Beer Bloggers’ Conference: More Jim Koch

In reading over my last post, I realize that I churlishly skipped over the content of Jim Koch’s keynote address. So I thought I would turn on the Wayback Machine, and fast rewind a few hours:

Just to reset the scene, we were sitting in the Samuel Adams brewhouse at Boston Beer Company in the Jamaica Plain neighbourhood of Boston. Jim Koch, the company founder, was the opening keynote speaker of the Beer Bloggers’ Conference.

Jim Koch

Jim Koch, beer in hand, gives the keynote address.

With glass of beer in hand, Jim took us on a journey back to the early 1980s, when there were exactly zero breweries in Boston. At one point in time, there had been as many as 31; that included the Haffenreffer Brewery, which had started up in 1870 right where we now sat. Haffenreffer brewed continuously for the next 95 years — except during Prohibition — until, as the last operating brewery in Boston, it finally shut off  its taps in 1965.

The situation in Boston wasn’t unique, of course — in the years following the Second World War, most independents and regional operations in both Canada and the U.S. were bought up by large national companies dedicated to churning out millions of barrels of “industrial yellow”.

So Boston was without a brewery from 1965 until Jim moved into the old Haffenreffer building in 1984 as part of the “first wave” of North American craft brewing. By February 1985, he had sold a total of 25 cases of beer. Then in June 1985, his Boston Lager was voted “The Best Beer in America” at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and things took off.

The Jamaica Plain area was not a healthy neighbourhood in those days. Gangs had carved it into a patchwork quilt of territories, and woe betide the member of a rival gang who wandered onto another gang’s turf — as Jim told it, the usual punishment was to take the interlopers’ shoes, tie them together and toss them over a telephone line near the turf boundary, leaving the trespasser to walk back to his home turf barefooted. Jim had an unwritten deal with the local gang: they kept an eye on the brewery at night, he left some cases of beer in the back of an unlocked delivery truck.

In the beginning, craft brewing was really about restoring traditions, rediscovering the Old World styles that, in some cases, were not even made in their countries of origin anymore due to the preponderance of international lager. Jim was a part of that for a while, but at some point found that it got boring recreating what had already been created. (Jim believes that what sets craft brewers apart from the multinationals is a “fierce spirit of innovation.”)

Jim started to think about extreme beers and the technical issues of how to push yeast beyond 14% abv without resorting to distilling. As he put it, “making extreme beer is just the brewer’s way of having fun.” The result was Samuel Adams Triple Bock, which came in an unusual blue glass bottle and clocked in at 18% abv. However, its harsh hot taste was more akin to strong medicine than beer. Jim pondered this a while, then thought about what bourbon makers do to smooth out their product — they age their whiskey in barrels. He phoned Bluegrass Cooperage in Kentucky about purchasing some used barrels. When asked why he wanted to buy so many, Jim told the man on the other end that he wanted to fill the barrels with beer. There was a pause, and then the man drawled, “Don’t think that’s legal, son.” The legalities were eventually sorted out, and Jim barrel-aged for the first time in 1992.

Collegiality is another hallmark of craft brewing. Jim noted that with over 2500 breweries in the States, finding an original name for a beer is getting more difficult. He has about 10-20 naming disputes a year with other breweries, and so far a conversation with the other brewery has usually been enough to resolve the issue.  Jim’s advice — and you’ll hear the same thing in any marketing class — is to thoroughly research product names before investing money in labels, caps and advertising.

Of course Boston Beer Co. now produces over 3 million barrels a year (2.4 million hectolitres), which is far beyond the capability of the small brewery in which we sat. Almost from the start, Jim contracted the large-scale brewing of his beer to other breweries in various locations. The original brewery in the old Haffenreffer building is now Jim’s “playground”. Every Samuel Adams beer has started in this brewery — except Jim’s original beer, Boston Lager, which was brewed up in his kitchen. In addition to the copper clad system in front of us, there is also a nano-brewery on site that can do nine different brews in a day.

Jim is always looking to innovate, saying you can’t put boundaries on innovation. Take the beer can design I mentioned in my previous post. Generic aluminum beer cans in North American are identical, whether they are used for carbonated soft drinks, fruit juice, or beer. The lids of these cans are actually much smaller than lids used even a few years ago. That’s because someone figured out that since the lid is the most expensive part of a can, making it smaller would make the can a tiny bit less expensive. But Jim was sure that the steep slope of the can from its widest point to the small lid made it more difficult to taste what you were drinking — your  lips are too tightly pursed while you are drinking. As I related in my previous post, two years of modifying and testing the parameters of a new can design resulted in the Samuel Adams can — its larger lid and different profile allows your mouth to open more widely, resulting in a greater inhalation of aroma and therefore more taste.

This cost consciousness that sacrifices taste for increased profit is at the heart of the large multinational breweries. Jim doesn’t think large multinationals are evil incarnate — in fact, he believes that Inbev may be the best run consumer products company in the world. But they don’t have the same heart and soul as a craft brewer. Multinationals exist solely to provide value for their shareholders via lower operating costs.

Jim reminded us that craft brewers can’t fight with each other — the Big Boys are will simply swoop in and pick off the survivors. Yes, some craft brewers have been bought up — Goose Island being perhaps the most recent example. However, Jim is proud of the fact that there are a lot of American craft brewers who could have sold out for a lot of money — but very few actually have.

Back to the Future: We skip forward to where we left off — Saturday morning’s seminars.

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