In TV commercials for Sam Adams beer, Jim Koch is always smiling or laughing. While Koch (pronounced “Cook”) was walking me around the Sam Adams headquarters, on the site of a restored 19th-century brewery in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, tourists kept stopping to wave at him, crowd around him for pictures, and shake his hand. “Enjoy your beer! Thanks for coming!” he called, more sunny-seeming than most politicians working a crowd. In ads, he is usually shown holding a beer or happily licking foam from his lips, and generally looks as if he has been sampling his products all day—which he told me recently he does. Early this year he told Esquire that by swallowing a teaspoon of yeast before each drink, he cut the impact of its alcohol by half. “It works!” he told me, with an excursion into the details of yeast’s metabolism, which he said allows it to break down some of the same alcohol that other yeast has produced. “But I do it only so often, because frankly I don’t mind the alcohol.”
Beneath this boozily disarming presentation is one of the most cannily successful entrepreneurs of our time. When Koch graduated from Harvard College, in 1971, there were barely 150 breweries, large or small, in America. By 1984, when he started the Boston Beer Company with Rhonda Kallman, consolidation had eliminated all but 100. Now the number of small breweries is just over 3,000, with permits on file for 1,500 more. As my wife and I have visited cities for our American Futures reports on economic turnarounds, we’ve come to take the presence of craft brewers—and their more hip counterparts, craft distillers—as important markers of cities that are attracting the young and ambitious. A town with a craft brewery has a sense of the “local,” plus entrepreneurs who start the businesses, plus mainly young customers who spend time and money there.