Sam Adams and Why We Need To Stop Listening to Hipsters


The phenomenal beer writer Andy Crouch penned this interesting (and if you’re of the TL;DR generation, long) piece about Boston Beer Company, its founder Jim Koch, and their overall place in The Craft Beer Movement™. If you’re interested in beer – and since you’re reading some shithead’s homebrewing blog, I’m gonna assume you are – you should take the time to read the whole article. But the long-and-short (or TL;DR) of the piece is that despite being the founder of the Craft Beer Movement™, Sam Adams is being “left behind” by the shifting tastes of craft beer drinkers and the changing marketplace.

Crouch talks to a lot of respected industry folks and gathers a lot of perspectives and opinions for this piece and presents them fairly and evenly. The article starts with Koch essentially pitching a shit-fit in a Boston bar called Row 34 (full disclosure: never been. It’s an oyster bar and I don’t like seafood) because they don’t have his beloved Sam Adams Boston Lager available (or any other Boston Beer Company products, I’d assume). It doesn’t paint Koch in a particular nice light, but it is what it is. Crouch then gets the co-owner of Deep Ellum and the owner of Lord Hobo to essentially say Boston Lager is a mediocre product.

And that pissed me right the fuck off.

The reason that bars like Deep Ellum, Lord Hobo, and Row 34 don’t serve Sam Adam isn’t because it is a mediocre product – though they’ll swear to that, up and down – it’s because they can make an extra $3 a pint on a truly mediocre product (from say, Night Shift) and that in turn makes them more money. That business decision, that doesn’t upset me, and I’d assume if the owner of Row 34 – who apparently sat quietly by while Koch berated his staff (nice) – had simply said that to Harvard MBA Koch, that would’ve been the end of the discussion.

And that’s the crux of what upset me. Jim Koch is an excellent businessman who became a disruptive force in an industry with a high barrier to entry, fought tough and nail for three decades to establish his brand, and created a niche market and then WILLINGLY HELPED other people get in on his market share (which ultimately boosted his own profits, so it wasn’t purely altruistic). And now Boston Beer is “too big for craft.” People get upset that the Brewers’ Association definition of what is “craft beer” has been extended to continuously include Boston Beer, while casually forgetting that Jim Koch helped found not just the Craft Beer Movement™, but also the Brewers’ Association. And then they point to the fact that he sits on the board as to why the definition shifts with his company, ignoring the fact that there would be no association, no market, and none of them if it weren’t for him.

It’s this dis-ingenuousness that is infuriating. Koch, a businessman who helped found a market, is being disrespected for being too good at making money, by the people making money off the market he created. And for any and all of Koch’s downsides, he’s passionate about his product, and he’s honest about it (save for the marketing fluff that Crouch touches upon in his piece). So I totally understand his frustration when people call his product “mediocre” or “middle of the road” and claim that is why they won’t serve it, when what it really comes down to is that they can swindle Johnny Ironic-Mustache out of an extra $3 for a truly inferior product.

A side tangent on Boston Lager’s “mediocrity”: fuck you if you think you’re too good for Boston Lager. Your palate isn’t “sophisticated,” it’s scorched earth from the ridiculous hop-bomb West Coast IPAs. Most of the IPAs that people love: they’re garbage. Beer snobs – the hipsters with the fedoras who want to know if this beer is vegan – confuse scarcity with quality and ubiquity with mediocrity. Even Dann Paquette of Pretty Things, who is essentially King Hipster, had this to say:

“annoying young hipster attitude toward beer. It’s the same sort of attitude that you find in music. ‘Oh, that brewery was so last year.’ People want to try new stuff all the time, [and] there are two sides to the coin on that for Boston Beer. They’re so big nationally, but I’m sure they’d love to be back on the scene in these beer bars.”

