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Jim Koch recently released Sam Adams Summer Ale for a new season.
Jim Koch recently released Sam Adams Summer Ale for a new season. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

When it comes to brews, Koch knows his craft

The man who brewed the first batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager in his Newton kitchen from his great-great-grandfather's recipe speaks eagerly about the ''broad palette of flavors" that a brewer works with and beer's affinity for a wide variety of cuisines.

So if you think that wine is what you sip when you want to savor a spicy nose and consider flavor undertones of pepper and fruit, and that beer is light, crisp, and one-dimensional, the beverage of choice after mowing the lawn on a hot day or while standing in front of a grill, Sam Adams founder Jim Koch has a grander vision.

Obviously, many Americans agree. In the 21 years since that first brew, Sam Adams has grown to become the largest craft brewery in the country, making 18 styles of beer. Koch has worked to bring to the tasting of beer and its pairing with food the same sophistication associated with wine.

Take, for instance, Sam Adams Summer Ale, recently released again for the season. At his Jamaica Plain plant, Koch, 55, explains that the ale is made with grains of paradise -- a West African pepper -- and lemon zest. ''It's a great complement to grilled shrimp," Koch says. ''And it's a great marinade for shrimp or chicken. I've done all the work for you; I've put in all the spiciness."

The slight tang and subtle spiciness of this ale is also a good complement to Roule, a pepper-coated goat cheese, Koch says. He is tasting cheeses with his beers at his Boston Beer Company brewery. (Two other pairings that worked particularly well were the bright, clean Boston Lager with an aged provolone, and the German-style Black Lager, full of roasted malt flavors, with a smoked Gouda.)

When Koch (he pronounces it ''cook") started in 1984, it's a good bet that few people were thinking of pairing brie with beer. But the brewer has made a second career out of trying to change the way people think of American beer. His first career -- after a bachelor's degree, MBA, and law degree, all from Harvard -- was counseling CEOs at Boston Consulting Group.

Making beer was nothing new to the Koch family. The young MBA was following in the footsteps of five generations of Kochs who were professional brewers, first in Germany, then St. Louis, then Cincinnati. When the craft brewing movement began to ferment in the mid-'80s, Jim Koch was one of dozens of guys who believed that American beer could have flavor, character, and diversity, says Ray Daniels, director of craft beer marketing for the Brewers Association. ''The difference," Daniels says, ''is that Jim not only had the belief, he had the business knowledge to be successful."

The entrepreneur took the name Samuel Adams because that rabble-rouser and brewer helped instigate the American Revolution, and that was the spirit Koch wanted associated with his company. His first investor was his father. Even before Koch settled into the old Haffenreffer Brewing building in JP, he contracted with a Pennsylvania brewery to make his recipe. Weeks after he began selling beer by going from bar to bar here, his Boston lager won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. The company had its first initial public offering in 1995.

All the while, Koch was thinking about how to make and market quality brews. The passion is evident as Koch talks about the importance of choosing the best hops -- ''Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine," he says -- and of making sure the beer arrives at the consumer's door fresh. ''Freshness is an ingredient in good beer, just like hops and yeast." Years before Anheuser-Busch was adding ''born on" dates to its labels, Sam Adams beers were stamped with freshness dates, Daniels says.

Koch is proud of his company's area roots, but as the Boston Beer Company has grown, there have been occasional grumblings in Boston's brewing community that Sam is too big to be considered a craft brewery and is not really local. The company brews a small amount of beer in Jamaica Plain, owns a brewery in Cincinnati, and has contracts with two other breweries. (It should be noted that big is relative: Boston Beer's share of the domestic market is 1/2 of 1 percent.)

The brewer has spread out for a reason. ''We make the beer where it makes sense to make it," he says. ''We've got a guy at our Ohio brewery who's an expert on cocoa nibs, so that's where we make the Chocolate Bock."

And Daniels points out that what defines a craft brewery is not its size, but the approach the brewers take to making beer. In this case, the approach has had an impact on brewers' perceptions of the limits of flavor and alcohol content. Beers such as the 25 percent alcohol Utopias -- a smooth, golden liquid with sherry- and brandy-like flavors -- have defined a new category: extreme beer.

American craft brewers are not tied to one particular brewing tradition, as German or British brewers are, Koch says. ''That's one of the things that's exciting about being an American brewer. You can draw on all sorts of influences," he says, to create innovative styles. Because of this, he says, craft brewers in this country are now making the best beer in the world.

Daniels agrees. He saw an enthusiastic response at last fall's Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy. ''The Italians were crazy about the American craft beers that were there," he says.

The Italians are not the only foodies who have been impressed. Koch tells the story of a beer tasting he staged some years ago for the late Julia Child and other members of the American Institute of Wine and Food.

After several beer and food pairings, Koch asked Child what she thought. In an almost perfect imitation of the French Chef's distinctive voice, Koch gives her reply: ''Sometimes beer is better."

The brewer, of course, couldn't agree more.

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