Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch | AP file photo

Steinberg: Sam Adams brewer crafts words as well as he makes beer

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In a man’s life, there are many beers. Sloshed into red plastic cups or sipped out of icy cans, they blur into one frothy river of suds.

But I clearly remember my first bottle of Sam Adams, though I drank it 31 years ago this month.

I was visiting a former college roommate, Didier, in Boston. Di is Belgian, and Belgians know beer. He had already introduced me to Chimay, the Trappist ale.

We found ourselves at a campus hangout, Grendel’s Den.

“You have to try this new beer,” he said.

We ordered Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which had gone on sale the month before, the pipe dream of a sixth generation brewer.

Not too dark, like Guinness, a bite, but not too much. It tasted like ….

Well, let Jim Koch, who created the stuff, describe it, in his newly published book, Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two.

“A beer with a rich golden amber color, a dense head, and a striking aroma. The taste started with a firm-bodied malt flavor that was balanced with complex hop bitterness, leaving behind a trace of sweetness.”



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Koch’s book is a Siddhartha of brewing, a journey of discovery, where the young prince — OK, in his mid-30s — a successful-yet-dissatisfied Harvard grad, leaves the secure walls of his consultancy palace, armed only with a 19th-century beer recipe.

Regular readers know I don’t drink anymore. But that doesn’t mean I’m not brand loyal. Beer nostalgia got me on the first page, where Koch’s father assures him, “You’ll never succeed.”

Nobody reads a whole book out of brand loyalty. By Page 2 I was wondering, who wrote this for him?

Nobody. Koch wrote it himself.

“I put a lot of work into it,” said Koch, over the phone Monday from Boston. “My summer project for three years, and probably the only book I’m ever going to write.”

Let’s hope not. Quench Your Own Thirst is the rare book that grabs you at the start and doesn’t let go. Just when the company is doing well, a new crisis crops up to fan interest, whether Anheuser-Busch trying to smother the fledgling in the cradle, or Koch being threatened with lawsuits by Heineken and Beck’s, irked at Sam Adams for pointing out in advertising how imports are diluted for the American market and stale once they get here. (A Sam Adams radio spot has one of the sharpest of the book’s many sharp lines: “When we asked for Europe’s tired and poor, we didn’t mean their beer.”)

As fun as the book is for Sam Adams fan, it’s not really about beer, as about pursuing dreams, treating people decently, and being honest. This book radiates candor. When the Boston Beer Co. sells stock to the public, Koch tells the tale of the initial public offering. I wondered whether he’d reveal his take — this is where the less-than-candid tycoon would draw the veil. Not Koch.

“You’re now worth $220 million,” a banker, from Goldman Sachs no less, tells him. “Can you believe it?”

Actually, Koch can’t, emphasizing “the insanity of that.”

I read the book in two days flat, and had tears in my eyes at one passage. There’s a lot of practical business wisdom here, but you don’t need to be forming a business to love this book. As to whether you need to love Sam Adams beer, well, I can’t answer that, because I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys beer but doesn’t love it. Whatever your taste in brew, Quench Your Own Thirst is a fast, fun, thought-provoking read. Koch crafts words with as much care as he crafts beer, and that’s saying a lot.

Jim Koch will sign “Quench Your Own Thirst” Wednesday, April 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Binny’s Beverage Depot, 1132 S. Jefferson St., Chicago.

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