Jim Koch: Inside Brewing Innovation

Jim Koch, Founder, Boston Beer Company (photo credit: Mike Johnson)

When asked to explain the secret to craft brewing innovation, Jim Koch, head of the country’s largest craft brewery, had a rather simple response at yesterday’s Brewbound Session, held in Boston.

“I get bored easily,” he said.

Beer in hand — despite the early hour — Koch, the founder and chairman of Boston Beer Company, gave the opening address to the conference, which focuses on the business issues faced by craft brewers. He discussed the humble beginnings of the Samuel Adams brand and a creative process that, over the years, has helped the company grow to around 2.5 million barrels of production annually.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that companies don’t innovate,” he said. “Only people innovate.”

And throughout Boston Beer’s 29-year history, Koch has certainly displayed an affinity for innovation, the accounts of which weren’t lost on Brewbound Session audience members. Koch told the story of how Samuel Adams Double Bock, which featured a half pound of malt per bottle, was born.

“It’s like jamming a loaf of bread into a bottle of beer,” he joked.

Koch said his real epiphany came from studying how Champagne was invented.

“It didn’t exist when God made dirt and rocks and trees,” he said. “It was the creation of human imagination.”

In an effort to scratch the itch of his own imagination, Koch created Samuel Adams Triple Bock, the first “extreme” craft beer to exceed 14 percent ABV. Close watchers of the craft brewing industry often cite other extreme Samuel Adams offerings like Utopias (the 2012 version exceeded 28 percent ABV) or Infinium, the champagne-inspired collaboration with Germany’s Weihenstephan Brewery, as examples of the company’s outside-the-box thinking.

Koch explained that true innovation comes from those with a desire to explore the unknown.

“To me, it has to come from the same place that the entire craft brewing movement comes from.”

That place — one of passion, curiosity and pride — is what Koch believes will push craft brewers to continue innovating as their businesses expand.

“In 12,000 years, there has never been so much creativity, innovation, new styles of beer and new brewing techniques,” he said. “It has never happened before and will not happen again.”

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