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Craft Brewer Goes to Extremes

Jim Koch, founder of brewer Samuel Adams, has made a bottle of beer that consumers will age in their wine racks. At least, that's the plan. Sam Adams Utopias 2005, which boasts 25 percent alcohol content by volume versus the usual 4 percent or 5 percent, is the fourth manifestation of his extreme beer quest -- the first three being Triple Bock (1994), Millennium Ale (2000) and Utopias MMII (2002) -- and could possibly be the beginnings of a new category within alcoholic beverages known as “extreme beer.”

Targeting the niche makes sense. While overall beer consumption is flat and discounts proliferate in the face of wine and spirits growth, specialty brew shipments increased 7.2 percent last year and Boston Beer's first quarter volume was up 6.5 percent. Koch, nearing the end of a 10-city tour of hosting dinner parties to talk up Utopias while pairing Sam Adams brews with appetizers, salads and entrees, discussed the strategy with Mike Beirne, senior reporter for Brandweek, a sister publication to Convenience Store News, also published by VNU Business Media.

Brandweek: So have you created a new category within beer? I've heard it called “extreme beer.” What is it?

Jim Koch: It's kind of like when Columbus discovered the new world and took another 100 years to name it. It didn't become America for another century. Something like Utopias is very much like a voyage of discovery into an uncharted area of alcoholic beverages. The concept behind that beginning, which is now 12 years ago, was . . . the craft beer revolution has largely been about reviving and bringing to the United States classic styles of beer, most of which were developed elsewhere. As an American brewer I felt it was my turn to step up and create wonderful styles of beer here in the United States. So in a sense, I started calling it extreme beer and people have picked up on that.

BW: Did you hope Utopias will make more people discover Sam Adams?

JK: My objective was bigger. I wanted to prove that beer had all the quality and dignity and wonderfulness of any alcoholic beverage. That I could make a beer that would compare favorably to any alcoholic beverage ever made. That is just widely insane, which is why we do it as a blind tasting. It has to be done blind or else people bring in their prejudice against beer. The idea that there is a beer out there that is as good as the best port or the best cognac or the best sherry ever made is stunning to people until they taste it. And even then they say this can't be beer. I say “Hey dude, we made it in a brewery, in a brew kettle, and with our brewing ingredients. It's beer.”

BW: Has the beer category become boring?

JK: I don't think so. I don't think beer is boring. In fact beer -- at least the part of the industry that Sam Adams is in -- is the most exciting thing in alcoholic beverages today. The Utopias is a great example. Here's this little brewery that is making the strongest fermented beverage in human history (25 percent alcohol) and putting it alongside great sherries, cognacs and ports in blind taste tests and winning. That's pretty cool. In liquor there's not that level of creativity. People are not inventing new forms of liquor unless you consider making vodka that tastes like Jolly Ranchers to be an entirely new form of liquor.

BW: But those flavors are catching on with 21- to 27-year-olds. In terms of innovation, the “Jolly Rancher” flavors have captured the imaginations of (that age group) while beer hasn't, with the exception of some specialty brewers.

JK: That's really my point, the brewers like us who are making really wonderful unique beers are attracting the 21 to 27s as well. To me, beer is very exciting because there are a lot of things you can do with beer. At the beginning of the year we released Sam Adams Chocolate Bock. We sold all of it. It was $15 a bottle, and people loved it. To me that is what is very cool about beer as a brewer. I can create wonderful flavors within the traditions of the brewer's art. I can bring wonderful flavors without having to junk stuff up. I'm sure we can make watermelon or green apple-flavored beer, but I'm not that interested in it.

BW: There's a notion that 21-27 year olds wouldn't appreciate more expensive and flavorful craft beer until they're older. Is that a myth?

JK: Absolutely. For us, our entry consumer is 23 to 29. Someone who is a beginner is not going to start with Sam Adams. You've got to practice with other beers before you're ready for Sam Adams. The 23 to 29 year olds have shown that they are interested in drinking things with quality, flavor and interesting taste and that doesn't have to be green apple and watermelon.

BW: Will craft brewers such as yourself be the salvation of the beer category in terms of competing against wine and spirits?

JK: I would say that craft beers share many traits with wine and spirits such as more flavor, more variety, more perceived quality and image, higher price, authenticity and a heritage. Sam Adams is small; we're a half a percent market share. I don't think Sam Adams can be the salvation of the beer category but the values and image that we can add to the overall beer category can make a difference. Our volume won't. But the statements we can make about the quality and excitement about beer can help the whole category.

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