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Tag Archives: Jim Koch

Book Review – The Audacity Of Hops

Recently, I was sent a copy of Tom Acitelli’s new book, The Audacity Of Hops, for review purposes. I finished it last week and I can tell you that it’s well worth reading. The prose is engaging and the story that it tells of craft beer’s rise to prominence is thoroughly well researched and entertaining. It’s not exactly a page turner, but for a book that has 40 pages of notes and bibliographical references, he’s done a great job of keeping it factually dense without having it become a slog.

It’s a book that has become necessary, especially since we’re now well into a third generation of people for whom craft beer is relatively normal. If you were born in Ontario in 1994, you can now drink. I see people in their early 20’s for whom locally made IPAs have always been around. That’s progress.

The problem is that without a proper chronicle of the good old days, like Acitelli’s book, it can be difficult to understand that this wasn’t always the case. It must seem inevitable if you are just now starting to drink beer that craft beer will continue to grow and expand in infinite ways. It has, in other words, become commonplace.

The Audacity Of Hops is really best compared to something like The Right Stuff. It wasn’t inevitable that Gordon Cooper was going to spend a whole day orbiting the earth. I don’t mean to suggest that craft beer is as important as manned space travel. What I mean to suggest is that the narrative structure is the same.

The analogy might not stand up indefinitely, so I won’t push it too far. Suffice it to say that when Chuck Yeager was flying test planes it was about pushing the envelope and seeing what was possible. It was the Wild West in terms of aeronautics. At the beginning of the exploration of space you had the Mercury Seven astronauts. You had a small number of people capable of doing a difficult and demanding thing. The public knew them and loved them. They were personalities as much as they were pilots and astronauts.

In any endeavor, there’s a brief period of time when it is associated with the personalities that excelled at the beginning. Whether they succeed or fail, there’s a tendency to impose upon their stories, if you’re reporting on them, a sense of dramatic struggle.

This is where Acitelli succeeds. He makes Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Charlie Papazian, Michael Jackson and Jim Koch look as though they were all taking on the world from the same angle, all intentionally cahooting. You’ve got independent brewers and people running semi-legal homebrewing shops and people writing about beer, and all of these folks are pushing the envelope of what’s possible. It may not have resulted in the International Space Station and the Mars Rover, but heck, we’ve gotten some pretty good beer out of it.

The book kind of slows down towards the modern day. This is interesting, since there’s more information about more breweries and more brands of beer and more writers than ever there were before. Is it informational glut? Is it simply that it’s hard to put together a comprehensive history of two years ago if you’re attempting to thread a narrative through to the future?

This is a problem that craft beer faces, and it’s similar to the issues NASA faced following the moon landing. The initial narrative has more or less run its course.

The main issue with having legendary exemplars of an industry like Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe and the others is that they’re by nature iconoclastic figures. These are, by and large, highly intelligent people who didn’t like what they were doing and chose a new career. Jim Koch ran against Mitt Romney for the presidency of their Harvard Business School class, for God’s sake. He probably could have done anything, but he chose beer.

I’ve mentioned before, probably in the context of the sale of Goose Island to AB In-Bev, that this iconoclasm tends to be a mixed blessing for the craft brewing industry. Without a certain amount of gumption, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The fact that people took risks on an unproven industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s is the only reason we’re experiencing this renaissance of locally produced beer. In some ways, it’s a good thing.

There are downsides, though. Because it’s one person’s dream, it’s not necessarily a generational, familial type of business. Eventually, the people who started the earlier breweries find themselves to be of a certain age and begin to think about retiring. Breweries are huge businesses with a lot of equity sunk into equipment and branding and it soon becomes evident that you have to sell the whole thing as a going concern. Depending on who you sell to, the public might get fickle. Goose Island got blowback on their sale. Someone like Peter McAuslan, who recently sold his St. Ambroise to Brasseurs RJ, was simply wished well.

At some point, the rest of the pioneers involved at the beginning of craft beer will also fade out of the narrative structure of craft beer. Fritz Maytag is retired. Michael Jackson (who I increasingly wish I had gotten to meet) passed away a few years ago and is already part of a new iconography. Jim Koch turned 64 the other day. Charlie Papazian is 67. These folks will eventually want to (or have to) retire.

The problem is this: You never get the power of the original narrative back. Yes, there are now more craft breweries than ever. Yes, it’s an increasingly global fascination. However, there are now more voices than ever and its becoming increasingly unlikely that they will all continue to sing from the same hymnal.

