Q & A With Sam Adams Founder Jim Koch: Loan Program for Food & Beverage Business, Advice on Opening a Brewery + Beer in a Can

Jim Koch, Founder of The Boston Beer Co.
Jim Koch, Founder of The Boston Beer Co.
Courtesy of The Boston Beer Co.

It's a familiar story in the beer world: well-educated guy leaves stable or lucrative job to make his homebrewing hobby a profession. Jim Koch's history set the precedent for that narrative. Koch, who comes from a long line of brewers, founded The Boston Beer Company in 1984 with two friends he met at Harvard.

The first beer to emerge commercially was Samuel Adams Boston Lager, still their flagship beer today. Over a quarter of a century later they are the largest producer of American-made beer. As if that wasn't enough, reports that the brewery will be releasing their first-born beer in cans by summer.

Sam Adams is also the name behind the company's new loan program, Brewing the American Dream, which allots capitol and resources to start-up businesses in the food and beverage industry. Qualifying loan recipients are awarded $500-$25,000 along with the advisement of The Boston Beer Company staff on marketing, sales and distribution. Businesses that have succeeded under the wing of Sam Adams range from coffee houses to sandwich shops and catering companies to -- as you might suspect -- breweries.

We had the opportunity to bend the ear of Jim Koch on starting the Brewing the American Dream loan program, helping new brewers, his own years at The Boston Beer Company, and the outlook for growth in the L.A. beer community. Turn the page.

Sam Adams Flagship Beer In Action
Sam Adams Flagship Beer In Action
Erika Bolden


Squid Ink: When did you get the idea to implement a program that would help build food and beverage businesses in America?

Jim Koch: It really came out of my experience starting Sam Adams, thinking about the resources that the small-business owner trying to grow their business doesn't have access to: You don't have access to loans and you don't have access to sound guidance and business advice.

When I was starting The Boston Beer Company, I tried to get bank loans so I could pay for start-up costs like purchasing ingredients, but was turned down. The banks wanted me to demonstrate that people would buy the beer before they would give me the money to build a brewery. They were right, so I rented space in a great old brewery, and launched my company.

I haven't forgotten how hard it is for small business owners to get started. Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream stems from our innovative business spirit, and is designed to give assistance and good advice to small business owners who want to pursue a similar passion and their American dream. I knew how to make beer but I didn't know much about the basics of starting a business, so having a bit of mentoring and advice on some of the key issues related to building a small business would have been extremely helpful.

Additionally, I wanted to create a signature philanthropic program that would really be impactful, add value and allow our employees to not only be involved, but leverage their professional skills and talents to help small businesses in an industry that we know very well -- food, beverage and hospitality.

SI: How many of the businesses to which you grant loans will be breweries?

JK: To date, Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream has provided approximately 8 loans to craft brewers across the country. Some are more established such as MateVeza Brewing in the San Francisco area, while others are just starting out such as Big Shoulders Brewing Company in Chicago. Additionally, we've also worked with a variety of small businesses related to craft brewing including Brooklyn Homebrew in NY that provides brewing equipment and ingredients for home brewers.

SI: Are there any special provisions in the loan program for brewers?

JK: Brewing the American Dream does offer some brewers an experiential opportunity, similar to an internship. In addition to a Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream loan, craft brewers nationwide have the opportunity to apply for the Samuel Adams Brewing & Business Experienceship.

The Brewing & Business Experienceship has been created to provide one craft brewer annually with educational or enrichment experiences that positively impact their craft or the success of their brewery. The Experienceship is tailored to the awarded brewery's business needs.


SI: How can new brewers get people interested in their beer?

JK: My advice would be to focus on the things that matter when you are first starting out -- making great beer, using high quality ingredients and working your butt off to sell it. When I was starting out I took Samuel Adams Boston Lager from bar to bar because I couldn't get distributors interested in it. I had to figure out how to get drinkers and retailers to sample my beer in any way possible.

Twenty nine years ago, we didn't have social media like we do today. Brewers now have the opportunity to talk to their drinkers through their websites, on Facebook etc. which allows them to engage with fellow beer lovers on a much deeper level.

SI: Distributing beer is an obstacle for new breweries because they are required to partner with a distribution company, often monopolized by the big beer companies. Some brewers even open their own distribution lines rather than trying to fit into this system. Any advice for overcoming this obstacle?

