Interview With Samuel Adams' Jim Koch

Interview With Samuel Adams' Jim Koch
The new Sam '76 from Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams).

If you haven’t heard by now, you’re reading it here: The Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams) is debuting a new year-round beer this month, Sam ‘76. As part of the promotional push for the new beer, Sam Adams founder Jim Koch has been available for interviews. Well, they also just had a media launch event in Chicago that my work hours wouldn’t let me attend, despite the fact that it includes an appearance by George Clinton, one of the few performers on my bucket list to see (the idea being that Clinton is also 76).

But I was available to sit at the phone and talk to Jim. That’s right; the head of a billion dollar brewing company called me. That’s an ego boost.

Jim Koch, founder & chairman of Boston beer Co. (Samuel Adams).

Jim Koch, founder & chairman of Boston beer Co. (Samuel Adams).

Here’s a transcript of the phone call with Koch, along with Boston Beer Co. brewer Rich Ferrell. This is abridged because I tend to ask the same question three different ways to make sure I understand their answer.

Beeronaut: Sam ‘76, is being described as a blend of a lager and an ale. How did this come up? As fas as I know no one has tried anything like this before, except perhaps for the occasional bottled black and tan.

Koch: Well actually those would both be ales. Your supposition is right. We’re always working on new beers. At any given time, at the brewery in Boston, we have a dozen or more beers on tap that will probably never see distribution outside of our breweries. So there’s always experimentation going on.

This was almost a year-long process, to take craft beer into a new space, where it’s kind of not been before. We wanted to make a beer that was big and flavorful but still had a crisp and clean finish, because we make a lot of beers that are very big and satisfying, with the more lingering bitterness, if you will. I think one of the issues with craft beers, particularly IPAs, is, and this is true of Sam Adams Boston Lager as well; It’s a beer that you’re going to sit down and enjoy. And it’s going to be a big, flavorful, satisfying beer with a very nice long finish. And with Sam ’76, I wanted to work with our brewing team on developing a beer that would still be big and flavorful up front, and deliver a lot of hop character, but without the lingering bitterness and the heavy body.

That was really what we spent a year and a half working on, and in order to get there, we had to develop this revolutionary union of lager and ales that relies on a co-fermentation process in the presence of hops. The result of it was the Sam ’76 which has the big, up-front flavor of an ale, and the hop character and aroma of an ale, and then has the crisp, smooth finish of a lager.

Baronet: I’ve got this open and poured right now, between sips of morning coffee. And it’s a very interesting hop character; I get some of the resin and then, I think, some tropical fruit. We are talking about blending two different beers together that were produced in separate vessels; would they have shared any hops? Or what about the base beers, can you talk about that?

Rich Farrell, Boston Beer Co. Brewer.

Rich Farrell, Boston Beer Co. Brewer.

Rich: What we arrived at as a process here is actually a true co-fermentation. They do start life in separate vessels, but one of the things that we spent a year and a half trying to figure out is when the  ideal time to combine those two fermentations was, when the ideal time to add the hops was. And when all three of those things; the lager fermentation, the ale fermentation, and the hops; enter the tank, it is still an active fermentation.

We tried to brew an ale that had a really crisp finish; and we tried to brew a lager that had a fruitier taste as part of this development. But we found we got a much more satisfying result by actually combining both in the same fermentation, and we found that it wasn’t just additive. The lager yeast and the ale yeast both pulled things out of the hops that one would not do on its own. So we actually came up with what we think is a much more flavorful much more aromatic and much cleaner and crisper beer.

Beeronaut: It’s got a nice hop aroma, but looking at the can, I see it’s actually pretty low in bitterness (16 IBUs).

Jim: What we did with Sam ’76 was, in a way, to deconstruct hoppiness. Hopping in American craft brewing has been almost synonymous with bitterness. And that is a misunderstanding of hops. As a brewer, when you take hoppiness apart, it’s really got, to me, three separate elements:

First is bitterness,which is from the iso-alpha acids. They’re created in the kettle because they need heat. And that’s what everybody measures; they measure IBUs.

