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Sam I am, Sam I brew

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BRIAN SMITH/DRAFT

 

Two-thousand, six-hundred beer industry professionals descended upon San Diego this year for the annual Craft Brewers Conference and World Beer Cup, and everyone—from basement breweries to big operations in all corners of the world—gathered to discuss and toast the industry. It was here where DRAFT caught up with two of the most recognizable faces inside (and outside) the brewing world today: Jim Koch, brewer and founder of the Boston Beer Company, and Sam Calagione, brewer and founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

Jim is an industry icon who speaks in measured tones, with a tell-it-like-it-is demeanor and dry sense of humor.  He graduated from Harvard with advanced degrees in both law and business—but with five generations of brewers’ blood coursing through his veins, his turn to beer was almost inevitable. Starting in 1983, Jim built the Boston Beer Company from the ground up and his kitchen out. He focused on top-grade ingredients and hand-delivered chilled samples of his beer to bars around Boston. One of these was his great-great-grandfather’s recipe, Louis Koch Lager, though you probably know it by the name it goes by behind the bar: Sam Adams. Only six weeks after its introduction, Samuel Adams Boston Lager was named “The Best Beer in America” at the Great American Beer Festival in the Consumer Preference Poll. However, Jim’s repertoire reaches far beyond the ubiquitous beer with the blue label, with a collection of 18 distinctive Samuel Adams styles. His limited-release Utopias are among the most exotic beers found today; breaking all the rules, they are uncarbonated 25%-plus ABV flavor bombs best sipped out of a snifter (and in moderation). It is with his mind for business and palate for brew that Jim has been able to make the Boston Beer Company what it is today: the largest craft brewery in the country.

If Jim is a legend, then Sam is a rock star. Hitting the scene in 1995, Sam started not just small but miniscule, brewing only 10 gallons of beer at a time with a focus on pure invention. Today his brewery employs 100 people, has a 240,000-barrel capacity and has grown an average 40 percent per year in annual revenue over the past four years. The beer he brews, however, has not been dumbed down in the expansion and consistently pushes the boundaries in both the way it’s brewed and flavor profile. In fact, Sam can boast that his beers weigh in, on average, at 9% ABV and with two non-traditional ingredients. Rarely without a smile, casual attire and a wise-ass comment, Sam is a beloved, jovial spirit in the beer industry. He’s famed for mixing the fun of beer with the folly of life, evidenced in a myriad of quirky Dogfish Head events, from a film festival in Texas to a poetry contest and an “intergalactic” bocce ball tournament. But his work is nothing if not serious, and with three books and a collection of arguably the world’s wildest beers to his name, Sam is clearly no one-hit wonder. We sat down with these two men of beer to talk about the state of the industry, beer in their homes and the concoctions we can anxiously look forward to in the future.

 

For you, what is the definition of craft beer?

Jim: Small, independent and traditional. We spend a lot of work, a lot of really kinetic discussion, trying to define who we are.

Sam: I do think it’s up to the consumer to define craft beer, but for me, why I believe inevitably they’ll embrace the definition of small, independent and traditional, is because the big guys are, in my mind, so obviously influenced by what the true small breweries are doing in their own efforts to appear craftlike.

What’s ‘small?’

Jim: Our feeling is that we’re all so small relative to the big guys. We’re the largest craft brewer, but we’re still, at best, the tallest pygmy… Miller and Coors are now a joint venture. We are between one-thirtieth and one-fortieth of their size, and we’re one-fiftieth of Anheuser-Busch’s size. So it’s kind of a silly distinction. Whether it’s one-thirtieth or one-fortieth, there’s more than one order of magnitude difference.

Craft beer is booming. Why is this happening now?

Jim: I would not call this a boom. We lived through a boom. From when I started in ’84 until ’96, I think the least growth we ever had was 37 percent—the least. Every year we grew somewhere between 30 and 65 percent. That was a boom. This is different. This is evidence of a steady, long-term, very sustainable phenomenon that is driven on two sides: one, by craft brewers making great, world-class, interesting beers that reward you for enjoying beer; and consumers, on the other hand, have been turned on to richer, more flavorful experiences in everything from coffee to ice cream to olive oil to pretty much what used to be mass-produced, mass-marketed, ordinary, everyday things that fill the supermarket. Today, all of those have been made more varied and more interesting. Beer is simply part of that.

