The whole history of craft brewing is wrapped up in this beer. Introduced 30 years ago by craft brewing pioneer Jim Koch, it is by far the most influential craft lager ever made. With Sierra Nevada Pale Ale it forms a kind of Adam and Eve of craft brewing. Their progeny are the thousands of craft brews in every conceivable style on the bars of the developed world today.
Samuel Adams lager, like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, is a high-quality beer which has the advantage too of being one of a kind. Unlike the other beer, it didn’t really inspire legions of palate-emulators; rather it inspired by example. To this day, few lagers I’ve had really taste like Sam Adams lager, but countless beers lie in a direct line from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which itself had predecessors, notably Anchor’s Liberty Ale and New Albion Ale, but Sierra Nevada eclipsed those in importance not long out of the gate).
Ken Grossman, founder and major domo still of Sierra Nevada, is one of the most important figures in brewing history and Jim Koch, his equal at Boston Beer Company, is the ditto. For ale and lager respectively.
A recent tasting of Sam Adams lager showed it at a peak of quality. This can is made somewhere in the U.S., the company uses different production facilities, some contracted, some company-owned. The idea is to ship the beer from the closest brewery to destination. I’ve had the lager from different breweries in the group and it is very consistent.
Despite being pasteurized, Boston Lager discloses a fine fresh brewhouse aroma. All-German hops are used, Hallertau and Tettnang. Two malts, pale and caramel, are mashed. The colour is light amber.
The beer has a long history which stretches back ultimately to Europe. Jim Koch comes from a brewing family and his ancestor, German-American Louis Koch, owned breweries in St. Louis, Mo. in the 1860s and 1870s. Jim Koch has always said that the recipe for his beer was provided by his brewmaster father from family papers. That Louis Koch made a beer similar to Sam Adams lager is obvious to me from looking at the major beer styles of German-speaking Europe when Louis Koch was brewing.
At that time, Anton Dreher’s legendary brewery at Klein Schwechat near Vienna was the brewery on the Continent. It was the biggest, with an extensive acreage and cellars and producing some 6,000,000 gallons of beer per year. According to this Philadelphia news account from 1866 relating data gleaned by Americans visiting European breweries, Dreher’s beer for local consumption used one lb hops per barrel (two for export). This 1867 press account from the Urbana Union in Columbus, OH gives further details of Dreher’s many achievements in this period.
Sam Adams Boston Lager also uses one lb hops per barrel, a figure that appeared in early literature about Sam Adams and of which I don’t doubt the accuracy today. The IBUs are in the 30s according to Sam Adams’ website, very respectable by any definition and it shows in the taste.
Blonde German lager didn’t exist in Louis Koch’s time, not in Munich certainly, the prevalent style was dark brown lager, or dunkel. (Some yellow lager may have existed here and there in Bavaria, but its influence internationally would have been minimal). Quite plausibly Louis Koch’s beer was the Vienna type, as its hop content and colour correspond to period descriptions of Vienna beer. The accounts of colour range from “pale” to “amber”, but we should bear in mind “pale” meant light amber, frequently, in this period.
Yet Sam Adams Lager doesn’t really taste like a modern Vienna beer, it is less sweet and more bitter I think. Perhaps it ends by being a cross between a Vienna and pilsner style. Czech Pilsner beer, famously golden, had been in existence from 1842 and was the other great lager type of influence in the Austrian Empire. It may have been a model for Louis Koch as well given its early fame, equal to or greater than Dreher’s. The two kind of cross anyway since Dreher grew hops in the Saaz district and owned a brewery there.
Louis Koch’s beer probably emulated Dreher’s Vienna beer or Pilsen’s Urquell beer or both. Through an unlikely circumstance – four generations later MBA graduate and descendant Jim Koch takes inspiration from Louis’ recipe – the modern craft brewing renaissance was ignited.
The profusion of craft styles and flavours today is dizzying. From coffee bock to mango Berliner weisse, it’s all out there. A mix-and-match approach has been adopted in the search for ever-newer flavours and sensations. All good. But sometimes it’s salutary to reach back to a true classic, a beer that has inspired, endured and represents 19th century authenticity. Sam Adams lager is too easy to overlook due to its familiarity. Don’t make that mistake.