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Jim Koch exclusive: Sam Adams' innovation, seasonals, staying power & beer

Cheers from Jim Koch, Founder of Sam Adams.
Cheers from Jim Koch, Founder of Sam Adams.
Permission to use photo given by Sam Adams

Founded in 1984, Sam Adams has been a mainstay in the craft brewing industry, and in the beer industry in general. Originally founded by Jim Koch, Harry M. Rubin and Lorenzo Lamadrid, Sam Adams was born in Boston, MA and continues to live there to this day.

From being one of the first breweries to introduce the concept of seasonal beers, to pioneering the idea of aging beer in spirit barrels, Sam Adams has been a leader in growing the craft brewing industry.

In 2013 and 2012, the Brewers Association, which "represents small and independent American craft brewers," ranked Sam Adams as the number one craft brewer in the United States. It's a vast industry and one that continues to see explosive growth across the United States.

Jim Koch, who is a Founder of Sam Adams, talked about whether or not Sam Adams has any plans to open up another Sam Adams brewery, much like New Belgium is doing with their new Asheville location.

"In addition to our Boston brewery, we also have a brewery in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Every beer that we release is developed at our Boston Brewery - with the exception of Boston Lager, which I first brewed in my kitchen 30 years ago. Right now we do not have any plans to open another brewery," Koch said.

One of the consistent themes I've noticed over the time I've covered the craft brewing industry is the sense of camaraderie that is present among all brewers, even though they are still competitors in the same space. They all seem to know that if one company grows, it helps the entire craft industry grow.

We asked Jim about the second location that New Belgium is planning on opening in Asheville, NC sometime next year.

"It must be a good business move for New Belgium if they made that decision, and I of course support any brewer who brings quality, full-flavored craft beer to U.S. beer lovers.

"We like to see other craft brewers continue to grow because craft beer is only 7% of the total beer market, so there is room for us all to grow," Koch said.

Some breweries like to change up their seasonal offerings every year, while others, like Sam Adams, choose to continue delivering the seasonals beer drinkers have come to expect from Sam Adams.

For Sam Adams, they have brewed their Winter Lager and OctoberFest since 1989, and still release it during their respective seasons. Their Summer Ale was introduced about six years later, debuting in 1995 and still being released every summer season since then. Sam Adams did decide to bring a new spring seasonal this year and Koch talked about what type of taste it brings.

"This year we released a new spring seasonal Samuel Adams Cold Snap, a crisp, refreshing Belgian-style white ale with a combination of hazy golden wheat and a lively blend of exotic fruits and spring spices. Feedback we received from our drinkers has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Drinkers can expect to enjoy our Samuel Adams OctoberFest this coming fall and our Samuel Adams Winter Lager during the winter months, along with a variety other beers brewed specially for the season, which can be found in our variety packs. We are experimenting now with many different styles including a Double IPA and a Saison," Koch said.

You may think there is a complex formula that goes into deciding whether or not Sam Adams wants to introduce a new beer, but this brewery keeps it simple in that regard. A new beer must be "enjoyable to drink." Koch talked about some of the standards and requirements he needs to see in a new beer, before it's released.

"Any beer that we release has to be enjoyable to drink – plain and simple. I wouldn’t release a beer that I don’t personally enjoy drinking. Even after 30 years, I test every single batch of beer that we brew to ensure that it’s of the highest quality.

"Whether we are brewing a beer that will be released year-round or one that will be available for just a limited time, we always focus on quality ingredients,” Koch said.

Beer drinkers will no doubt have noticed the increase in craft beers being canned. It seemed to be a bit of a fad a year ago, but now it is something that is here to stay. Sam Adams didn't release their first canned beer until last year.

Koch talked about the decision to bring Sam Adams beer to cans and how it's been a very popular topic in the craft beer industry.

"If the growth of craft beer has proven anything, it’s that drinkers care first and foremost about quality and flavor. But the debate over bottles vs. cans has been a sticking point for brewers in the craft beer community for years. In the past, I had my doubts about putting Sam Adams in a can because I wasn’t convinced that Boston Lager would taste as good as it does from a bottle.

"But cans have changed. And, last year when we released our first ever Sam Can, I believe we designed a can that provides a slight but noticeably better drinking experience than the standard beer can. One reason cans are becoming more prevalent is because they can sometimes be more convenient than bottles.

Craft beer drinkers now have the option of drinking some of their favorite brews out of a can, which can be brought to places like the beach, the golf course and camping trips, where glass bottles traditionally aren’t allowed. Personally, I still prefer drinking craft beer out of a glass," Koch said.

There are a number of trends and things to notice about the craft brewing industry. Sure canned beers is one of them, but the types of beer and the overall explosion in the number of breweries are also trends that have come about.

"In terms of beer style trends we are seeing now, obviously IPAs still remain one of the most popular styles amongst drinkers. We currently brew a wide variety of IPAs including our newest West Coast style IPA - Rebel IPA, Latitude 48 IPA, Whitewater IPA and Grumpy Monk – our Belgian IPA.

"The craft beer industry is going through a complete renaissance right now. There are nearly 2,800 breweries in the U.S., but it didn’t happen overnight. Take it from someone who has been working on this from the beginning – it took 30 years for us to get to where we are today, which is just over 1% of the beer market, and I’m proud that Samuel Adams Boston Lager was a catalyst for growth and innovation in the industry, and helping start the craft beer revolution.

"Samuel Adams was one of the first breweries to introduce seasonal beers, which are now some of the top selling styles in the U.S. We also pioneered the concept of aging beer in spirit barrels, a now-common practice that was nearly unheard-of when we started doing it," Koch said.

It's one thing to start-up a brewery and create a fantastic beer that attracts people to it, but it's another to continue to hold people's attention for over 30 years like Sam Adams has done. Jim spoke about what drives himself and the brewery itself to make sure they stay among the best craft breweries in the country.

"Since the birth of Samuel Adams Boston Lager in 1984, I’ve made it my mission to change American beer drinkers’ perception of what beer can be, and challenge myself as a brewer. We have passion for what we do and are committed to experimentation and exploration of ingredients and brewing techniques.

"Our Boston Brewery is the centerpiece of this innovation. The brewery is also home to our Barrel Room, where for more than twenty years we’ve been exploring aging techniques and pushing the boundaries of what beer can be with brews like Triple Bock and Utopias," Koch said.

Experimentation is how a brewer can find an amazing, new beer. It's how Sam Adams has come up with their delicious seasonals and some of their other releases. Koch mentioned the Nanobrewery they have at Sam Adams and what hit beer has already come out of it.

"The 'nano' allows us to experiment with 10-gallon batches of beer each year. Working in small batches allows us to play with ingredients and amounts to see how it impacts the flavor profile of a beer.

"One of the most recent beers we released that was born out of our nano is our new West Coast-style IPA, Rebel IPA. This spirit of innovation and experimentation has allowed us to provide craft beer lovers with quality, full-flavored beers for that past 30 years," Koch said.

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