The Great Jim Koch Debate: Did Craft Beer Really Leave Sam Adams Behind?

And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for that precarious 'C' word?

jim koch

Photo via Boston Beer Company

Has the world of craft beer abandoned Jim Koch? That’s the question Andy Crouch poses in his recent article “Wasted” for this magazine, an assertion that seems to have irked a number of Sam Adams loyalists and drawn every beer geek, at least temporarily, away from Untappd and the forums of Beer Advocate. Despite the quibbling online (all of it super entertaining, mind you), the question is an important one, if only because it forces beer fans to confront the long-festering “craft” dilemma.

As Josh Bernstein pointed out last fall in his excellent, and increasingly important article, “Craft: What does it mean anymore in the beer world?” for Imbibe magazine, “craft” entered the vernacular only to overcome the inherent shortcomings of another catchall classification: “microbrewery.” Bernstein writes:

In a 1987 New Brewer article, Papazian classified a craft brewery as one that used “the manual arts and skills of a brewer to create its products.” Craft—that had a nice ring. As “microbrewery” lost steam, “craft brewer” gradually entered the vernacular. Instead of keeping the term nebulous, the Brewers Association trade group chiseled out a definition. In the BA’s eyes today, a craft brewer is small (producing less than 6 million barrels annually), independent (not more than 25 percent owned by a non-craft alcohol concern) and traditional—no corn syrup please.

To define the types of local, small-batch, and often experimental brews that defy the monotony of Bud, Miller, and Coors, the public has leaned upon flawed categorizations handcuffed by numbers. The term “microbrewery” was gleefully discarded when brands like Widmer Brothers started to exceed 60,000 barrels a year. In the “craft” landscape these days, Widmer is pumping out five times as much beer. Deschutes, the 12th largest brewer in the nation, produced 286,000 barrels in 2013. And Boston Beer Company? They’re producing over 2 million barrels annually, the equivalent of one percent of the entire domestic beer market, a vast output that had Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog questioning, “Is Sam Adams too big to be a craft beer?”

In many ways, that question comes down to perspective. Are you a half-empty or a half-full kind of a person? The Row 34 anecdote that kicks off Crouch’s article—the one where Koch storms into the keg room to check freshness dates—was relayed by Koch himself at the Brooklyn Brewery Mash at Harpoon Brewery in October, albeit in an aw-shucks, self-deprecating tone. Koch and his fellow panelists—Dan Kenary (Harpoon), Dann Paquette (Pretty Things), Will Meyers (Cambridge Brewing Company), and Steve Hindy (Brooklyn Brewery)—brought up the uncomfortable episode as a tangent to a bigger issue. Namely, is there more room for growth in the independent sector? Currently, craft beer still only controls around 10 percent of the market, but new breweries are opening every single day. There are more than 3,200 breweries competing for limited taps and shelf space, with almost 2,000 more on the horizon. Is there enough room for all that competition?

Kenary was confident, saying: “There’s a real sense of family [among craft brewers]. Ninety percent of the beer here, even today, is still made by large industrial companies. They make wonderful beer, but it’s pretty bland stuff. It’s changed because now there are 3,000 of us, but I still get that sense of mission that we’re out to do something. We’re eight percent of the market now and it’s still growing like crazy. There’s still an awful lot of opportunity for those of us who are still passionate about what we’re doing.”

Judging by Koch’s reaction, maybe he wasn’t as optimistic.

I was recently talking with Will Meyers from Cambridge Brewing Company about that competition and the current wave of smaller cult breweries. One of the more interesting things he told me was: “People need to understand that this is a bunch of craftsmen and craftswomen who are working really hard at something they care about. But it’s also a business.”

That’s the key word here, isn’t it? Craft beer is fun, thought-provoking, and a relatively affordable luxury, but it’s still a business. Though most are quick to credit Koch’s marketing genius and overall business savvy, they somehow seem incredulous when he bristles at the opposition. Was he upset that Sam Adams was being inched out by (what he perceived to be) inferior beers? Was his blowup the result of pent-up frustration at seeing hoppy IPAs, a style he’s admittedly ambivalent about, dominating “hipster” beer bars around Boston? (By the way, I’m not condoning Koch’s tirade, but I think that arrogance and fiery competitiveness he revealed is far more pervasive than beer fans would like to acknowledge.)

Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan of Grantland made an interesting analogy about a certain type of culinary/craft fan on a December podcast of their show, “Hollywood Prospectus.” Both editors were discussing the disappearance of CDs, vinyl, and anything tangible in the world of musical digital downloads, and they linked that loss to the subsequent rise of foodies. Greenwald says:

I was wondering if one of the reasons people are super into food for example is because it’s a tactile experience that you have to be present for. The thing-ness hasn’t been removed. Whereas before when you used to buy that CD or the seven-inch and you used to hold it and obsess over it. Now that sense of risk and mystery is gone. But, if you want to know what those really great soup dumpling taste like in Alhambra, well, you have to drive there.

Yes, Greenwald is specifically talking food, but he could just as easily talking about the kind of people that gravitate toward beer. There’s room for all kinds of palates in this skyrocketing sector of innocent vices. The Grantland editors were mentioning this in the context of discovering indie bands like Bedhead, Pavement, and Archers of Loaf. Using that same analogy, what about the professed music nerds of the ’90s who stuck with more mainstream tastes, i.e. the R.E.M.s and Nirvanas of the decade? And we haven’t even mentioned the sad sacks who unabashedly listened to 311 or Stone Temple Pilots.

I confess: I love Row 34 and Megan Parker-Gray’s outstanding selection of beer, and I can’t fathom why Koch would throw such a fit. Where else can you find Lost Abbey’s imperial IPA, Merry Taj, next to Allagash’s barrel-aged Interlude, smoked rauchbiers, local ciders, low-alcohol browns from obscure Maine nanobreweries, and a whole list of bottled sours? As many commenters on our site, Facebook, and Beer Advocate have pointed out, Sam Adams’ Vienna lager can be found in every airport bar, neighborhood pub, and corner packie up and down the Eastern seaboard. As Koch should well understand, part of the thrill of immersing yourself in the craft beer game is to experience new styles and expressions, whether good or bad.

One quote that readers seemed to latch onto regarding Crouch’s article came courtesy of Paquette when he mentions an “annoying young hipster attitude toward beer. It’s the same sort of attitude that you find in music. ‘Oh, that brewery was so last year.’ People want to try new stuff all the time, [and] there are two sides to the coin on that for Boston Beer. They’re so big nationally, but I’m sure they’d love to be back on the scene in these beer bars.”

It’s a similar statement to the one Greenwald and Ryan made, but what I think it fails to account for diversity of tastes. In his reporting, Crouch talks with bar owners Max Toste (Deep Ellum), Daniel Lanigan (Lord Hobo), and Jamie Walsh (Stoddard’s Fine Food and Ale). All three of them (four if you throw in Row 34) are rarefied beer environments that quite frankly, are an anomaly in Boston. They’re meant to be different. They’re sanctuaries for the type of hipster subset that have been at the center of this ongoing debate. But, that’s four accounts among thousands.

Sam Adams is practically everywhere, and it’s not going away anytime soon. And it’s not just because Koch had the ingenuity to dip his toes in the hard cider market. Many of Boston Beer Company’s beers are very good, if not excellent. I saw the words “transitional,” “gateway beer,” and “training wheels” to describe Koch’s beloved Boston Lager. In a lot of ways I’d agree with that. But, so what? I’m still happy to imbibe one at Fenway or a friend’s house. Quality should be foremost among beer drinkers, but novelty certainly plays a role as well.

Like wine, spirits, food, or any other hobby for that matter, tastes are also cyclical. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see a resurgence is refreshing, low ABV lagers, a potential epoch Boston Beer Company could storm right back into. Hell, outside of Notch’s Chris Loring, I doubt many could have foreseen the current rise of session beers, let alone wild yeast-fermentations, guezes, and other lambics.

Craft beer collectively grew 20 percent in 2014 and shows no sign of slowing down. Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors are on the defensive and dedicating more and more energy to combating a changing market. In Bernstein’s article, he points out that MillerCoors has been aggressively pursuing medals in Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, submitting beers in unconventional categories like sours and India pale lagers. To me, that’s a revealing a chink in the armor.

When I first listened to Dan Kenary’s kumbaya message at Harpoon, I was skeptical. But more and more, I’m beginning to agree. I don’t think craft beer has to settle for 10 percent of the market. Nor do I think it’s time to start sniping at each other or drawing lines in the sand. There’s room for bicoastal behemoths like Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada as well as nanobreweries like Four Quarters up in Winooski, Vermont, which is content to remain niche.

That’s all to say that, ultimately, numbers don’t matter. And I don’t agree either with Lagunitas’ Tony Magee when he defines craft beer by its spirt of independence and “innovation.” I think it’s time for the revival of an even more blanket statement when it comes to the types of beer that now spans hundreds of styles, scope, and booziness: beer.