There are other compounds in the hops besides the isomerized alpha acids that add bitterness. There are flavor there elements like the beta acids, and even some tannins. Rich can probably throw in some other flavor elements like glucosides, things like that, that give you what we would recognise as hop taste, but they don’t measure as bitterness. They have zero IBUs. Then the third element is the aromatics.

So we essentially deconstructed hop character and emphasize the other, non-bitter flavor elements that hops give you, and, in a big way, the aromatics; particularly these juicy, fruity aromatics.

You know I was just smelling the beer as we began the call and I wrote down “peach, guava, apricot, mango.” So they’re juicy towards orange fruit rather than piney or resiny, which are characteristic of IPAs.

So we’ve deconstructed hop character, and put in the drinkable and desirable characteristics, and minimized the IBUs. That’s part of the “evolutionary” flavor that you get with Sam ’76.

Beeronaut: Rich, can you go somewhat further into the hopping? It all it seems to be pretty well blended in the actual boil, but of course I’m not the guy who makes beer by the ton.

Rich: As Jim just mentioned; the hops you put in the kettle, because of that heat, you are going to yield the isomerization that creates the bitterness in the beer, so we didn’t lean as heavily on kettle hopping, in an effort to reduce the bitterness in the beer. So this was a beer that leans more heavily on dry hopping. When we thought about dry hopping, we knew that we wanted to use American hops in the beer, and we specifically chose hops that are relatively high in essential oil content, because those oils in the hops actually interact with different yeast strains in different ways. If you drop them in the right way, in the right time, you can get the yeast to pull really interesting and, quite frankly, novel aromatics out of those hops. Like I said before, we found that lager yeast and ale yeast actually did that in two very distinct ways. And when we put them together, what they brought out of the hops together was actually much more impressive than what they brought out of the hops on their own. So much more heavy on dry hops, a high oil content that supplies the raw material for what the yeast are going to do with the aromatics.

Beeronaut: How long has the this been out in the general public? When I checked on Ratebeer, there there are still only five ratings so far, but they’re all pretty favorable. This has been in your tap rooms for a while, so how’s it been going over so far?

Rich: The reaction has been, like you saw on Ratebeer, overwhelmingly positive. We’ve got a lot of positive remarks from bloggers like yourself, from accounts, from drinkers. So we’re really happy with the feedback. During the development of beer, it went through quite a few different morphs into different things. So there were some versions that were on tap at our Boston tap room for a time as we developed it, which is one of the special things about our Boston tap room, is that we can kind of tweak those things a little bit.

It was probably about six months ago, in the development of the beer, that we landed on what we thought the final profile should be, and then from there it was just a matter of basically tinkering with it until we got it perfect. And that’s really what we do in Boston, is to continue to to tinker and perfect. And as for how long it’s been on the market I think just since January first. So it’s still quite new and we’re still trying to get it out to everybody.

Beeronaut: And of course, since I’ve gotten the emails about this on my Google Mail and since Google reads my mail, I’ve already gotten ads for the beer all over my browser. But who is this going to be promoted to? Is it going to be slanted more towards the beer geeks or is it going to be aimed at the general public? Will there be national T.V. buys and so forth?

Rich: Really this beer is for is for craft beer drinkers. It’s for any social occasion. We feel that what this the beer really brings to the table is the full and the interesting flavor and aroma and that nice crisp, clean finish that keeps it drinkable and approachable. So for an occasion where you’re not going to just sit down and sip one beer all night, but you still want to have kind of a payoff in terms of a nice aroma and an interesting flavor. This is a beer for any occasion that would that would fit that description.

Beeronaut: I know there are still going to be some debut events in my area, so it’s still in the midst of a rollout phase. Is this going to be your year round offering, as far as you know?

Jim: Yes, it will be.

Beeronaut: I know right now, there’s a narrative out there promoted by, mostly, the business press, that Boston Beer has pioneered the craft beer field and now they’re having trouble catching up, because there are so many brewers out there now. They’re always out there with new beer styles and so forth. Do you agree with that perception at all, or is there something you would rather say as your part of the narrative, if I may ask?

