If craft beer is like indie rock and the Coor’s Lights of the world are like Top 40 garbage, then where does that leave Samuel Adams? Samuel Adams sells like corporate swill, but from a quality and taste standpoint, it puts a lot of “micro” brews to shame. How often does it happen in either music or brewing that something truly great is also something popular? Almost never. Samuel Adams is like the brewing equivalent of The Hives’ Veni Vidi Vicious – one of the four or five greatest rock n’ roll albums of its decade, originally released on an independent label, that improbably became a massive mainstream hit. I sometimes forget what an incredible album it is, but the moment I hear “Hate to Say I Told You So” or “Die, All Right!”, I regret not listening to The Hives more often. Samuel Adams beer can easily be taken for granted in the same manner – especially if you’re a beer geek who’s constantly in search of bigger, bolder concoctions. But there are two important points to remember about Samuel Adams. #1, it’s very often the only decent beer in restaurants that serve nothing else but light beers and fake craft beers like Blue Moon. #2, all of those hot-shot micro breweries out there would never have existed if Jim Koch hadn’t paved the way a quarter of a century ago. You see all the TV commercials and assume that Samuel Adams is some corporate powerhouse operation with a 50-story headquarters, armed guards, and a factory manned by powerful robots from the future. But really, it all started with one dude going from bar-to-bar trying to sell his unknown Boston Lager. The likes of Dogfish Head and Rogue and Founders clearly have surpassed the old master, but it’s not like Koch watered down his beer to maximize profit! The Boston Lager, developed from a Koch family recipe that dates back to 1860, is still one of the most distinctive and tasty beers out there. When you drink a Boston Lager, you know you’re drinking a Boston Lager.
‘Tis the season not for the Boston Lager, but rather the Winter Lager. When my wife and I are eating out, I frequently find myself ordering a Samuel Adams seasonal. I enjoy all the seasonals, but the Winter Lager is my fave of the lot. By definition it’s a dark wheat bock, and like all winter beers it ups the malt quotient for flavor and warmth. For a beer you can order at most “casual” chain restaurants, it’s remarkably complex. Of course it’s got those Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops a la the Boston Lager. But the malted wheat, Indonesian and Vietnamese cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel add elements of sweetness and citrus-y tang to the leafy hop kick. All in all it’s a damn tasty beer and far more balanced than a lot of winter warmers that are all malt. I know, I know: you’re gonna tell me that the Winter Lager tastes like nothing compared to Hitachino Nest Celebration Ale or Deschutes’ Jubelale. You’re probably right. But you won’t find those beers at Chili’s! Good luck scoring a pint of Old Jubilation at Smokey Bones! Unless you’re at a brewpub or a really hip bar with a killer beer selection, the Winter Lager is the best thing you’ll find on draught anywhere these days.
Ever notice how all the “big” beers have to use humor in their advertising? It’s because they know their products are swill. For lord’s sake, the best thing Coor’s Light can say about its beer is that it’s cold! But any Samuel Adams ad you’ll see or hear is all about what the beer tastes like and what sort of ingredients go into it. Doesn’t seem to be hurting sales, eh? How about that: an immensely successful world-wide product that markets itself not to the lowest common denominator, but the highest? It makes me hopeful that some other micro breweries will eventually grow into macro breweries and give the masses some better alternatives. Victory Prima Pils ads playing during NFL games? Rogue Dead Guy Ale on tap at the Whopper Bar? A man can dream! Cue The Hives.