(Another side note: Pretty Things makes some excellent beers, and every time I’ve met Dann and his wife Martha they’ve been super-cool people)

And Dann’s absolutely right. And he’s echoed by my friend Jamie, who is also quoted in the article: “Right now, it’s about what is shiny and new.” Which is true, but it’s also fucking bullshit and it’s why Koch is so pissed off. Here’s a quote from a friend of mine/fellow homebrewer/beer retailer on Facebook (emphasis is mine):

My biggest complaint with all of “you” (“you” being consumers) is that no one cares, at all, for beer that they can pull off the shelf every day. GI sits, unless it’s BCBS or a variant, Wormtown Hopulence, or MassWhole, or Sweet Tats sits for weeks, while Be Hoppy causes fist fights, even MBC isn’t immune: with Mo and Peeper and even Red Wheelbarrow becoming “shelf turds” because it isn’t Lunch, Nightshift started with a bang, now only Morph draws customers in. I see people in the store everyday who buy no beer, unless it’s tough to get. The “I’ve never had Founders, give me four 4-packs of KBS…” customers. I call them “beer poachers”, and they were created by the breweries, in conjunction with guys like me (beer sales), and their killing the industry.

Hipsters. I knew it was them! Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them!

My favorite (read: most infuriating) quote is this gem:

“Authenticity is extremely important to millennials, more so than any other generation that we’ve seen before,” says Michelle Snodgrass of Vizeum, a strategic marketing agency that works with global brands such as Anheuser-Busch. “Millennials can see right through insincerity, and they’re actually looking for it.”

BULLSHIT.

Authenticity might be important to millennials because they have absolutely none of it themselves. They may actually be looking for it, but they wouldn’t know what it was if it latched onto their balls like an angry wolverine. My generation, sadly, was raised on instant gratification, participation trophies, garbage food, mind-numbing media and a constant feedback loop that your opinion is totally relevant and important regardless of how little you actually fucking know about it. Millennials are leaving, breathing manifestations of Holden Caulfield that lack the sort of self-awareness to realize their own irony.

Stop giving power to these trolls. They know nothing, they do nothing, and pretty soon they won’t be able to buy your shit anymore when the trust fund runs out. The best part of Jamie’s quote from above is “Right now, it’s about what is shiny and new.” Right now. That’s the key insight here: all of this is temporary. That doesn’t make it any less annoying or infuriating when I’m stuck sitting next to five dude-bros at a bar who ordered a flight and can’t figure out which is the IPA and which is the stout but are still totally beer geeks, bro. It doesn’t make it any less annoying to see an eyeroll when I send a beer back for having an off-flavor that fuck you, yes I can detect, because I’m not so fuckhead 21-year-old from Emerson having his first brown ale.

Craft beer – including Sam Adams – is amazing, it’s everything else about the Craft Beer Movement™ that fucking sucks.

———————

Post-Script: I couldn’t fit it into the screed above but I want to just say that I think Tony Magee from Lagunitas is a pompous whiny douchebag and he’s an ungrateful shit.

EDIT: Hi, folks. So this got a lot more attention that I ever expected. Thanks to everyone who shared and commented. I appreciate all the discussion, opinions, feedback, and insults about my appearance (okay, less so on this one). I just wanted to drop a quick note to say I have to stop responding to all the comments because they’re coming in quicker than I can keep up. I will try to check in periodically to make sure they get posted/approved. Cheers.

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158 Comments

  1. I’m too old to be a hipster…I had a Sam Adams lager back about 15 years ago and never had it again, didn’t like it…I recently had the Rebel IPA and didn’t care for it…you can blame hipsters all you want but the truth is that there are tons better beers out there…and when I go to restaurants and bars with craft beer, I don’t just see hipsters, I see all kinds of people, young people and older like me…you can blame them all you want but that’s not really the truth…and if you want to talk prices, Sam Adams Utopias (I’ve never had it) is the most expensive beer I have EVER seen!

    1. Hi Dan,
      I think you’re missing my point. You may not like Boston Lager or Rebel IPA and that’s totally fine, but I don’t think you’d argue that they’re well-crafted beers (i.e. no flaws like diacetyl, DMS, etc). There’s a difference between “I don’t like this beer” and “this beer is mediocre,” the latter – in my view – is an indictment of the beer’s objective quality and not the commenter’s subjective taste. That’s what got me so riled up.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

    2. Boston Lager is the #1 selling craft beer in the world so rather you liked it or not is irrelevant to it being good and for the sake of your argument with the author.

