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January 22, 2012The Sam Adams Editorial Team

The Paradox of Popularity

Unless you’re a brewer you probably missed the “Beer Advocate” thread last week bashing several craft breweries for being over-rated. Seemed to me the criticism was really about popularity not quality.

Today’s craft beer lovers are on a hunt to discover the next new thing and, as brewers, most of us are trying to create interesting new beers. That’s great – we all love making new beers – but that doesn’t mean that an established and successful beer is any less great because it’s been around for a while and has attracted a big following.

My friend Sam Calagione was one of the targets. I’ve known Sam a long time, and I’ve brewed beside him, so I know how innovative he is, and how committed he is to quality brewing. Dogfish Head beers are terrific. Period. The sales of Dogfish Head have grown because the beer is crazy good. Period. No true lover of craft beer should have a problem with his success, in my honest opinion. Someone else dissed him because he had a TV show about his brewing adventures and his brewery. Hey, Sam happens to be a very interesting and engaging guy. And he works his ass off. Because he has the energy and drive to get himself and DFH on the Discovery Channel, he has done all craft brewers a service. He was also promoting all craft beer through his efforts. I thank him for doing that. And if that means he was taking craft beer to the masses, more power to him.

I remember, and survived, the years when craft beer was this odd little corner of the beer cooler visited only by homebrewers and crazy beer geeks that everyone else ignored. That might sound cool and romantic. Actually, it sucked.

It was hard to stay in business and many of the early craft brewers didn’t make it. I think it’s great that craft beer has entered the beer drinker mainstream. Craft beer has become popular today because craft brewers are making great beer. I don’t know of any craft brewer who succeeded by selling out and making crappy beer. I can think of some who failed by neglecting to make great beer. Can I offer you a Pig Pounder? Or a Brewski?

I took some offense myself from one lengthy post saying that Sam Adams used to be a great beer until they grew and started using cheaper ingredients and the quality slipped. That pissed me off because it couldn’t be further from the truth. I should know since I still select those ingredients. Let me give you one example. When we were much smaller, we selected our hops after the larger brewers had already made their selection, we accepted the same growing practices that everyone else did; we processed the hops in an industry standard procedure, etc. Today, we’re the largest buyer of noble hops in the world. So we select our hops first. We’re important enough to our farmers to ask them to keep those hops on the vines longer to maximize the aromatic oils we want for Boston Lager. We have a proprietary pelletizing process that requires freezing the hops down to forty degrees below zero to preserve the integrity of the lupulin glands. We couldn’t do those things when we were tiny. Things like these may not be cool and cute but they do make better beer. I could go on and that’s just the hops. And the same thing goes for other craft brewers. Ask any craft brewer if his or her quality has improved or has declined as he or she got bigger or more established. I know what the answer will be.

The fact is that it’s possible, even admirable, to grow beyond tiny while improving your quality. Sam Calagione did it, and I believe Sam Adams has done it. I think Samuel Adams Boston Lager is better today than it was in 1984 or 1995. And I think 60 Minute is better today than ever. Thanks, Sam.

I remember losing a high profile Boston restaurant account in 1985. The chef/owner was upset because we had gotten “too big”. At that point we were in eighty places in the entire world. To him, that was too big. I realized that some people will judge you primarily on your size and availability, not on whether you make great beer. So I decided to ignore people like that and grow anyway. To me, great beer comes from the quality of the ingredients and the recipe, and the skill, passion and commitment of the brewer. When I lose that passion and commitment, I’ll stop making beer. It hasn’t happened yet.

We’re lucky to be in the middle of a big growth curve for craft beer and I’m glad to see the growth. Many brewers have worked very long hours for many years to get us to this place. Let’s appreciate the category’s growth instead of taking aim at honorable, independent brewers just because their beers have become well known or widely admired.

- Jim Koch

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