Jim Koch Brews Up An Old-Style Beer That Would Have Made His Great-Great-Granddad Proud

updated 11/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1985 01:00AM

In 1977 mountaineer Jim Koch climbed to the snow-covered peak of Alaska's 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. "After traveling for weeks and seeing nothing but white," he recalls, "I wondered what magic sight awaited me at the summit. And when I got to the top, there it was, glowing in the light—an empty beer can planted like somebody's flag. Ah," he exclaims, "the power of beer is transcendent!"

Koch (pronounced cook) is apt to talk that way because 1) he is a Harvard grad and 2) he is also a brewer whose Samuel Adams Boston Lager is quite simply the best bottle of lager suds brewed in America.

Says who? Said the 5,000 beer guzzlers who attended the annual Great American Beer Festival last June in Denver, that's who. Barely seven weeks after its introduction Koch's superpremium Sam Adams brew whomped 93 other kinds of national and regional beers. Too bad, Coors; better luck next time, Michelob.

And last month, in what may be the beer quaffers' version of carrying coal to Newcastle, a shipment of 12,000 bottles of Sam Adams lager went on sale in two Munich taverns. That's Munich in Bavaria, where gemütlichkeit was invented. It was a rare instance of a U.S.-brewed beer becoming available in West Germany outside of U.S. military bases. Take that, Beck's.

At 36, brewer Koch clearly is feeling his hops, though he concedes that Sam Adams lager is unlikely to swamp the beer market any time soon. It is sold only in two localities (Boston and Munich) and it's pricey ($1.75 to $3 a bottle). In fact, notes Koch, his current sales volume of 6,000 cases a month "represents less than a minute of production for Anheuser-Busch." And his modest plunge into the West German market, he admits, is mostly to demonstrate the quality of his product.

Still, there is a full head of tradition behind America's newest beer. Jim—christened Charles James—Koch is a fifth-generation brewer with family lines that trace to Bavaria. His great-great-grandfather Louis once owned a tiny brewery in St. Louis that operated in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch. His father, Charles Joseph Jr., worked as a brewmaster at several breweries in Cincinnati, and Jim vividly remembers the smell of fermenting beer on days he visited his father at work. "I liked it," he says. "I've never liked hard liquor and never understood wine. Even now I drink two or three beers a day, rarely less, rarely more."

Forty-five years ago there were something like 600 breweries in the U.S. Today there are fewer than 85. Jim's father abandoned brewing to open an industrial chemical distributorship and advised his son against beer making as a livelihood. So when the younger Koch enrolled at Harvard, he majored in government.

Graduating with honors in 1971, Jim put in three years as a mountaineering instructor with Outward Bound before returning to Harvard to study law and business administration. Koch next joined the prestigious Boston Consulting Group, advising industrial managers, a job, he says, that earned him an income of about $250,000 annually. But he decided he wasn't happy. "If I was put on earth to do one thing," he says, "it was to make great beer in the U.S."

Of late American taste in mass-marketed beers has drifted inexorably toward lighter, paler versions. Koch proposed to buck the tide with a full-bodied lager using choice ingredients—a connoisseur's beer brewed in the best Old World traditions. His recipe, retrieved from his dad's attic in Cincinnati, was formulated by great-great-grandfather Louis himself. For the label, Koch chose to honor Sam Adams, the firebrand of the American Revolution, whose name still gets respect in historic Boston.

To start his Boston Beer Co., Koch raised $400,000 from friends and business associates and tossed all his personal savings of $100,000 into the barrel. The firm's sales staff consists of Koch and one aide, Rhonda Kallman (formerly Jim's secretary at the consulting firm), who more or less hawk their ware from tavern to tavern. Currently the beer is jobbed out to a brewery in Pittsburgh and trucked to Boston, but Koch hopes to establish a Beantown brewery next year.

Koch, who is divorced and the father of two, enjoys his local fame but expects no fortune from his beer. "Getting rich is life's great booby prize," he says. "Far more important is to get happy." All he wants, he insists, is a small brewery that makes a first-rate beer, "a brewery I can pass on to my son or my daughter. Breweries are neat places and the brewmaster has the best job; he walks around, tastes beer, makes changes. It's almost like playing God."

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