I’ve always been a little snarky about the Boston Beer Company. Not the beer. I like a lot of what they make — Latitude 48, Noble Pils and the venerable Boston Lager — are go-to favorites. I don’t have a lot of patience for people who turn their noses up at Sam Adams beers because they’ve had the temerity to actually become a successful business. Then again I’ve been accused of appreciating the machine more than the craft. Whatever. Or, more precisely, bite me.
My snarkiness about the company has been its relationship to the city of Boston, especially with respect to the brewery they operate there. (I guess I ought to say “operate here” because I’m writing this from the annual Beer Blogger’s Conference that’s in Boston this year.) I know Jim Koch was living and working in Boston when he started the company and, in the mid-1980’s, it was a heck of a lot easier marketing a national beer brand that tied into the history of Boston and the American Revolution than Cincinnati (his home town) or St. Louis (where his grandfather developed the original recipe for what’s now Boston Lager). I get that. On the other hand, the first brewery the Boston Beer Company ever actually owned was the former Hudepohl-Schoenling plant on Central Parkway. There was a time that 60% of all Sam Adams beer was brewed there. They’ve since purchased a second brewery in Breinigsville, PA in the Lehigh Valley area and it’s my understanding that they don’t contract brew anymore (and that the proportion of production in Cincinnati has dropped to a more sustainable level — one that allows for things like maintenance. And staff being able to sleep).
But then there’s the brewery in Boston. The only one you can actually tour. The only one you see in commercials. And the one you’re least likely to drink a beer from. What’s the deal? I’ve always thought of it as the Potemkin Village Brewery. Fair or not, that’s what I’ve thought about it.
Last Friday night we loaded up on busses and trooped out to actually see the the brewery. Jim Koch was our host. That’s always a good thing. If you ever have the chance to meet him or hear him speak, jump at the chance. He’s actually as nice and as genuine in person as he is in the commercials. When you’re talking to him, you’re seemingly the only person in the room as far as he’s concerned. So I was looking forward to going out there just to see him speak again. He told stories. He immediately said “Go Reds” when Carla asked him a question1 and introduced herself as being from Cincinnati. It was a classic Jim Koch performance. What struck me, though, and what’s stuck with me through the weekend is how he talked about the brewery in Boston.
The bottom line — and it’s quite publicly stated — is that the Boston brewery is the pilot research and development brewery for the company. The main brewhouse has just been expanded recently so it’s possible to brew multiple batches simultaneously. There were several mash tuns and brew kettles and 10 or so 25-bbl fermenters. There’s a lot of open floor space because the place is definitely set up to be a place where tours track through.
There’s a nano-brewery that operates in another building on the premises, but I’m not really sure what’s that for. We didn’t see it. There’s certainly not a bottling or canning line in sight in the main brewhouse, so I suspect the nano is used for short runs and more research work on scaling up a recipe to full production status.
As I said, Jim Koch told us a bunch of stories about the brewery and the challenges they faced in the early days. Today the surrounding neighborhood looks pretty solidly working class and well-kept. Apparently that wasn’t always the case. He told the story of how they used to leave a case of beer in the back of a truck and let the local street gang know that it would be a big disappointment if it was still there in the morning. It never was, But they never had any issues with the gang or anyone else.
The thing I learned that I absolutely wasn’t expecting to hear is that the Boston Beer Company doesn’t actually own the building they’re in. They rent the space from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC). They’re only one tenant in a small business complex that operates under the name “The Brewery.” And the name doesn’t refer to the Boston Beer Company, either. It turns out the building was built by the Haffenreffer Brewery starting in 1871. It shut down in the mid-1960s and the building was largely abandoned until the early 1980s when it was bought by the JPNDC after years of fundraising and planning. Boston Beer became a tenant in 1985 and has been there ever since. The goal of the project was to bring back as many of the 250 some-odd jobs the old brewery brought to the neighborhood, and it appears to be successful. The complex is a nice mix of restaurants and retail shops. And this brewer you might have heard of.
So when it comes to the Sam Adams brewery in Boston I think I’m out of the snark business. The beer you buy in the store may not have been brewed there, but it was born there. And the roots they have in the neighborhood are deep and real. It’s all the things a local business is supposed to be.
1Carla asked Jim Koch about the possibility of a tap room and brewery tours at the brewery in Cincinnati. He didn’t dismiss the idea, but it didn’t sound like it’s something that’s really on the radar.