Sam: I think part of the reason why the craft segment’s growth is outpacing not just national beer’s growth, but even the growth of wineries and the distilling community—the craft segment is truly the fastest-growing adult beverage segment of the country—is because the consumer has become more self-educated. Consumers really care and are taking time to educate themselves, and what they’re seeing is that the world of beer offers a much more affordable connoisseurship than that of wine. The fact is you can go into a store with $10 and come out with a world-class six-pack of beer. Try and do that with a world-class bottle of wine. It’s just not going to happen. That’s what is, for me, really exciting, particularly in an economically challenging time like we have right now. They might not take that long vacation or they might not buy that huge SUV, but you know what? They can go out tonight to Whole Foods and plunk down $10 and get the world’s best something: really great, creative and artisanal beer that fits into that price.

Are you seeing more people trying to start breweries today? Is it a good time for that?

Jim: What I’ve seen is people coming in with better thought-out reasons for being here. They come in realizing that the world does not need one more IPA or even one more double IPA today. They’re not trying to be the next Sam Adams or the next Dogfish Head. They’re trying to be the next whoever they are. This world has infinite room for peoples’ creative individualism. It doesn’t have infinite room for ‘me too’ beers and brands.

What are the weaknesses that you see in the industry, amid all of this news of growth and diversity?

Sam: I think we’re somewhat susceptible to the potential blurring of what we’re doing by, say, neo-Prohibitionist groups, where beer is sometimes vilified as this gateway drug to horrific things instead of the healthful, everyday, natural product that it is. I’m pretty mindful of that. And as small brewers, a lot of us don’t have the resources—i.e., legal departments—of big breweries to make sure that when we are coming to market with a product or a marketing idea we’re doing it in a way that can’t be construed as irresponsible. Because our beers tend to be stronger, I love to promote them in the context of food, which is to say, ‘Look, if you’re going to be enjoying this, you might want to be having something to eat while you do it because it is winelike in strength and winelike in alcohol content, and it’s designed to have the body and food compatibility to replace wine at a meal.’ I think approaching it from that direction can keep us, as a company, out of harm’s way from potentially going off in that bad direction. ‘This is stronger to get you drunk?’ No. This is stronger because there’s more flavor, and you’re going to enjoy it.

Jim: I remember when we came out with Triple Bock. We were on the news in Boston. [Some] people were like, ‘This is so irresponsible because not only is it higher alcohol, but it’s in a little bottle so kids can put it in their lunch bags.’

Sam: I got railroaded once. The BBC in England called me on Thanksgiving Day. They called me and they set up this interview, all nice— ‘You’re going to be talking to these two hosts.’ We’d just started selling World Wide Stout in the U.K. It was the most expensive beer and strongest beer ever sold there in that era, and when I finally got on it was totally a screw job. They said, ‘Don’t you think it’s irresponsible to sell a beer that you call a beer but is four times as strong as normal beer? Isn’t that going to get all the lads drunk in the bars?’ And I was just like, ‘It’s Thanksgiving. I’ve got to go.’ It was a short interview.

BRIAN SMITH/DRAFT

Where is the place of extreme, high-alcohol beers among consumers?

Jim: They are not really designed for the consumer. They’re designed for the brewer. They are beers that have to find their own place. Luckily, they’re made in very small volumes. Our entire store of Utopias wouldn’t go halfway to that wall. Sometimes you just have to make a beer, and let the consumer find it. Our philosophy with it is, we always figure out what the demand for it is and then we make half that.

Sam: I don’t know if ours is as conscious as that, but it’s a similar approach where we’re brewing for our own palates, and we always have. When we started in ’95 and our average beer was 9% ABV made with six ingredients, there were very few off-centered people who wanted to come on this journey with us. But flash forward to today, it’s still a small niche, but it’s one that’s sustained us. I think our consumers—the people that loyally look forward to new Dogfish Head beers—would be insulted if we asked them, ‘What should we brew next?’ They’re basically saying, ‘Look, we’ve been on this journey with you. Where the hell are we going next?’ And meanwhile, we’re trying to figure out that for ourselves.

