Liking Sam Adams’ Beer is Now a Political Act


“No thanks, I like my IPAs good…”

It was a comment left by my brother (mostly serious, partially in jest) on a recent photo I posted on Instagram showcasing Sam Adams’ Rebel Raw IPA. He gives me crap (jokingly) about my affinity for breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, but he also lives in something of a beer Mecca in Seattle, Washington.

But he wasn’t the only one to tease, as I got some pushback on Facebook, too.

And there was this on Reddit:

reddit comments

I know the conversation based around the question “is Sam Adams ‘craft'” gets people all kinds of wound up, but more than ever, the assertion that Boston Beer’s flagship brands should even be relevant just feels a bit too much. Even if it’s an argument spurred by beer lovers deep in the trenches of nerdom, having to justify an appreciation for one of the iconic breweries in the country makes the situation just a little too … political.

Fittingly, all this comes to mind during a presidential election season that has ramped up the rhetoric about who is “good” or “bad.” As Donald Trump runs away as the presumptive Republican nominee, attention moves to the still-contested Democratic race, where in the last week I read about “The Stigma of Openly Supporting Hillary Clinton” or what happened during a crazy Democratic convention in Nevada. Groups of people, all hypothetically under the same umbrella, are ganging up on each other with some pretty nasty stuff.

As the most enthusiastic supporters of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton continue to share their views through the primary election season, there’s a parallel for these Sam Adams shenanigans. The most enthused beer lovers seem to be so sure that not only is liking Sam Adams’ beer not an option these days (“surely there are better *local* choices!”) but the act of enjoying or openly supporting the Sam Adams brand may be wrong.

Just ask Eno Sarris. Back in 2014, he posed the question “Is Sam Adams Too Big for Craft Beer?” Generally speaking, people were not enthused with where Sam Adams was going.

sam adams bay area

In the piece, Eno points to an exchange with Lagunitas’ Tony Magee (who has since sold half his company to Heineken):

Sam Adams has “so little to do with what beer is doing today.” In other words, Sam Adams may have once been craft, but its size and lack of innovation mean it can no longer qualify.

As you can guess, and tell from the above image, the comments on the story weren’t very kind to Sam Adams. Eno noted that feedback on his piece mostly fell into two factions:

  1. Sam Adams isn’t craft because the commenter/drinker didn’t like the beer and believed Sam Adams isn’t innovative.
  2. Sam Adams wasn’t getting enough credit for being innovative at their brew pub and/or being one of the original, iconic brands of craft.

“I don’t really consider Sam craft because of how they act, and the beers they brew, but it’s almost irrelevant,” Eno told me. “I guess I’d just say I don’t drink much Sam Adams — maybe they’re craft, maybe not.”

lack of passion

To me, it seems three questions are worth asking:

  1. When did this kind of hatred start for Sam Adams?
  2. Is the anger/shade based solely on the idea that not being “craft” – a subjective term to itself for every drinker – is a death kneel?
  3. Do people honestly believe that brewers get into the industry to get paid in passion? Or is a feeling toward “craft” based on the impression these businesses should just scrape by financially?

For several reasons, Gabe Bellegard Bastos is not a fan of Sam Adams, so when I asked the Boston-based beer bartender when we might pinpoint these negative feelings, he offered this response:

Not coincidentally, he agreed with me the timeline points to spring 2014, when Sam Adams launched Rebel IPA, which would become the highest-selling craft beer debut in history, selling $21.1 million worth of product. It’s also just months before Eno Sarris’ piece came out asking about Sam Adams’ legitimacy as a “craft” brewer.

Perhaps it was this moment in time, when Boston Beer and Jim Koch started playing catch up, that this schism really took hold. Since that time, The parent company of Sam Adams has focused hard on cider and flavored malt beverages as its flagship beer brand has continued to tread water. The market forces impacting Boston Beer’s decisions with Sam Adams and its other brands may be giving the impression the once pioneering company is now a reactionary one, no longer leading the pack since taken over by smaller, nimbler, decidedly “craft” brewers.

Does this mean Sam Adams is no longer innovative? Therefore not “craft”? Therefore not worth our attention or appreciation?

I’m sure Jim Koch could point to his latest nitro beer project, or the array of beers nobody is talking about yet, like a Toasted Caramel Bock, Maple Ale, Lychee Pear Pale Ale or Mesquite BBQ Brown Ale. If you were to throw those brands in front of a brewery name like Tried Hands, The Bruery, Cigar City or Founders, would you get the same reaction?

