In 2015, Does Sam Adams Still Deserve A Seat With Other Craft Brewers?

Recently, Boston Magazine published an article about Boston Beer Company founder, Jim Koch. In essence, the article centers around Koch entering a craft beer bar and not seeing his beloved Sam Adams Boston Lager on the menu. He then throws a temper tantrum reminiscent of a toddler who just found out he has a baby brother. The story then delves into the history of BBC and Koch’s role in the craft beer revolution that took place almost 30 years ago. You can read the entire piece here, by Andy Crouch. It’s a really interesting read.

We at Bald and Bearded are lovers of beer and this article struck a chord in both of us. In bold, you’ll find Conor’s questions, followed in italics by Adam’s answers, and again in bold by Conor’s response to Adam.

1) American Craft beer is defined by the following three standards:

  • Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.
  • Independent: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
  • Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers

But, craft beer means so much more to the people who drink it. What does craft beer mean to you?

I agree that the real definition of craft beer exists outside of its dictionary definition, that its technical definition serves more as parameters in which craft beer exists, and that everything else is just variables. To me, craft beer signifies local and independent businesses making a product for the people around them to enjoy, a product that they, the makers, can be proud of, and a product that locals can feel good about purchasing because they’re supporting local businesses. Craft beer is about people that make beer for the simple reason of loving good beer and wanting to share that passion with others. It is equal parts designing a perfect beer that people will enjoy and also bucking market trends and making whatever the hell you want. I can tell you there isn’t a huge market for oyster stouts, but that didn’t stop the great people at O’Connors Brewing Company in Norfolk, VA from making one.

A lot of it is about ingenuity for the sake of ingenuity, which ultimately comes from a place of love. And I think that craft beer (like any good piece of art, music, food, etc.) comes from a deep love for the…er….craft.

The legal definition of “craft beer” is irrelevant to true craft brewers. True craft breweries, like Hill Farmstead, the Alchemist or Three Floyd don’t need a legal definition to prove they are a small group of passionate brewers who are challenging, and enhancing, the status quo of American beer. They prove that by their work ethic and their product. Craft beer to me comes down to artistry and identity. A true craft brewer needs an identity, a mission, a raison d’être. Some breweries are dedicated to keeping their beers organic and local (Peak Organic), some are trying to resurrect long extinct old world beers and make the weirdest stuff you can think of (Dogfish)  and some are just a bunch stoners who just like to give the finger to the big breweries (keep it up, Lagunitas). No matter what the reason, they have purpose and artfully contribute to the growth and development of the beverage we love.

What is the the Raison d’être for Sam Adams? Beyond making Mr. Koch a billionaire…I have no idea.

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Rare photo of Koch at Board of Directors meeting

2) Does Sam Adams still count as “craft” in either of those definitions

I guess it would fall under the dictionary’s non-definition? I don’t know. Knowing what we do about Sam Adams/Boston Beer Company, I don’t think I would count it as “craft.” Not anymore, at least. When I think about it, I imagine the only non-MBC beer at an airport Applebees. Boston Lager, it’s flagship, would probably be the beer I bought if I was stuck in a small town for a night and the only thing nearby was a Walmart. I know BBC has around 60 beers in its lineup, but I don’t see them as a brand willing to take any real chances. Koch said in the Boston Magazine article that they never brewed an IPA until 2013 because he doesn’t like that style of beer. Which, ya know, is fine I guess. You should brew what you like. I believe that’s important. But I doubt Koch is in a room everyday in his boots and overalls actively brewing, so why not let his head brewers take a stab at some new stuff that can be shared on a large scale?

The reason for existence for Sam Adams? Yeesh. Okay, well, once upon a time, Boston Lager was a good beer in a country where it was hard to get good beer. Think about your grandfather. He was probably a Miller-Budweiser-Coors man, because that’s probably what he could get his hands on. Think about people in the Midwest or East Coast going crazy over finally getting Coors outside of Colorado. Coors! But, now, you can get good beer in almost any city it seems. I can go to Martinsville, IN and I know of two breweries I can stop at. And those price points are probably going to be the same or close to those of Sam Adams.  

Boiling it down – Sam Adams seems to me like a “craft” beer for people who don’t really like craft beer, or haven’t been fully exposed to it yet. Call it snoddy me or a beer snob (Koch sure thinks we are). Dare even call us hipsters. I look at it more as being an informed consumer.

Sam Adams Boston Lager is a craft beer. Legally, I have to say that. I would also like to mention that McDonald’s is legally “food.”

A business like Boston Beer Company is so large and mass producing that it needs the standard of “craft beer” to fall back to be able to  still officially define themselves as a “little guy.” Despite his best effort, Koch doesn’t seem genuine to me. In his commercials, he comes off as a Presidential candidate wearing dungarees and rolling up his/her shirt sleeves in Iowa to prove, “I’m just like you *wink* *finger gun*.”It can help you move up in the polls and improve your likeability, but it doesn’t mean you’re not a giant billionaire who has lost touch with common people.

I feel that it is important to mention, there is nothing wrong with being a giant billionaire. But don’t pretend you are a little guy, just own who you are. People will respect you more for that.

president-obama-in-sf1

IS OBAMA THE SAM ADAMS OF PRESIDENTS? MY COLUMN:

3) Does the craft beer world owe Jim Koch and Sam Adams Boston Lager for starting it all?

There certainly is a ton of debate as to whether he “started it all” – Sierra Nevada began brewing about five years before Koch started up BBC. I do think though that the craft beer world owes him for helping legitimize the craft beer industry. The late 70s on through to even the early 90s was mostly a wasteland for good beer, with MBC beers dominating the industry. But the beer that did it all, Boston Lager, isn’t really the most sincere offering, is it? A large portion of it is brewed in Cincinnati’s old Hudepohl-Schoenling plant, Koch hired what is essentially a “taste chemist” to engineer it, and picked a different revolutionary, Paul Revere, for the label.