With a growing consumer base, how will you market to women or other groups that maybe haven’t been marketed to before?

Jim: I don’t think our consumers want to be marketed to. I don’t think they want to buy our beers because we have good marketing. With the craft beers, we don’t have as many women as we’d like, but I think the women who’d potentially drink our beer would be insulted if they thought we made a beer—

Sam: —in a pink bottle—

Jim: —for them. Every three or four years for 25 years I’ve seen some new beer come out that’s allegedly for women. They always fail because women don’t want to be condescended to. They want us as brewers to make great beer, and they’re confident enough in their choices to be willing to find it and choose it or not choose it. We should just respect that.

Both of you have kids. How do you intend on introducing beer to them?

Jim: We always make a Mother’s Day beer for my wife. So my wife’s Mother’s Day present every year is a homebrew that I make with my two daughters. We’ve done that since they were 4 and 6. Now they’re 9 and 11. They make the label with their little crayons.

Sam: I’ve homebrewed with my kids once, and I’ll probably do it again. I grew up in an Italian family where my relatives made wine, and everybody had sips of wine at the table. I wouldn’t guess it’s going to be in the next couple years, but I think when my kids are teenagers, at our dinner table, I’m going to show them that beer is part of a great meal in small volumes to start with. If the government wants to come after me for doing that in my house, so be it.

What are your feelings on the drinking age?

Jim: My kids have had beer whenever they wanted. My dad was a brewmaster so I grew up around beer. He had a rule that we could have beer if we wanted; we just had to drink it with him. And I actually have two older kids who are now 29 and 27. I had the same rules with them, and when they went off to college, I never worried about it. They had seen people sort of drunk, and if you’re a 15-year-old and you see people drunk, it is not an appealing state. There’s nothing romantic about it. It’s like, ‘That’s what being drunk is? I don’t want to do that.’ Drinking too much never had any appeal, and they were always educated: one beer an hour, stick to the beer, never drink the punch, count your cups, go home when people start doing shots. You’re going to be fine then, but those are the rules.

Do you have any favorite beer memories?

Sam: My epiphany beer was a Sierra Nevada Celebration [Ale]. I guess this was about circa ’93, working at a beer bar in Manhattan. At that moment, I said, ‘Wow, beer can be a lot more than I thought it could be,’ because in that era I hadn’t really experimented much. When I treated myself in high school and college, Boston Lager was available up in Dogfish Head, Maine, and I could get some of that. I’d had quality beer but I hadn’t had something explosively hoppy or stronger, so that one for me was like, ‘That’s way outside of the comfort zone and I like the way it made me uncomfortable.’

Jim: For me, nothing stands out as an epiphany. I just grew up around beer, and the smell of beer and the brewery. There’ve been a lot of really, really great experiences with beer.

Have either of you ever thought about leaving brewing?

Jim: Sure. We have choices, absolutely. I think, probably for both of us, every day that we come to work is a choice. At this point, neither one of us has to do this, so you have to ask yourself, ‘Why? What am I going to get out of it?’ I think that leads you very quickly to what you see in Dogfish Head beers—they’re an expression of Sam’s karma.

Sam: I think there are many stories similar to Jim’s and my own, where the momentum and the success from the outside is what looks so enticing, but from the inside, I think part of the reason that we are successful is because we get up psyched to go to work in the morning and make awesome beers. I drive into work and think, ‘What if we added the pinot noir grapes later in fermentation? Would it keep more of the aroma?’ When I stop thinking about that then I’d better start thinking about doing something different with my life.

What would your alternate career be?

Sam: If there was a gun to my head and I had to pick another career, I’d probably be a high school English teacher, because I was a punk in high school, and it was a few English teachers that taught me to sort of harness whatever creativity I had and put it in a positive direction instead of the many negative directions I was exploring. If I could pay that forward in some future life, I’d probably enjoy doing that.

Jim: I think I’d probably be a house dad. I’d like to stay home with my kids.

What’s your advice to people who want to start a brewery?

