandishing the overflowing tankard is likely an accurate reflection of his appetite for beer, if not his actual occupation.

From the Bus of Beer, we moved into the lobby, and gawked for a few  minutes at the many awards, the tasting lab and a complete collection of every product every produced by Boston Beer.


Walking through an old fermentor to get to the brewhouse/meeting room.

We next walked through a shiny metal tunnel — it took me a moment to realize that it’s supposed to be a beer can — and into the brewhouse. (Edit: I received an email from Jamie Magee, editor of Yankee Brew News, in which he states:[the metal tube] is actually an old brewing vessel. Used to have explanative brewing process photoboards on the inside…” Ahh, he’s right, now that I take a second look, we are walking through an old fermentor. Of course.)

The brewhouse had been turned into a meeting room, and sitting on each chair was an ice-cold can of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Although some people popped the top immediately, I set mine aside since I’m not a big fan of drinking straight from the can.

copperAs we sat waiting, we got a chance to look around the room at the shiny copper vessels. Of course this small system isn’t the place where Samuel Adams beer is brewed, this is just an R&D system for developing recipes. Like many modern “copper” systems, the copper is just for show. Copper and the caustic solution used to clean modern brewing systems don’t play well together, so usually there is a stainless steel vat hiding under the copper cladding. (After the meeting I asked a brewer if this was the case, and he assured me there was a stainless steel system under the copper coat. But the copper looks nice.)

The first speaker was Julia Herz of the Brewers Association, a group dedicated to the promotion of craft beer in America. It was Julia’s job to get us fired up, and she did so with gusto. It’s up to beer lovers, she said, to bring craft beer to the people. And nobody loves beer more than beer bloggers. We write because we love beer, not because we’re making money at this blogging thing — in fact, it had cost most of us several hundred dollars to be there.

Julia poohed-poohed the idea that the craft beer industry was a bubble that was going to burst. Yes, there are almost 2,500 breweries and brewpubs in American, but she pointed out that in 1887, there had been one brewery for every 29,400 people; today, the ratio is only one brewery for every 130,600 people. In order to lower that ratio back down to 1887′s number, America will need over 10,000 breweries. She also pointed out that nobody thinks there is a winery bubble, despite the fact that there are over 6,000 wineries today. And there is also the fact that the preponderance of craft beer drinkers are Millennials (in their 20s) and Gen X’ers (in their 30s) — in other words, they are going to be around and drinking beer for a lot more years.

Of course, she admitted there is a lot more work to be done. And that’s where beer bloggers come in — our enthusiasm and knowledcge will help to educate both the public, and the food writers (who generally don’t know much about beer.)

Jim Koch

Jim Koch holding a Sam Adams Boston Lager while he talks

Next up was the star attraction of the evening to deliver the kick-off keynote address: Jim Koch.

Jim founded Boston Beer Co. back in the early days of the craft beer movement. His company has been so successful that recently the Brewers’ Association changed their definition of a craft brewer from a brewery that makes less than 2 million barrels (2.4 million hL) per year to one that makes less than 6 million barrels (7 million hL) annually. The change was made because Boston Beer Co. passed the original limit.

Jim  is a pretty informal guy, and delivered his extemporaneopus comments while drinking one of his own beers. The first thing that he did was to invite us to open that can of Sam Adams Boston Lager that had been waiting for us. Firstly, Jim’s experience is that people who drink beer are more interesting. Secondly, he wanted to demonstrate the technical details of the can.

sam adams can

Sam Adams can: the curve below the lid is slightly longer than normal

It turns out that the Sam Adams can is different from other standard beer cans. The diameter of the lid is slightly larger. The dimple of the “lip” below the lid is slightly longer. The opening in the lid is placed slightly differently. All of this is to force our lips to connect to the can slightly differently. Jim told us this would enhance our taste experience. (By now my can was slightly warm, so I didn’t open it. However, I brought it home; in a couple of days I will try a side-by-side tasting with a standard can of beer and report the differences.)