    1. Night Shift was just the first local brewery that came to find that has flawed beers released to the public. And I am aware of Anti-Hero IPA, it’s very good. Thanks for reading/commenting.

      1. Everything I have had from Night Shift has been fantastic. I have never seen them release information that they released flawed brews to the public. They have however tossed out beer that wasn’t up to their standards. I’m sure most people would place them in the top 5 breweries in MA if you did a blind running taste test!

  2. To give Sam Adams the credit of pioneering the craft beer movement in America is a little to dramatic. What about Sierra Nevada, Stone, New blegium and Great lakes. All have expanded on a nattional spectrum and “are good at making money”. You’ll still find these brands on at these “hipster” bars. Im not a hipster and i love craft beer and i refuse to drink Sam Adams. Is it made well, of course but its left behind by the ever evolving market. This is not you dads craft beer sceen.

    1. Totally agree with the fact that you cant give Sam Adams the credit for the craft beer movement. You also cannot deny their influence on it. They are very much like Sierra in the fact that their big beers(Boston Lager or Sierra’s Pale Ale) are behind what people are looking for. They’ve been at it for a while and they cant modify their best sellers. Time will tell where they stand.

      1. Fritz Maytag would like to have a word with you. Anchor was craft beer decades before BBC was even an idea. The “literal history” as you put it is Anchor is the Godfather of the craft beer movement, not Boston Beer Company.

      2. Mike. Fritz Maytag used his family’s money to buy a failing brewery. He did not start it, and never turned a profit until well after Sam Adams started distributing. Also, it goes to show something that Jim Koch AND Ken Grossman kept majority shares in their companies while Fritz sold his.

  3. Good work I’m sick beer snobs with burned out taste buds trying to say what it good and all else sucks. They would drink hop extract mixed with rum and coke and call it the best beer on earth. Yes I’m a bit of a beer snob myself but I do know the difference between quality and a hop bomb fad.

  4. I see this constantly and it’s irritating. I’d be ok with it, if I thought the people that did it actually knew what they were talking about. I feel I can be a little more objective about the root of the topic because I don’t drink beer. I don’t like beer. I have no bias. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of hate for bothering to post but in reality the article isn’t even about beer. It’s about the perception of a brand. A lot of people that have shared their critique of the author’s critique I think are missing the point. The ones he’s talking about will degrade most things because they are (and I know I’m beating a dead horse with this term) mainstream.

    Sure, there are a few people out there that could sip a beer and tell small differences. If you can, these people should anger you too. I’ve got a few friends that will tell me to try these beers that I’ve never heard of (and trust me, that’s most of them) like I won’t just sip it, and tell them it tastes like beer… and it drives them nuts. They think they’re going to blow my mind because it’s new and it’s different. Those are the beer people that are frustrating. The ones that have a new favorite every week, and last week’s favorite is crap. The ones that have “untapped” on their phone and can’t wait to share their new find on Facebook so they look trendy. THOSE are hipsters… and those are the people that feel they need to save you from your terrible taste in yesterday’s favorites.

    Getting big and selling out are often associated for some reason. If the reason that you made it big in the first place is still just as good today, then a company should be celebrated for it, not shunned.

  5. So, I’m a hipster because I’m selective about what I purchase? Craft beer for me is a treat. I don’t buy a lot of shelf beers because I don’t want to consume it enmasse. No, I’m not going to call boston lager mediocre. I don’t like the taste hell, I don’t lagers. I’m not sure if you’re saying I have some kind of obligation to support the industry by drinking year round offers. I mean the market is flooded with so many new beers, in the Tampa Bay Area alone about 20 breweries popped up out of nowhere. Many more on the way. And yeah a lot of them suck, a lot of them also can and distribute. (Massive venture capital I guess) to be honest I’m gun shy. And that might be the point you’re trying to make. But blame the shitty brewers dumping garbage out there, making a cult of personality around the beers. Because we know they’re going to be good, there is nothing wrong with savouring decadence in a seasonal beer, (I mean I don’t even like the brewery’s beers that aren’t club beers..well tart of darkness.) In contrast to all the shit, the lack of good browns, lack of English styles, and headache inducing as sasions. Combine that with the well made, but meh macro crafty shit out there.

