“You guys have great palates.”
This phrase is a totally normal compliment to hear in the beer-judging world, but it becomes pretty flattering when it comes from Jim Koch, Co-Founder of Samuel Adams Brewing Company, who was the guest of honor at the 8th Annual Binny’s Homebrew Competition.
On Thursday, August 27th, I was invited to attend the final judging session and subsequent awards ceremony for this competition, held at the Binny’s Lincoln Park location, in their beautiful, expansive tasting room.
As I observed the judges’ panel hard at work selecting the top 4 brews, Mr. Koch approached his judging role with incredible focus, passion, and glee. He closely studied the color and clarity of each 3-oz pour, even switching on his iPhone’s flashlight to reveal that a particular brew had some particulate haze. He squeezed his eyes tight, cupping his hands over the top of the tiny glass and took a huge sniff, filling his practiced nasal cavities with myriad smells and sensations. Continuously note-taking, his expressive face constantly changing, he finally sipped the beer, vigorously swishing and swashing it around in his mouth. He swallowed and took another sip. “Hmm.”
As the judges each shared their final thoughts and tallied up the votes for number one, Koch thanked them all for being on the panel and complimented their judging skills. They’d chosen a winner.
Koch started the Boston Beer Company in 1984, just six years after homebrewing was made federally legal in the United States. According to Beer Advocate, at that time the top six breweries were Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Heilemen, Stroh, Coors, and Pabst, controlling 92% of U.S. beer production. As Koch put it, though “some people called it microbrew,” there wasn’t really an official word to describe his category–craft beer as a concept was just beginning.
Fast forward to 2015, and the craft beer market is exploding, especially in the Chicagoland area. Not to mention the homebrewing scene–in this particular competition, hundreds of entrants showed up to submit their brews, but the contest had to be capped at 75 people, 17 of which made it to the final round.
As successful as Sam Adams has become (Jim Koch is on the Forbes list of billionaires), its founder is still very conscious of the community of homebrewing from which he emerged. As Koch addressed the crowd, he described the American Homebrewers Association gatherings as “one of the first…the only events where we were accepted and understood,” and that “craft brewing was the tree, but the roots are in homebrewing.”
During the event, Sam Adams also provided complimentary “speed-coaching” sessions though their Brewing the American Dream program, which seeks to provide the two things that Jim Koch himself wishes he had when he first started in the industry: 1) Access to loan money, and 2) “Good, sound, nuts and bolts business advice,” as Koch put it. Discussing the origins of the program, Koch explained that no one would loan him money because “they thought this idea of Samuel Adams was crazy,” and despite being, in his own words, “the most hyper-educated human being schlepping beer from bar to bar,” he just didn’t know how to start a business. He had to learn on the fly and made a lot of mistakes. Koch seemed very proud when he spoke of this service. He thoughtfully reflected that the Brewing the American Dream program came “out of our belief that we all as brewers owe something to the community that sustains us […] and as brewers we are privileged to do this art and profession that we all value.” I was truly impressed by Mr. Koch’s ability to stay grounded despite his incredible success.
A little after 7pm, Jim Koch donned his navy sport coat for the event finale, and announced the winners:
Best Label Design: Rochelle Steder’s “Leg Day”
4th Place: Larry Gualano’s American Pale Ale
3rd Place: Ken Kaczmarek’s Dortmunder Lager
2nd Place: Michael Pastore’s Russian Imperial Stout
1st Place: Jon Weaver’s Kolsch
Koch described the winning brew as a “subtle, delicate style of beer and [Weaver] just nailed it. It was immaculate and true to style.” For his efforts, Weaver won two well-deserved tickets to the Great American Beer Festival. Koch went on to say that Weaver’s beer proved that there was “no real line between a talented homebrewer and a professional brewer.” He turned to Weaver, “The beer you made–you could put that in the GABF and it would be at the top of the list.”
Towards the end of the evening, I was able to chat with the man himself. We discussed the contest entries and how impressively clean he thought they all were. We talked about home brewing hits and misses, Koch sharing a recent anecdote about an experimental brew that he and his daughter attempted, resulting in a less-than-pleasing solventy beverage resembling fluorescent orange nail polish remover. I even asked him about his infamous practice of ingesting brewer’s yeast to stay sober during a brewing competition and he let me in on a little secret; no, ingesting yeast doesn’t give you bready burps, but you might end up with some “pretty evil farts.”
Photo on left taken by Hilary Jurniak
I will admit that, before meeting him, I was incredibly intimidated by the prospect of talking to Jim Koch. He’s a hugely successful man, one of the O.G.’s of craft brewing in this country, and he went to Harvard. However, those fears were immediately erased when I was introduced to this friendly, down-to-earth class act. He was happy to talk to me, and graciously answered all my questions with a smile on his face and a pint of Boston Lager in his hand. I truly enjoyed meeting Mr. Koch; it’s an experience I won’t ever forget.