THE MAN SITTING across the table from me in the Camden Club was telling me what I wanted to hear: "It is a great time to be a beer drinker in America."
So said James Koch, the scion of a Cincinnati brewer and founder of the Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams beers and the most prominent microbrewery in America.
"Sam Adams and the other American craft brewers are making the best beer in the world," he said.
At 51, Koch is still the slim, boyish-looking type he was 14 years ago, when I first met him at a beer tasting in Washington. A graduate of Harvard, he was returning to making beer, the line of work that five generations before him had practiced from Germany to Cincinnati. And Koch was advocating the then-novel idea that small American breweries could produce world-class, flavorful beers, distinctly different from the popular pale Pilsners made by Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors.
That was back in 1986, in the early days of what was to become the American craft-beer movement. In the intervening years there has been a boom in microbreweries, with new ones sprouting faster than dandelions. Then in the 1990s there was a contraction, as breweries shriveled in the heat of competition. Last year, more microbreweries closed than opened in the United States, a dubious first for the industry.
But, according to industry analysts, the shakeout is over. There now appears to be some stabilization on the beer scene, as surviving craft brewers put down roots and battle imported beers, like Beck's, Heineken, Corona and Guinness, for the small slice of American beer drinkers willing to pay premium prices for better beer.
Koch stopped in Baltimore last week as part of 10-city swing promoting the joys of drinking American craft beer. At each stop along the way, Koch supervised a blind taste test, matching unmarked glasses of his beers and beers from a few regional brewers against unmarked glasses of the imports. I got an invitation to one of these 10-beer lunches, held at the Camden Club, and could not turn it down.
Before we sipped beer, Koch and I drank cups of black coffee and talked about the craft-brewing scene. Koch was, as the communications consultants say, "on message," and just like 14 years ago, his message was that flavor matters.
According to Koch, the fact that imports now constitute a record 9.2 percent of the American beer market is due to strong advertising campaigns. In Koch's view, over the last two decades, American microbrewers raised public awareness of new beer styles, only to have the better-financed imports move in and reap the consumer harvest.
"Once we woke people up that there were interesting beers out there, the imports came in with their marketing blitzes," Koch said. He called the popularity of the imports "a phase."
"When it comes down to the flavor - to tasting the beer - we are fine. Samuel Adams and the other craft brewers might not have the best advertising ... but we have the flavor. And, as a brewer, I believe the better beers will ultimately win."
Koch said that during the shakeout among microbrewers, those who emphasized flavor, not gimmicks, were the ones that survived. "Look at Hugh Sisson," Koch said, referring to the founder of Clipper City Brewing, a Baltimore-area brewer. "He was a pioneer of craft beer, and he is still making a good beer."
Koch said he included two regional beers - DeGroen's Pilsner and Yuengling lager - in the 10-beer tasting as a bow to the work of local brewers.
The tasting went quickly. Our group of 18 tasters, composed primarily of folks employed in the retail liquor business, sipped 10 glasses of beer, presented in sets of two. We rated the beers on a 25-point scale, for aroma, appearance, mouth feel and flavor. When the scores were tallied, the identities of beers were revealed. The results showed the group preferred:
Samuel Adams Summer Ale over Corona
DeGroen's Pilsner over Pilsner Urquell
Yuengling lager over Beck's
Samuel Adams lager over Heineken
Samuel Adams Cream Stout over Guinness Export Stout.
In each of the five pairings, the American-made beer had outscored the import.
Such a subjective test is, I think, subject to question. The brewers of imported beers might be able to assemble a panel of tasters that preferred the flavor of imported beers.
But to Koch, the meaning of the results was obvious: "The best place in the world to be a beer drinker," he said, "is the United States."