    1. Yeah, obviously you really know what you are talking about when it comes to Craft Beer, and you really pay attention to those special releases that can bring so much to the experience. You know how I can tell? You spelled the Brewery correctly.

      /SARCASM off
      It’s the Bruery, and whether you wrote Brewery as a mistake, or let your auto correct do what it wants, you just do not get it.

  6. This is an extremely interesting time we live in for beer. Yes Boston Beer Co. makes high quality products. However, as a beer buyer at a craft bar in Chicago I do not like putting their stuff on tap because it sits for months. I had their summer lager on draft and had to pull it because it went bad (sat for way too long on the line). Same goes for Boston lager.

    There is nothing wrong with these beers because they are made very well. Part of the problem is that I think they need to rebrand themselves. A lot of breweries are doing this and seeing better sales. What really gets me is that Jim Koch went about it in a way that was completely disrespectful, and downright childish.

    When I have brewmasters or owners come into my bar and see that none of their stuff is on tap or in bottles they don’t throw a temper tantrum. They pitch their product to me, they try to get an event set up where they can showcase their product, and they come in and sample it out to people and buy pints for people.

    BBC does this too but when your owner makes an ass of himself and treats my employees like shit it makes me (as a buyer/owner/manager etc.) never want to bring in their product ever again.

    That being said I have never had any of BBCs reps ever do that. They are wonderful people that know and love their brand and want people to learn more about their brand.

  7. I just want to say to so many of the hipsters, “come talk to me when your balls drop.” I am in my mid 30’s and I can remember when it was hard to fine anything but the major breweries in bars and liquor store. Sam Adams and a few other breweries were trailblazers. The reason why your over hop IPA is at your local liquor store is because of those people. I have always been a fan of Jim Koch’s business ethics. He helps out the little breweries. Look at what happened during the hop crisis.

  8. I think the point of saying “mediocre” is valid but not for insulting reasons.
    The entire issue I have with Jim is that he did absolutely blaze this trail we are on, but then he watched it drive right past him. His beer got me away from Miller Lite and opened my eyes. However, he did not continue to adapt to the very change he helped initiate. He desperately held on to his lager-only philosophy while the market began to demand different things. He only released Rebel IPA because he was forced to make an attempt. Even he admits he doesn’t like that beer.
    In its’ day, Boston Lager was a great and amazing beer. But the entire point of a revolution is to change and raise the bar. That bar has been raised and even in the lager category, I don’t find Boston Lager to be the best anymore. So yes….Boston Lager is (now) mediocre. 15 years ago, it was THE benchmark. Just as Miller High Life and Molson Golden used to be amazing beers…Because it was all there was and they were the best of what you had to choose from at the time.
    I’m sorry that Jim decided to dig in his heels on this. It just proves the industry has outgrown him.
    Oh and P.S., at 44, I’m no hipster.

  9. Just thought I would add my $.02 because I find this to be an intriguing issue. Personally, knowing absolutely nothing about owning a craft beer bar, I would probably not serve Sam Adams (at least not regularly) either. It has nothing to do with “respect” for Koch as a craft beer pioneer. Just the same as I wouldn’t serve any other craft beer just because of who the brewer/owner of the brewery is. I wouldn’t sell it because I don’t feel like they would sell very well. People don’t go to a craft beer bar to buy Sam Adams. And Sam Adams doesn’t really NEED to be sold in every establishment that sells beer. They are doing just fine business-wise and will continue to do just fine.

    The wonderful thing about craft beer is the variety. Personally I try to drink as many different beers as possible. A lot of beers have that “been there, done that” feel to them, and while Sam Adams makes some good or even great beers, I haven’t had any kind of urge to drink them repeatedly. But I can say the same thing for 80% of craft beer. I’ve drank through the (almost) entire lineup of dozens of breweries of all sizes and spent thousands of dollars on beer over the last 5 years. But I rarely revisit most of those that I’ve drank before, not because they aren’t good products, but because I only have so much money to spend on beer.

