Is Sam Adams Still a Craft Brewery?

Up until now, Don and I haven’t given Sam Adams a lot of thought.  That all changed recently when they were kind enough to provide us with brewer’s passes to this year’s GABF.

I want to say up front that while we are grateful for their generosity, it’s not going to alter our opinions of them as brewers or the beers they make.  But it has gotten us thinking about them when we otherwise wouldn’t have.  As a result, Don and I have been chatting about Sam Adams quite a bit lately.

The core question we’ve been mulling over is whether or not Sam Adams should still be considered a “craft” brewery, or if they are now just another mainstream brand of beer. After much back and forth, we decided to make this question the subject of our latest podcast.

According to the Brewer’s Association and the Federal Government, Sam Adams is about to grow past the technical and legal definitions of a craft brewery, as they will soon be producing over 2,000,000 barrels of beer a year.

But there’s more to being a craft brewer than the numbers – there’s the way you conduct yourself…

Sam Adams helped their fellow craft brewers ride out the Great Hops Shortage of 2008, they produce weird specialty brews like Utopias, and they even give homebrewers a chance to get their beer on the shelf with their LongShot Competition.

I haven’t paid enough attention to Sam Adams over the years to know about all the  nasty stuff they do, but the above stuff makes them sound like a craft brewer to me.

In the end, the proof is in the pour.  Like many of us, I’ve had my fair share of Boston Lager’s (many times its the only drinkable beer served at chain restaurants), and I was mesmerized by Utopias, but outside that and a summer fling with Cherry Wheat, I really haven’t had much of their stuff.  I think I discounted them as “mainstream” and just didn’t bother.

Don and I rectified this while recording our podcast by trying out a few beers from their Imperial Series.  I had a Double Bock, Don had a Belgian Wit, and we both tried out their Imperial Stout.  All three beers have an ABV of over 9%, and the Double Bock and the Wit were both really delicious and will be purchased again.  The Imperial Stout was also very good, but not gonzo enough for my over-titillated taste buds.  Don said he’d go back for it, but I think I’ll stick to Southern Tier Oat, thank you very much.

But any way you want to slice it, these three brews were craft beers, no question about it.  And this helped me figure out where Sam Adams fits in my personal Pantheon of craft brewers (which I now consider them to be).  I see them as pioneers.

While I don’t love everything they make (they are no Founders), Sam Adams has provided a road map to bringing good beer to the masses.  Basically, they are 15 years ahead of the curve, having gotten started way back in 1984, when it wasn’t a widely popular idea to open a craft brewery.

When you look ten or fifteen years down the road, don’t be surprised to see brewers like Dogfish Head or Stone looking a lot like Sam Adams does today, whipping up the best beer they can, fostering the spirit of craft brewing, and making a serious business out of the whole thing.

So while Sam Adams hasn’t “bought’ my opinion with the brewer’s passes, they have gained ground in my head, because I wouldn’t be thinking about them otherwise.  But I’m glad things worked out as they did, as I am now much more open to trying their beer, especially after that Double Bock.

And I’m getting into the GABF for free – can’t beat that!

We welcome you to check out our podcast to hear more, including in-depth beer reviews of the Imperial Series.

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Categories: Beer, Podcast


Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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20 Comments on “Is Sam Adams Still a Craft Brewery?”

  1. Scooter
    September 7, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    Good post, Jim. I think you make a good point that a lot of beer snobs (no offense, as I’ve been labeled one as well) tend to discount Sam Adams simply because of their success. I find this point to be both absurd and fallacious.

    I’m glad that, despite their huge success, they still continue to put a value on flavor and providing a good product made out the kind of stuff beer is supposed to be make of (not corn, rice and other rat droppings).

    Ultimately, I am very glad that they are so ubiquitous throughout the country and that I can usually find either the Boston Lager (an acceptable mainstream beer) and whatever their seasonal is currently around at a Chili’s or some other idiot-restaurant when I’m in an airport.

    • September 7, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

      Thanks, Scooter. I’ve been coming around to understanding Sam Adams’ value ever since trying Utopias. If they make that, you know they care about beer.

      Getting the tix from them sorta put them in our heads and lead to some discussion that made the light bulb finally go off for me – these are successful beer nerds, but still beer nerds!

      Now I’m looking forward to exploring their stuff, something I don’t think I would have considered a month ago.

  2. September 7, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    I find their Imperial series pretty drinkable stuff, too. And it’s nice that it’s in 12 oz bottles. And you can often find the Imperial Series bottles at locations where you wouldn’t normally find much of anything crafty. The rest of their stuff I find more pedestrian these days (excluding the Utopias, which I”ve never had).

    I believe Senator Kerry’s bill to ease taxes on craft brewers has a little bit in there that will raise the number of barrels a brewery can produce and still call themselves a craft brewer. So all this talk of barrel limits for Sam Adams may soon be a mute point.

    Is that bill still in committee? Did it not move forward? Haven’t heard much about it the past few weeks. But I guess nothing is happening in Washington these days.

