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Jim Koch on Brewing the American Dream

This Tuesday, Sam Adams brings its Brewing the American Dream (BtAD) project to DC.  In addition to micro-loans made with partner Accion, financial and business seminars, and its online community, BtAD hosts a series of speed-coaching events around the country.  This Tuesday, BtAD is conducting a free coaching session at Living Social’s F Street space, where experts in various fields will advise nascent companies on how to open and grow strategically.  I recently chatted with Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company (yes, I’m using it interchangeably with Sam Adams), about the counseling program, GABF medals, and karma.

When I spoke to Koch, he was returning from a hop-sourcing visit to Germany, which itself came directly off the back of the Great American Beer Festival – where Sam Adams took gold in the German-style doppelbock category with Double Bock.  “The goal is to medal every year”, he says.  “It was nice to win in that category – it comes early, so we could rest a little easier”. 

While Koch finds the win “gratifying”, what he seems to value most is consistency: “You know a beer’s really good when it wins more than once”.  When I looked back at the GABF records, a number of BBC beers fit the bill: Double Bock, Boston Lager, Utopias, etc.  This year’s win brings the medal count to 41 and the tenth straight year in which Sam Adams has medaled.

All of which is to say that Jim Koch and his team know their stuff, but it wasn’t always so.  Koch recalls the early days, when he had to figure out the basics of running a business on the fly.  How does one do a sales call?  What should packaging look like?  How do you set up a payroll? 

Koch was certain that other brewers would all have “the same questions I had when I started”, so he established BtAD, which brings in experts from various fields to answer even the simplest questions faced by fledgling companies.  It’s clearly a passion project.  Despite back-to-back red eyes, he was noticeably excited to hear that two colleagues – one a restaurateur, the other in beer retail – would be attending the DC session.  He apologized that he couldn’t make the Washington event because he’d be advising businesses up in Boston.

The program is limited to people in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries, since, as Koch says, “that’s what we know the most about – we’re not going to be able to help anyone in biotech”.  Despite this narrow focus, attendees arrive with questions about nearly every aspect of running a business, so BBC makes sure to have experts in a wide variety of fields.

Typically, advisers are asked about: managing growth and avoiding the “temptation to grow as fast as you can”; how to hire new employees beyond “grabbing bodies”; whether to finance through investors who place conditions on their support; choosing distributors; and all manner of brewing processes.  The coaches try to be prepared for anything.

The project has grown considerably since its inception.  “We’ve been doing this five years now and get a bigger response every year”.  Generally, he says, “small business owners and entrepreneurs are so busy working their asses off that they don’t have time to come up for air and find out about it”, but more and more people are finding their way to BtAD.

People outside the craft beer world often question Koch’s rationale.  “’Isn’t the point to destroy competition?’, they ask.  Not really.  Craft beer is such a good industry, such a good community because a spirit of collaboration pervades”.  Plus, he argues, craft beer – including the Sam Adams brand – still represents under 7 percent of the domestic market, so the game is still about growing market share.  “We succeed together or not at all”.

Besides, he says, “I want to feel good about what I do”.  For every brewery Sam Adams has helped – be it the 70+ that have come in for consultations, the twelve that have received loans, or the 250 that were given some of BBC’s hops during the shortage – at least a portion “will turn around and help someone else”.  Koch finds this heartening: “I’m always amazed at how quickly craft brewers respond to tragedy”.  He points to Oskar Blues efforts to raise funds to flood-ravaged Colorado as evidence of the industry’s civic-mindedness.   In the same vein, Koch views BBC’s philanthropic efforts as “good karma” and a way to give back to a community that’s treated him so well over the years.

Tickets for the DC session are still available here.

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