Little guy is Brewing the American Dream

Last modified: 12/13/2010 12:00:00 AM
Twenty-six years after he started selling Samuel Adams lager brewed from his great-great-grandfather's recipe, Jim Koch is the head of the country's largest independently owned brewery.

Now he's trying to give his potential competitors a helping hand.

Koch, the 61-year-old founder of the Boston Beer Co., in 2008 began the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program, a collaboration with micro-loan provider ACCION USA that gives small loans and business consulting to small businesses. It's intended to help New England businesses in the hospitality sector, including other craft brewers, that might have trouble securing capital and advice as they're just starting out.

So far, more than 40 companies have received a little more than $423,000 in loans, creating or saving 440 jobs, according to the company. None of the participating firms has been from New Hampshire.

Koch sat down - Boston Lager in hand, naturally - with the Monitor last week at Jillian's Billiards Club in Manchester to talk about the program, the state of the beer industry and why now is the best time in history to be a brewer.

What's the goal? What's the point of the program?

The point of doing it is to help low- and moderate-income small businesses and entrepreneurs in (the) food-and-beverage and hospitality business grow their businesses and create jobs and have a chance to follow their passion, just the way I did 26 years ago.

And there's a funding gap. Basically, banks don't want to make small loans. They're not set up to do that, they don't want to administer them, and even the Small Business Administration doesn't make loans below $15,000. So for a small business, there are really no sources of the kind of loans that they need to grow. Our loans are $3,000 to $10,000, most of the loans.

If this program had been around in 1984, how much would it have helped you out?

It would have made life a lot easier. And not just access to capital, but the other piece of it is coaching and counseling. . . . A small business not only needs capital, but they need expertise. If you're running a small business, you do everything . . . and generally, you're only good at one or two of those things, the things that you're passionate about.

Are you worried at all that you're funding your next competitor?

Oh, no. We've actually had several craft brewers show up. It's okay. There's room. When I started, I was the only craft brewer, microbrewer, pretty much in the Eastern U.S. And in some ways it was harder when there was nobody else. As Sam Adams succeeded, it plowed the ground for others to succeed, and that's actually not been a bad thing for us.

The last few years have been very strange for the U.S. economy and for the beer industry in particular. You've had all these mergers, and you're now in charge of the largest independent U.S. brewer. And you have less than 1 percent of the U.S. market. Does that feel weird?

It's like my daughter's, my 12-year-old daughter's soccer team winning the World Cup because nobody else showed up. It's bizarre and in a way sad that, at less than 1 percent, Sam Adams is the largest American-owned brewery. That doesn't give me a good feeling.

How do you think consolidation affects consumers at the end of the bar? Is it going to mean less choices or more choices, or are they not going to notice much?

I don't think consumers notice it at all. If you ask the average consumer who owns Budweiser, Miller, Coors or even some of the other beers, Magic Hat, Bass, Guinness - the consumers don't know which are the real craft brewers, they don't know who owns things, and frankly I don't think they care. They just want a good beer at a fair price. And if it's owned by Brazilians and Belgians, it's still Bud Light. And I think that's fair enough. But it is a little weird.

Do you think we're ever going to forget the name 'Budweiser'?

No, well, there's nothing the matter with Budweiser. It's a good beer for what it is. It's clean, it's consistent, it's inexpensive. It's sort of like fast food. There's nothing the matter with McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's or Taco Bell or the colonel, and we've all enjoyed their cuisine.

To me, we will happily coexist with the big brewers, and they will always be the vast majority of the beer made in the U.S. I make beer for 5 or 10 percent of the drinkers. I don't make . . . beer that you just drink for liquid cold refreshment. I'm trying to make beer that has flavor and taste and character. And that's always going to be a small part of the market.

You've been doing this for 26 years now. You ever think about doing something else?

Yes and no. I'm always thinking about the next new beer, the next cool thing to do, a way to raise the quality level of American beer. Those are the things that keep me energized. . . .

To me, a hundred years from now, brewers are going to look at this moment in brewing, in this place, America, and they're going to say, 'Wow, I wish I'd been making beer then. That was the best time in history to be a brewer.' This is the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Revolution all rolled into one. Within the small confines of brewing history and beer culture, this is probably the most exciting time in history to be a brewer. There will be, there have been and will continue to be, more new styles of beer created during this craft-beer revolution than anywhere else, ever.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)




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