Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch reveals new 'revolutionary' brew and how exactly the company earned its iconic name
Ask anyone for their best advice on how to become a successful entrepreneur and they’ll probably give you some variation of the same statement: You have to find or do something that hasn’t been done before.
Whatever industry you may find yourself in, you have to be willing to disrupt that industry and go somewhere that no one else has gone before.
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Enter Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Samuel Adams, a beer brand whose name has become synonymous with American beer — and a bonafide go-to for Bostonians and all New Englanders alike.
A leader of the American craft beer revolution, Koch founded the Boston Beer Company on the a simple principle that he continues to abide by today — create revolutions. Or, in the words of Koch himself:
"The status quo sucks.”
We’ll clink a class to that!
The company’s newest release, aptly named Sam ’76 (as a nod to the year America was, well, born), is a revolution in and of itself — combining lager and ale yeast strands, the beer manages to create both a flavorful and refreshing brew that Koch is calling the world’s ‘first crushable craft’ (Side note: Koch quite literally crushed the can of Sam ’76 as he said that. Baller.)
We had the chance to sit down with Jim and research and development brewer at Sam Adams, Rich Ferrell, to talk about Sam ’76 and all things Sam Adams, including where the iconic name came from and their ‘Holy sh*t’ moment with the latest brew.
AOL: What makes Sam ’76 unique in the way that its brewed? How would you explain it to someone who isn’t well-versed in the beer-making process?
Jim Koch: The difference between an ale and a lager is the yeast strain. There’s a separate ale yeast and a lager yeast. The ale yeast ferments rapidly and at warmer temperatures so it tends to be a little rougher and bigger. A lager yeast ferments more slowly and at cooler temperatures — an ale is done in a week or two, lagers take longer (they take a month or two) and that longer fermentation give you a smoother, mellower taste rather than a bigger, louder taste of an ale.
Sam ’76 puts both of those together. You get that big, ale fruitiness and that hop character that people associate with IPAs right up front, and then this very clean, crisp smooth finish that takes away any lingering bitterness that kind of makes an IPA more of a sipping beer. In some ways this is the first crushable craft!
Rich Ferrell: We wanted to design something that was good for any social occasion, so that you could keep drinking it and go for another one, but you would still have something interesting that would keep you coming back for it as well.
JK: Sam Adams Boston lager is not crushable — you’re going to sip it and enjoy the flavor because it’s big flavor, it’s satisfying, it’s got a pronounced hop-bitterness, its got a little more alcohol — all of which means you’re going to savor it. Sam ’76 has a lot of that big flavor up front, but this really clean finish that doesn’t linger.
AOL: When people think of Samuel Adams, they think of the city of Boston, they think of American beer.
Why do you think the brand has been able to remain so closely tied to American history (and to Boston), much more so than other beer companies? How does the Samuel Adams brand represent its ties to Boston and to American history?
JK: I’ve lived in Boston for 50 years — Boston has some really unique attributes. It’s a very down-to-earth city … its also got this amazing history. A lot of things began in Boston, including the American Revolution. The revolutionary behind that revolution was a largely forgotten historical figure named Samuel Adams. He was really the first of the founding fathers to believe in America as an independent country with an independent destiny … he was the radical, the revolutionary, the rable-rouser behind the revolution and he was also a brewer. So when I started making my beer, I didn’t have a name for it, I was just brewing it from my great-great-grandfather’s recipe (ironically, from St. Louis).
I wanted to name [my beer] something that tied into American history (particularly Boston) and here was a revolutionary who was also a brewer, and when I started Sam Adams, the beer, I wanted this beer to create a revolution of its own, because in 1984 when i started there was no craft beer, the whole idea of craft beer hadn’t really been developed. Sam Adams Boston lager was a revolutionary beer in 1984.
Sam ’76 has that same revolutionary character — its a unique set of flavor attributes and a unique brewing and fermentation process that are both revolutionary — thats really been the spirit of Boston Beer Company, to create revolutions.
AOL: Sam ’76 took nearly a year and a half to develop. Why do you think it took as long as it did?
RF: Sam ’76 took as long as it did because the development of putting together ale and lager in this way to create these new flavors was actually really challenging. We had about 60 different versions of the recipe — we spent about a year and a half developing it and we just did it over and over again until we got it right. We worked on the timing, we worked on putting the ale and the lager together in such a way that would bring the best flavor and aroma out of the hops, the cleanest, crispest finish — that’s why it took so long, it is truly a unique process.
Credit: Samuel Adams
AOL: Boston Beer Company has historically rolled out some pretty unique, out-of-the-box brews. How does the process for coming up with a new brew typically work? How did Sam ’76 come into fruition?
