"I have absolutely no doubt I have the best job in beer in the world," says Jim Koch. He's chairman and co-founder of the Boston Beer Company – you know the guy, we all do, from the many commercials he's starred in over the years for his beer, Samuel Adams. "I mean, who would not want my job?"
The question is rhetorical, but you likely won't find much dissention. These days, Koch is often crisscrossing the country visiting production sites, attending beer festivals and events, meeting producers and suppliers. I caught up with him after his recent trip to England to check in on their UK brewer, Shepherd Neame, before a stint in D.C. for the SAVOR beer festival and a Brewers Association board meeting, and he was in the midst of plotting a dizzying October schedule.
"I was just putting together my trip for the Great American Beer Festival, but it involves being at a brewery at Pennsylvania, flying to Boston, and then flying to Denver on a JetBlue flight where we're gonna do a beer tasting on the flight," Koch says. "And then I'm going to Cincinnati to see our brewery in Cincinnati and actually, go to my high school reunion. Then to Las Vegas for the NBWA, National Beer Wholesalers Association. That's all – Boston-Philly-Boston-Denver-Cincinnati-Las Vegas-Boston – I think in five days."
All told he's on the road about half the time, but again, who wouldn't want Jim Koch's job? "My feeling is... I've created the job that I have, so I can't complain about the fact that it does involve a lot of travel," Koch says.
"To be honest, I never in my life had a job where I came to the same place and sat in the same place every day," Koch says. "I get bored by doing the same thing every day. So while there's times I wish I didn't have to travel so much, I realize the alternative of a sedentary office job would drive me out of my f'ing mind."
You can't script authenticity.”
As for those commercials, he actually resisted the idea – for nearly a decade. "That was not my preference," Koch says with a laugh. "I was actively against doing TV commercials for eight years before I could finally be convinced to be a part of them."
The time finally came when a planned 10-minute mini-documentary about hops selection was instead winnowed down to a 30-second commercial spot.
"What we discovered is that you need to use real people doing their real job, because trying to script it or use anybody else... viewers had a very, very finely tuned bullshit detector," Koch says. "You can't script authenticity."
Koch estimates that two thirds of his time on a day-to-day level is still focused on the beer itself, and he considers his key role, as well as the role he enjoys the most, to be innovation. "Innovation, and breaking boundaries, those are the kinds of things that interest me and I think I've been good at," Koch says. "And we gotta continue to innovate around our mission, which is, and I can say it by heart, 'to produce high quality products for the U.S. beer drinker.'"
As any entrepreneur or creative mind can attest, not all ideas end up working. "Some of them succeed, some of them don't," Koch says. "I'd have to say that we have more failures than successes, which is kind of the fundamental nature of innovation. But certainly for us, I can tell you that the majority of cool things that I thought were really neat and cool, most of them didn't work. But that's okay. That at least in my experience is how innovation happens – that there's lots of failures, dead ends, stuff that doesn't work. And eventually you make it work."
I've never been accused of being a good manager.”
In addition to all of the above, Koch published a book last year, Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two, and made waves with an April op-ed in The New York Times, "Is It Last Call for Craft Beer?"
"I've gotten a lot of high fives from other craft brewers saying you know, thank you for speaking up on behalf of all of us," Koch says of the reaction he's received from the op-ed. "I actually got a lot of high fives from wholesalers as well."
And for the record, yes, Koch is adamant that Samuel Adams is a craft beer. "The Brewers Association – they're the ones who are entitled to define it because they represent 6,000 craft brewers – have a specific definition that they've had for years, which is at six million barrels," Koch says.
"And I think we all, Brewers Association included, would say it's an arbitrary number," he continues. "It's not like when you made that last pint of beer suddenly your character and nature changes, so I think everybody recognizes that it's a little arbitrary, but you have to put some number on it and they felt that's a reasonable number... and Sam Adams would have to more than double to get over it. So is it possible? Sure. Will it happen in, I don't know, the next 10 years? Not likely."
Koch might wear many hats – founder of Boston Beer Company, face of Samuel Adams, de facto Voice of Beer in America, published author – but down at his core he's really just a beer guy. "I'm a brewer at heart," Koch says. "To be honest, I'm not a very good manager. I've never been accused of being a good manager. I get distracted, I'm very curious about things, I like to learn."
As a brewer at heart then, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Koch still likes to be hands-on, even at home. "I still homebrew occasionally with my kids," he says.
Before you try to steal any of his personal homebrew recipes though, he has a word of caution for ya. "You know, honestly, they're just ad lib," Koch says. "It's like 'you want to throw some more hops in there? Elizabeth what do you think?' So they're not particularly fine-tuned or anything, they're really just to have fun at home with my kids."
I guess we'll just have to buy his other family recipe instead, you know, the original Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.