You can probably name all three of the astronauts involved in the first moon landing. It was a momentous event. If pressed, you might be able to name two astronauts from the 1980’s. You probably can’t tell me the names of the people on the ISS at the moment. Sometimes, NASA lucks out and gets personalities like Commander Hadfield and they manage to bring attention to space exploration. That’s about as good as they’re going to be able to do because you can’t be the first man on the moon twice.

Craft beer is going to be like that. Acitelli chronicles the deeds of Greg Koch, Tony Magee, Kim Jordan, Sam Calagione and Garrett Oliver. The problem is that despite the fact that they’re excellent spokespeople for the industry, the industry is now so large that I’m not sure there can reliably be one spokesperson for any aspect of it.

The milestone Acitelli chooses to end the historical narrative on is the fact that there are now more breweries than there were a century ago, before prohibition. A very reasonable question to ask, and one that Craft Beer should be asking itself far more frequently is “now what?”

In Which I Tour The Sam Adams Brewery

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about over the course of the last week is exactly what to say about the tour of the Sam Adams Brewery I went on last Friday. It’s hard to know what to make of Sam Adams. They are so large in comparison to craft brewing generally that if they had not existed, you have to imagine that much of the rest of the craft brewing industry wouldn’t exist either.

There’s the fact people point to that the Brewer’s Association changed their upper limit for the volume a craft brewer could produce so that Sam Adams would remain a craft beer. They are currently the fifth largest brewer in North America. I don’t know what the precise annual volume is, but it’s something like a fifth of the craft beer brewed in the states. (They pretty much had to revise the limit upwards. Losing 20% of your overall volume is a narrative ruining media nightmare. Narrative is important to craft beer.)

That’s all well and good, but the cultural impact Sam Adams has had on us is impressive as well.

The Simpsons, which I think we can all agree on as a cultural touchstone, gave Homer Duff Beer to drink. This was in 1989, and the writers use Duff to parody huge, generic breweries. You’ve got the Duff Blimp and Duff Man and Duff Gardens. On the tour of the Duff brewery it’s made clear that the product is so generic that we see one pipe supplying the same beer to three different brands.

Family Guy, on the other hand, features Pawtucket Patriot Ale as Peter Griffin’s drink of choice. It’s pretty obviously a Sam Adams ripoff, right down to the label. Family Guy first aired in early 1999. Sam Adams normalized craft beer so completely to North American audiences between 1989 and 1999 that no viewers questioned that Peter Griffin would be drinking a regional craft beer.

That shift in consumer consciousness took slightly less than 15 years, given that Sam Adams was founded in 1984. Pretty good for a small group of people in an 800 square foot warehouse in Jamaica Plain.

The smokestack is shorter than it used to be. To be fair, it was cold out.

The current facility in Jamaica Plain is on the site of the Haffenreffer brewery, which was established in 1870. The smokestack is still there, bearing at least a portion of the original brewery’s branding.

It became pretty obvious that we weren’t going to get the regular tour. After a suitable amount of time standing amongst the display cases, viewing medals from various competitions, we were ushered into the private tasting room. After a certain amount of time trying samples of some beers in their lineup that I had never heard of (Black and Brew Coffee Stout, Whitewater IPA ) Jim Koch arrived and took us out for the deluxe tour.

I’m pretty sure that this was the least animated Jim Koch got during the tour.

I think that part of the success of Sam Adams has to do with the fact that it would be pretty hard to take a dislike to Jim Koch. He’s not a physically imposing man, but he’s quick on his feet and he’s wiry. If you had to guess his age, you almost certainly wouldn’t guess he was on the high side of 60. He’s been doing this for 28 years and he remains slight, which, having been to the Craft Brewers Conference, is not a quality that you see a whole heck of a lot in craft brewers generally. He’s animated when he talks about beer, and you can sense the mental quickness even before he opens his mouth. He reminds me a lot of Leo McGarry on The West Wing. As we toured, I’m pretty sure he was doing two things at once: Telling his story and doing QA on the IPA that had been on tap in the tasting room.

We had timed it so that there was a tour group ahead of us. Jim explained about the beginnings of the brewery, how he had managed to get started in 1984. He explained about the trouble that they had with gangs (and how you can buy gangs off with beer) and pointed out the order forms that they had used in the early days. He told the story about Boston Lager winning Best Beer in America at the 1985 GABF four months after starting up.

The couple who were waiting for the next tour to start were initially oblivious, playing the videos that explained the stories we were hearing first hand, clueing into the fact that something interesting was happening only when Jim was standing in front of a videoscreen that was playing his own image.