    • September 7, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

      Not sure about the status of the bill, Chad, but with Kerry behind it, I’m sure it’ll pass.

      One of the great thing about Sam Adams is it’s “safety beer” status – it’s usually there when your only other option is fizzy yellow stuff. I’m grateful for that.

  3. September 7, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    First off I like the new site

    Secondly I got denied for a pass. I hate you guys.

    Thirdly I think SA is still in the craft beer realm. They still produce a ton of different styles. I like that about them even though a lot of their beers are just OK. Jim is one of the pioneers of craft beer.

    • September 7, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

      Yeah, they make a lot of good beers that aren’t mind blowing, but so do most craft breweries. Most of what Ive had from them is hit or miss, but always falls nicely into the style guidelines. If you haven’t tried the Imperial Series, i recommend giving it a go – I really enjoyed the Double Bock. A great Fall beer.

      And sorry about you getting passed up for passes – I think we go very lucky is all.

  4. September 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    I like ’em. Almost everything I try from them I find to be pretty good. I just picked up a sixer of their Oktoberfest which I never tried before and thought it was nicely done. Their Summer Ale was purchased by me several times this summer and I never felt like real beer lovers were laughing at me as I slinked back to my car. (Well, maybe they were laughing, but I was REAL slinky so I didn’t notice.)

    Anyway, I’d say they are Craft brewers no matter what the damn government says!

    PS: Diggin the new logo!

    • September 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

      Thanks for liking the new logo, Scott. We had to do cards and t-shirts for GABF, so we decided to redo everything now (we’ll have to live with the new look for a looong time, until the cards are gone).

      I think it was Simply beer that had a blind Oktoberfest tasting last year, and Sam Adams took the top honors. I recall the guys being mortified, as no one expected Sam Adams to be that good. That’s the cool thing (and scary) thing about blind tastings I guess.

      • Kevin M
        September 8, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

        Ah, the Oktoberfest blind tasting… I recall that no one was mortified that it was the winner. Peter, Jay from Sam Adams, and I tasted one dozen Oktoberfest beers. I was the one who picked the Sam as my favorite, but I wasn’t surprised. I think Peter and Jay both preferred the Flying Dog Dogtoberfest. Actually, I think we just generally thought the American versions were the best.

      • September 8, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

        My bad, Kevin. I just recall the story being told that the outcome was a surprise and might have slightly bruised some folks’ expectations. But you were there, so you’d know better. Thanks for clearing it up.

  5. Marvin
    September 7, 2010 at 5:00 pm #

    I’ve never felt “bad” for drinking SA. Sure there’s more than a few of their beers I do not prefer, but that’s personal taste not their beers. I am a big fan of Boston Lager, Oktoberfest and a few of their other seasonal offerings. (Sorry Cherry Wheat and the Summer Ale are excluded, as I don’t like either.) Plus the Longshot comp is just plain cool.

    • September 7, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

      I think most everyone can find at least three to five Sam Adams creations that they like. I didn’t like their Chocolate Bock last year (the first post ever on this site, BTW), but I’m digging the Imperial Series.

      And yes, I enjoy Cherry Wheat, but more as an alcoholic Kool Aid and less as a beer. Very refreshing, like a wine cooler!

  6. Andrew
    September 7, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    Sam Adams impressions:
    You guys are right on. BBC is really successful because of the way they go to Market. They are publicly held, and advertise commercially. They consistently make money for their shareholders and when they advertise they talk about something more important than Beach Balls, cavalier behaviour, tits and ass, and explosions. (They try and sell beer by talking about beer, novel concept)
    So what are they, they are definitely a craft brewer. Boston Lager is what started the whole thing going. They are consistently making beers that both respond to the market and explore the boundaries of beer. I say cheers to them!

    • September 8, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

      Well put, Andrew. I think they are a great example for other brewers to follow as the craft beer movement continues to grow and enjoys more mainstream success.

      As you say, Boston Beer Company has managed to retain their credibility as a craft brewer while becoming a successful publicly held company. That’s no easy feat.

  7. Brandon
    September 9, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    I’d have to give them the nod for the best fest. I’d drink most any of their other stuff too. I usually down a good amount of their Winter seasonal as well. We know why New Belgium didn’t offer you guys brewer passes. 🙂

    • September 9, 2010 at 11:44 am #

      Yeah, and I doubt we’ll hear from Saranac either, Brandon!

    • Don
      September 9, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

      Funny Brandon! But probably an ounce of truth to that. I just thing Sam Adams is run by beer nerds and that is apparent in their beers. I had three of the October fests last night, and it kept getting better and better as the malty flavor built up. It is a very well done octoberfest brew.

      • Brandon
        September 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

        Funny, I had one last night too.

  8. Brandon
    September 16, 2010 at 12:10 am #

    Say what you will about their success… but they make BEER. Tbis imperial white is damn amazing in my humble opinion.

    • September 16, 2010 at 10:41 am #

      Don had the White and gushed about it, and I really liked the Double Bock. I think I can get into anything that says Imperial on the bottle!

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