Jim Koch’s Fight for Freshness Might Be His Most Important Innovation of All

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 Ethan Fixell


“Need I remind you that fish defecate in that water?” says Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, second largest craft brewery in the country, as he points to my translucent glass and pours himself a Samuel Adams lager at 9:30 a.m.

On the surface, Koch is jokingly prodding me to drink for breakfast — but he’s also implying that beer is purer than water; sacred to some. He treats the beverage with the same reverence many would of wine at church Communion. With the deeply held belief that beer should be produced, kept, served, and enjoyed with great respect, Koch has consistently innovated new products and practices meant to elevate the beer-drinking experience — and no cause of his has more effectively, positively impacted the beer industry than his quest to keep beer fresh.

“If you allow your beer to go stale, you’re not taking pride in your product,” he explains. “[Taking pride] means that you’re going to do everything possible to allow the consumer to experience all these great, wonderful flavors that we took so much time and care putting in… If you allow the beer to get old, why did you even bother with that?”

Koch made this “commitment to the drinker” upon founding the brewery in 1984, while simultaneously trying to keep the business afloat. “We had no chance of succeeding,” he recalls, making it clear (as he likes to do) that Sam Adams wasn’t always a national staple. “There were five distributors in Boston: They all refused to take my beer. This was a suicide mission.” Back then, few drinkers knew anything but mass-produced adjunct lager; even fewer had an understanding that beer is a perishable product with a four-month shelf life.

And yet, despite the already insurmountable odds, Koch took on the responsibility of enforcing proper refrigeration and storage at bars and pubs. “I realized that maybe 10 percent of the time, a Sam Adams draught did not meet my quality standards,” he says. “And I would venture that at least 10 percent of the craft beer on the shelves of the retailers… is stale, and should not be on that shelf.” The problem was that most consumers — both then and now — simply don’t know any better. “The consumer may not notice that it’s bad,” he reasons, “but they will notice if it’s good.”

So, in 1988, Koch became the first American brewer to include a legible freshness date on every bottle of beer his brewery produced. Whereas, until then, brewers were using complicated coding cards that made it difficult even for retailers to determine when beer was packaged, Koch developed a much simpler, consumer-friendly dating system. “A vice and a $9.99 hacksaw: that’s all it took to bring freshness dating to beer,” he reveals. Koch would merely print twelve months on each label, and notch an “enjoy by” date on the appropriately corresponding month.

But as Koch points out, passion can’t be corralled: A true brewer won’t be content making advancements outside of the bottle without also making them within. “You cannot draw lines around innovation,” Koch explains. “It’s like trying to dry-hop part of a tank.” So over the last 30 years, Samuel Adams has come up with plenty of new products that expand the definition of beer. Koch claims that his Triple Bock was the first commercially released barrel-aged beer in 1994. The first vintage of the 18 percent ABV brew may not have been especially good (it has been described as hot, boozy, and — with overwhelming teriyaki — even unpleasant), but by 2002, the brewery had dialed in its barrel-aging and blending skills to create Utopias, the strongest commercially made beer in the world at the time. Today, the universally celebrated beer reaches as high as 28 percent ABV and is one of the most highly sought-after beers on the market.

With that said, the brewing industry no longer relies on Samuel Adams to set beer trends. With 4,500 breweries (and more opening every month), the U.S. has never before been home to so many liquid chefs, all experimenting with new, exciting ingredients, and modifying old styles to kick off the next big beer fad. Amongst hardcore beer nerds, Samuel Adams is known less as a brewery on the cutting edge of the coolest new styles, and more as the industry’s beloved, dorky father: hard-working and reliable, but still an awkward dancer.

Where Samuel Adams can truly shine is in the fact that they are lead by a truly focused, passionate, and devoted leader who is willing and able to throw a considerable amount of money at issues that encumber the entire industry. In this way, Koch continues his role as elder statesman by introducing solutions for industry-wide problems that go beyond the liquid — more specifically, in beer delivery and packaging.

For example, in 2008, Samuel Adams designed a new vessel for serving Boston Lager, with the assumption that if a proper glass can benefit the wine-drinking experience, it can do the same for beer. After a year of research and countless prototypes (“My office looked like a Pottery Barn,” Koch recalls), the brewery had a new glass that maintains cooler temperatures and more optimally dispenses flavor and aroma to the imbiber. A few years later, he and glassmaker Georg Riedel collaborated on a Utopias glass. And when Samuel Adams was first canned in 2013, the brand spent two years and $1 million on a new can design, which led to a wider lid (allowing for more air flow), a can opening closer to the drinker’s nose, and an hourglass ridge that creates “turbulence” to emphasize flavor.

Anyone who has ever used these products in a controlled environment against standard vessels will tell you (as I can) that they do, in fact, enhance the beer-drinking experience. Whether anyone else really cares or can afford it, however, is a different — the patented Sam Can, for one, was generously offered up by Boston Beer Co. for other brewers to use, royalty and license free, but none have yet taken them up on the offer. To consumers and critics, such design improvements are often met with skepticism, or misunderstood as gimmicks and marketing stunts.

But Samuel Adams hasn’t succeeded because of marketing. After all, the brand was in business for ten years before it hired anyone to handle such responsibilities. Rather, the success of the brand is due to consistency of product and a near-foolish persistence in championing ideals for how beer should be consumed, as proven by the brand’s “Freshest Beer Program.” Since 2010, Samuel Adams has cut down the length of time its beer is permitted to sit in warehouses from 30 days to ten, and budgets more than $3 million annually to take stale beer back from distributors.

Jim Koch is clearly obsessed with quality control, and the examples he sets are eventually — often, begrudgingly — adopted by the industry. And the freshness cause has never been more important than it is today: As the beer market continues to expand, and shelves become exceedingly crowded, the percentage of old and oxidized beer making its way to consumers is on the rise. Meanwhile, the increased production of higher gravity beers only perpetuates the myth that beer is as cellar-able as wine (nearly all of it — like wine, ironically — is not).

Of course, Samuel Adams’s policy of taking beer back and splitting the hit with distributors isn’t without benefit to the company. “When we [first] implemented the Freshest Beer Program, six months later, our sales went up by like, 1 percent,” Koch says. “We didn’t advertise it, nobody knew about it — all they knew was that the beer tasted just a little bit better. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that if you give a beer drinker a better tasting beer for the same price, they’re gonna drink it more… It was a good brewer’s decision, and luckily it turned out to be a good business decision.”

This boils down to Koch’s overarching life philosophy: “If you do good, you’ll do well.” Businesses that make a quality product and recognize their social responsibilities to give back to their communities will, ultimately, perform better financially. Samuel Adams follows this guiding rule.

Though he might not always have the attention of aggressive beer geeks looking for the next best thing, no one can deny the practices and advancements Jim Koch has championed in his fight to keep beer fresh. “These things are beyond beer geek; [the] things nobody cares about,” he laments of the unsexy yet crucial advancements like the Freshest Beer Program. It is likely his campaign for freshness — not setting style trends, developing new glassware, or even pushing brewing boundaries — will be Jim Koch’s ultimate legacy, and his greatest gift to beer.