Fighting big beer: Billionaire Sam Adams founder tells his story in Michigan

Fighting big beer: Billionaire Sam Adams founder tells his story in Michigan

KALAMAZOO, MICHIGAN – Craft beer pioneer Jim Koch started Samuel Adams in 1985 after finding his great-great-grandfather’s recipe for “Louis Koch Lager” in his attic.

One of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, the founder of the Boston Beer Company comes to Michigan this week. He’ll offer lessons learned to members of the Michigan Brewers Guild, which is holding its annual conference and trade show this week in Kalamazoo.

“I’ve been brewing Sam Adams for 33 years, before anyone in the room was making craft beer. As one of the originals, this gives me a different perspective, because in the last 10 years, craft brewing has been hot. It’s been something that is almost trendy, and it has become kind of mainstream.”

Things certainly have changed since Koch began his adventure. Boston Beer brewed 36,000 barrels in 1988, and by 2015 they topped out at over 4.3 million barrels of beer.

To put this in perspective, Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo has an annual capacity of 1 million barrels. Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids can produce about 1.2 million barrels a year.

So is a brewery as big as Boston Beer still a craft brewery?

According to Koch, yes. His company garners a little over 1 percent of total beer sales, and is still small potatoes compared to behemoths like InBev, which owns brands throughout the world, such as Budweiser, Michelob, Bass and many more.

“This is one of the questions that craft breweries will face going forward: How will we co-exist with the big global brewers that make 90% of the beer in the US?” he said.

“Historically craft beer drinkers have valued not only the quality and innovation, but also the distinct culture of craft beer.”

Numbers are not the only way to define a craft brewer, he said.

“Going forward, it is going to be very important to the brewers how they define craft beer. Independence and size, as well as using brewing methods that enhance the flavor are what have defined a craft brewer for decades. The culture of craft is becoming increasingly important.” Koch explained.

Even though his company is brewing a lot of beer in Boston, it’s still fighting the big brewers.

“Every day we get kicked off of tap lines, we get kicked off of shelves. We are kind of the first target, the first one they want to take out. If you are going to try to kill a category, you start with the leader.”

He’s seen this all before, and is concerned that as the industry develops further, it may happen again.

“I went through this in the 90s. There was a massive “Kill Sam Adams” campaign to take us down. And it was very successful. They stopped the growth of craft beer for 7 or 8 years. Eventually, I think, consumers got interested in craft beer again, and that got retailers involved as well. Frankly, they got tired of trying to kill me.”

Koch will discuss not only where the craft beer scene has been, but where it is headed. For Sam Adams, that means innovation and the development of new beers.

“We introduced nitro beers in the last year. We’ve been innovating with IPAs, and just released one with mango juice. We’ve spent the last 5 years on a proprietary hop development,” he said.

Koch said he’s eager to experience the latest Michigan beer. He’s been friends with Larry Bell for years, and feels that Bell’s head brewer is extremely talented.

“I don’t have a favorite Michigan beer. There are a lot of good Michigan beers, and I know a lot of the brewers. And I always think of them while I drink their beers.”

Koch’s father was a master brewer, and instilled a love of the industry.

“My father told me that ‘All beer is good. Some beer is better, but all beer is good.'”

More info on Michigan Brewers Guild’s 2017 conference:

-Koch will speak at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, in Kalamazoo at the Radisson Plaza.

-You can still register for the 2017 conference, which runs from Jan. 11-13.

– Michigan Brewers Guild members attend for $250. Non members attend for $325.

Kalamazoo Beer Week runs from Saturday, Jan. 16 through Saturday, Jan. 23, and breweries and bars all over the Kalamazoo area are hosting events to showcase craft beer made in Kalamazoo and around Michigan.

Amy Sherman and John Gonzalez have been searching for Michigan’s Best new brewery. Here is the reveal of the top ten.

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