    I actually feel like Koch may be a bit out of touch with what today’s craft beer drinker is looking for. And I don’t say that in a disrespectful way. I think that is just the reality of the situation. So in your article you surmise that these beer bars serve beers because they will make an extra $3 over Sam Adams beers. Which I feel is the right idea, but not exactly correct. Yes they are serving the beers they serve because they know they will sell better than Sam Adams. Because that is what their customers want. And that makes more money than making $0 on a Sam Adams product when they never sell.

    1. i agree with this sentiment. I’ve had a ton of beers that I love, and I make note of them, but there is just too much out there now to settle. I won’t order a beer that I have tasted before if there’s another beer available that I haven’t. There is a lot of creativity in the craft beer market right now, maybe it’s the heyday. I’m not just talking about “this is the super-hoppiest beer you’ve ever had”. I don’t remember the names of most of the beers I’ve had over the past several years, and I don’t have to. There’s a zillion more waiting right around the corner. Maybe I try one and say, oh yeah, I think I had this one before. But there is NO reason to be loyal to any beer these days. From someone who lives abroad and only has the rare opportunity to get back to the states, I could never order a “big name” beer unless I had to.

  10. The topic might be better observed by looking outside of the beer industry. How many trend setting businesses have gone on to great fame only to eventually fail as others have come along and advanced their respective products or concepts. What made Steve Jobs special (and timeless) was his ability to constantly change and reinvent and always push limits rather than set limits and live within them. No industry stands still (ask GM and Ford) and those business owners that choose to rest upon their laurels eventually fade away. Industries and products are fluid. They constantly flow like rivers. They don’t slow down. They wait for no man. They simply continue to move along almost and perhaps endlessly. Mr. Koch was certainly a pioneer but maybe the better question would be is he STILL a pioneer? I guess he’ll decide his own future but future’s don’t reside in yesterday’s or even today’s so only time will tell. Regardless, the man has earned at least the respect of those that have walked the path he’s paved for all of us. It’s on the brewing community to carry and advance the torch and that includes the man who helped light the flame.

  11. I feel for the guy, but not all that much. $1B is a lot of money. He got his, now he can get out of the way.

    The craft beer movement entertains. It’s all peace and love until they stop stop taking big beer market and start taking each other’s. I wonder whether, when the dust settles here in NA, we won’t be able to look past the new new, the new old, and focus on the old old. I still don’t understand why such a small percentage of Belgians are for sale in the US. So many other genuinely good and authentic European beers, many of which have substantially more development behind them, are not for sale here. Just wait until they start peeing in the pool!

  12. stuck on the west coast and i fucking HATE this over-hopped dogpiss they call beer. every fucking one of these beers tastes the same: hops, hops, and hops. light lager? over-hopped. dark stout? over-hopped. summer ale? wheat ale? brown ale? hops hops hops hops hops hops hops. wtf ppl WHO THE FUCK THINKS THAT THIS IS WHAT BEER IS ALL ABOUT???

    god i miss new york.

  13. Couldn’t agree more. Well written. Sam Adams is a quality brewer and is still relevant in today’s craft culture. It’s too bad their successes are leading to their perceived “big beer” label. Quality is quality in my eyes.

  14. Love this line of discussion, it points up the newness of the beer culture in America; adorable efforts to find that “authenticity” you mentioned. I had a bar tender tell me yesterday that they “don’t have a lager, but they do have a pilsner”. Why, thank you for having something for me to drink that is by definition a beer stored at cold temperatures until drinkable. It is kind of the young, fast and pretty to lecture old fools like me who started drinking left over PBR’s at family parties in 1978. Every generation thinks it has invented booze, sex and cool, and the marketing vampires just fuel that.

    1. We do not think that we created beer or whatever you are trying to say. We just don’t want to loose what has been built up over the last say 20 years. No longer are the only beer available flavour free pilsner and lagers. We live in a time full of flavourful beer like IPA, Pale Ale, bock, wit, sour and so on. With AB-INBEV buying up breweries they will get rid of the variety slowly like they did back in the day when we lost everything but Macro Lager. I am a person that can not stand standard lagers and pilsners. If I want that little flavour I will drink water.

