How One Man and One Beer Disrupted an Entire Industry

October 3, 2016, 10:00 AM UTC

Jim Koch, founder and chairman of Boston Beer Company and the brewer of Sam Adams beer reflects on his personal journey in the latest edition of Fortune Unfiltered, a journey that included dropping out of Harvard (twice), becoming an Outward Bound guide, and eventually spurring a revolution in the American beer industry.

Some 30 years after Koch left a lucrative and prestigious job at Boston Consulting Group to follow his dream of a better beer, America is awash in high-quality brews of a sometimes dizzying variety of ingredients and flavors. But it wasn’t always that way.

“When I started, nobody believed American beer could be good. American beer was a laughingstock,” Koch recalls. “I wanted to restore the dignity and nobility of America’s brewing tradition.”

“When we started out, we had really nothing going for us; nobody knew [what] Sam Adams was,” Koch says. “It didn’t taste like an American beer people had had before.
Out of nothing we were very creative. We did what we had to do to succeed.”

Koch’s Sam Adams Beer put U.S. brewing on the map by winning numerous “Best Of” awards and becoming the first American beer sold in Germany. He also took on the industry’s giants and became viewed as “the anti-Christ” by big brewers, as detailed in his book, Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two.

Koch also proved that American beer drinkers were thirsty for a higher-quality product, paving the way for the thousands of local brewers and brew pubs that have hit the scene since Sam Adams debuted in 1985. There are more than 4,200 American craft breweries now, the WSJ reports, up from 1,564 in 1999 and less than 100 at the nadir in 1979.

The Brewers Association, which represents 3,000-plus small-scale beer producers, estimates that craft brands more than doubled their share of the $100 billion U.S. beer market, to 11% in the past four years.

Koch and Sam Adams now face the somewhat unique position of being disruptors who are now viewed as the “establishment” by some beer drinkers, recalling the phrase about innovators having arrows in their back.

Koch bristles a bit at that idea, noting that the company continues to innovate with products like Angry Orchard hard cider and produces only about 11% of U.S. craft beer, a category which represented just 12% of the roughly $106 billion in U.S. beer sales in 2015.

Listen the episode to hear Koch’s full response and the entire story of how one man’s desire for better beer upended an entire industry.

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