Suds With Securb: A Sit-Down with Boston Beer Company’s Jim Koch

Suds With Securb Logo Last year, almost a year to the date, I met Jim Koch for the first time. Since then, I have had some chance meetings with the founder of the Boston Beer Company, most notably at his Sam Adams brunch in Denver last September. At that brunch, the entire menu was cooked with Sam Adams beers. Jim always wants to be the guy that does something first, and if not first, then best.

When you run out of firsts… and bests, sometimes you need to look back through the past to see where you are going in the future.

This year, Jim has done just that. He looked WAY into the past. Jim studied the correspondences of some of our founding fathers and duplicated their brewing recipes as closely as humanly possibly. He actually went as far as getting a cord of oak from James Madison’s estate to malt the barley for his Dark Wheat to keep it authentic.

Why would a guy go through all of that trouble in trying to round up all of the original ingredients? I didn’t have to ask Jim that. He does it because it is fun. Trust me, when Jim found out he was getting that cord of oak I am pretty sure there was much rejoicing – Sam Adams style.

I could go on and on about our conversation but I think it might be better if I let you enjoy it for yourself. So here is another Jim Koch first – he is the first person ever to be interviewed twice in the history of To make this interview even more special, I met Jim at the Bell In Hand Tavern, the oldest Tavern in America, where we kicked back, sipped beers and remembered the men that had sat in this bar over two hundred years ago, planning a revolution. Here is my conversation with Jim:

JK: Let’s start off with this beer… it is George Washington’s Porter recipe. We wanted to use the original ingredients that Washington used – licorice and Molasses

TMR: So is this actually Washington’s recipe?

JK: None of the founding fathers, [who were] also founding brewers, left serviceable recipes. It was interesting to read their letters and what they had written because they were improvisational brewers. They didn’t have a constant, reliable source for their brewing ingredients. They had to brew with the ingredients they had on hand and that would change [from] season to season, month to month, week to week. So they would grab what was there and just brew it.

TMR: It had to be tough to just start brewing with whatever was available and to consistently deliver a good beer.

JK: They had to be quite skillful; they weren’t getting the same ingredients every week. They were like Jazz brewers… very improvisational.

TMR: So how did you recreate these beers without recipes?

JK: We went back to all of the letters and notes they left and the brewers’ texts that they referenced in their notes. Jefferson recommended to Madison a book from 1762 called “The Theory And Practice Of Brewing” by an English brewer Michael Combrune. We got a copy of that so we were reading the same brewery manual that Jefferson and Madison were brewing from. In their notes they talked about brewing with the ingredients. They just didn’t give you good measurements. This is back when a sifter could have been anything, nothing was standardized.

TMR: So how close do you think you go to the original flavors?

JK: I would say that these beers represent what the founding fathers drank on a good day. They are brewed with hand-smoked malts. They are unfiltered. We even, for the James Madison, found oak from his original estate.

TMR: So are these going to stay in the 4-pack?

JK: We are going to keep it like this as a one time release. Well, we thought it would be a cool thing to do.

TMR: It is cool!

JK: We hope other people find them to be cool. I will tell you we had to make some brewing choices. “Do we want this to taste good or taste authentic?’ We chose to make it authentic; it might taste a little strange. We have a beer with sassafras root for example, but we are only asking people to drink one bottle. It’s very interesting to sip on brewing history. We are not asking people to drink a case of it.

TMR: What if we want to drink a case of it?

JK: We can help you with the recipes but there is some running aroung you would have to do like finding Jamaican ginger for example

TMR: So what is the price point for these six packs?

JK: $8.99

TMR: So you went through hell and high water finding all of these original ingredients, hand-smoked the malt, went through extensive laboratory testing and you have this beer available at $2.25 per bottle? That is unreal. How you do this I don’t know.

JK: Something like this is not a profit center for me. There are some things we do because we can and we can make these available to beer drinkers all over the US.

TMR: So are we going to drink some beers?

JK: Let’s start off with the Ginger Honey Ale, this is something Jefferson would have brewed. He brewed about 15 Gallons every two weeks at Monticello. That was a good amount because the estates were like little cities or villages and they were self-supporting. They baked their own bread, grew their own vegetables and brewed their own beer.

TMR: I thought this would be sweeter. It has a nice, dry finish. Very lemony.

JK: Jefferson used the lemons because scurvy was a big concern in those days and in using the lemons he could get vitamin C into their diets. The ginger is also very important because in those days the food would spoil and the water was tainted. The ginger calmed their stomachs and took away their nausea. Let’s go to the Root beer.

TMR: This is the beer I have been dying to try. Wow this is nothing like I expected but very cool never the less.

JK: Yeah, you are tasting licorice root, sassafras root, wintergreen, some molasses, honey and a little bit of vanilla. If you dissect the flavors of modern day root beer you will get licorice, wintergreen and vanilla. Lets move onto George Washington. Washington loved American-style porters with licorice… really big, hoppy porters.

TMR: It is really cool that the founding fathers were so into beers and brewing.

JK: James Madison was so into it, he proposed a federally-funded national brewery. There was so much variation in quantity he figured a national brewery would be a good idea. As the beers got better, the idea died down.

TMR: Speaking of Madison, tell me a little about the James Madison Dark Wheat beer.

JK: Americans had trouble growing barley. It doesn’t grow that well in the Eastern US. Wheat grew well, rye grew well –barley just didn’t grow well. This is why you see a lot of substitutes and adjuncts in the beers of that time.

TMR: Nice. There is just a touch of smoke in this.

JK: Back then, the smoke flavor was not a desired result but could not be avoided because of the way they malted the barley. Lets try the Porter you will not only taste smoke but a bunch of wonderful flavors.

TMR: I think I have found my favorite.

JK: Isn’t that a great beer. It is very big, an American Porter. It is much hoppier than the British style.

TMR: So what did you use for hops?

JK: We used all traditional English hops, but obviously dramatically different levels. The Porter weighs in the high 30’s, 35 or 40 IBUs. It is not overly hoppy because it has the smoke, molasses and licorice to hide behind.

TMR: So if you had to pick one, who do you think was the best brewer out of our founding fathers.

JK: [Without hesitation] Jefferson. Jefferson is the one that Madison wrote to for advice. He studied the original English texts. He was definitely the best of the bunch.

TMR: So Jim, I know we are out of time here but I have to ask you one more question before you leave. Have you ever seen the Dave Chappelle parody of your beer? What do you think?

JK: O’ yeah! I love it. I have seen it at least a dozen times. I think it is hysterical. The guy is a comic genius so it is an honor to have someone like him do a parody of one of my products.

I would like to thank Jim Koch for his time and give you my pick-o-the-crop for this patriotic 4 pack. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I fell in love with the porter.

Samuel Adams George Washington Porter
This porter pours a traditional deep blackish brown with huge partials floating in it. The head is rocky and light brown. Right off the bat there is a big molasses aroma in the beer and anise tones fighting their way through. The mouth feel is very full with a huge black licorice flavor. Did I say huge? I meant HUGE! The finish is incredibly hoppy for a porter. We are talking 35 – 40 IBUs here. There is a touch of smoke in the aftertaste that is so nice. I think this beer has earned a spot among my favorites of all time.

– Bruce G. Owens, Jr.