Jim Koch is holding court on the lower level of Samuel Adams’ new taproom in downtown Boston.
Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company, is his usual gregarious self and dressed in his typical every-day uniform: denim Samuel Adams button-down shirt and khakis. He’s loaded with quips, microphone in one hand, Boston Lager in the other.
The 14,000 sq. ft. Samuel Adams Taproom, which opens tonight, has been a couple of years in the offing, located about 20 yards from the statue of the beer brand’s namesake, a Founding Father and revolutionary. Historic ground, indeed, but also a bit of a cursed location for previous tenants.
“This space has basically been a suicide spot for restaurants,” Koch admitted to an audience that included Dogfish Head founders Sam and Mariah Calagione, a number of Massachusetts wholesalers, retailers, members of the media and Boston Beer employees, among others.
“When I first started Sam Adams, it was a Houlihan’s,” Koch continued. “They went broke. And then it was a Houston’s, and they went broke. Then it was a Hillstone, and they went broke. So this is kind of a graveyard that we built this on, but the city and our landlord, Oxford, was willing to rethink the space and open it up and develop space out onto the plaza … and make this a really cool space at the entrance to Faneuil Hall.”
Koch recalled a realtor telling him that 13 million people pass the tourist-heavy location daily.
“That’s not a great spot,” he said he told the realtor. “They’re walking by. So our job is to get maybe a million of those 13 million to stop in and have a beer, or maybe two, and then go to our many customers here in Faneuil Hall to have a real meal because I’m smart enough to know that I don’t want to run a restaurant.
“That’s hard work, and if there’s one thing I hate in life, it’s hard work,” he added. “I’d rather be the designated drinker here.”
Still, the location will offer pub food, including cheese boards, warm pretzels and flatbreads, as well as daily lunch offerings, such as a BLT, pastrami on rye and crispy chicken sandwich.
Despite the challenge of luring tourists and locals into the taproom, Koch said he considers the location the “right place” given the historical significance.
“When I started my brewery, my company, I named the beer after Sam Adams because I wanted to do what he did,” he said. “He started a political revolution and declared independence for the United States. I wanted to start a beer revolution and declare beer independence for the United States and teach American beer drinkers that small independent brewers like Sam Adams can make world class beers.”
Thirty-six years later, Koch said the U.S. is closing in on 10,000 craft breweries. Those brewers, many of which run their own taprooms, have taken a chunk out of the Samuel Adams beer brand in recent years, as Koch has outlined on several of the publicly traded company’s earnings calls.
In fact, Boston Beer — which also makes the Truly Hard Seltzer, Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard Cider products — produced more of its non-traditional beer offerings than beer in 2019.
According to market research firm IRI, dollar sales of Samuel Adams Boston Lager declined 7.9% in 2019. Nevertheless, Boston Beer, driven by sales growth of hard tea and seltzer, was the top-selling craft beverage maker and the sixth-largest beer company overall in 2019. Boston Beer’s off-premise dollar sales increased 25%, to nearly $1.3 billion.
For Boston Beer, the Samuel Adams taproom represents a multi-million dollar project. In an interview interview with Brewbound, Koch declined to put a number on the project but said it was “a lot.”
“This was a very expensive site to realize our vision,” he said, explaining the company had to conform to building in a historic space, while trying to build a modern building capable of accommodating a working 4.25-barrel brewhouse.
“If you were halfway sane, you would find an easier spot,” he said.
Indeed, the taproom features three floors, and a rooftop patio. Megan Parisi is serving as head brewer, kicking innovation beers that Koch said could eventually be scaled up if they prove popular within the taproom.
Of the 20 draft lines, 12 will be dedicated to beers brewed onsite, which currently include a “House” New England IPA and a “Moscow Mule” beer.
Although Boston Beer merged with Dogfish Head nearly nine months ago, the Milton, Delaware-based craft brewery’s offerings won’t be sold at the Samuel Adams taproom.
“People are going to come here for Sam Adams, as they should, and we’re going to give them Sam Adams,” Koch said.
The taproom, however, will serve Truly on tap in order to give drinkers a gluten-free option, Koch said.
However, that’s the cutoff. One thing the taproom will take from Dogfish Head is its “Beer Exploration Journal,” which seeks consumer feedback through iPads.
“If someone gets a flight, you can give them the iPad and they can evaluate the beer and make comments on them,” Koch said. “We’re going to use their innovation to get drinker feedback.”
Koch chalked the feedback system as another benefit of the two companies merging last year.
“Those things are starting to materialize,” he said. “We’re learning from him [Sam Calagione], he’s learning from us.”
As for the taproom, Koch, who earlier in the evening claimed he stepped foot inside the taproom for the first time Thursday evening, staying away throughout the entire two-year construction process, sees it as “a statement.”
“This was to make a statement and to have Sam Adams’ presence here in this spot where it’s the closest spot to Sam Adams the patriot, the founding father, the revolutionary, the brewer,” he said. “He was a real person who walked on this site and helped organize a revolution here. That part gives me tingles.”