A month ago, Boston Magazine’s Andy Crouch published a piece in which he looks the extent that the craft beer movement has “abandoned” the industry’s famed founder, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company and it’s flagship brand, “Samuel Adams.” The full article can be found here:
Crouch tells the story of Koch’s frustration as craft beer drinkers have seemingly left him behind, no longer considering Boston Beer Co. a true craft brewer. The increasing diversity of craft beers on the market, and the subsequent demand for authenticity in those beers as selection grows seems to stand out as the key issue Koch faces. Crouch writes:
“Today’s craft-beer industry is highly balkanized and new breweries are much smaller, eclectic, and artisanal...In addition to hops, today’s beer nerds crave pedigree and a good story...‘Authenticity is extremely important to millennials, more so than any other generation that we’ve seen before,’ says Michelle Snodgrass of Vizeum, a strategic marketing agency that works with global brands such as Anheuser-Busch. ‘Millennials can see right through insincerity, and they’re actually looking for it.’”
Before getting into this, let’s go back to a story of another original craft brewer: Anheuser-Busch.
I know that sounds like an odd statement, but it’s not far off. St. Louis in the 1800’s was a magnet for German immigrants, many of whom brewed and sold traditional, dark, robust artisan ales and lagers appreciated back in Europe. These beers did not play well in the long, hot summers of Missouri. It was Adolphus Busch who traveled the world, exploring its various brewing styles and techniques, seeing an opportunity to disrupt the market with a light, Bohemian lager; a style he absolutely loved. A refreshing beer that was light in flavor, simple and easy to drink. Budweiser became an instant sensation in the midst of a market loaded with the heavier, richer beers American’s had become accustomed to.
I share this story to illustrate that it’s normal for the market to shift, and for the pioneer to eventually evolve into the enemy of new trailblazers. Like Caesar of Rome or Napoleon of France, a hero who remains on top long enough will eventually become the villain.
Now, I believe it’s true that individuals increasingly demand authenticity from the products they buy. It’s because we view the products we spend our money on as a reflection of us as individuals. We’re not vain or materialistic; we build bonding relationships with the brands we spend our dollars on. After all, money is the product of our own work and story; why wouldn’t we want it to go towards companies and products we believed in and shared a passion for?
Koch’s issue isn’t that the Boston Beer Company isn’t making great beer, or that he is a corporate sell-out, as this story seems to allude to. People today simply aren’t relating to their story. It’s a damn good one too; inspirational to new brewers like Mike and I.
Jim comes from a family with over 140 years of brewing history. Although he completed advanced degrees in both law and business at Harvard, and achieved a promising role within the lucrative consulting industry, he dropped it all to pursue a work of passion. Citing his lack of interest in corporate life, he burned his ships and started the Boston Beer Company with one label: the Samuel Adams Lager - now known as the Boston Lager.
It had to have been a tough sell. The term “craft beer” was not yet recognizable; there were simply domestic beers and import beers. Jim walked the streets of Boston - bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant - convincing owners to take a chance on his new product and creating a new market, one draft line at a time. Those small beginnings, 30+ years ago, have culminated in the creation of an entire industry, all on the back of hard work and superior determination.
I joke with our team now about how I wish we began within a city; I could save a great deal on gas money being able to walk from establishment to establishment rather than drive all over the Southern NH. The point is when I read Jim’s story, I knew up front what it would take for us to be successful: hard work and superior determination.
I then come to this realization: we are reliving our own small slice of a journey Jim began back in the 1980’s. We, just like most other small brewers, are attempting to redefine beer in our own, unique way. This is what makes the industry attractive and fun for consumers; it’s an adventure, one pint at a time.
Jim introduced the concept of quality and freshness in beer, employing the largest sales force by volume to ensure establishments are pouring and serving the products properly, and buying back millions of dollars of beer each year when its age crests Jim’s standard for freshness. He raised the bar, and taught consumers to demand more from their beer.
As such, our key focus every day is the consistency, quality and freshness of our products. It’s why we maintain a large cold-room to store each keg on-site, distribute our products ourselves, and teach the staff at bars and restaurants proper pouring and serving techniques. It’s also why we terminate a batch without hesitation if it isn’t as perfect as each batch before it. We must, or face the consequences of being left behind in the market.
Furthermore, Jim is committed to the beers he loves. He tells Crouch, “I don’t want to make something if everyone else is doing it...I am probably outside the mainstream on that. We don’t release a beer unless I like it.” Even when the company first went public, Jim only agreed to it under the condition that he own the entirety of the decision-making shares, ensuring he maintained control over the journey his company would go down.
This sentiment I respect greatly. Not a week goes by where a handful of people tell us what they believe we should do going forward, and I am sure every brewer has experienced the same. What they don’t understand is we embarked on this venture to create the beer we love, the goal being to find those who love them as much as we do; not create beers we think most people will like. I believe this is the quickest way to become vanilla, inauthentic and stale...a fad. This, to me, is what represents “selling out;” giving up what you’re passionate about to cater to the masses. If the product is great, the masses will come around.
As such, I will never sit here and speak ill of those on top of the market, or complain that they are unfair and oppressive. They are competitive, but so are we. We respect the work they accomplished to get where they are, and work daily to prove that our ales can stand right alongside them. I believe with enough work, we could one day overtake them. I don't fear the stigma that can come from being successful; I am excited about the prospect of sharing our ales with fellow citizens across the country.
So yes, it is true that inauthentic companies will find themselves lacking in this increasingly crowded, diverse market. But Boston Beer isn’t inauthentic; today’s largest market of beer drinkers - cited by Crouch as those aged 21-27 - simply weren’t around to witness the story Jim and his company lived. Instead, they are seeing his story replayed by hundreds of small breweries around the country, like us, and thus find it easier to build that bond with them.
As many of you know, we are big believers in not forgetting where you came from; respecting the experiences, challenges and lessons that define who and what you are today. As such, I thank Jim for being a pioneer and creating a market that many didn’t believe could exist. While others may read “Wasted” and relish in yet another story of how the mighty has fallen, I find myself inspired and motivated once again to continue onward; to create our disruption within the market with the hope that, one day, we too can leave our own historic mark on craft beer.
Now we can all get back to the reason beer exists in the first place; our sheer enjoyment. Tonight I will raise a glass to brewers everywhere - macro, micro, nano & home - who dedicate their mind, time and ability to it's creation, and invite you to do the same. Cheers.
Co-Founder, Engineer & Brewer