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'Never have to drink anything but good beer'

Samuel Adams brewer Jim Koch:
Beer career

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iconSamuel Adams brewer Jim Koch joined us for a live Career chat. Click here to read the transcript of the conversation.  

In this story:

'A passion for beer'

Testing, 1, 2, 3

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(CNN) -- "One of the best things in the world that you can do," says Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, "is something that your parents think is completely stupid and asinine. Then be really successful at it and have them be proud of you."

Koch speaks from experience. For him, something stupid and asinine was joining the family business. This was 1983, and Koch, who was earning a good living as a business consultant, decided to do what five generations of Kochs had done before him -- make and sell quality beer.

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Koch's father, who had been driven out of the business by monolith beer corporations like Anheuser-Busch, thought it was a bad career move.

"His view of it was, if you're a little guy, you can't compete with the big guys," recalls Koch. "My view of it was, exactly right. I won't be competing with them. I'll be making something better. And there are drinkers who will drink that."

Koch -- he pronounces "Cook" -- was right. After mixing up a beer straight from his great-great grandfather's recipe, he named it after Boston Tea Party patriot (and semi-successful brewer) Samuel Adams.

Next, he launched a grassroots marketing campaign, going bar-to-bar in Boston, letting bartenders taste for themselves. The logic: If bartenders liked it, they'd recommend it to customers.

Two months later, Samuel Adams lager was picked the best beer in America at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

"I thought, 'Wow. I know it's good beer. Now everybody knows it's good beer,'" says Koch.

Now, Koch, 51, is the head of a microbrewing empire. The Boston Beer Company and its Samuel Adams beers enjoyed $200 million in sales last year, $11 million in net income. Koch employs 350 people. And yes, Koch's dad is proud. He sits on the company's board of directors.

His is a cool job, Koch says. His favorite job responsibility? Tasting the beer, of course. Hearing him talk about what it's like to drink his own beer is to hear a man who's practiced at the art of the honest sales pitch.

"There's an incredible pleasure every time I have a Sam Adams," he says. "In that beer, I can taste all of the history and all of the passion for brewing something wonderful. To me, it's an incredibly complex symphony of flavors. I've been drinking Sam Adams every day of my life for 16 years and I haven't gotten tired of it."

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'A passion for beer'

Koch took the roundabout way to entrepreneurial success. After graduating cum laude in 1971from Harvard College with a degree in government, he worked for Outward Bound for three years. He later went back to Harvard, earning a JD from the law school and an MBA from the business school.

After spending six years consulting business leaders on how to profit, Koch decided to start his own company.

  HIGH FIVE
graphic Subtle but striking, differences in process and ingredient can yield a range of flavors in beer. Here are specifications on five brews of the Samuel Adams group. Start counting.
 

He's known for running Sam Adams with a laid-back, hands-on style, visiting face-to-face with employees out in the field. Though he holds a number of titles with his company, his business card reads the same as it did when he first started more than 16 years ago: Jim Koch, Brewer.

To be a successful brewer, Koch says, you need talents that aren't taught at Harvard. You must have beer-making in your blood.

"You've got to have passion for beer, a good palette, you've got to be able to blend the science of beer with the art of what makes a great beer," he says.

You've also got to enjoy travel. Koch frequently crosses the country to check with distributors, restaurants and stores.

He also heads to England and Germany every year to hand-pick the Hallertau and Tettnang hops that will go in more than a dozen beers bearing the Sam Adams logo -- a portrait of Adams. Hops are the heart of a good beer, he says.

"I'd prefer to use American hops but American hops just aren't as good," the brewer says. "Like the great vineyards in France. Nobody has figured out how to duplicate the flavor and taste in growing the wines somewhere else. Same thing with the hops."

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Testing, 1, 2, 3

Koch accomplishes all this, and manages a hobby in mountain-climbing, while living the family life. Koch lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his second wife, who recently launched a biotech company, and their two young daughters. He has two college-age kids from his first marriage.

On a typical day, Koch will head to his Jamaica Plain brewery at 4:30 a.m. On some days, he doesn't call it quits until 11 p.m.

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So you feel like brewing up a little batch of your own? Check out our handy home-brewing page.
 

In those working hours, Koch's love of beer is tested, or rather he tests it. He receives a bottle from every batch of Sam Adams, which he tastes. He also constantly tests for consistency between different Sam Adams breweries -- in Boston and Cincinnati, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; Rochester, New York; and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. And the company is currently formulating a new beer, which requires more taste-testing.

All told, Koch says he sips from four to six beers a day, and he'll drink "two or three more for pleasure."

"It's better than wine-tasting," he says. "You do get to swallow."

The taste of success is sweet. But Koch remains modest. He points out that Boston Beer Company brews 1.2 million barrels -- or close to 400 million bottles each year. But that's a drop in the bucket compared to megabrewers.

"Anheuser-Busch literally -- literally -- spills more beer than I make all year," he says. "They make 100 million barrels and they lose 1.5 percent to just spillage in the breweries."

Koch says his goal is to grow Sam Adams into "the No. 1 better beer in the United States." That means overtaking Heineken, which is about three times the size of Sam Adams, Koch says.

Until then, he'll keep testing -- and toasting -- his favorite beer.

"I'm going to go the whole rest of my life," he says, "and never have to drink anything but good beer."

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[watercooler]



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