Koch has done amazing work to help the industry thrive though. He funds startup breweries through his Brewing the American Dream program, and he all but saved countless breweries during a hop shortage in 2008. Pretty awesome stuff in a time when InBev is looking to just buy everyone out instead of helping breweries thrive on their own.

But as Will Gordon from Deadspin says, “They’re Cheesecake Factorying it out there a little bit.”

Correct. Next question.

4) Why does Jim Koch feel he deserves a spot on that menu?

Maybe he’s upset that people think there are better beers out there than what Sam Adams is making? Because on that particular menu mentioned in the article, I can’t see how he could actually think one of his beers stands up to any of the beers on draft there. I mean, look at this beer list. That is a craft beer bar, serving new, exciting, often hard-to-get brews carefully selected by the hand bartender/owner, and possibly paired with certain menu items. If I go to a bar or restaurant, and of their 25 taps, 24 are local/regional craft beers, and the 25th is ANY Sam Adams beer, you bet your ass I’m not even going to ask which Sam Adams it is. I just don’t care. I’ve had Boston Lager/Oktoberfest/Winter Lager a billion times before. Why would I pick something that I know hasn’t changed in years. I’m almost the same way with some local breweries here – I know what a straight up wheat beer tastes like. I’m probably not going to order one up if I know nothing has changed. Now, age that wheat beer in a champagne barrel, or add some spices, or just try anything new, and I’m more than likely to at least ask for a sample.

There are some BBC beers that are fresh and innovative, like their Utopia collection. But I refuse to pay $50 to fill my car with gas to get to work (model employee here, folks) – I’m not going to spend four times that much on a beer. Sorry. And they’re also extremely difficult to get. I at least have a chance of getting my hands on Zombie Dust every now and then. 

Again, the craft beer industry probably isn’t where it is today without what Koch did 20ish years ago. But if Koch wants a BBC beer on that menu, he probably should brew a beer worth a spot. Nobody is bending over backwards for the same Boston Lager that has been brewed and mass distributed for the last 20 years.

I mean, seriously, check out the menu… you tell me if Boston lager deserves a spot in here.

5) In terms of quality, location and production, what separates Sam Adams from any other yellow fizzy companies?

Don’t get me wrong – Boston Lager is still a better option than any MBC. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with contract brewing or brewing at new locations. Lagunitas now also brews in Chicago, meaning I can get their beers in Indiana, which is cool! But I look at BBC in the same light as Heineken or Stella Artois. They’re all marketed as being higher quality, better beers, but A) they’re not, and B) they’re usually sold at the same price point as your good local options. Why would you pay $5 for a pint of Boston Lager when you can spend that same $5 and get something from Three Floyds or Triton or Flat 12 or (insert your favorite local brewery here)? AND, when you drink local, you’re supporting local businesses in your community. When I buy a Sam Adams, I’m supporting a billionaire with multiple degrees from Harvard who once worked with a younger (but probably still handsome) Mitt Romney.

So what I’m saying is, not much separates them in my eyes, except for market share. They still spend tons of money on ad space (remeber that commercial where they have a bunch of “cool” looking dudes say they were surprised to be drinking Boston Lager? I can’t imagine the commercial callout for that – “cooky facial hair required, multiple fedoras a must”), they have a carefully crafted public image, their brewery tours serve more as museum walk throughs, and they’re the makers behind stuff we didn’t know about – BBC also makes the Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard products, but you wouldn’t know that because Koch won’t put the BBC name on any of their packaging so beer fans won’t associate the two.

Does a man who makes and mass distributes a product that he refuses to put his name on sound like a man that is proud of his craft? 

Quality? Sam Adams uses better ingredients and is by far a superior tasting product than Bud Light. Fact.

Production? Boston Brewing Company produced a fraction of the beer that Anheuser-Busch can crank out. Fact.

But perhaps this question isn’t highlighting the real point. Obviously Sam Adams beers are “better” than Bush, Natty, and High Life. But is that the standard a craft brewer should hold for themselves? If that is your standard the new ad campaign should read “Sam Adams: We taste better than rams piss” or “Look for our Same old shit at the Airport Chili’s near you.” or even, “Sam Adams for Romney! 2016”

6)Do you know the muffin man?

I do. Carlos and I used to run the block in La Jolla back the day.

7) What’s love got to do with it?

Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?

8) Can you make any analogies to art/music/film where an innovator changed a genre/medium forever but their failure to continue to innovate left them trampled by their successor and now utterly fucking irrelevant?

I can’t speak for art much, but god it happens all the time in music. Band gets big with an innovative sound/album, doesn’t change or evolve that sound, five albums later the only people still listening are the people who just found out about said band (mostly teenagers, because teenagers are stupid). You’ve got to evolve at least a little bit if you want people to see you as new and exciting. 

Craft brewers across the country are standing on shoulders of giants. Jim Koch was part of the small handful of people who were the spark that was a burgeoning American craft beer world. But now craft brewing in America is a fire that is growing every day. Over the last 20-plus years, craft brewers arose from every corner of this country to create amazing beer. Beers inspired by local and global influences. Beers that inspire fierce loyalty from the people who drink them. At this point, Sam Adams and Boston Beer Company are just a fading ember (that happened to make a billion dollars along the way.)

9) Will you go to prom with me?

Only if Kumiko, my Japanese body pillow, can come too.

You readers have any thoughts? Shout them out in the comments below, or hit us on Facebook or Twitter @BaldGuyBeardGuy.

See you next time

-Bald & Bearded

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