Few breweries get as much pub at Aleheads as Sam Adams. I’ve written extensively about them in the past and just tossed up a quick Boston Lager tasting note yesterday. Our love/hate relationship with the brewery is complicated, and because most of the Aleheads hail from the Northeast, we have a long and varied history with the Boston Beer Company.
Today’s post is going to focus on the negatives. For every Alehead that champions Sam Adams for being a catalyst for the craft beer movement, there is another one waiting in the wings to call Sam a sell-out, a poser, and worst of all…a fake. Do any of these charges have merit? Let’s delve, shall we?
Many breweries are strongly tied in the public mind to one person. Fritz Maytag at Anchor, Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River, Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head. But few are as intimately connected to a single person’s vision as the Boston Beer Company is to Jim Koch. And that’s where some of the issues arise.
Jim Koch clearly loves beer. Of that, there is no question. But there is a sense in the craft beer community (justified or not), that Koch is more marketing guru than brewer. Kurt Widmer, the respected Oregonian brewer, once famously called Sam Adams “a marketing shell” rather than a true craft brewery. While Koch’s family has deep brewing roots, the man himself was a Harvard-educated consultant for the world-renowned Boston Consulting Group. That’s the first strike many in the industry have against Koch. He’s a marketing/PR guy by training whereas most craft brewers are trained as just that…brewers.
Of course, that’s not the only issue some folks have with Sam Adams. Plenty of small breweries were founded by people not in the “biz”. The aforementioned Fritz Maytag was the heir of the washing-machine fortune. Breweries are expensive to get off the ground and successful ones are often founded by businessmen with an interest in brewing rather than the other way around.
The biggest concern with Sam has always been its reputation as a user/abuser of contract breweries. Contract brewers are breweries that have spare capacity and can afford to brew beer for other outfits. While the brewery doing the contracting may develop recipes and handle marketing and logistics, the actual brewing process is done by the contract brewer. F.X. Matt (makers of Saranac) is a well-known contract brewer that has handled the dirty work for many smaller breweries in the Northeast.
There’s nothing wrong with hiring a larger company to brew your beer for you, of course. Terrapin, my favorite Southeastern brewery, contract brewed through Flying Dog for years before they were able to afford their own facility in Athens, GA (now they brew almost everything on-site except for some special, small-batch collaborations with other brewers). As I said before, breweries are expensive and not every brewer can afford the pricey equipment necessary to make their dreams a reality. It’s often best to contract brew first, get your name out there, and then open your own ale factory after a few years of good sales.*
*That’s actually one of the things I love about the brewing industry. In how many other industries would companies do the production work for a smaller competitor just to help get them off the ground? Sure, the contract brewer makes money for their labors. But in the end, they rarely get credit for making the product that allows an upstart to become their rival.
The problem with Sam Adams is that their “end-game” never really seemed to be to open their own brewery. While most of their beers are indeed brewed at company-owned sites today (over 95% according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia), the Boston Beer Company used contract breweries for most of its existence…even when it could absolutely have afforded to build its own plant.
Here’s the list of breweries used as contract brewers by Boston Beer Company according to Wikipedia:
The brand was first produced under contract by the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, best known for their Iron City brand of beer. Over the years, the brand has been produced under contract at various brewing facilities with excess capacity, ranging from Stroh breweries, Portland’s original Blitz-Weinhard brewery (shuttered in 1999), Cincinnati’s Hudepohl-Schoenling brewery (eventually purchased by the Boston Beer Company in early 1997), and industry giant SABMiller.
That’s fairly damning evidence. In 1996, the Boston Beer Company was far and away the largest craft brewery in the country. Yet they STILL contract brewed the vast majority of their beers until they purchased the Cincy plant the following year. And using SABMiller as a contract brewer? No self-respecting microbrewery would stoop to those levels.
There’s also the issue with the company’s Boston connection. While Sam does have a small brewery in Jamaica Plain (JP to the locals), it’s something of a sham. They supposedly do R&D testing for new beers there and they have a tour and tastings (I’ve been a couple times and it’s an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon). But it feels like something of a Potemkin village. Just a show put on for tourists. Anyone with even the barest knowledge of brewing would quickly realize that the tiny JP location couldn’t produce a fraction of the 2 million barrels of beer that Sam pumps out annually.*
*Although, I’ve got to give props to the Boston Beer Company for building their little Boston brewery on the premises of the old Haffenreffer plant. That was Gramps McHops favorite beer.
So yeah…I get it. The Boston Beer Company certainly relied on contract brewers for far longer than is reasonable for a self-proclaimed craft brewery. And sure, Jim Koch is clearly more of a marketing genius than a true master brewer. And the Company has rolled out some truly horrendous concoctions in the name of profit (Hardcore Cider, Twisted Tea, Cranberry Lambic, Sam Light, etc.).
But you know what? Sam Adams was founded in an era (the mid-80s) when craft brewing had all but died in America. The Evil Axis (BudMillerCoors) ruled the landscape with an iron fist and microbreweries simply couldn’t gain any traction in the marketplace. Maybe being a hybrid…a company somewhere between the Evil Axis and the idealistic microbreweries we see today was the only way to really get off the ground. Maybe having a CEO who was more PR guy than brewer and a company that focused more on bottom line and profit than on making the “best” possible product was the only way to make it work. It was a different era in the mid-80s. A company like Dogfish Head couldn’t have succeeded. Ditto Russian River and Stone. It took a trailblazer named Jim Koch to change the game. To create an atmosphere to allow those other breweries to survive and thrive.
You may not agree with his methods. You may not even like his beer. But you can’t ignore the fact that he altered the landscape. He is the bridge between the scorched earth of the 1980s and the fertile beer fields of today. A sell-out? A poser? A fake? Maybe…but to me, at least, Jim Koch is something else entirely.
A true Alehead hero.