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Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two

Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two

by Jim Koch

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Founder of The Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and a key catalyst of the American craft beer revolution, Jim Koch offers his unique perspective when it comes to business, beer, and turning your passion into a successful company or career.

In 1984, it looked like an unwinnable David and Goliath struggle: one guy against the


Founder of The Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and a key catalyst of the American craft beer revolution, Jim Koch offers his unique perspective when it comes to business, beer, and turning your passion into a successful company or career.

In 1984, it looked like an unwinnable David and Goliath struggle: one guy against the mammoth American beer industry. When others scoffed at Jim Koch’s plan to leave his consulting job and start a brewery that would challenge American palates, he chose a nineteenth-century family recipe and launched Samuel Adams. Now one of America’s leading craft breweries, Samuel Adams has redefined the way Americans think about beer and helped spur a craft beer revolution.

In Quench Your Own Thirst, Koch offers unprecedented insights into the whirlwind ride from scrappy start-up to thriving public company. His innovative business model and refreshingly frank stories offer counterintuitive lessons that you can apply to business and to life.

Koch covers everything from finding your own Yoda to his theory on how a piece of string can teach you the most important lesson you’ll ever learn about business. He also has surprising advice on sales, marketing, hiring, and company culture. Koch’s anecdotes, quirky musings, and bits of wisdom go far beyond brewing. A fun, engaging guide for building a career or launching a successful business based on your passions, Quench Your Own Thirst is the key to the ultimate dream: being successful while doing what you love.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company and brewer of Samuel Adams beer, offers a worthy history of his company’s origins and the road to capturing a very respectable 1% of the American beer market. Koch was born into a family with five generations of brewers and became a successful management consultant. In 1984, he decided to resurrect the family brewing business using a recipe dating back to the 1860s. Within four years, the company was experiencing exponential growth. Koch both chronicles the company’s success and explores issues that many entrepreneurs wrestle with, including determining which kind of business to enter, and getting started once that decision is made. He recounts his struggles to get financing and find the right name; Liberty Tree, Sacred Cod, and Whipping Post were among the candidates before he finally settled on Samuel Adams. Other turning points include taking the company public, sustaining attacks from industry giants such as Anheuser-Busch, and handling the difficult departure of his founding partner, Rhonda Kallman. This is an engaging and well-written blend of stories from a beloved company’s founding and sound guidance on surmounting common dilemmas faced in business and in life. Agent: Jim Levine, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
The founder and brewer of Samuel Adams shares the story of Boston Beer Company, his business philosophy, and entrepreneurial tips. Today, craft beer is all the rage, but that wasn't the case in 1984, when Koch decided to quit his successful job as a management consultant to start the Boston Beer Company, which would become famous for Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Inspired by upstart San Francisco-based brewery Anchor Brewing, Koch set out to brew a high-quality, premium beverage that was basically nonexistent in the beer market at the time. In doing so, he became a pioneer of the craft, home-brew, and small-batch movements. However, Koch's desire to start a brewery was not a whim. He is a fifth-generation brewer, and the Samuel Adams recipe has been in the family since the 1860s. Invoking "the spirit of a tavern conversation," Koch's chatty prose is fun and jocular as he recounts the old days when he sold Samuel Adams by hand while touring Boston's bars and restaurants, giving impromptu taste tests and letting the quality of the beer do most of the talking. Koch does more than tell old war stories (a bar manager once pulled a gun on him during a cold call). He also shares nuggets of common-sense business wisdom, such as investing in the product over marketing, pursuing organic growth over growth at all costs, and setting challenging but attainable goals. Koch's wisdom is summed up in his koan: "No one climbs a mountain to get to the middle." As the brewery landed more accounts and sales increased domestically and abroad, it experienced all the growing pains of a budding business as Koch's once-ragtag organization quickly morphed into a more streamlined and professional operation. Always true to himself, the author's belief in Samuel Adams and the people around him is what makes his story and philosophy so genuine and endearing. Koch's down-to-earth personality, business advice, and passion are good models for those interested in making their own ways.
From the Publisher

"Quench Your Own Thirst is a frosty mug full of sound advice for turning passion into a great business."
—Tony Hsieh, New York Times bestselling author of Delivering Happiness and CEO of Zappos.com, Inc.

