Fred Hessler is your average accountant who makes beer on the weekends using a 10-gallon kettle propped up on a back-porch turkey fryer. You know the type.
"My wife really doesn’t like the smell of boiling wort," he explains. "She thinks it stinks up the house."
Like many home brewers, Hessler also makes a lot of beer styles that aren’t readily available commercially. So when Hessler came up with Derf’s Secret Alt, a big, malty beer with 9.3 percent alcohol that had to be cold-aged for several months in an extra refrigerator in his basement, he was in a bind. "There are only a few people in the world who make that style," he says. He wanted more people to taste it. And his brew seemed good enough to sell.
Turns out, his employer was in a position to help. Hessler might be a number cruncher, but it’s for Boston Beer Company, the maker of Samuel Adams Boston Lager and America’s largest craft brewer. The company made roughly $60 million last year. Still, its prodcuts account for just 1 percent of the total beer market. The rest is dominated by lite beer behemoths like InBev and Miller-Coors.
"We are basically the tallest pygmy. Being small is a just a fact of life for us," says founder and head brewer Jim Koch. In total, Boston Beer now has around 60 different libations, most of which are seasonal or sold in limited quantities. All that variation requires some serious inspiration. To help find it, in 1995 the company launched LongShot, an innovation pipeline that brings both new brews and new ideas for future beverages to light through annual competition. Each May, home-brewers from inside and outside the company are encouraged to submit their best concoctions for formal judging. The best three—two from non-employees, and one in-house— are ultimately released to stores as a six-pack.
For Koch, the release of that crowdsourced sixer is just the beginning. The competition itself acts as a place for future recipe inspiration. "This is going to sound almost karmic. You need energy sources that stimulate you," Koch says. "The idea that you can sit in a room by yourself and come up with a great idea, I don’t think it works that way. I think creativity and innovation happen when you are in contact with other creative and innovative people doing creative, innovative things."
To that end, LongShot submissions that didn’t quite make the cut have inspired other ideas over the years, everything from Sam Adam’s Blackberry Whit, to Vixen, a chocolate-chili-bock that won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. In those cases Koch used simple concepts that he’d noticed in LongShot entries—for instance, lots of people seemed obsessed with chili as a core ingredient—and used that as a jumping-off point to tinker. "It’s not copying what they have done, it’s more like being stimulated by what they have done," Koch says. To keep that idea flow going outside contest submissions and even outside the company, he also stimulates other upstart craft brewers through a micro-loan program called Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream, which gives grants and coaching to small entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry. Since its inception in 2008, the program has provided $1.9 million in micro-financing to 220 businesses nationwide, including 8 small brewers.
Among employees, LongShot is open to all-comers from all departments. Brewers can’t win, and for good reason: Over the years, it seems like that’s freed the folks in sales, legal, or the IT department to think less traditionally, pushing their own brewing boundaries in creative, unexpected ways. Koch says nearly half of their 840-person workforce participates, making LongShot the sort of bonding experience that also reinforces the quality of their products. "You think of beer differently when you’ve actually made it at home," he says. For Hessler, who has been home brewing for 13 years but only working for Boston Beer for five, the competition seemed like an additional bonus after getting hired. "It kind of lets me meld my profession with my passion," he says. In mid-2011, he submitted Derf’s to LongShot and then joined in another contest-inspired outlet for team building—the impromptu office happy hour of everyone’s leftover samples. "It’s kind of a group thing even though we are all making our own," he says.
Since launching LongShot, figuring out how to judge the 1,000 submissions a year has been a sobering experience. After an early attempt to have his brewers taste test everything in-house, Koch decided he needed to somehow outsource that workload. Long term, he’d also need to find a smart way to keep publicizing the contest to spur more participation.
Today, preliminary competition is broken into three regional events in Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago where a total of 200 American Homebrewers Association Beer Judge Certificate Program certified beer judges pick nine beers—three from each region—to advance. A final tasting is then held in Boston in front of a panel of experts including Koch, his in-house brewers, and several industry journalists. For employees, the process is different. The first round of judging is done by a panel of typically 20 employees. The second is made up of six brewery staffers with specially trained palates to help identify flavors and style. In October, that trio is flown to the Great American Beer Fest for a live pour-off. Members of the convention’s crowd cast their votes to declare a winner.
It’s all a great way to keep publicizing the competition. And the two consumer-side winners are flown out, too. Once an employee winner is chosen, all three victors can return to the festival floor to do a victory pouring of their soon-to-be commercialized beverages.
In October 2011, Hessler’s Secret-Alt won. It was released in February 2012, alongside a Dunkel-style lager by home brewer Corey Martin from Austin, Texas, and an Imperial Stout by Joe Formanek from Chicago. For a logo, each got their face on their bottle. No one earned any sort of payment for the release and recipe option, but that doesn’t matter to Hessler, who feels compensated in other ways. For just making the finals, he got to bring a guest to GABF. (He took his father, also named Fred, who got him into home brewing in the first place.) All employee finalists also earned an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Munich for Oktoberfest. Considering her patience for his hobby, he took his wife, Tori, on that one.
For Hessler, another payoff came from the pride of hosting a tasting at his local liquor store and the flood of notes and photos sent by friends who discovered his beer at their own stores around the country. His wife also doesn’t have to smell that particular brewing process for a while; Boston Beer kicked in a nice stockpile of gratis six-packs.
When the competition came around this year, Hessler entered another creation, a harvest ale made with fermented apples and spices. He already knows it didn’t win—the latest selections were announced last fall and hit stores in April; they include an Imperial IPA, a Beerflower Wheat, and a Strawberry Lager made by Dave Anderson, who's been with the company since 2007. But Hessler isn’t disappointed. "I’m going to enter every year," he says. "Even if you don’t win we end up sharing our passion with our co-workers, so it’s fun."
Koch purposely doesn’t keep track the costs to keep it all running. "To me, looking at cost is not the right approach," he says. "It’s not the cost of innovation we have to worry about. What you have to think about is the costs of not innovating. If we continue to do really cool beers we are going to have a successful business."
[Beer Hops: Alexander Pekour via Shutterstock]