There’s an interesting psychological loop that takes place more easily these days thanks to the prominence of social media and how we self-select friends, news and information. Even Google filters results to adhere to our preferences. It all leads to a conclusion that our own beliefs are more ubiquitous than they may actually be. Notably, it’s applied to our impression and point of view of this year’s presidential candidates, but doesn’t this sound like something applicable to so many other walks of life:

And it strikes me as very strange that suddenly we’re seeing this phenomenon of people who really just don’t seem to understand that they are a minority and not a majority in the country.

The biggest beer enthusiasts are spending time calling out Sam Adams and those who appreciate those beers, but the truth is the brewery still sells a lot of beer. This is what happens when you build a successful business and accept that you can grow and people want you to grow. Just because those sales may focus more on Average Jane or Joe Drinker – who still constitute nearly all of craft beer purchases – does it now mean Sam Adams has entered the rarified air of Macro? I thought this kind of vitriol was only saved for AB InBev.

Or maybe it’s befitting that we’ve arrived at this (somewhat) ironic point, where a beer brand named after one of America’s Founding Fathers causes such divisiveness it may be considered an act of treason to craft’s self-appointed protectors if you admit you like it.

As for me, I’ll just keep drinking IPAs that are good.

sam adams-rebel raw-IPA-india pale ale-beertography

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

19 thoughts on “Liking Sam Adams’ Beer is Now a Political Act

  1. “If you were to throw those brands in front of a brewery name like Tired Hands, The Bruery, Cigar City or Founders, would you get the same reaction?”

    THAT is my favorite part. The hypocrisy of the whole thing.

  2. Everyone likes to drink something “good”, but taste is subjective. And it’s hard to say Sam isn’t making something good when they have SO many varieties available.

    Sam Adams is big, but that doesn’t make them anti-craft. It means that there is a more business focused approach to doing things. There’s a little less caution thrown to the wind, and more time brought into the decision making process than smaller breweries. They’re also quality and consistency focused- an area that many small scale breweries lack. So why are we faulting people for careful decision making to meet the demands of a large scale audience? And saying that they aren’t innovative enough is completely untrue. Some of the most innovative conversations I’ve had with ANY beer rep were with a Sam Adams employee as she explained (some would even say passionately) things like lab science, the intricacy of can design, and their brewing process. They offer a truly rigorous training program to represent their product which many breweries fail to even consider. Plus there are plenty of lackluster reps out there representing craft brands with no drive, passion, or even basic beer knowledge.

    Every time the SA craft argument comes up I am almost certain to make one specific point- Roc Brewing (shout out #thinkNYdrinkNY!). These guys were one of the first brewers selected for Boston Beer Company’s Brewing the American Dream Experienceship Program. It offers valuable knowledge and resources for the business of brewing beer. Today Roc’s lineup is completely solid- from porters and stouts to IPAs and creative sour varieties, and Koch himself has spoken of his fondness for their passion. Yet it’s passion that in so many ways BBC helped fuel. I’ve heard Chris speak of the value of that program myself. If SA is not craft why would they offer so many resources to prospective brewers? What kind of company gives insight and training to what some would say is their future competitor? Could it be one that understands the value of camaraderie and collaboration in the beer world? Perhaps… a craft brewery?

    1. Much appreciation for putting in thought and time to share this.

    2. Fuck Sam Adams. We need to be elevating more local breweries, and also (and arguably more importantly) elevating the local, craft breweries that have been around in this country, and still existing, since before prohibition, and the big three dominance, namely Yuengling. Yuengling is the oldest brewery still active in America, and it still sees less than stellar distribution today. This is a GOOD FUCKING BEER, with more than one brew, though the original is the standard. Alot of people don’t realize that before prohibition there was alot more local beers and brews like this that went the way of the DoDo. We’re getting back to that point. We need to continue the trend of local, craft breweries. Monopolies stifle innovation.

  3. I love that you’re addressing Sam Adams Bryan, it’s a fascinating case study.

    My view is that Sam should about-face: stop competing with the shoal of piranhas eating its tail (that’s the Tired Hands, Bruerys, Cigar Citys and Founders of this world) and get back to stealing share from mainstream beer. It should not be launching Rebel Raw (which is delicious btw); it should be launching 805 (the ON FIRE golden ale from Firestone Walker that is AS BIG AS SCULPIN even though it only sells in CA).