"Always true to himself, the author's belief in Samuel Adams and the people around him is what makes his story and philosophy so genuine and endearing. Koch's down-to-earth personality, business advice, and passion are good models for those interested in making their own ways. "
Kirkus Reviews

Quench Your Own Thirst introduces an engaging, down-to-earth, fifth-generation brew master who also happens to be a savvy, creative, disciplined business mastermind. Jim Koch’s story of how he built his beer company – and, incidentally, helped start a new industry in craft beer – serves candid, inspiring insights useful for entrepreneurs in any field. Koch’s practical optimism sets the standard for how business success and personal happiness can be beautifully connected.”
—Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and best-selling author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End and MOVE: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead

“Jim Koch has opened a lot of doors for craft breweries like mine who have succeeded based on the premise of challenging the status quo. Every entrepreneur and aspiring entrepreneur will find useful and sage advice between the covers of Quench Your Own Thirst -- and Jim’s personality, wisdom and sense of humor come through in his writing as crystal clear as a pint of Sam Adams Lager.”
—Sam Calagione, President & Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

"Like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and the other greats, Jim Koch's entrepreneurial journey is motivated by a deep commitment to making superb products and building a unique culture that reinforces innovation and risk-taking. This book tells a compelling story about how he did it. The lessons will be invaluable for anyone starting a business or building a career."
—Bill Hambrecht, co-founder or Hambrecht & Quist and chairman of WR Hambrecht + Co

“This is an engaging and well-written blend of stories from a beloved company’s founding and sound guidance on surmounting common dilemmas faced in business and in life.”
Publishers Weekly

“Anyone enjoying America's current Golden Age of Beer will be fascinated by Jim Koch's story of how it came to be. But this is really a book about the individual and team traits necessary to build any enterprise -- and about the paradoxical combination of hard-headed practicality, impractical dreaming, long-term vision, and minute-by-minute adaptability required for success. Jim Koch once called Samuel Adams beer 'America's classic lager.' He has written a classic American story of pluck, ingenuity, setbacks, and achievement, all in a tone of gently self-mocking humor.”
—James Fallows, National Correspondent at The Atlantic

“For me, Sam Adams was not only the best beer I've ever tasted but also the best investment I ever made.”
—John Paulson, Founder of Paulson & Co.

"[Koch] writes about building and running a company in a fun and folksy tone. He is also refreshingly candid about the hard battles and missteps along the way. Unlike many turgid, self-told business books, Quench Your Own Thirst goes down easy."

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Flatiron Books
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Read an Excerpt

Quench Your Own Thirst

Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two

By Jim Koch

Flatiron Books

Copyright © 2016 Jim Koch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-07051-7


Blow It Up

PEOPLE FREQUENTLY ASK how I could have given up a very good consulting job for a new and uncharted path as a brewer-entrepreneur. I was supporting a wife and two small children at the time; wasn't I scared to blow up my life like that? What if it failed?

Well, there were two sides to it. On the one hand, I liked my job, but I didn't love it, and I was willing to take a risk in order to do something I loved. On the other hand, blowing up my life wasn't as scary as it might seem. Growing up, I watched my dad leave his career as a brewer to start a new one as an entrepreneur. First, he took a sales position with a company that sold brewing chemicals, and then a few years after that he started his own company distributing industrial chemicals. He worked long hours but enjoyed being his own boss, answering only to himself.

Throughout my childhood, my dad's mantra was: Every problem has a solution. This optimistic yet pragmatic perspective helped my dad overcome any fears he might have had as he started his own business — and, I might add, it helped him in the rest of his life, too. When my dad was eighty, a hip replacement he'd gotten years before was giving out and walking was becoming extremely painful. Meanwhile, my mother was suffering from Parkinson's disease, a condition that robbed them of those "golden years" of retirement. It would have been easy for my father to feel powerless and fall into depression. But you know what he told me one day over lunch? He said, "Jim, can you believe this? I'm eighty! This is so great. I never thought I'd live to be eighty. Nobody in our family ever has. This is wonderful! I've got so much to be happy about."

