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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Irony of Jim Koch's Craft Beer Rant

I have to admit getting a kick out of seeing establishment types complaining about their lack of current success. Particularly when their lack of current success is fueled largely by their own refusal to accept the changing nature of their business.

Enter Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company. Koch helped launch the craft beer revolution when he founded the BBC in 1985. He's made more than a billion bucks on that enterprise, but he's frustrated by the changing nature of the industry today. Very frustrated.

Andy Crouch's story in the January issue of Boston Magazine describes Koch's reaction to the current craft beer scene. Upon entering a one of Boston's top-rated beer bars, Koch found not a single tap handle pouring Sam Adams. No bottles, ether. Not a drop of his beer in the bar.

Koch was incensed. He berated the owner and bar manager. According to Crouch, Koch's complaints were so intense that one employee was reduced to tears. The list, by the way, consisted mostly of specialty beers from around the country...the type of list you expect to find at respected beer bars everywhere, including here in Portland.

The basis of Koch's rage is the fact that young drinkers have turned away from Boston Beer in favor of beers with intense flavor profiles...hoppy, barrel-aged, sour, etc. Sam Adams beer, having attained mainstream status, is widely available in stores, but MIA in better beer bars. It just doesn't have traction with typically younger beer geeks who flock to those venues.

Clearly, the brands that started the craft revolution 30 years ago have been overrun by more aggressive styles and interpretations. In the same way that popular music, fashion and almost everything else has evolved (or devolved) over the years, so has craft beer. Out with the old, in with the new is a fact of life.

Don't get me wrong. Many of the early craft beers deserve recognition and respect. I have enjoyed revisiting some of Widmer's past beers, available as part of their 30 Beers for 30 Years series. Tasting these beers again is informative...suggesting where we once were and how far we've come. Times have obviously changed.

Koch's story reeks of irony. Here's a guy who capitalized on changing consumer tastes by offering an alternative to mass market lagers. He got rich along the way and Boston Beer remains America's top craft brewery. Yet here he is bitching about the fact that his beers have zero standing with today's beer fans who are looking for something new and exciting. Highly ironic.

There's more. To fill the hole caused by stagnating demand for its beers, Boston Beer has moved into other areas, quietly marketing the highly successful Angry Orchard cider and Twist Tea malt beverage. They have even entered the IPA fold, producing tepid beers that are no match for the aggressive and wildly popular West Coast styles of the moment.

Of course, it need not be this way. Koch, who owns all the voting shares in publicly held Boston Beer, could have pushed his company to evolve with the changing times by brewing IPAs and related styles that would compete with what smaller brewers are doing. But he didn't want to. Why? Because he personally doesn't like those beers. Seriously.

As Dirty Harry once quipped, "A man has got to know his limitations."


  1. Good points. I'd add that he HAS evolved--with Angry Orchard. He just doesn't like it. And rightly so.

  2. I can understand why he doesn't want to claim Angry Orchard or Twist Tea. But they are part of the business and making his company a lot of money. I don't understand why he doesn't apply similar logic to the beer. He doesn't have to like every beer they brew. Do Kurt and Rob like every beer in their portfolio? Sometimes you need to listen to your customers and make something you don't really care for. Koch refuses to do that on the beer side. That's stupid, in my opinion.


Keep it civil, please.