Jim: I think it’s mean it’s factual. I mean, we pioneered craft beer, and now there are six thousand craft brewers. My attitude has always been that we want Sam Adams to be at the forefront, pushing the envelope, creating new beers, even revolutionary beers with revolutionary brewing techniques.

You’ve got to remember, I started Sam Adams 33 years ago, when there were no craft brewers. And that was lonely, and way less fun than today when and there’s you know 6,000 craft brewers, making some bad beer, but also a lot of really great beer!

In fact, through our “Brewing the American Dream” program, we’ve provided coaching and counseling to hundreds of up-and-coming brewers. It’s a philanthropic program and we’ve made loans to over 40 startup and growing craft brewers. So we’ve always supported the growth of craft brewing in the United States. Because yes, it’s harder when there’s 6,000 great brewers out there but that’s a lot better outcome than if there were none.

Personally, I’ve always celebrated the growth and success of the craft brewing, and it challenges us to constantly up our game. The Sam ‘76 puts us, once again, at the forefront of developing new brewing techniques, and flavors and tastes that you’ve never seen in craft beer. So it’s 33 years and we’re still making revolutionary beers. That’s why I named my beer “Samuel Adams” in 1984, and that’s why we continue to push, in revolutionary ways, the cool things you can do with the fermentation of grain.

Beeronaut: It has to be noted I guess, that when someone says, “Well, where’s your milkshake flavored New England IPA?” It might be that by the time you get every store, the fad could be over. so we’re just trying to do our own thing here.

Jim: Well, the New England IPA style is relatively new. And you know we’re participating in that with, actually, the first nationally available New England IPA. It’s a separate thing that’ll be launched on draft in a few weeks. So we want to bring the New England IPA style to the rest of the country. It’s been very limited because people haven’t figured out how to prevent it from throwing you know big snowflake size chunks. Also, we also haven’t necessarily had the brewing capabilities and the packaging standards to make sure that the beer retains its unique flavors for a couple of months. We can talk about it where we are bringing a revolutionary style to people outside New England.

Beeronaut: I was able to get Sam ’76 at my local grocery store so it’s already pretty well set up. Is there anything else about the beer that you wanted to say that I didn’t possibly possibly ask about?

Jim: I think we’ve covered the key things.

In testing, we got some really weird biochemistry; of enzymes stripping proteins off of hop molecules… but I think we’re good.

Jim: The hops are publicly available, they’re Cascade, Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe. They’re big new American hops, except, I guess, for the Cascade, with a very high oil content, very high aromatics. They have to be used somewhat carefully to prevent the sort of the garlic and onion notes that they can sometimes deliver, but I think the way we did the fermentation, it cleaned them up really nicely. I get almost no catty piney in it and no garlic onion. That’s another unique aspect of this fermentation process is, it really brings out the juicy tropical orange fruit character. Particularly the Mosaic and the Simcoe.

Beeronaut: And surprisingly perhaps I have not heard of hops that would behave differently depending on the yeast. That doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t know it.

Jim: This is all relatively new, it’s all been in the last maybe eight months and we’ve been in uncharted territory here. We’ve had a few “Wow” moments, than a few “holy sh!t” moments. So this is really very new to craft brewing specifically, and even brewing in general.

I took some of this beer to Germany when I did hop selection two months ago, and had an opportunity to taste it with three PhD hop experts. And their reaction was, “Wow! I have not tasted these flavors from hops before!” And one of them has been a hop scientist for 50 years. They were all PhD’s. And it was very cool. These were, to me,  some of the best minds in the hop world, and their reaction was, “Wow! I haven’t tasted this before.” And they began to speculate about the biochemistry of it in ways that were beyond my capabilities.

Beeronaut: I have not heard of a garlic or onion taste, so I guess I’ve been lucky in the beers I’ve been drinking.

Jim: That’s a very common thing. Once you’re alerted to it, you will start to pick it out. It happens with Mosaic sometimes; if you actually rub Mosaics and smell the actual hops, you definitely get it. You try to get rid of it in the brew kettle and in dry hopping.

We could talk about all this really cool brewing stuff that we’ve discovered, but at the end of the day, it really, to me, it’s all to make a great tasting unique beer, and I hope you enjoy it.

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