More than two centuries after the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, sparked a political revolution, another Bostonian attempted to launch a revolution of his own; this time in the brewing industry.
On Patriots’ Day 1985, as the opening battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord were being re-enacted, Boston Beer Company Founder Jim Koch introduced his new craft beer at about 35 bars and restaurants in Boston. Koch, a sixth-generation brewer, used the same family recipe developed by his great-great-grandfather in the 1860s to brew Louis Koch Lager in St. Louis, Missouri. But rather than reviving the family name on the brew, Koch instead chose to name his beer after his favorite revolutionary patriot—and brewer—Samuel Adams.
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Since the introduction of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, the brewery has led an American Craft Beer revolution. Today, Samuel Adams is the largest and one of the most award-winning craft brewers in the United States The smiling illustration of the well-coiffed patriot hoisting a foaming tankard is one of the most iconic in the beer industry.
“I had always admired Samuel Adams’s role in the American Revolution,” Koch said. “As the rabble-rouser, he was the most independent-minded of the founding fathers.” Plus, as it was for Koch, beer was part of the Adams family business.
Along with the garden and small orchard that graced the backyard of the future rebel’s boyhood home was a malt house owned by his father, Deacon Samuel Adams. In addition to serving as a minister, justice of the peace, selectman, and member of the colonial legislature, the elder Adams made malted barley and supplied it to brewers as an ingredient for their beer. Upon the death of his father in 1748, the young patriot inherited the family estate, including the malting business.
Samuel Adams Tried the Beer Business
It’s unclear if Adams himself was a brewer, but colonial records reveal that he was at least a maltster and involved in the beer business. A 1751 advertisement in the Boston Evening Post read, “Strong beer, or malt for those who incline to brew it themselves; to be sold by Samuel Adams, at a very reasonable rate.”
While Samuel Adams craft beer has become a success in the beer business, the same could not have been said of Samuel Adams himself, says Lauren Clark, author of Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day. “Malting wasn’t what Sam Adams was into,” she says. “He was more into starting a revolution and being a politician.”
Financial management was not Adams’s forte. After being elected tax collector in 1756, Adams performed his duties so poorly that he soon ended up indebted to the government. Within years of inheriting his father’s malt house, the business was bankrupt and the building itself began to crumble. The family estate was put up for public auction, but Adams successfully intimidated anyone who thought of buying it. His political opponents seized upon his business failures and mocked him as “Sam the Maltster.”
Adams found his calling as the charismatic firebrand who fanned the flames of independence. He proved more adept at following in his father’s political footsteps rather than in his business. The future signatory of the Declaration of Independence was a primary organizer of the Sons of Liberty, a group that came together in 1765 to oppose the Stamp Act.
Sons of Liberty Met in Taverns
Inside the public houses of Boston, such as the Green Dragon Tavern, Adams met with Paul Revere, John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren and other members of the Sons of Liberty to share not only food and drink but intelligence on the movement of British troops around Boston. “When it wasn’t being fought on the battlefields, the American Revolution played out in taverns,” Clark says.
Adams even wielded beer as a political weapon for independence by calling for a boycott of British imports. “It is to be hoped, that the gentlemen of the town will endeavor to bring our own October Beer [strong beer] into fashion again,” he wrote in an advertisement, “so that we may no longer be beholden to foreigners for acredible liquor, which may be as successfully manufactured in this country.”
“Sam Adams embarked on this ‘Buy American’ campaign,” Clark says. “He implored New England brewers to make a better product so that the colonists could drink local brews and not have to depend on imports from England.”
The irony is that thanks to Koch, the name of the failed maltster is now synonymous with a craft beer, and the higher-quality suds that Adams once called upon American brewers to produce now bear his name and likeness.