Jim related some of his experiences in getting the company off the ground, and also took questions. He evidently enjoys this sort of talk; It took some time for his media relations person to catch his eye and signal him to wrap it up so we could move on to dinner.


Sam Adams cupcakes

Supper consisted of several buffet stations. Needless to say, several bars were also open, and were serving about a dozen different beers. I thought the cutest things were the cupcakes, each with an edible picture of Samuel Adams perched on top.

Now, all of this had been very interesting, and if we had gotten back on the Bus of Beer at this point, I would not have complained. But the best was yet to come.


Utopias is currently being aged in these bourbon barrels.

We had each been given a little sticker with a time on it. (Mine said 7:00.) At the given time, we were to gather at one of the exits for a special tour. So at 7:00 p.m., Elaine and I left off noshing and went on the special tour — which turned out to be a short walk into the barrel-aging room, the special room where batches of Samuel Adams Utopias are aged in various barrels for up to a year.

(I have mentioned Utopias before–an incredibly rare and expensive 27% abv beer. Only a few thousand numbered bottles are produced each year. The LCBO gets perhaps 200 of these, and sells them for the bargain basement price of only $115 each. I say “bargain basement price” because in the American free market, bottles are normally priced from $200 to $300. This year is even more special because it is the 10th anniversaryof Utopias, which called for a special black bottle signed in gold by Jim Koch.)


Liquid gold: Utopias

Jim Koch was waiting for us in the room behind a table covered with dozens of glasses. Each glass contained one ounce of liquid gold: Utopias!

(I’m only partly jesting about “liquid gold”; at current US prices, each glass was worth about $12.50 — or more likely about $30 in a bar.)

Jim Koch

Jim Koch, Utopias, and our buddy from last night’s Sebago dinner, Dave Ackley from Asheville NC

This wasn’t just a shooter competition, though — Jim led us through a complete tasting, probably spending more time on the aromas then on the taste.

It really was a bit of heaven smelling that intense nose again — dark fruit, sweet brown sugar, well-cared for leather, cognac, brandy, vanilla, and so on and so on. The nose just would not give up.

And the taste… Beer for the rest of the evening would taste just a little bit less like beer. I suppose we were supposed to only drink one sample, but the taste was too intense for Elaine, so I graciously agreed to drink hers.

Utopias glasses

Utopias glasses designed and made by Riedel.

Jim also showed us his special Utopias glasses made by Riedel, which were designed specifically to enhance the aroma. (They almost didn’t get made, though. Jim contacted Riedel about getting glasses made, only to be told that Riedel didn’t make beer glasses. Jim cleverly thought to send them a bottle of Utopias; three days later Riedel was back on the phone, sounding much more enthusiastic about the project.)

Jim had filled one glass almost full, and the other glass with the standard one ounce. He passed around both glasses and asked us to compare the aromas. I was surprised by how much difference there was — the aroma of the full glass was pleasant, but the nose on the nearly empty glass was like a piece of heaven.

Jim explained that in the nearly full glass, some of the lighter volatiles spill over the lip and are lost. In contrast, there’s enough room in the nearly empty glass to hold all the aromas.

My one disappointment of the evening was that the Sam Adams retail store did not stock the Riedel Utopias glasses. D’ohh!

Heavy Seas Pyrate Party at Stoddart's

Heavy Seas Pyrate Party at Stoddart’s

If the Bus of Beer had returned us to the hotel at this point, I would have considered it a very decent day. But wait, there was more! Apparently it was time for more beer, so our next stop was Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale. Arrrr, maties! Heavy Seas Brewery was throwing a “Pyrate Party”, complete with complimentary eyepatches. Entertainment included a limerick contest (one limerick to be completed for each sample of their beer you drank).

Several limericks and several Heavy Seas beers later, although many of the beer bloggers looked capable of staying until last call, Elaine and I were ready to call it a night; we walked back to the Park Plaza and tumbled into bed.

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One Comment on “Beer geek road trip: Sam Adams, Jim Koch and me”

  1. Excellent recap! Wish I could have been there with you to experience everything.

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