As a kid, I watched my dad's pragmatic optimism in action every day. But I didn't just soak it in; I put it into practice myself. When the washing machine broke, Dad and I went down to the cellar with a toolbox, took the thing apart, and figured out what was wrong. When my sister was old enough to drive, Dad and I went out to the garage every night for a month and fixed up his rusty old Ford convertible for her. We filled the body panels with Bondo and fiberglass and sanded down the exterior, taped it, and spray-painted it ourselves. When we wanted to fence in our backyard for the dogs, Dad showed up with a trailer full of fence posts, and we spent the weekend with a posthole digger. "Oh, crap," I remember thinking when I saw that trailer. But we put in five hundred feet of fence, one hole at a time. It lasted twenty-five years.

We enjoyed our share of family activities, but the ones I remember most growing up had to do with work, not play. No job was a "dirty" job; all work was worthwhile and valued as a craft. One year my family and I planted thousands of Christmas trees on our farm. Other times my brother and I went to my dad's company and helped him fill drums of chemicals. (We didn't know it then, but these chemicals, which included aromatic solvents like trichloroethane and perchlorethylene, were carcinogens. But they smelled wonderful.) When I was a teenager, I had a business mowing lawns in the summer and shoveling snow in winter. Another summer, I tarred driveways. I had to wrestle these huge, eight-hundred-pound drums off trucks and squeegee tar into cracks in the asphalt. I was dressed head to toe, even in the summer heat, to keep the tar off my skin.

All these chores and jobs forced me to solve problems, and to rely on my own resources to do it. When obstacles arose, I thought, Okay, there's a solution out there. Maybe I can't see it, but it exists. I have everything I need inside me to find it. If I try hard and still don't see the answer, then maybe I need to start fresh. Eventually, I will see it. Every problem has a solution.

By the time I reached my mid-thirties, starting a company didn't seem fundamentally different from any other practical task I'd attempted. I wasn't terrified at the prospect of leaving stability and familiarity behind, because I knew things would work out. Even if the solution to a problem didn't come to me immediately, I knew that if I hung in there, I would find it. I just needed to be in the right frame of mind to see it.

* * *

DOING SOMETHING YOU LOVE isn't the only reason to start a new life. You could also do it to find out what you love, or to prevent yourself from moving too far down a track you suspect isn't for you.

Starting Boston Beer was actually the second time I'd blown up my life. Once before, sensing that I had put myself on the wrong career track, I stopped the train and let myself off.

The year was 1973. I was twenty-four years old, and instead of working toward something I cared about, I had enrolled in graduate school, a dual J.D./M.B.A. program at Harvard. I had gone to Harvard as an undergraduate, and now I felt like I was in "nineteenth grade," sequestered in what was essentially a womb with a view. I was starting to make permanent commitments and choices, but I knew I didn't want to practice law or work in a big company, the two paths my classmates were running down. There must have been other options out there, but I didn't know what they were. How could I have known? I hadn't really done anything in my life but go to school.

I felt trapped, like I was floating down a pounding river. If I continued on toward graduation, I would be routed onto a life stream I didn't want. The only choice was to stop the momentum toward "the rest of my life." So that's what I did. I wrote letters to the deans of Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, telling them I was dropping out. They urged me to reconsider, since I would have to reapply for admission if I wanted to return. But I had decided. I didn't want to go where the river was taking me.