Jim: You have to find something you’re passionate about because while it’s a lot of fun, it’s hard work and the costs are considerable. There are things you don’t think about. Your kids grow up without you because you don’t go home at 5. You’d better really love it, because it’s going to take a toll. If you’re not being successful you’ve got to work your ass off, and if you are being successful you’ve got to work your ass off even more. You just can’t do that year after year unless you’re really passionate about it.

Sam: It starts with the passion: find an itch and scratch it. There are so many great light lagers out there. There are so many great pale ales out there. There are so many great hefeweizens. Do something that reflects your own unique identity, and never let the tail of money wag the dog of inspiration. Do it because you believe in it, not because you think it’s going to make you a million bucks.

Jim: Everybody that I’ve seen that’s gotten into this industry to make a lot of money has failed—everyone. I’ve watched it for 24 years now and they’ve come and gone. Not to say there haven’t been people that have been financially successful, but none of them set out to be that.

What can we look forward to this year from your breweries?

Sam: For our summer release, we work with molecular archaeologists on bringing beers back from the dead. It’s a liquid time capsule every time we do that, and it makes people identify with just how long beer has been a positive part of human civilization. The latest is one of the earliest known…We’ve been at the Rehoboth [Del.] chocolate festival for eight years now, so we’ve always been playing around with chocolate. We recently worked with these molecular archaeologists and found out that the oldest known human-consumed chocolate was actually a fermented beverage from Central America. It wasn’t the solid chocolate that we eat. The Aztecs used to fight over land, the way we fight over oil-rich land now, but in that era it was over where the best, highest-quality cocoa existed. We found this one area in the Aztec region, and Askinosie Chocolate out of Missouri is importing this stuff. So, we’re getting both the nibs and the powder from this little company. The recipe that they found when they analyzed the residue had cocoa nibs, cocoa powder, honey, grapes, and it also had some annatto, a tree seed that gives certain Spanish rices their color. So that’s a beer called Theo Broma that’ll be coming out this summer that I’m really excited about.

Jim: We’re maybe following Sam’s lead, and I don’t know if it’ll be this year or next year, but I’m very interested in redesigning beer and its flavor profile around the idea of being a wine replacement. I’m not sure that the brewing techniques currently exist but there is a pathway there. Some of them exist and there’s enough going on to make me feel confident that it will happen… You start to think about using microorganisms as flavor additions. You start to think about successive stages of flavor formation. Most brewing works on fermentation that begins and ends, but there are a lot of other things that microorganisms can do besides just turn simple sugars into CO2 and ethanol and fermentation esters. It hasn’t taken shape in my mind, but there is a pathway there. It means attenuating the beer much more so you don’t have the same higher levels of residual extract and sweetness and body. It can be done; I just haven’t put it all together. •

 

What’s in the fridge at Sam’s and Jim’s homes? Well, if they’re drinking their own, or each other’s beers, here’s what you’ll find.

 

JIM’S PICKS:

From Sam Adams: “You open up my refrigerator and it’s the Boston Lager, which in some ways is a little frustrating because it’s still the best beer we make, and it’s not my recipe. I’ve tried to do better and have not yet been able to do that. After that, the Double Bock. I always take my samples home. I get samples of every batch so those are ones that I take home to drink.”

From Dogfish Head: “120 Minute [IPA]. It’s quite a revelation every time you open a bottle. And I have to say the Palo Santo Marron… This was obviously from a fearless brewer. To me one of the pleasures of drinking a beer is to enjoy the expression of the brewer’s intent. There’s a brewer’s intent in every bottle and the intent in that bottle was complete fearlessness.”

 

SAM’S PICKS:

From Dogfish Head: “If I’m going to have a few beers, it’s going to be our 60 Minute IPA, which is on tap at my house until my 8-year-old son figures that out, and then it’ll no longer be on tap in my house. I’d say for an occasional beer it would probably be a tie between Palo Santo Marron and our Red & White, which is a Belgian white aged with pinot noir grapes.”

From Sam Adams: “My favorite would be Utopias, because I do feel that it has opened up a lot of people’s minds about what a beer can be. It’s uncarbonated. It’s served in a small snifter. It’s its own thing. As far as my go-to Sam Adams beer, if I’m going to have a couple and I’ve got access to the whole portfolio, it would probably be the Imperial Pilsner, which I really like because there’s no skimping on the hops in that beer.”

 

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