The Boston Beer Co. is the nation’s biggest craft-beer operation by output and sales. Started in 1984 by Jim Koch and Rhonda Kallman, it grew from humble beginnings, with the pair lugging unmarked bottles of as-yet-unreleased beer around New England’s biggest city trying to drum up retail and restaurant accounts, to a juggernaut that now includes sales in every state, D.C. and several foreign countries. For many, Boston Beer — aka Samuel Adams or Sam Adams, after its most prominent brand — is craft beer, or at least the gateway into that variegated genre of American brewing.
The brewery has been both thought leader and tastemaker for more than a generation now, not least of all because it releases around 60 beers annually, including year-round regulars. (And because Koch has been not just Sam Adams’ greatest salesman, but craft beer’s as well — get the man talking about brewing and stand back.) It can therefore be a bit daunting to make sense of what’s out there…and what’s worth it. Here, then, is a primer on Sam Adams for the uninitiated or the merely thirsty:
1. Boston Lager
Yes, it’s the craft beer your father, or at least older brother, drank. Its ubiquity notwithstanding, the beer, first introduced in 1984, is probably the best-selling craft brand ever, American or otherwise. Koch and the late biochemist Joseph Owades, famous (or infamous) for divining the formula for light beer, developed the recipe, which still tastes fuller and sweeter than most lagers around.
2. Boston Ale
One of Boston Beer’s neighbors when it opened a physical brewery in its namesake city in early 1989 was a disturbed man who killed cats and mounted their bodies on stakes. The neighborhood has since changed dramatically for the better, and the brewery, a major tourist destination, has had a lot to do with that. One of the first beers developed there was Boston Ale, a more malty counterpart to Boston Lager that tastes heavily of caramel.
3. Rebel IPA
Want to cause a stir in American craft beer? Be the biggest operation around and introduce your first India pale ale after 30 years in business. Yes, Boston Beer sat largely on the sidelines as the IPA grew into the reigning craft-beer style, the one consumers can’t get enough of and the one foreign brewers most often associate with their U.S. counterparts. The brewery has had iterations of the IPA, such as the treacly Whitewater IPA. But Rebel IPA, introduced in early 2014, is its first year-round, straight-ahead version. It’s quite citrusy — you’ll taste grapefruit up front — and pleasantly, rather than overwhelmingly, bitter.
This is a fantastic version of the classic style, if there is an Octoberfest style — all we know is that it started with a celebration of the marriage of the Bavarian crown prince in 1810, and brewers have been spinning their own style dials since. Boston Beer’s contribution, released every autumn, is all malty sweetness with lots of chocolaty caramel taste and very little bitterness.
5. Porch Rocker
It would be so easy to screw this up. Porch Rocker is a spin on Radler, the German technique of adding fruit juice or soda to beer. In Boston Beer’s case, it was about adding a lemon blend to a mild lager. The result is a lighter-colored, lighter-tasting beer that — importantly — doesn’t feel watered down. Porch Rocker is perhaps the best “light” beer Boston Beer makes, though the company does make an actual light beer, called Sam Adams Light.
6. Noble Pils
Pilsners often get a bad rap from craft-beer fanatics. Why? Because the lighter lager style is just that: a lighter lager style in the everlasting Kingdom of Heavy, Hoppy Ales. Boston Beer’s Noble Pils does an end run around that by using five different Central European hop varieties in apparently copious quantities. What comes out is a dry version of the style that finishes with a nice, hoppy bite.
7. American Kriek
This is Boston Beer’s take on the Belgian sour style called Kriek, Flemish for “cherry.” It’s brewed with Ballaton cherries and arrives tart and mild, with barely any bitterness. American Kriek is a solid introduction to Boston Beer’s more complex offerings, which are marketed under its Barrel Room, Limited Release and Small Batch monikers.
8. Holiday Porter
A spin on the English ale style and perhaps Boston Beer’s supreme winter offering, the Holiday Porter pours thickly and darkly. You will then smell and taste black cherries, chocolate, figs, all followed by a chewy, roasted finish that’s pleasantly sweet. It’s practically a meal in a glass.
9. Chocolate Bock
This is the dessert after the Holiday Porter meal and one of the most unabashedly sweet offerings on Boston Beer’s menu. The name says it all: The overriding chocolate taste (the finish is vanilla-like, if you’re worried) comes from what the brewery describes as “a proprietary blend of cocoa nibs from Ghana, Ecuador, and Madagascar.” And while it’s a variation of the German style bock, which tends, by definition, to be on the stronger side, Chocolate Bock is pretty tame, topping out at just under 5.8 percent alcohol by volume.
Good luck finding these. Boston Beer puts out, at most, perhaps 15,000 bottles annually of these specialty brews. Head-spinning in their complexity and strength (well over 20 percent ABV, or nearly twice as strong as your average fine wine), the one Utopia we had way back when tasted tawny and oaky (like a dry Cabernet Sauvignon, come to think of it). The brewery says that some elements of the beers are aged for years, and we believe them. These are envelope-shredders as far as American craft-beer styles go.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for preorder.
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