A Pint With: Samuel Adams' Jim Koch
Mutual admiration can inspire both sides to push each other further, and in the case of top-dog US craft brewer Samuel Adams and old world pillar Weihenstephan, both sides are hoping their new collaboration beer, Infinium, is a cause for celebration.
Working together for the past three years to invent a "new beer style" within Germany's Reinheitsgebot (beer purity laws), both breweries riffed over intercontinental distance to create a, well, champagne of beers, if you will. Infinium delivers a dryly fruity sweetness—deceptively light yet warm, apricotty, with notes of orange and lemon rind. It's more comparable to a sparkling wine than a 10% beer. The subtle yeastiness comes across like a honey-wheat sandwich bread, the beer opening up gradually, much like the celebrations it's meant to evoke and adorn.
So Serious Eats sat down with Samuel Adams' founder and brewer Jim Koch to talk, taste, and think about Infinium...and much more.
Let's talk about collaborations—how long have you wanted to do something like this? Has Sam Adams done collaborative brewing before?
For me, I didn't want to do just a sort of collaboration with another brewery where we just get together and throw some new things in the brew kettle. For me, if I did a collaboration, I wanted it to be important. Something that was groundbreaking. And, that I didn't want to collaborate with anybody unless they could add value to what we've been doing. Sam Adams has been arguably the most innovative brewer in the US for the last 20 years, so we've been doing just fine creating new beer styles, new brewing practices on our own. That changed when I got a call from Weihenstephan, because they are arguably the most significant brewer in the old world. So when they called and said that they wanted to collaborate on a new beer style, I was amazed, because I kind of viewed them the way I viewed Sam Adams. They have the most technical capabilities of any brewery in the world, why do they need somebody else? And essentially they felt like they—despite all those technical capabilities—they needed the creativity and innovation that has always characterized Sam Adams. To me, the opportunity to work with one of the greatest breweries in the world was very exciting, and they felt the same way. and I was thinking, I was making this in my kitchen 26 years ago, and you guys have been at this for 1000 years!
We wanted to brew something new, while still remaining within the boundaries of the Reinheitsgebot, which created its own challenges, because the law has been enforced for 500 years, and for 500 years thousands of breweries have been brewing. At first it seemed like everything that was doable had already been done, but I saw a white space within the purity law, and that white space was a champagne-like beer that was dry, and that would have the sort of fresh elegant fruitiness of Champagne, but without being thin and sharp. We set the bar very high, thinking that the results should be worthy of the history of these two breweries. And we had to reinvent the malting process and the brewing process to do things that had never been done before. We can all throw Chinese gooseberries or Buddha's hand into the brew kettle, but I wanted something that was a breakthrough, that had never been imagined before.
What did you change in the malting and brewing process?
Basically we changed the malting process to be much much longer, and at much lower temperatures, to create a stable malt that still included almost all of the enzymes that are original to the barley itself. It's not just another day or two, it's a multiple. You could think of it as three or four times as long, it's not quite that simple, but that's a good way to think about it. In the brewing process, we took part of the mash at a certain stage in its development, and put it in the fermenter. and again, allowed it to remain active for several weeks, rather than the normal one hour or so that you have in the brewhouse. So we took apart malting and took apart what you are doing in the brewery. We had a lot of dead ends. In retrospect it's really quite simple, but it's not where we started.
While you were working on this beer, did you ever disagree?
No, because we knew what we wanted to do, and it turned out we were only able to find one way to do it.
So...this is a loaded question, but what do you think about the term "Craft Beer"? Is it really useful anymore? Where does your company fit in alongside genuinely tiny brewers, and is it unfair that we're making these flavor distinctions based on commercial terms?
I can tell you, because I'm in the Brewers Association, this is something that we went through several years ago, and we felt that it was important for consumers to be able to distinguish between beers from Sam Adams, or the local brewpub (and everything in between) from the brands that actually came from big brewers, but were not marketed as such—brands that were meant to mimic true craft beers. We felt like we needed to separate those two for consumers who are looking for something that comes out of the passion and energy of a small brewer, versus somebody whose main business is mass-produced, mass-marketed beers. We thought that was a useful distinction.
The big ones are still so big. AB InBev is still 175 times our size, and SAB Miller Coors is about 100 times our size. That was our point: we're all small compared to the big guys, whether you're Sam Adams or you're a nano-brewery in a garage. We all felt like we basically have the same concerns, which are different than the big guys.
That was the motivation, to say here's who we are, we're small, we're independent, we're traditional, all we do is make more flavorful, craft beers. And the big guys? Their main business is making large quantities of very drinkable lighter beers. Of course, once our beers leave the brewery, we are in a distribution system that is largely controlled by the big guys. So that was part of the concern: we're at a disadvantage in the marketplace, so if consumers don't value what we bring, there will be ultimately no craft industry. I was particularly adamant about it because my father was a brewmaster and I watched the big guys slowly put all the little guys out of business fifty years ago.
How do you maintain quality as you grow?
I can tell you my experience: I think the other brewers who've been around for awhile will say the same thing: as you grow your quality improves, and the variety of the beers that you make improves, and as you grow, you should be able to use that growth to make your beer better, and to make a wider variety of more interesting beers.
I mean, when we started, like everybody, we were the smallest brewery in America, and we made one beer. Now we make in the course of the year, around 40. The challenge that I've always enjoyed is as we've grown, we've used that growth to improve the quality of our beer, like the Boston Lager, by getting better ingredients, better equipment, better control over the brewing process...and we've used that growth as a base to continually be experimenting and pushing the brewing envelope. When you're small, you can't always do those things.
Can I ask you about your own tastes? What are your favorite beers when you're not on the job?
It just depends, my life is sort of kaleidoscopic, like last night got everything done at 9:00 or something, and I had a Boston Lager in my room and I was just looking forward to that. The original Sam Adams Boston Lager is still my favorite of all the beers that I make, because I drink beer all the time. And when you drink beer all the time like I do, you need a go-to beer that you just know you're going to get a great sensory experience.
I mean, I've had thousands and thousands and thousands of beers in my life, so there's not really a lot that I need to continue to taste. Every once in awhile there's something new, but not regularly. So I'm done with experimenting by and large, and when I drink a beer, I want to enjoy it, and Boston Lager is still the most reliably rewarding beer that I know of. I've been drinking it pretty much every day of my life, and I still haven't gotten tired of it.
Thanks for the talk and for sharing this beer! It's interesting that Infinium is often called wine-like. Do you think that changes the conversation people are having about what this beer tastes like?
Yes. People expect more from wine than they do beers, but in a lot of ways beer delivers so much more, and when you're in the frame of mind to receive that, you get a lot more out of the beer.