A friend of mine was working as an instructor at Outward Bound, an intensive outdoor program designed to foster mental toughness. Having fallen in love with hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor sports in college, and having saved up a little money from manual labor jobs I had been working, I decided to try it for the summer. I accepted an internship at the Colorado school, which turned out to be a great move. Outward Bound gave me a chance to open my mind and see life from a new perspective far away from Harvard. On our expeditions, we didn't live off the land (poisonous plants look pretty much like safe ones, and the animals you can catch and kill often have diseases). Rather, in our forty-pound packs, we carried the stuff we would need: food, fuel, and gear for two weeks until resupply. We were off the grid, totally self-sufficient. Each morning, we got up, looked at the map, and figured out how we were going to get to our next campsite. In the middle of the twenty-eight-day course was the "solo." For three days, each person was completely alone. You had your tarp and sleeping bag, your place where you stayed, six matches, and a dozen saltines. And a notebook. It's an experience most people never have in their entire life. No people, no books, nothing but your own thoughts. The solitude and loneliness of the wilderness was strange at first, but I quickly got used to it. It was a way for me to cast aside the weight of other people's expectations and come to grips with my true self.

The summer went quickly, and eventually I got promoted to full instructor. I got used to not living anywhere, sometimes from one resupply point to another. I found it invigorating to have no real responsibilities except to myself — life was now a blank canvas, every day a new choice.

Over the next three years, I was at Outward Bound schools in the mountains of Colorado, the desert in Texas, the mountains in Oregon, the lakes of Minnesota, and the rivers and mountains of British Columbia. During the winters, I left Outward Bound and spent stretches of time working odd jobs and projects in Cambridge, Seattle, and Cincinnati. Even when I was back in civilization, I spent weekends mountaineering, rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, canoeing, and backpacking. I climbed mostly in the Pacific Northwest, where unclimbed peaks still existed. There were peaks in the North Cascades where I'd say to myself, surveying the panoramic view, Wow, it's possible that no other human being has ever stood on this spot.

In retrospect, that's kind of what I was doing with my life — charting my own path. It may have seemed like I was a "dropout," and in a literal sense I was. I was moving in no particular direction, toward no particular goal. To my Harvard classmates, I looked like a loser. But I was also laying the foundation for life as an entrepreneur. I thought of myself as gathering my forces.

Should you change something big in your life? Should you switch departments or take on a new role? Should you quit your job and start a business? I can't tell you that. What I do know is you shouldn't settle when it comes to work and career. If you're going to work hard, you should find it satisfying and meaningful. Work is too much a part of your life and identity not to. The right career for you is out there, and it's worth a lot of searching — years, even — to find it. Take some risks; blow it all up if you have to. And start anew. After all, most risks aren't really risky. Isn't the biggest risk of all that you'll waste your life doing what you don't really enjoy doing, making compromise after compromise?


Turn Your Receiver On

BACK IN 1983, when I started thinking about starting my own business, I had no idea what it would be. It's not like I had always been obsessed with beer. Sure, beer was a fairly strong presence in our family life when I was growing up; I visited breweries with my father on many occasions, and, in keeping with our German heritage, we kids were sometimes given a little beer with dinner. But that didn't translate automatically into an irresistible business idea. When I first thought of leaving my job at Boston Consulting Group, I was more attuned to what I didn't want out of a job. I loved the intellectual challenge of consulting, but the constant business travel had gotten to me. I wanted to see more of my family while doing something I enjoyed, something that was meaningful.

Somehow, being in the position of not knowing exactly what kind of business to start didn't cause me to freak out. Instead, I tuned in. At BCG, I had traveled around the country helping industrial companies solve strategic problems in their foundries, paper mills, and factories. I was so busy focusing on the job every day, week, and month that I didn't think about possible ideas for starting my own business. Why would I? Entrepreneurs weren't high profile back in 1983. Successful entrepreneurs in Boston worked mostly in the high-tech industry, which didn't appeal to me. And entrepreneurship didn't have the cachet it enjoys today (this was pre–Internet revolution and pre–Steve Jobs ruling the universe). For a young professional with a good education, starting a business seemed eccentric and a little peculiar. Most people just aspired to a good job in a big company.

Once I decided that I wanted to start my own company, ideas started popping up out of nowhere. Business ideas are like radio signals. They're out there, and, in fact, they surround us. The trick is to turn your receiver on so you can tune in. Once my receiver was turned on, I was almost overwhelmed with possibilities, opportunities, and ideas.

One idea I had was to start a business putting private telephone branch exchanges into apartment buildings. Back then, a building with thirty apartments had at least thirty landlines coming into it. You paid for each of them but you didn't need all of them, because a relatively small percentage of residents were on the phone at any given time. If you figured out the usage patterns, you could put in a switch and those thirty condos could share, say, ten lines at a third of the cost.

I'm glad I didn't pursue that idea. Drastic changes in the telecommunications industry made it obsolete ten years later. Who has landlines anymore? Another idea I had was to create small, stand-alone emergency rooms — what is now called a "doc-in-a-box." It's very expensive to treat people in traditional emergency rooms. Hospital ERs are inefficient because you have to be prepared to treat all patients — kids with colds alongside people with life-threatening catastrophes. If your emergency isn't life threatening, you can sit for hours in a germy waiting room. I thought I could staff and equip a small emergency room at half the price of a conventional one. But, as with the landline idea, I researched this one, talked about it with others, and concluded that I couldn't make it work. (Since then, others have found a business model that does work. Every problem has a solution.)

One day in the winter of 1983, about a year before I told my dad my plans and he gave me the family recipe, my dad handed me an Inc. magazine article about Fritz Maytag (of the washing machine family). Maytag had spent a lot of family money resurrecting the defunct Anchor Brewing Company and putting out a craft beer called Anchor Steam. Fritz later told me about his experience with small-scale brewing in a memorable quote: "If you want to make a small fortune brewing beer, start with a large fortune."

My dad wasn't trying to spark an idea in me; he just thought the article was interesting and a little weird. Yet it caught my imagination. Huh, I thought, I don't have Fritz Maytag's family fortune, but maybe there's another way to start a brewery. There is nothing like Anchor Steam in Boston. Maybe I can tap a market, however small, for good beer. I had been home brewing off and on for a few years, seeing it as a way to feel connected to my family's heritage (President Jimmy Carter had only legalized home brewing in 1978 and it hadn't yet become popular). I understood the basics and, having worked with manufacturing processes at the consulting company, I also thought I had a basic understanding of what was required to brew great beer consistently and on a commercial scale.

I realized that I would face several challenges in getting this business off the ground. First, I would have to persuade drinkers to pay a premium for a beer that was richer and more flavorful than the pale, bland beers that were then as ubiquitous as Coke and Pepsi. I would also need to change the minds of drinkers who preferred imports, teaching them that the skunky aroma and cardboard taste they thought they liked were really just signs of stale beer. (The green or clear bottles favored by imports allowed light to get in, promoting a reaction with oxygen called oxidation. Fusel alcohols, acetaldehyde, trans-2-nonenal, and other molecules that produced a stale, cardboard flavor.)

Next, I would need to demonstrate something far more difficult: that an American brewer could brew beer that was as good as or better than the pricey European brews. Despite the imports' skunky taste, beer drinkers assumed that if a beer came from Germany or Belgium or even Canada or Mexico, it had to be better than American beer. And they were probably right: Virtually all American beer was watery, fizzy, and inexpensive. Yet America had once made many big, flavorful beers. We had a much more distinguished brewing tradition than people realized. It was time to help people rediscover that.

If I could overcome all of these hurdles in educating drinkers, then the real Beer 101 would start. I would need to teach drinkers about the importance of brown bottles over green (to protect the beer from the damaging effects of light), about the reliable freshness of our product, and about quality ingredients and brewing practices. If I could teach drinkers all that, then, I thought, they would seek out a beer brewed in America using the world's best ingredients and packaged to protect the integrity of the beer.


Excerpted from Quench Your Own Thirst by Jim Koch. Copyright © 2016 Jim Koch. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jim Koch is the founder of The Boston Beer Company and brewer of Samuel Adams. He founded the company in 1984 using his great-great grandfather’s recipe and set to the task of revolutionizing American beer. Samuel Adams Boston Lager has been an important catalyst in the American Craft Beer Revolution for more than thirty years, bringing full-flavored, award-winning beer to the American beer landscape. The Boston Beer Company has become one of the leading American craft breweries and now accounts for just over one percent of the U.S. beer market.

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