Sam Adams Brewing Legend Shares 5 Keys to Entrepreneurial Success

By Dave Hendrick

In the early 1980s, American beer tended to mean one thing: a mass-produced, fizzy, yellow, bland and refreshing beverage. The term “craft brew” didn’t exist, and the number of breweries not owned by corporate giants could be counted on two hands with fingers leftover.

In 2019, more than 8,000 breweries operate in the United States, and U.S. beer comes in an endless assortment of iterations.

One of the handful of individuals responsible for the craft beer revolution, Boston Beer Co. Chairman and Co-founder Jim Koch, spoke at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in late March at an event hosted by the Darden School of Brew, discussing how the upstart brewery carved out a new category in the beverage industry and lessons learned along the way.

The son of a brew master and the sixth generation oldest son in a row to make beer, Koch, sipping a Sam Adams Boston Lager as he spoke, said his pre-brewing days involved a detour to Harvard, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree, a law degree and an MBA. After Harvard — including a stint teaching Outward Bound courses — Koch worked at The Boston Consulting Group for six years, but the prospect of going into the family business continued to gnaw at him.

“It was a great experience, but I was not really learning and growing,” Koch said of his time as a consultant.

Koch quit his job, took $100,000 in savings and raised another $140,000 and brewed his first batch of Boston Lager. He then went bar to bar in Boston asking people to try it, he said.

A few months after debuting at a handful of bars and restaurants, Sam Adams Boston Lager was named the “Best Beer in America” at the 1985 Great American Beer Festival, and the company never looked back, Koch said.

The beer visionary shared five lessons he learned along the way:

  • If you plan to launch a venture, pick something that makes you happy, because the chances it will make you rich are negligible. “Starting the company wasn’t intended to make me rich,” Koch said. “It was intended to make me happy.”
  • Find a partner. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely rollercoaster, the chairman said. “You’ll split the upside, but it will be a much more enjoyable experience,” Koch said.
  • You have a viable business under one of two conditions: either your product is better or cheaper. “If it’s not one of those things, you don’t have a viable business,” Koch said.
  • Know the difference between scary and dangerous. Many business decisions may seem scary, but they aren’t dangerous, Koch said. Quitting his job at BCG was scary, but for a man with three degrees and the drive to work hard, it really wasn’t dangerous. “None of you are going to starve to death,” said Koch. “You are all in a position to do scary things.”
  • Hire for talent, not resumes. Koch’s co-founder was a 23-year-old secretary who bartended at night. By the time she left the company, she had 210 people working under her. “Hiring her was my first personnel decision and was the best decision I ever made,” Koch said. “She proved her worth by what she accomplished.”

In addition to hosting events and classes, the Darden School of Brew has brewed a number of beers that were available on tap at Charlottesville’s Three Notch’d Brewing Company during the 2018–19 academic year. The club’s latest release, “Kolsch Call,” will soon be available in Charlottesville-area stores in cans.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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