RF: It’s a pretty crazy group of brewers that sit in a room and bounce ideas off each other, and those ideas grow and change and morph and sometimes they sound crazy and we start to do them and realize that it’s actually ‘crazy-good.’ I think that Sam ’76 is actually one of those beers that we were like ‘You know what, this is a really crazy idea and it’s going to be interesting’ and then we did it, and we were like ‘There’s really something here!’ and we pushed that and pushed that for a year and a half and this is what we arrived at. And we’re super proud of it.
JK: Some of them we hit right off the bat — this was this long evolution through multiple styles. The idea was, let’s get a flavorful craft beer that is still something you can have three of instead of two of, and it won’t feel heavy. It actually began with a raspberry-lime gose which is an arcane beer style — We made the first one in the United States for the Boston Marathon, so it’s refreshing but it’s got salt in it, it’s got coriander, it’s got a lactic sour — and that evolved into a classic pilsner and then into Sam ’76.
So this one was a long and winding path to this breakthrough, and the breakthrough happened about six months ago. It got to the ‘wow’ that was the ‘holy sh*t’ moment — there’s nothing really like that. Craft beer drinkers have had to choose between drinking a very satisfying IPA and then going to something much lighter, and soundable like a mass domestic, or Mexican import. This enables a craft beer drinker to still get that craft beer flavor without feeling heavy, and getting more alcohol than they want and that lingering hop bitterness that they may not want.
AOL:Did you always know you wanted to be a brewer, or be in the beer business? Is the craft beer revolution something you ever anticipated happening?
JK: I’m the sixth oldest son in a row to be a brewer, so sixth-generation. My dad got out of brewmaster’s school in 1948 and there were about 1,000 breweries in the United States. By the time I started Sam Adams in 1984, that 1,000 had dwindled down to 40 or 50. So, 95 percent of the jobs for brewmasters went away … it was very difficult for my dad, he told me the last six months as a brewmaster he made $500 — in total, with six kids. So no, he did not want me to go into brewing at all!
It was a very hard way to make a living back in the ‘50s and the early ‘60s. So i didn’t — I went to college instead of brewmaster’s school and was a manufacturing consultant. And then in 1983 I decided, you know, I want to do something else. I don’t want to work for a big company — what can I do that would be unique and different and I kept coming back to making beer. And my dad and I had home-brewed before so i knew had to make beer, i knew a lot about beer growing up (my dad’s friends were brewmasters) and I kept coming back to this idea of ‘Could I start a revolution in beer?’
In 1983/1984, there were really no good American beers — the world was the mass-produced, mass-markets American beers and if you wanted something better, you had to go to an import. And I thought ‘Wait a minute, my great-great-grandfather made great beer — we can make great beer here in the United States.’ And the wonder of this whole craft beer revolution to me is, as somebody who’s been there at the creation, is today, small independent American brewers (like Sam Adams) are teaching the rest of the world how to make beer. And 30 years ago, American beer was a joke, it was the laughing stock of the beer world.
I can tell you stories about the original craft brewers … everybody was a misfit, they just didn’t fit into the rest of the world — I had dropped out of school for three and a half years, another guy was a photographer for ‘Rolling Stone’ (Bill Owens, started the first brewpub in the United States) … another guy was a bicycle mechanic, another guy down in Arizona (who went by ‘Electric Dave’) was basically a wholesaler of marijuana before it was legal (he had to sell his brewery, Temecula, where American IPA originated because he was going into federal penitentiary), a social worker in Fort Collins, Colorado — It’s just this wonderful American story, this group of people kind of outside of the mainstream of careers and the corporate world that decided that we would make beer in a new way.
It all of course started with Jack McAuliffe, this guy discharged from the Navy that was an American tinkerer that built the first craft brewery and went broke and out of that, we changed the way beer is made, in the whole world. Countries all over the world are sprouting craft breweries — i saw one in a town of 5,000 people in Patagonia! That’s amazing. What’s driven me is this constant desire to keep renewing the revolution, to keep doing unique, wonderful things with beer.
AOL: Anything exciting in the pipeline? Can we expect more revolutionary brews in the immediate future?
RF: As brewers, we’re always restless innovators and I think we’re going to keep going in every direction, which I think is what brought us here and and what’s going to keep bringing us to great things in the future — we’re going to keep going down this road and exploring yeasts and hops, and we’re going to go down other roads with aging, and lager brewing and push those envelopes too because i think as brewers, that’s kind of what we have to do.
JK: We have a mindset but its very simple: The status quo sucks. The only reason that the status quo exists is because we haven’t figured out how to do it better, but we will.
Sam ’76 is available in stores now, and will be available on draft early April 2018.