Thursday, January 15, 2015

My thoughts on Wasted: How the craft beer movement abandoned Jim Koch (and his beloved Sam Adams)


This is an opinion column more than anything else. Potential grammatical errors aside, I'm well aware that I am not an economist nor do I have an MBA. In fact, I don't even start my MBA classes until later this year.......did I just say that out loud? 

Last week I was browsing on Twitter during my lunch break when this article from Boston Magazine popped up in my news feed.

Wasted: How the craft-beer movement abandoned Jim Koch (and his beloved Sam Adams).

It starts with Jim Koch, CEO of Sam Adams Brewing, complaining about how Row 34, a prominent craft beer bar in Boston, didn't offer his beer. The article then goes on to talk about how he got into the craft beer business, birthed the craft beer moment, trying to be "cool", keeping up with trends, being the corporate side of craft beer, etc, etc.

I'm going to start off by showing an excerpt from the article:

So why does Koch get so upset when upscale bars such as Row 34 don't serve his beer? It might be because he’s worried that those establishments could be the canary in the craft-beer coal mine. The tastes of today’s drinkers and brewers are changing—and, unexpectedly, Boston Beer Company has been forced to play catch-up in the industry it helped to create.

Let's make one thing clear right now: Despite Sam Adams having to play catch-up in the craft brewing industry in-terms of trends, they're not going anywhere. They produce 2 Million+ barrels of beer a year. Sam Adams owes its growth & success their Boston Lager, which can be found in pretty much every bar across the country. Hey, speaking of which....

This may come as a shock to no one but not every bar is America aren't Craft Beer Only Bars like Row 34 or The Map Room in Chicago. The article makes note of how Sam Adams can be found at the Irish Pubs & Sports Bars. In fact, it's fairly safe to say that most bars in America aren't strictly "Craft Beer Only" bars. Besides if consumers got tired of Boston Lager, Sam Adams probably wouldn't be in business right now.

Another big talking point of the article is about how Jim Koch deliberately didn't go along with craft beer trends simply because everyone else was doing it.

The American beer palate is experiencing a tectonic shift. Once opposed to bitterness, domestic drinkers now embrace it. Big, bold, and brash IPAs are what consumers want, but Koch has been loath to make them. That could be a problem for Sam Adams’s business model, since hop-heavy IPAs, the most popular style of craft beer, account for a quarter of all craft-beer sales—and those sales are expected to grow by 40 percent this year.

“I don't want to make something if everyone else is doing it,” Koch says. It’s not just business: He personally doesn't enjoy many of the flavors in IPAs that today’s consumers celebrate, dismissing them as “catty” in nature. “I am probably outside the mainstream on that. We don't release a beer unless I like it.”

This is where I start to get a little critical because in every industry, trends are what drive the marketplace even if it isn't exactly to your liking. The problem I see here is that Mr. Koch refused to go along with these trends simply because he didn't like the style and that has no doubt affected Sam Adams' status in the craft brewing community. Even Goose Island has been somewhat keeping up with trends in the craft brewing industry: Barrel-Aging, Session Ales and so forth; Even after being bought out by Anheuser-Busch. I'll openly admit that there are some trends in craft brewing that I think are pretentious, but at the same time, I know breweries have to embrace those trends if it means satisfying consumer demand.

Now there are some trends that craft breweries can go without and do just fine. Things like Barrel-aging, session ales, or sour beers. However I have yet to see a craft brewery or brewpub that doesn't offer an IPA because it is pretty much a cornerstone of any craft brewery to offer an IPA. I'm not saying the IPA is a trend but you get the idea.

It wasn't until recently that Sam Adams started offering and heavily promoting their Rebel IPA and I have no doubt it my mind it was driven by consumer demand. However they would've been in a better position had they done this with their Latitude 48 IPA a couple years back when the demand for IPAs was on a massive upswing.

With all those misgivings, I do think Sam Adams' is in a unique position to come back swinging and one of those things that can help tremendously is their Rebel IPA. A few months back, I was at the gym when I saw a commercial for Sam Adams' Rebel IPA....

Up until that point, the only way people had heard about IPAs was seemingly through word-of-mouth. The idea of having a TV commercial for an IPA a couple years ago, to me, would've been unheard of. Sam Adams' has the financial strength to sell their Rebel IPA to the masses and bring about the IPA-style to a much larger demographic.

Plus in their defense, I think they have been trying in earnest to promote their other offerings through various outlets. I heard a spot on the radio from Sam Adams a few weeks ago boasting about how they brew over 60 different beers a year, which is a claim which they can make.

In the past few years, they have been releasing styles that really don't get too much attention. Earlier last year, I reviewed their Braggot, a style which doesn't get a lot of attention yet here is Sam Adams making it for the consumers. Seriously, how cool is that?! Their Griffin's Bow Barleywine (which I haven't had for a while) is also one of the better barleywine style beers that I've personally had.

With these limited releases, they have a chance to introduce more obscure styles of beer to the masses. A couple years back, they introduced Verloren, their Gose-style beer. Now it seems like every other craft brewery are introducing their own interpretation of the Gose and Sam Adams may be to thank for that, but that is just speculation on my part.

On a final note, I like Sam Adams. With the exception of one beer, I have never had what I would consider to be a terrible beer from them. Even though I tend to favor smaller craft breweries compared to Sam Adams' size, I still enjoy going through their seasonal sampler packs because there is always something new and exciting each time. Plus I always be sure to check out a limited release from them whenever I get the chance, especially if it's something I've never seen before.

I have faith in Sam Adams that as time goes on, they will not only be able to catch up but also keep up with current trends in the craft brewing industry. Not only that but I think they can get into a position which puts them not at odds with other breweries, but also to lead the way.

Thanks for reading my ramblings!


- Nick


  1. For me, being an entrepreneur is not only limited to following the current trend, but looking into it and adding a step or two ahead of the pack. When it becomes a hit, it would definitely create a demand. And in order to succeed, one also learn how to be open and adaptable to some changes that they were to face in the industry. Anyway, good luck on your future endeavors!

    Clint Shaff @ Franchise Match

  2. Wow that's a wonderfull blog having all details & helpful. craft beer