    I think Sam’s quality standards are through the roof, and I agree with the gist of your article (if I’m reading it right) that Boston Beer brews some kick ass beers.

    1. We’re on the same page. Funny you mention the idea of going back to take on the BMC’s of the world, as that’s where Sam Adams (vis-a-vis, Jim Koch) stood its ground 10 years ago. I like the idea of broad education in marketing, as Sam is most certainly the ideal gateway for beer enthusiasm, but then the problem becomes getting left by the wayside and people find something more “authentic” (whatever that means to them) and then we get to where we are now.

      That 805, tho.

  4. If you entered the craft beer world in the old person days (late 80s/early 90s) you could drink pretty much SNPA, Anchor Steam/Liberty or Sam’s. They were life-changing. I haven’t drank much Sam’s lately, but I know people who do. For me I think it was just a matter of them taking long enough to adapt to the market’s (and my) changing tastes that I had basically forgotten them by the time they did.

    I mean… I bet some of these Rebel IPAs are good, but it never occurs to me to seek them out when I’m a mile away from getting a growler fill of fresh-in-the-brewery Sculpin (from my own local and problematic-to-purists brewery). Perhaps I should pick up some Rebel Raw!

    I have a buddy of a similar (middle) age, and he never got off the Sam’s bandwagon. He buys it by the case at Costco and when he gives me one I always enjoy it. I never felt the need to look down my nose at their success or wonder how craft they are.

    I personally hope that all my favorite brewers and breweries get rich. Unless they’re actual monks, that should be one of their goals. Success and passion are correlated, and not inversely.

    This whole thought process reminds me, as I’ve probably said before, of the the indy rock scene back in the day. You know… signing to major labels and “selling out” was t. It was such bullshit then and it remains so today. I wanted all my favorite bands to sign to Geffen (or whatever) and become filthy rich and keep making me music in perpetuity :). Same with brewers now.

    PS: had no idea 805 was that big, but for a year or two now, every time I am in LA I see/hear TONS of advertising/billboards/etc., so not super surprised. Much less so in SD. Me? I’ve never tasted it (though I’m going up to the brewery in June, so I guess I will then).

    1. I wonder if this is something of a catch-22. Or snake eating its tail. Or something.

      Sam took too long to get to those IPAs, which aren’t *bad*, but people have become accustomed to getting other varieties (Local! Grapefruit! Etc.!), so when Rebel and its friends come along, the “craft” faithful have no interest. By simple virtue of how many places Sam Adams is distributed to, Rebel was bound to be a success, but even still, $21 million is nothing to scoff at. It can’t be a *bad* beer and do so well.

      But I’m the same way. Endemic of my brain. I want to try new things all the time and I started drinking Sam Adams at the very start of my beer loving life. I’ve had so many of those brands, but still find myself curious about the new stuff coming from Boston Beer. The Grapefruit Rebel ($10), while not Sculpin, came across to me as a great cost effective option against Ballast Point’s version ($14-16). The Cascade IPA, only available in SA’s IPA mixed back, was pretty darn good, too.

      I’d buy the shit out of Rebel Raw if it was available all the time.

      1. Well… I too will buy the shit out of some if I ever see it.

        Novelty is indeed a tyranny. I can’t recall the last time I had a SNPA or an Anchor Steam either (and that, in particular, was my “gateway” beer and I have nothing but fond memories of it). So many choices… only so much liver to use up.

        Another aspect, for me at least, is that I drink more local beers not because “Yay [insert my/your town here]!” or because I’m local/indy as fuck, but just because I will always choose a growler over cans/bottles. And I don’t see these other brands on tap when I go out.

        In the meantime, I have had a can of Heady Topper in the fridge for over a month, and I haven’t even drank that 😮

  5. Having been accused of blasphemy, I now DO feel “Indy as fuck” 😉

  6. I always felt like the Rebel IPA series branding was trying too hard, especially living on the West coast, but when I randomly came across some Kosmic Mother Funk during its tour the first year, I really enjoyed it. Maybe I was a little surprised it was a Sam Adams beer because it was so under the radar and unlike all of their other branding/beers, but I thought it was well made. I enjoyed it enough to try and catch it on its tour last fall (but missed it, unfortunately). Still buy Anchor Steam and their porter, but having grown up here, maybe that’s the WC version of Sam Adams?

    1. Anchor or Sierra, for sure, but Sierra isn’t hurting for consumer attention or love!

  7. Nothing damns a ‘craft’ beer as successfully as its success.

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