The Brewer's SonWhen I was a teenager, my dad did everything he could to dissuade me from becoming a brewer. He'd spent his life brewing beer for local breweries, barely making a living, as had his father and grandfather before him. He didn't want me anywhere near a vat of beer.
In my second year of grad school, I had something of an epiphany I've never done anything but go to school. I thought, and I'm getting pressured to make a career choice for the rest of my life. That's stupid. The future was closing in on me a lot earlier than I wanted.
I packed my stuff into a U-Haul and headed to Colorado to become an instructor at Outward Bound, the wilderness-education program. The job was a good fit for me. Heavily into mountaineering and rock climbing, I lived and climbed everywhere, from crags outside Seattle to volcanoes in Mexico.
I never regretted taking time to "find myself". I think we'd all be a lot better off if we could take off five years in our 20s to decide what we want to do for the rest of our lives. Otherwise we're going to be making other people's choices, not our own.
After three and a half years with Outward Bound, I was ready to go hack to school. I finished Harvard and got a highly paid job at the Boston Consulting Group. a think tank and business-consulting firm. Still, after working there five years, I was haunted by doubt. Is this what I want to be doing when I'm 50?
I remembered that some time before, my dad had been cleaning out the attic and came across some old beer recipes on scraps of yellow paper. "Today's beer is basically water that can hold a head," he'd told me.
I agreed. If you didn't like the mass-produced American stuff, the other choices were imports that were often stale. Americans pay good money for inferior beer, I thought. Why not make good beer for Americans right here in America?
I decided to quit my job to become a brewer. When I told Dad, I was hoping he'd put his arm around me and get misty about reviving tradition. Instead he said, "Jim, that is the dumbest thing I've ever heard!"
As much as Dad objected, in the end he supported me: he became my new company's first investor, coughing up $40,000 when I opened the Boston Beer Company in 1984. I plunked down $ 100,000 of my savings and raised another $ 100,000 from friends and relatives. Going from my fancy office to being a brewer was like mountain climbing: exhilarating, liberating and frightening. All my safety nets were gone.
Once the beer was made, I faced my biggest hurdle yet: getting it into beer drinkers' hands. Distributors all said the same thing: "Your beer is too expensive; no one has ever heard of you." So I figured I had to create a new category: the craft-brewed American beer. I needed a name that was recognizable and elegant, so I called my beer Samuel Adams, after the brewer and patriot who helped to instigate the Boston Tea Party.
Most bartenders thought I was from the IRS. But once I opened the briefcase, they paid attention. After I told the first guy my story--how I wanted to start this little brewery in Boston with my dad's family recipe--he said, "Kid, I liked your story. But I didn't think the beer would be this good." What a great moment.
Six weeks later, at the Great American Beer Festival, Sam Adams Boston Lager won the top prize for American beer. The rest is history. It wasn't supposed to work out this way--what ever does? --but in the end I was destined to be a brewer.