Blink and you’ll miss it.
Among all the industry news of buyouts, investments and global mergers, we may be witnessing the pivot and turn of one of America’s most iconic breweries. While businesses are busy reimagining individual beers to lure back customers, another is making an adjustment in planning a decade in the making.
It’s certainly not a wholesale philosophical shift, but Sam Adams – and more specifically Jim Koch – is buying into a new approach.
And it may be a necessity.
To be fair, Sam Adams has always been a company accepting of innovation in flavor and brand, perhaps led by Jim Koch’s propensity to bore easily. Like the customers he tries to serve, he likes tasting something new, often.
Which points toward Sam Adams’ announcement of a new nitro line of beers, but even more so the continued expansion of its Rebel series of IPAs, which has placed one of the country’s largest craft brewers squarely in the country’s favorite style. Rebel will soon welcome a new member to a family that already includes an IPA (Rebel), double IPA (Rouser) and session IPA (Rider).
Naturally, the newest offering is another double IPA, named Rebel Raw, because that’s what you INSATIABLE ANIMALS want, after all.
But for a long time, it’s not what Jim Koch wanted. Especially in 2013:
Koch in particular has a problem with hob-bombs, the big, boozy, 100-plus IBU beers that have been en vogue in recent years. I asked Koch what he thought of the Alchemist’s Heady Topper and other massive IPAs. In a part of the interview that didn’t make the paper, Koch said, “They’re big IPAs. There’s 100 of them. Are they new or interesting? Not really. I mean they’re good, but there’s nothing I’m going to learn from tasting that. There’s not a huge set of skills to make an 80-IBU beer.”
… and (ironically) what’s the comparison for Sam Adams’ latest double IPA, according to Koch?
“When you look at some of the iconic big IPAs, like Pliny the Elder or Heady Topper from here in New England, part of what makes them so renowned is people drink ’em fresh,” he said. “They get ’em at the brewery. If you have those beers two to three months into their life, they’re not the same.”
Fresh beer is not something unique to the Sam Adams credo. In 2010, Koch ushered in the “Freshest Beer Program” to minimize the amount of time Boston Lager, Summer Wheat and others would sit on a shelf. Rebel Raw, which will take this program to the Nth degree, has a preferred shelf life of 35 days, which sounds an awful lot like another wildly popular double IPA, which is regularly regarded as one of the best available, according to Untappd ratings.
So why the change? Increased competition most certainly, which is something Koch has been pretty open about. Recently, that helped spur a slump in stock price for Boston Beer and caused some financial groups to shift their rating of the company to “neutral” or “sell.” Some others moved to “buy” on account of a lower price in relation to longer-term potential.
If the expansion of Sam Adams’ Rebel line to include Raw seems like a business move, it most certainly is. In 2014, the release of Rebel IPA grossed $21.1 million, the most successful craft beer brand launch ever. Halfway through 2015, Rebel Rider and Rebel Rouser were both in the top-5 of new craft brand releases, based on dollar sales.
Which is what makes these moves interesting for a company that was for so long led by the tastes of its iconic leader himself. Koch has always been honest about his impression of hoppy styles, including earlier this year:
When Koch talks about IPAs, including his own Rebel and the new Rebel Rouser, his energy level visibly flags. For a man possessed of such demonstrable passion for beer, it’s telling that he appears to view these beers as necessary evils. They are, in essence, a Hail Mary attempt to bounce back into the craft scene, where drinkers’ interest in his flagship Boston Lager is waning.
Even in August, when I spoke with Koch for an upcoming All About Beer story, we briefly chatted about the place of IPAs in the American market.
“I don’t know how many IPAs are made in the U.S. – 5,000?” he jokingly quipped. “It’s hard to be different. There are beer styles that are certainly worthy of greater representation. Pilsners are one of the foundational styles of beer in the world and the same thing can be said about porters and stouts. These are amazing beers that have stood the test of time. When the IPA boom slows down, I think the adventurous craft beer drinkers will move to other styles. The adventurous won’t go away, but I think they’ll be IPA’d out.”
It’s a curious time for Boston Beer, which has seen customers flock to its non-beer options like Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard cider while also slowly leaving behind some of its long-beloved brands. Alchemy & Science, a subsidiary of Boston Beer, is also taking on a larger role.
When a particular style makes up a 27 percent of the craft beer market Sam Adams calls home, it’s time for a change, even if it does butt against past positions. If anything, the recent moves to include nitro beers and the new Rebel Raw emphasize a continued willingness to diversify and expand.
Which, if Sam Adams is to continue to hold its prominent role on the coasters of beer drinkers across the country, is a necessity. Welcome to Sam Adams 2.0.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac