Samuel Adams: To Infinium and Beyond


Samuel Adams has been a respected pillar of the craft brewing community for years, but I am starting to wonder if the brewery's best years are behind it. With recent stunts like the Beef Heart beer and the new attempt to create a new beer style in Infinium, it sort of feels like Sam Adams is trying to claw its way back into the hearts of beer geeks. Perhaps this all stems from the brewery's recent removal from "craft brewer" status. You see, Sam Adams is on the precipice of, or has already passed, producing 2 million barrels a year, which makes it officially too big to be considered a "craft" brewer anymore. Meanwhile, Owner/Brewer Jim Koch is trying to redefine the term both legally and philosophically, writing his own definition of "craft brewer" for the brewery's website:
"Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria."


So what is this new beer, Infinium, and what is the hype about? Well, it's billed as the first new beer style in years, and one that is designed to fit into the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity law, which dates back to 1516 and states that all beer must contain only water, malt and hops. Of course, the law was repealed years ago, but many German brewers still proclaim to brew under the law. Samuel Adams has brewed this beer as a collaboration with one such brewery, Weihenstephan of Germany, which is said to be the oldest brewery in the world. The goal from the beginning was to create a new style that could still be made under old German laws. Now let's quote from the incredibly bad press release that accompanied the beer:
"Thanks to Infinium™, a crisp, new champagne-like beer that sets a new standard inf brewing, men now have the ultimate drink with which to celebrate this holiday season."
That intro to the news already sets a tone that makes me think I am about to be sold a new InBev spinoff, wannabe craft product. Also, what is with the direct reference to "men" having a new drink to celebrate with? Why not women? The press release continues to describe the beer itself:
"Infinium pours out a deep golden color with fine bubbles and has a fruity, elegant aroma. Its crisp acidity gives it a dryness and tartness on the palate that is balanced with a smooth malt body. Infinium is packaged in 750mL cork-finished bottles and contains 10.3 percent alcohol by volume, twice the amount of an average beer."
Champagne-like beers are nothing new. Numerous brewers have attempted the style, including Golden Valley here out in McMinnville, OR with the Champagne Vs. Brut.

The press release continues to make references to how much men will love this beer:
"men are eager to celebrate with beer throughout the holiday season. Infinium’s light, sparkling character is a welcome complement to all festivities, allowing drinkers to enjoy the best of both worlds."
Sorry, Sam Adams, but this whole deal reeks of trying too hard to win back the hearts of beer geeks (or perhaps just men). They must not have gotten the memo that women are a huge, fast growing segment of craft beer buyers. Based on the press release, I became pretty disinterested in this beer, with the only real question being "how is this a new style of beer?" The answer came in a pretty good interview with Samuel Adams Founder and Brewer, Jim Koch, in Serious Eats. Jim explains that they changed the malting process to create the style:
"Basically we changed the malting process to be much much longer, and at much lower temperatures, to create a stable malt that still included almost all of the enzymes that are original to the barley itself. It's not just another day or two, it's a multiple. You could think of it as three or four times as long, it's not quite that simple, but that's a good way to think about it. In the brewing process, we took part of the mash at a certain stage in its development, and put it in the fermenter. and again, allowed it to remain active for several weeks, rather than the normal one hour or so that you have in the brewhouse."
Something like that is a good example of how a bigger brewery really does have the leeway to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, though I am not sure this qualifies. How exactly does the extended malting process affect the grain, and how does it contribute to a new style of beer? Making a light, dry, fruity, and effervescent beer takes no new innovation and scarcely defines a new style.

Jim Koch, photo by Liz Clayton (Serious Eats)

The interview is filled with rich quotes like:
"Sam Adams has been arguably the most innovative brewer in the US for the last 20 years,"
But my favorite one is this thinly-veiled barb towards Dogfish Head Brewing:
"We can all throw Chinese gooseberries or Buddha's hand into the brew kettle"
That is an amusing jab, but it also smacks of desperation. The day may have come where Sam Adams is no longer seen as a craft brewer and is no longer on the cutting edge, but Jim Koch is not about to let that happen without a fight. It remains to be seen whether Infinium is a good beer, but simply rehashing tricks that have already become old hat (collaborations, new techniques, and faux new beer styles) is not going to do it. Don't even get me started on what the point in brewing under Reinheitsgebot even is?! Either way, I am still looking forward to trying Infinium to see what the fuss is all about so maybe it is working.


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11 comments:

  1. Maybe I'm wrong but I think it has everything to do with being seen as the 'little guy'. American culture likes to root for the underdog and once someone (or organization) gets too big, we quit hoping for its success or even being interested much in what it has to offer.

    Being seen as the littlest giant, if you will, means that people will still listen to what people at Sam Adams have to say about brewing and beer.

    There is seemingly little room it seems for those midrange organizations that get to be big enough to sustain some profits but small enough they can do some interesting things without customers being turned away.

    Finally, it may just be that the people at Sam Adams worked damned hard to capture the attention and the goodwill of craft brewers worldwide and don't feel like they should have to give it up. They made their bones, if you will and it stings their pride to have mooks who couldn't care less about the quality of their beer detract from them. Suddenly they're Budweiser or Coors and they don't like that company.

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  2. Perhaps Sam Adams ought to take a cue from companies like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. These are very large breweries with widespread distribution and accessible flagship products, but they are still able to release products for their (relatively) niche audience of craft aficionados, and do so with the full credibility of any other celebrated (and smaller) craft brewery.

    How? Well, first, the beer's good. And second, it's all done very straightforwardly, without any PR hyperbole or excessive self-aggrandizement.

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  3. Ha... "Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria."

    That's funny... almost any HUGE brewery could fit that if it was founded as a craft brewery.

    ~Dan

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  4. I would have to search for the reference but I recall reading in the past about the battle of beer and wine. I believe Sam Adams was trying to develop more "wine-like" beers. This seems to be derived from that mission (and explains why they mention how men now have something to drink on the holidays because everyone knows only women drink wine). Just trying to add a little perspective...

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  5. Who the heck reads this blog AND thinks that New Belgium is any good? That's what's weird...

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  6. Reminds me a lot of the Estrella Damm INEDIT press release last year that said they created the perfect beer to be paired with food.

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  7. NB ain't bad. I'd drink it over Sammy Adams. I mean, there are way better beers out there, but NB ain't bad.

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  8. I read this blog and think that New Belgium, at least some of their beers, is good. Sometimes you just want a six pack of something that isn't IPA. Their 1554 and Tripel are both pretty good 'regular drinking' beers, as I like to call them.

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  9. I hold a special place in my heart for SA. I think SA Lager was one of the first Craft beers I ever drank and it was a wonderfully well crafted and still is. While I don't like all their beers, I do think they have never stacked on quality brewing products. That said, plenty of other big breweries have caved into dumbing down their beers over the years. Sa makes 30 different beers! Anybody want to start naming them off?

    I can start with New Belgium and work my way into the local Oregon scene.

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  10. I have no issue with Sam Adams calling itself a craft brewery--you judge a beer by the beer, not the size of the brewery.

    On the other hand, I had an interesting experience in New England over Thanksgiving. My mostly-Boston-based in-laws, who have gotten pretty seriously into good beer, now eschew Sam Adams. They claim it isn't as good anymore. I suspect this has more to do with their evolving palates than Boston Beer, but I did take note. The challenges for a mid-sized national brewery are a lot different than those of small regional craft breweries.

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  11. I read this Blog AND have no problems with NB. I have no complaints what so ever with Ranger IPA and some of their other offerings. I enjoy the fact that I can get some hop character from Ranger without it being a bitter bomb. Nice change of pace sometimes.

    I am not the biggest fan of Sam Adams beer but I do give them credit. I have lived places where the best beer I could get was the Sam Adams line. I appreciated being able to choose their porter over BMG. I wasn't jumping for joy at the choice but I was thankful for it.

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Try not to be a dick.