  15. Sam Adams Boston Lager is okay-good beer. I order it if I’m at Outback Steakhouse. I do not buy it in the store and I can’t remember the last time I had it anywhere else. I want a beer that tastes like citrus and pine cones. It’s just what I crave now. I brew with Summit, Apollo, Warrior, Columbus, Simcoe, Ahtanum and Cascade to chase that taste. In between I drink the best lager I’ve ever had, BeerLao. If you’ve never had it, you are missing out on the Best Asian Beer Ever Brewed, in my humble opinion. I am not a millennial, I’m a 40-year old who’s had a lot of beers. I agree with Victory Brewing Company when they say, “Hoppiness is Happiness”. It’s a very personal issue. My wife likes hops, but to an extent. I like them to an extreme. My friends brew wheat beers and clone lagers. And that’s okay. How about we all just agree that “good” is different to different people?

  16. Wow just wow can’t believe I just read that… Its brutality honest certain craft beers have gotten too big for their britches and I am not a hop bunny hipster fan I love me a nice hearty 10%+ abv stout all day but isn’t Sam Adams chasing that hipster bs with the new rebel raw?… Kinda ironic they are trying to create new heady topper clones to chase a market no?? That’s why I enjoy homebrews and much smaller Breweries like my boys at @blackpondbrew in CT or even the much bigger dogfish head they are constantly experimenting with styles and flavors. I loved brew master and even Sam Calagione’s that’s odd lets drink it web series I don’t want a beer I can get anywhere give me something different I haven’t tried before at any brewery… creativity is becoming stagnant as brewery’s like Sam Adams chase the next big trend

  17. I think your article is dead on correct. I’m a musician and its the same. All flash and no substance. People think crap music is great, just because it’s the new thing. BTW, IMO IPA sucks!

  18. I am a 30 year old, female, home-brewer. I used to cringe when Sam Adam’s was the “best” a bar had to offer; I’ve never liked their original Boston lager. However, once I got over myself, I realized I truly love many of their seasonals! BBC is not a mediocre brewer. I enjoy hops but there are so many other wonderful characteristics of beer to enjoy. Sam’s seasonals do a nice job of highlighting a multitude of different tastes. Go ahead and hate me hipsters…

  19. Stupid. Sounds like you either have no taste in beer, or are being very well compensated. Either way cheers from the other side.

  20. Hipsters don’t know fuck all about beer. If you don’t learn about beer from the source, i.e.: Europe, you don’t know fuck all about beer. None of these shite hipster mircobeers would even exist if Europeans hadn’t been brewing for literally HUNDREDS of years prior to some fedora, skinny jeaned cunt coming along and talking about breweries like they’re disposable. Anyone who knows ANYTHING about beer knows that a brewery that’s been around for a long time is a positive, not a negative. On that issue there’s no debate.

  21. When I’m putting my money on the counter at my local liquor, you can be damn sure that I’m not purchasing beer because of what anyone did to ‘pave the way.’ And Mr. Koch’s ego should seriously be put in check if he thinks he’s responsible for creating the conditions of the current craft beer market (independent of Anchor, Sierra, New Belgium? Please). But at its root the article penned by Boston mag is about the mediocrity of the product. Many craft beer consumers are perfectly contented with turning a blind eye to the ubiquity of big business. Bourbon County, Ballast Point, Firestone, Boulevard, Ommegang, Lagunitas are all funded by big money beer and are all still hugely popular because they don’t sell shit tasting beer. Sam Adams sells shit tasting beer. Period. If they sold beer that tasted less shit tasting I would consume it, but they don’t. A part of it is recipe, but mostly it is due to the fact that the market is saturated with beer. Most beers rely on freshness to retain their quality. If a brewery is producing more beer than the market can sustain, then it will inevitably sit on the shelf and lose its quality. Mr. Koch knows that, and yet their business decision to keep stale shit beer on the shelf remains. Consumers of craft beer are some of the most knowledgeable of any market, and Mr. Koch doesn’t have the ability to convince them that his beer tastes good by simply yelling at bar managers. If he wants my money he could start by making better tasting beer.

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