The brewhouse is decidedly old school

The Jamaica Plain brewery is more or less a showpiece at this point, the spiritual home of what can reasonably be called a small empire at this point. The majority of the brewing is done in Ohio. From what I gathered from the guy working the DE filter, the batch that he was working on was probably New World Tripel, a part of the barrel room series. Much of the production in this brewery seems to be one-offs or specialty batches, including a Colonial Ale for the Union Oyster House. An entire facility for R&D and special projects.

Clearly, there are parts of the tour that are there for the benefit of people who have never been on a brewery tour before. Standing in front of barrels of Boston Lager ingredients, Jim held forth on the virtues of the Hallertauer Mittelfruh hop variety.

See that barrel he’s standing in front of? You guessed it. Crystal 60.

The thing that I found most interesting, and tried to think about while rubbing a handful of hops and giggling quietly, was that a number of the Sam Adams beers that I tried contained Crystal 60 malt. I have a suspicion that the character of the Boston Lager and some of the main seasonal beers (Winter Lager, Octoberfest) share that as an ingredient, and that this is a rare case of a malt variety defining a brewer’s character (well, at least as much as the hops.) It’s that core grainy caramel sweetness that runs down the middle of those beers. It verges on molasses-y. I sort of have to be in the mood for that, but it suggests that when those beers were launched in 1989, it struck the brewer’s palate the right way. At the time, it would definitely have made those beers stand out from the competition.

Through a doorway, we skipped ahead 20 years to taste one of the main ingredients of the Barrel Room Series, which was launched in 2009.

There is still some Triple Bock. I’m pretty sure the last batch was 1997.

The barrel room is dominated by three huge vats of what they’re calling the Kosmic Mother Funk. It’s a mix of yeast and bacteria; sort of brettanomyces and pediococcus with an acetic kick. It’s a murky light reddish-brown and it’s not really the kind of thing that you’d want to drink by itself. It’s intended to be blended into other beers in the series.  By way of explaining the barrel aging process, Jim analogized sour beer to balsamic vinegar, explaining that if aged long enough the acetic pungency slowly transforms into a concentrated sweetness.

Jim explains the Kosmic Mother Funk. Mostly, I just like saying Kosmic Mother Funk.

“Don’t you find it worrisome having all that wild yeast kicking around with a production brewery on the other side of the wall?” I said.

“We manage a lot of different types of yeast strains in the brewery. We’ve gotten pretty good at it after 28 years,” he said. After a very brief pause, his arm snaked out and yanked the cord that closed the door to the rest of the facility. I suspect that he was humouring me.

The thing is that Jim Koch has gotten good at this after 28 years; extraordinarily so. Back in the tasting room, Crystal Luxmore asked him about beer and terroir. He gave a brilliant answer, which she had the foresight to catch on video.

Karmic Terroir. Karmic… Freaking… Terroir.

The answer is brilliant mainly for the reason that you can see the amount of thought that he has put into his profession over the years and for how eloquently he’s able to put the concept. Now, depending on your viewpoint, you might say that it was entirely justified; that a brewery occupies a position both in time, with all of the influences upon it of those things that have come before and have influenced both the trends of the moment and the tastes of the brewer that go into creating a beer, and in space, which is to say the ingredients and technology available. If you’re into the whole romance of brewing, the idea that, say, Boston Lager could only have been produced in Boston in 1984 is an earthquake of a concept. That Sam Adams could no more have produced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale than it could have produced a Zinfandel. That despite the fact that there is a tradition that all brewers share, each iteration of the process has so many extrinsic variables working upon it that the end result could not be other than a product of its place and time.

What can I say? The man gives good quote. Plus, it lent credence to my theory about the Crystal 60.

The thing that amazed me about Sam Adams generally was the drive to innovation. Currently they’re approximately the same size as Yuengling. Yuengling seems more or less content to rest on their laurels, sticking with a core lineup of brands. Sam Adams is currently working with something like 55 brands, some of which rely so heavily on concept as to beggar belief.

It’s my impression that they probably don’t actually need to be doing that. They could probably narrow it down and stick with a core lineup. They’re doing it because they’re having fun doing it. Jim Koch actually believes in this stuff. He’s excited about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone shift that quickly between talking eloquently about the basics of brewing and wild beers and overarching philosophic principle. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s been giving the tour for 28 years, after all.

Lunch at Doyle’s Cafe after the tour. You can’t turn down Knockwurst in Oktoberfest season.