JK:The industry has changed a lot since I started Sam Adams and distributors are now much more open to carrying a variety of different craft beers. My advice would be to create an open dialogue with the distributor to make sure you both are working towards the same goals in order to build a truly robust partnership.

SI: L.A.'s beer scene is late-blooming for a major urban area. What would you say are the most important ways to foster a strong brewing community during a period of development?


Jim Koch at a Speed-Coaching Event
Jim Koch at a Speed-Coaching Event
Courtesy of The Boston Beer Company

JK: The craft brewing community is very close knit but in order to make it even stronger it is so important to collaborate with each other and learn from one another. We're proud that our Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream is helping to do just that. Each year the program awards one brewer a Brewing and Business Experienceship that lets him or her work in-person with our brewers here in Boston for a couple days.

Additionally, they get to meet with different members of our team who are involved in marketing, sales, procurement, legal, and design, to name a few. People always find it surprising that we help out our "competition," but what is important to recognize is that as craft brewers we all benefit by working towards the same goal of offering full flavored, quality beers to beer lovers across America.


SI: What was your initial vision for The Boston Beer Co.?

JK: My number one goal was to make a great beer that was better than what was generally available at the time. I originally set out to start a small brewery in Boston and my business plan was to brew 5,000 barrels. I never imagined that Samuel Adams would grow like it has. Clearly the market was looking for a new and different type of beer and we're very proud to have played a role in helping to bring full flavored, quality beer to beer lovers across America.

Although we have grown, people may be surprised to know that Samuel Adams is still just one percent of the beer market.

SI: The Barrel Room and Extreme Beer series are expanding the horizons of Samuel Adams, do you have a hand in brewing these unconventional ales or do you leave it to your brewers?

JK: While we have a great team of brewers, I'm involved with the creation of every beer, and to this day taste every batch of beer brewed to ensure it meets our high standards.

Innovation and experimentation are key at our Boston Brewery. We love what we do and believe in quality, creativity and innovation. I empower and challenge our brewers to develop new beers, new ways to brew and use unique ingredients. I enjoy pushing boundaries with extreme beers, interesting ingredients and with brewing and aging processes. It's my life's work -- to elevate people's thinking about beer and to push the boundaries of traditional brewing -- in order to offer beer lovers an inspired drinking experience.

When I first brewed Triple Bock [in 1993], it was the first "extreme beer" and the first beer to really stretch the definition of beer altogether. Then, I brewed the first batch of Utopias [in 2002], which was definitely a beer by definition, but its flavor profile resembled a fine port wine or Cognac. Since then, we've brewed several limited release batches of Utopias, and with each batch we've continued to push for more complexity and strength, producing astonishing brews with alcohol levels reaching 29 percent alcohol by volume for our 2012 10th Anniversary brew.

SI: How do you feel about the ABV wars, and post-Utopia wannabes. What do you think of the West's conspicuous lack of sessionable beer?

JK:I think the definition of a session beer has changed over time, and now everyone has a different opinion on what a session beer is. When I began brewing Boston Lager in 1984, it was referred to by some as an extreme beer. Times have changed -- this year we released our 10th Anniversary Samuel Adams Utopias, which reached an unprecedented 29% ABV. But the bottom line is that when we brew, taste, not alcohol percentage, is our number one goal. Nowadays craft brewers are going to extremes and drinkers continue to experiment. At Samuel Adams we continue to push boundaries but always make sure to focus on creating quality, full flavored beers that we really want to drink, regardless of the ABV level.

SI: Boston Beer Co. has a strong connection to the history of brewing. Besides the Revolutionary period of Samuel Adams, what era of bygone beer-making would you visit?

JK: I think it would be fun to visit the Industrial Revolution era -- more pubs came into existence, and as people migrated into urban areas the industrialization of beer became a reality. But to be honest, there is no better time than the present to be a craft brewer and a craft beer drinker. I feel lucky to be a part of today's craft beer revolution that's being led by American breweries.

And in more beer news:

- Pliny The Younger Coming To Town: 6 Locations Confirmed

- Lucky Baldwins Pubs: New Custom Beer in Today, 96 Kegs of Beer in the Bar + 14th Annual Belgian Beer Fest

- 5 California Barley Wines to Drink Now

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