No doubt, Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch has built a hugely successful business by making great beer. Like every great entrepreneur, behind each success are lots of mistakes. Here are five of Koch biggest flops.
A Harvard grad three times over (BA, MBA, JD), by his early-thirties Jim Koch was earning a decent paycheck at Boston Consulting Group. It’s the type of place that employs the services of the likes of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu. He wasn’t poised for success—he was already there. But then he scrapped the upward-career-trajectory thing to brew beer. This was the mid-’80s, during the reign of light lagers, a time when Spuds Mackenzie was the most bold-faced name in the beer industry. Everyone, including Koch’s father, once a brewmaster himself, thought the occupational change was a mistake: “You’ll never succeed,” he told his son. “The big guys will eat you alive. They’ll grind you up like they did me. It’s taken our family a hundred and fifty years to get the smell of the brewery out of our clothes.”
Yet successes so often come on the backs of failures. (And they’re often a helluva lot more fun to read about.) As Koch told me, “A lot of failures have a germ of success in them. Finding that germ is important. We all come into the world as screaming failures. These squawking, messy blobs with bad plumbing. But with careful attention, we eventually become the great people we are today. A lot of great beers follow that same trajectory.”
Here, in Koch’s own words, are a few of his biggest brewing failures over the years.
Double Bock (1988)
“This was our first-ever seasonal beer, but it’s never sold well. We use a shitload of malt. Literally a bread loaf’s worth in every bottle. And when you have that much malt, the beer can become a little grainy. Back then, we were selling our spent grain to a local dairy farmer. And this batch had a lot of residual sugars left behind. Apparently he had never fed such a rich food to his cows. So they ate it, and when it got into their second stomach it started to ferment and began throwing off gases. And one of the cows—it exploded! So this was the beer that killed the cow. We continue to make Double Bock to this day and it’s the single most award-winning beer at the Great American Beer Festival
Triple Bock (1992)
“Something that seems crazy at the time can actually evolve into something widespread, like when we first started aging beer in used spirits barrels. Today, everybody does it. But in 1992, when we started doing it, no one was. The conventional wisdom, in fact, was that this was illegal: You were commingling two different tax classes. Beer is taxed at one rate, liquor is taxed at a higher rate. I was at a hardware store in springtime and they were selling planters made from bourbon barrels cut in half for only $10. I had an epiphany: I figured there were probably thousands of bourbon barrels coming out of Kentucky that had no second use. So I called up Blue Grass Cooperage.They were thrilled somebody wanted their used barrels and was willing to pay more than hardware stores. People thought I was crazy—”You’re gonna get arrested!” I went to the BATF, the federal government, and somehow got them to approve it. Triple Bock was just way ahead of its time, the first beer aged in used spirits barrels. The first beer was over 15% alcohol. That was like breaking the sound barrier! It was on the news. I was attacked by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for making this beer. “How dare you make an 18% beer?” I actually thought I was being socially responsible, putting it in a tiny, 200 milliliter bottles. But MADD claimed kids could hide it in their backpacks. It wasn’t that popular with consumers either and after the third batch, we quit making it. But out of that failure came the thinking: Let’s keep making things that are insane and crazy. This ultimately led to our Utopias, which still use 1% of the original Triple Bock in the recipe.”
Nitro Beers (1993-96)
“We made our first nitro beers twenty years ago, and they flopped. It was a canned beer with a widget. We did it in collaboration with Whitbread, who was the gold standard for a traditional English brewery back then, but they’ve since been bought up and now they’re gone. We released it in England only. It sold reasonably well at first. It had a moment. Then that moment passed, and the beer disappeared into Beer Valhalla. Even earlier than that, in 1993, we had two nitro beers—Sam Adams Cream Stout and Boston Cream, a brown ale. Those were tap-only. But people just weren’t ready for them. So it’s funny nowadays, twenty years later, with our new Nitro Project, that people are treating these beers as new and innovative. Because they really began in 1993 as a failed experiment.”
Hot Rocks Beer (2002)
“One of our old brewmasters—a guy named Walter—and I had the exact same birthday, just 10 years apart. So the other brewers would often make us some weird beer to celebrate. One year, they decided to make a hot-rocks beer. It’s a traditional medieval brewing process. They couldn’t heat up kettles well back then; it would burn through the copper and vaporize it. So brewers would heat up their kettles by getting big rocks really hot and then pushing them down a ramp and into the brew kettle. We’re in New England, so there are rocks everywhere from what the glaciers left behind. A couple of the brewers gathered some granite rocks from their own backyards, then heated them up to 2000 degrees in a local potter’s kiln. These things were practically glowing. They then put them in a steel basket and poured wort [unfermented beer] over the rocks. And it just exploded, as if it was water rushing into lava. This really dramatic explosion of steam with the smell of caramelized sugar in the air. The beer had a very interesting taste though, one you just can’t get from normal brewing methods. Still, our conclusion: cool beer, really dumb idea.”
Brewer Patriot Collection (2006)
“The founding fathers were also founding brewers, a fact probably not known by many people today. George Washington had a brewery at Mt. Vernon. Thomas Jefferson had one at Monticellowhere he left lots of brewing notes and recipes behind. His friend James Madison had a brewery at Montpelier. So three of our first four presidents were brewers, all advocates of a national brewery alongside a national bank. They considered it important to the country’s economic and cultural development. John Adams was the only early president who wasn’t a brewer, but he of course had his cousin Sam Adams. We found his 1790 recipe for a root beer, which at the time was alcoholic. The New York Public Library found a licorice porter George Washington had once made. We eventually had these four historically accurate beers from four founding fathers and we had to make a decision: Do we make the beers taste authentic? Or do we make them taste good? We decided to make them taste authentic. So we’re putting in molasses, licorice, we got this smoked wood that used to be part of Montpelier, and we made these beers as they would have actually tasted in the 1700s. Well, we got a nice review from The New York Times—Florence Fabricant thought it was a fascinating experiment. But they didn’t sell for squat. They just tasted too weird. Turns out we’ve learned a thing or two about brewing since the 1700s.”