When Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Co.—producer of the Samuel Adams brand—dropped in on Philly Beer Week last Wednesday, it wasn’t as much a visit as it was a homecoming. See, the roots of Samuel Adams’ success are almost as interwoven with Southeastern Pennsylvania as they are with Boston. Most of their brewing operations are located in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and the Breinigsville brewery in the Lehigh Valley is their largest overall. Koch has history with Philadelphia, too, saying the city has “been an important home for us since the beginning.”
These days, of course, Philly’s beer scene is among the best in the nation, swimming with taprooms, alehouses and brewpubs. But 25 years ago, before we’d yet become such a craft-beer mecca, there was the Sam Adams Brewhouse. Located above the Oyster House on Sansom Street, the then-novel brewpub made history when it opened in 1989; as Koch recalls, it was “the first brewery to open in Philadelphia since Prohibition.” There, Sam Adams produced beers like Ben Franklin’s Golden Ale and Poor Richard’s Amber Ale. The Brewhouse is long gone—the Nodding Head Brewery now operates in the same location—but Philly’s status as a beer town began to grow over the years.
One result has been Philly Beer Week. This year, Koch found himself scrambling to meet with local distributors, attend beer brunches at Khyber Pass (complete with Blueberry Hill Lager pancakes), bounce over to a cookout at the Bishop’s Collar and make a half-dozen other stops during his whirlwind stay in town. Even for the nation’s largest craft brewer, the event is no small thing. “Philly Beer Week, I think—and someone can correct me on this if I’m wrong—was the first really significant [city] beer week,” Koch says. “Now we have a multitude of them. It’s a testament to the beer community of Philly how quickly it has grown.”
The Sam Adams founder doesn’t take credit for kickstarting the modern beer scene in Philly—he says it’s people like Carol Stoudt, the pioneering brewer who founded the Adamstown-based Stoudt’s in 1987 with her husband, Ed, who are the area’s true elder statesmen (or stateswomen, as it were, which makes Stoudt a pioneer in more way than one)—but he’s certainly honored to be part of the city’s recent beer history.
Yet Koch wasn’t in town merely for the Philly Beer Week festivities. He also came to talk about Brewing the American Dream, a microloan program that seeks to help those entering the food, beverage and hospitality businesses get on their feet—including other brewers. Wait, he’s lending a hand to future competitors? “It’s very counterintuitive,” he admits. “Here I am helping a guy compete with some of our products, but, two things: First of all, I enjoy it. I remember having to fight through difficulties, and it’s fun being able to help small businesses succeed. Second, it’s part of what it means to me to be a craft brewer. You’re part of a community. You help each other out.”
Launched in 2008 and only just now gaining traction (“We started small and ramped it up as it succeeded”), the program has helped an array of artisanal eateries, beverage makers and brewers start down the road to success. The company’s Breinigsville brewery has even hosted business seminars on-site. The idea, Koch says, is to help startups navigate the difficult waters he had to navigate almost three decades ago: “I’ve been doing this 29 years. I don’t have anything to prove. I just want to enjoy my job.” And if that means helping other brewers make headway into the market? So be it. “It’s much more satisfying to be in a business where you like one another. I believe it’s a better business model.”