When Christian missionaries first arrived in Norse villages, they faced a pantheon of fierce pagan deities; a mythology so ingrained in ancient Scandinavian spirituality that questioning it might incur the wrath of Thor. But the missionaries would not be swayed from their righteous path, and they were smart and patient. They dissected what they could of the runish lore, and began to see similarities that they might exploit to sow the seeds of their (comparatively new) gospels.
“So your god, Baldr? The perfect son of your all-father god, who was betrayed and killed but will rise again at the end of days? He’s a lot like our Jesus. Funny coincidence, no? I can read this Bible to you if you want to know more.”
When Jim Koch first walked into the twinkling lights of the Boston bar scene in 1984, he faced a stubborn generation of beer drinkers; consumers so conditioned to drink American pale lager that few knew there were other options, and even fewer dared to try them. But Koch had a dream born of fermentation, and he was smart and patient. He saw in the yellow swirl of carbonated buzz the potential for more; gustatorily and economically.
“So this beer? Miller Lite? Crisp, refreshing, easy to drink, and not so hard on your wallet? It’s a lot like my beer. I’ll leave this bottle of Boston Lager here if you want to know more.”
There has been a lot of buzz about Jim Koch and his company, Boston Beer, over the past week. Lots of talk about his behavior in a certain bar, how “the industry” views Sam Adams as a whole, and what that means for the future (and history) of the subculture. Some beer enthusiasts rushed to defend the company who despite constantly outgrowing its clothes, somehow still gets brought back under the fold of “craft” by a very accomodating Brewer’s Association. Others turned on the proven veteran, claiming Koch was just suffering from an acute case of “get off my lawn syndrome” in the face of a rapidly expanding and youthwardly trending American beer landscape.
Those who wrote about him (regardless of how they felt about Koch himself [or his beer]) seemed to agree unanimously that whatever he says or does now doesn’t change the fact that without him, we wouldn’t be drowning in this dry-hopped utopia that is the “craft beer revolution.”
But what did Koch really do? Andy Crouch’s piece in Boston Magazine covers the specific details as they relate to the beer business very well, so I won’t rehash them here. But other brewing prophets like Maytag, Papazian, McAullife, and Grossman all recorded their malten glory onto the annals of beerish history around the same time, so why does Koch stand out? Is it the large-scale success of Boston Beer, the unquestionable ubiquity, the “you can make dreams happen” narrative that makes him into such a figure of beer legend?
But I don’t think that’s all of it. Koch wasn’t just lucky or a master of timing. He tapped into something older and deeper than practiced corporate marketing, something cultural influencers have used for centuries to deftly mold the streams of human history.
Koch saw a blip on the social radar, the potential to inject a new idea, a new movement, and using all his business savvy, capitalized. Sure, he was a brewer and enthusiast which helped him position the product, but he was also a Capitalistic opportunist with a keen eye for markets. He looked and saw a post-Vietnam realignment, the decadence of the party culture of the 80s, a noticeable paradigm shift in America’s attitude towards hedonism. In the changing behavior and economics, he saw the consumer’s desire for new options, but knew he’d have to take it smooth and slow.
As my friend Douglas pointed out, Vienna Lager isn’t exactly a cutting edge beer, and for at least 100 years before Koch concocted his fabled kitchen-batch, the Germans had been perfecting the style over in the Rhineland. But I think Koch knew that. He dare not introduce something so wild as a pale ale; it was much too bitter for the average American consumer and Sierra Nevada had already established roots in that market. He dare not try any reigning English styles, for the American presumption that all English beer was flat and warm still echoed across polished hardwood bars.
No, he needed a beer that was a Jesus to the Norse Baldr; similar enough that a drinker would understand it and associate positive things with it, but different enough to stand alone, and in some ways, be superior to the original. He needed a tool for conversion. Eventually, like a syncromesh between two whirring gears, he used Boston Beer to bridge the gap between macro and micro, one restaurant tapline at a time.
To me, that is what Jim Koch did. Reintroduced the truth of beer to the unenlightened; those poor souls who suffered in the pale-dark under a cruel regime of relatively choiceless banality. He showed them they had other choices, could believe in other things that were potentially more in line with their baser instincts. It has nothing to do with his beer now and everything to do with his beer then. It’s less about the quality of Sam Adams in comparison to the contemporary craft brewery, and more about the legacy of Boston Lager.
Everyone claiming his beers are “middle of the road” might consider that perhaps they’re middle of the road by design, to appeal to those drinkers who weren’t or aren’t ready to give up their religion of libation in favor of some modern cult of flavor. The Norse didn’t ever fully adopt Christianity, but they did eventually use parts of it; the parts they liked, that fit in with their world view, that made their daily lives a little easier. A BMC drinker who starts drinking Sam Adams is, I think all those in beer now will agree, a step in the right direction.
All other arguments of style and quality aside, why wouldn’t Koch be upset with the situation at Row 34? Imagine how the Pope might feel in an LDS church when someone begins to explain Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden plates; to hear relative newcomers to your world announce in palpably arrogant tones that the way things have always been done, the way history recorded them and recognizes them, the way you’ve built your entire life, is wrong. Then imagine everyone in the room (a gaggle of folks who used to fully support you) agrees with the seeming blasphemy. It’s soul-shattering stuff to have your beliefs publicly questioned, and I’m sure Koch felt more hurt than angry, more confused than cantankerous.
However you feel about Boston Beer (full disclaimer: I quite enjoy Noble Pils but don’t drink much other Sam Adams) or Koch himself, you have to respect that without him, the palate of the average drinker would not have (so quickly) turned down the road we’re all now hurtling down with reckless abandon. Boston Lager ended up in every Applebee’s in the continental because Koch is a shrewd business man, but also because a whole metric-crap ton of American beer drinkers bought (and continue to buy) the stuff. The proof is in the growth and sales, whether your personal tastes lie on the positive or negative side of the beers coming out of Jamaica Plain.
Boston Beer’s stylistically timid foray in the trendy IPA market (and I mean “timid” in a hop profile sense not an economic one, given that Rebel is selling like hot cakes on a cold day) echoes the syncretistic philosophy that made him a billionaire: you win-over Bud Light drinkers with something similar to Bud Light, not a stinging hopstorm slinging double digit ABV. Koch isn’t trying to blow the collective minds of established beer enthusiasts (which seems to be the modern trend), he’s trying to bring something wonderful to the ones who haven’t yet seen the light, raise the average quality of beer in the entire country.
But just because he’s not directly vying for your dollar, doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to your respect.
Would someone else have come along eventually and done the same thing? Maybe. Probably. Definitely. But who cares about that now? Our history says Koch was integral in bringing better beer to the masses. That alone is worth a raise of the glass, a nod of the head, and a sincere salute to the legacy of Sam Adams.
(Note: I realize comparing Koch to the Pope is outlandish and possibly offensive. I just liked the analogy and ran with it. Please don’t take it too seriously.)