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Curated Conversation

The Business of Brewing According to Jim Koch

February 24, 2020

The best advice Jim Koch, founder of Sam Adams brewery, ever received? "Do something that will make you happy. Don’t try to get rich."

That is precisely what this Harvard graduate turned brewmaster did. During February's Curated Conversation, Jim sat down with Manifest Boston Co-founder and Managing Director of The Boston Globe Linda Henry for a lively conversation about starting his own business back in the days when entrepreneurship was a rarity. 

With a Boston Lager in hand, Jim shared stories and insights that we've summed up into a few key ideas:

Follow your passions, even if other people tell you you're nuts. Beer-making runs in the Koch family, but when Jim told his dad he was quitting his high-paying, stable job with Boston Consulting Group to start a brewery, he told Jim it sounded like "the dumbest thing he'd ever heard." That didn't stop Jim. He took his great-great-grandfather’s recipe out of the attic and turned his love for beer into a revolutionary brewery that completely changed the beer industry. Looking back on his choice, there’s nothing Jim would change.

“Boston is an amazing place to do business.” Jim’s words, not ours. While Jim grew up in Ohio, he came of age here while attending Harvard. According to Jim, people in Boston are motivated and productive — plus they care about making a difference. They have high expectations for themselves and others, and intelligence and energy are valued, so it's OK to be smart here.

Choose a business partner who has skills you lack. When Jim chose his co-founder, he didn't turn to one of the executives he knew from Boston Consulting Group or Harvard. He chose a 23-year-old with little business experience: his secretary, Rhonda Kallman. She had skills he didn't — she was good with people, and bars were her "natural habitat," since she was a bartender on the side. "Nobody else at BCG could’ve done what she did for Boston Beer Company," Jim said. Today, Rhonda's the head of her own beverage venture: Boston Harbor Distillery in Dorchester.

Your competitors can be colleagues. The craft brewing community is tight-knit, with about 12% of the overall beer market. Because of that, craft brewers succeed together or not at all. Recognizing this, Jim and Sam Adams opened up their inventory to craft brewers during a hop shortage to share their hops with around 300 breweries that otherwise couldn’t stay in business. They later started Brewing the American Dream, a philanthropic program that helps people pursue their passions by providing loan money and advice for young entrepreneurs.

Brewing is filled with opportunities. There’s room for innovation in beer, with plenty of ingredients and process modifications. Being a winemaker “...is like only having the missionary position,” said Jim. “Brewers can have the Kama Sutra.” (Once again, Jim's words. Not ours.)

You can watch a video of the full interview on Boston.com.

Some highlights from our community:

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