This Thursday 200 strangers were the first to taste an exclusive new Samuel Adams beer. The twist? We were 30,000 feet in the air.
On a JetBlue flight from New York to Denver, Boston Beer Company co-founder Jim Koch hosted what he believes was the first-ever inflight beer tasting in history. He personally guided passengers on a flight of three Samuel Adams beers: a classic Octoberfest; a 28 percent ABV brew called Utopias that retails for $200 per bottle; and Sam ‘76, an ale and lager yeast combo making its worldwide debut.
About two-thirds of the passengers had no idea they were (probably) making aviation history. The “Flytoberfest” had been featured in publications like Conde Nast Traveler and Fortune as an opportunity to try “an extreme beer coveted by beer geeks” en route to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). But the majority of fliers had not heard the news prior to boarding.
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“If we get free drinks on this flight I’m going to be so excited,” a woman exclaimed while walking past me to find her seat. When an airline attendant asked who was going to the Great American Beer Festival, the woman beside me joked, “Wait, so everyone here is NOT going to Cathy’s wedding?” The pilot hardly mentioned Koch in a speech he made before the flight. The only hint was goody bags on each seat filled with a tasting guide, swag, and Koch’s 2016 book, “Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two.”
Regardless of how many passengers were aware of or interested in Koch’s message, the mission was clear. Boston Beer Company’s public stock price has been flagging in recent months, leading one investment bank to suggest that the largest craft brewery in America might sell to a macro brewer. The inflight tasting was an attempt to build awareness of the company’s flagship brand, Samuel Adams.
As craft breweries are acquired with alarming frequency, the battle for sales, shelf space, and consumer esteem skyrockets. In the pull between craft and marketing, Boston Beer Company was raising the stakes. Enter Jim Koch — author, billionaire entrepreneur, and consummate salesman.
Tasting the Difference
Any beer consumed 30,000-plus feet in the air must be “flavorfully balanced, clean, and stand up well to the altitude,” Koch told me. “I believe altitude can help with the aromatics with all these volatiles,” he added. “The lower the pressure, the more volatiles.”
Hosting an in-air tasting isn’t exactly the best way to show off a flight of beers. A study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Germany found that taste perception is decreased by around 30 percent when you’re in the air. Desert-dry air impacts our sense of smell, which is primarily how we taste. Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, told The New York Times that the jet-engine background noise suppresses sweet and salt perception. The low air pressure doesn’t help, either.
Umami is the only flavor that isn’t severely negatively impacted, which is why umami-rich Bloody Marys are a go-to drink for travelers. But beer drinkers have more and more inflight options. In 2013, Mikkel Borg Biergso from the Copenhagen-based Mikkeller brewery made a line of beers specifically for flying, and the Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific has a special line of airline beers as well with honey and “dragon eye,” a lychee-like fruit.
Koch’s tasting aimed to counter the effects of our 35,375-foot elevation. He said he chose to feature beers with low bitterness. The Octoberfest’s big grain flavors showed through in the air, with the bitterness coming in just a little higher than usual. Sam ’76 had the nose of an ale but finished clean and refreshing. While it was endlessly crushable on an airline, it’s one that I’d love to try again on solid ground. Utopias showed the best, with strong prune and Port aromas filling the cabin as soon as the bottles were opened. It tasted like a balanced, viscous fine wine, somewhere between a bourbon-barrel Cognac and an easy-drinking sherry without an ethanol attack on your taste buds.
Koch himself seemed just as excited to drink the beers as those of us on the fight. He went to the PA system in his denim Sam Adams shirt and khakis to talk through each beer in between sips. If part of any tasting is the experience, then hearing the maker wax poetic about what was in the glass certainly sharpened any senses dulled by elevation.
The fact of the matter is that good beer isn’t enough in a crowded craft-beer market. The GABF alone features more than 800 brewers, and there are more than 5,200 craft breweries in the country.
As Koch enthusiastically manned the plane’s PA system, a line in his book caught my eye: “Just do me a favor,” Koch recalls his father telling him when he said he was going to start a brewery with the family recipe. “Make a good beer, and don’t worry about the marketing. Don’t get distracted. Just worry about the beer.” Then he writes, “I promised him I would.”
The book returns to this idea repeatedly, particularly in a chapter titled, “The Difference Between Sex and Masturbation,” which likens marketing to masturbation. Koch writes that being told his company has good marketing is a backhanded compliment because “it implies that the marketing is more important than the beer.”
On Thursday, Koch was personally marketing his beers to a crowd for whom seat-back movie choices occasionally outranked tasting new and valuable beers. An older woman next to me took off her shoes and socks, and rubbed her feet the whole time the tasting was going on, without ever touching a beer. While Koch was on the PA, a woman in sweatpants squeezed past him to get to the bathroom. A man in front of me kept referring to Koch as “Mr. Sam Adams.”
Yet once the tasting was over, people who didn’t know his name before asked him to sign their books. He asked every person what they thought about each beer they tasted, especially the brand-new Sam ‘76. His attempts to personally connect with the tasters, regardless of their passion, recalled his early days of selling Sam Adams Boston Lager bar to bar, and saved the event from devolving into pure stunt.
It might not be the sort of large-scale marketing effort that would keep an investment bank from advising corporate acquisition (a spokesperson from Samuel Adams told VinePair that the flight was planned long before investment banks started buyout rumors), but it was Koch’s style of marketing: beer first, even if what surrounds it is outrageous, headline-making fodder.
“What better thing to do than drink beer with 200 of your new friends,” Koch said over the intercom near the end of the flight. “Cheers.”