How Good Has Jim Koch Been For Craft Beer?

Photo credit: Boston Beer

Ever since he released his memoir, Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two, Boston Beer's Jim Koch has been on a mission to shape his legacy. He'd love to be seen as not just a man who conquered the business, but one who founded and nurtured an industry. Based on the article in the Boston Globe on Tuesday, he's doing a pretty good job. The ostensible thrust of the piece was the question of whether Boston Beer was about to run afoul of the Brewers Association's definition of what a "craft brewery" is. A rule mandates that at a majority of sales must be beer, and Twisted Tea, cider, and alcoholic seltzers are just about to overtake Sam Adams. By current rules, Boston Beer could get delisted as a "craft" brewery. There's more than a little irony in this development, since no single person has done more to police those rules than Koch himself.

Leave aside the question of membership for a moment. What struck me was the last bit of the article, where Rob Burns (Night Shift Brewing), president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, rallies not just to Boston Beer's defense, but Koch's:

Besides, he said, Koch’s commitment to the so-called craft ethos is unimpeachable. ‘All Jim cares about is beer,’ Burns said. ‘In fact, he’s obsessed with it.’

This is certainly congruent with Koch's view of Koch, but is it true? No one can fault him for having built the largest post-1970s brewery in America. The flagship is a model for quality and consistency, and Boston Beer should be rightly credited for figuring out how to put it into customers' hands nationwide in excellent condition. I doubt you'd find anyone who would seriously argue he wasn't the best businessman in beer over the first three decades of his company's life. But good for craft beer? Committed to a "craft ethos" (whatever that is)? Cares only about beer? These claims aren't as straightforward as they seem.

During his first decade, Koch was regularly crosswise with his small-brewery competitors, and he wasn't above obfuscation, bare-knuckle tactics, and a little sex to move Sam Adams. What follows is a list from memory, not an exhaustive one, but it illustrates the ways in which Koch was not a typical founding-generation craft brewer.

  • He launched as a contract brewer, a fact he was not quick to divulge. Although the Sam Adams brand traded on Bostonian authenticity, it was brewed in Pittsburgh. The subterfuge was enabled by laws that didn't require a brewery list where the beer was made. This is far less controversial now, but in the 1980s and '90s, it was a big deal for those brewers who spent their money on property and equipment rather than advertising, as Koch did. it continued to be a major controversy within the industry for another fifteen years--as Koch grew his company to be the biggest in the US.
  • Boston Beer won the Consumer's Preference Poll at the GABF in 1985, and immediately started calling Sam Adams "the best beer in America." The following year the company gave GABF tickets away to customers and sales reps and, at the fest, handed out swag, winning a second time. The company would ultimately win four times, though not sequentially, a claim the brewery made at the time, and his electioneering was the subject of a fair amount of criticism. All of this created both a bitter taste for other breweries and led to the professional panels of blind tastings at the GABF we know today. (This comes from Steve Hindy's excellent The Craft Beer Revolution.)
  • Boston Beer tried to capitalize on Oregon's early craft market success by dropping a product called "Oregon Original" on the state. It was contract-brewed like Sam Adams, and was another attempt to play on local pride with a product purportedly "microbrewed" (per the label) by the Oregon Ale and Beer Company--a paper company. This was another one of those you-had-to-be-here cases to understand how offended local breweries were.
  • In 2002, Boston Beer ran a promotion called "Sex for Sam" on the Opie and Anthony radio show, the winner of which would get to go on a brewery tour. Couples competed by having sex in public places, including St. Patrick's cathedral. It was outrageous enough to get Opie and Anthony canned and spark an FCC case. Koch was in the studio during the broadcast.

Boston Beer was the first successful national brewery to emerge out of the microbrewing revolution of the 1970s and '80s. It was one of the pioneers and most people credit it for being a key brand in breaking through to the national consciousness. Sam Adams Boston Lager was an incredibly important beer in American brewing. Jim Koch, through his board work with the Brewers Association, has literally defined what it means to be a craft brewer (and redefined it, as when Boston Beer got too big for the old size definition). His imprint on American brewing is immense.

But Koch has also done a fair amount to harm his competitors and it has not always been clear that Boston Beer is "all about the beer." Their foray into flavored malt beverages and supermarket cider are symbols of an approach many "craft" purists wouldn't think of pursuing. Of course, there's nothing wrong with those products nor, arguably, anything Koch has done (though I bet he'd love the "Sex for Sam" promo back). But are these things good for craft beer?

As he nears the final chapter of his brewing career, Koch has become a magnet for stories like these: "How Sam Adams Founder Jim Koch Brewed A Billion Dollar Beer Revolution" (Forbes), "Sam Adams helps brew success for American small businesses" (Fox). The Forbes piece, introducing a podcast interview, gushes , "You could call Jim Koch the father of the modern American beer movement." I've noticed a raft of articles like this over the past couple years (These are just from the last two days.) That legacy is quickly gelling. And as it has aged, Boston Beer has begun to settle into its role as industry leader with some avuncular gestures of support. In 2008, Koch set up a program that offers mentoring and loans to small businesses, including breweries. In 2012, amid a hop shortage, Boston Beer shared some of its supply with smaller breweries. These are part of Koch's legacy, too, and are clear evidence of the more collegial spirit we associate with craft beer.

But ultimately, Koch's legacy is defined far more by the sharp-elbowed tactics he used to rise to the top and his success at getting there. (He came into the business as a Harvard MBA.) That Boston Globe article starts winding up with this observation. "The beer industry is under immense pressure, Burns argued, and brewers shouldn’t be punished for seeking sales wherever they can." This gets to the heart of the matter. Koch has always been about getting sales wherever he could. That is his legacy, and I'd argue it's an impressive one. Building one of the biggest breweries on the planet is hard! But that's not the same as saying he was an avatar of craft brewing or had an "unimpeachable craft ethos." Sometimes you can't be all things to all people. I don't mind putting Koch's bust up in the hall of fame, but let's make sure the text on the plaque credits him with the right achievements.