Jim Koch: Sam Adams, Groundhog Day have ‘seasonality’ in common

Jim Koch, founder of The Boston Beer Company and brewer of Samuel Adams, said he hasn’t received any special advice for his upcoming visit to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day.

Well, maybe one piece of advice.

“’Just bring some beer,’” he said Thursday. “That’s my role. They have their jobs, and I just need to bring the beer.”

Koch, who brewed his first batch of beer in his kitchen in the mid-80s with his great-grandfather’s recipe for Louis Koch Lager, will be inducted as an honorary member of the Inner Circle, and he will also be the guest speaker at the Groundhog Banquet.

His association with the Groundhog Club came after supplying beer for a few events, and “a relationship grew from there.”

Like his beers, Groundhog Day is a seasonal event.

“One of the things that Sam Adams promotes is seasonal beers,” Koch said. “Anyone from the Northeast knows you just have rhythm of the seasons. It’s very important to daily life and a state of mind. I felt like beer, being a very natural beverage, should have a seasonality. And Groundhog Day is really one of the signal events for seasonality in America, and it became a nice partnership. It kind of coincides with our transfer from winter lagers to spring beer, like Nobel Pils.”

Even though he’s an Ohio native who has lived in Boston for the last 44 years, Koch has Pennsylvania roots. His wife is a native of Selinsgrove, one of his company’s breweries is located in the Lehigh Valley, and his first successful batch of what would become Samuel Adams beer was brewed at the Pittsburgh Brewing Company.

“I started in 1984 on a very small scale,” Koch recalled. “It was such a small scale, I couldn’t get equipment that I thought I needed. I was really trying to get a rough idea what it would taste like.”

Like making homemade wine, brewing homemade beer takes time and patience, Koch said.

“You have to wait,” Koch said. “The final stage is aging. It sits, and there are certain things that are happening to it, as far as flavor, but you can’t speed it up. It depends on the style of beer.”

Koch said he “never nailed it” while brewing the beer in his kitchen.

His father, Charles, who also brewed beer, knew people in Pittsburgh, “and basically, we rented Pittsburgh Brewing for the first few years.”

Next came bringing his beer to the people, carrying chilled bottles to bartenders around Boston. But there was never a 50/50 chance of a bartender or tavern owner wanting to sell Samuel Adams outright.

“The odds are never that good; it’s more like five percent,” Koch said. “If I made 20 calls, I got one new account. It was scary. I never really sold anything in my life, and I was going from brewing a beer to being a salesman, with a brand that no one needed or had ever heard of.”

Koch realized he was venturing into a world that had never heard the term “craft beer,” like what he was promoting.

“It was expensive,” he said. “It didn’t taste like Bud or Coors. The standard for what was great beer was Heineken and Corona. It was more education than selling. That’s always been our challenge, to raise people’s appreciation, understanding and ultimately respect for beer. As a brewer and a beer drinker, to me, beer has all the same dignity as wine. It just hasn’t always been treated that way, even by brewers. We had to go against the grain of the mass-marketed beers with quality flavor, ingredients and styles.”

Today, The Boston Brewing Company brews more than 21 kinds of beer, and one of those — Noble Pils — is the official beer of Groundhog Day 2011.
“It’s of those iconic things,” Koch said about Groundhog Day. “It’s really quite cool. It’s all about bragging rights.”