Off the coast of Finland, tucked away on sunken ninth-century Viking ships, divers have found bottles of an ancient ale called sahti. It is one of the oldest continually brewed beers in the world. According to historical records, women were the ones who concocted the beverage in farmhouses while the men went off to explore the world and fight battles. Sahti recipes often passed from mother to daughter through generations.
About a decade ago, the story of sahti captured Jennifer Glanville's imagination. As the brewery manager at Samuel Adams in Boston, she creates 60 new beers every year alongside a team of 25 beer makers. Eager to re-create sahti, she learned that the original brewers would age the beer on a bed of juniper branches with berries still attached. Glanville and another female brewer managed to replicate this process and produce a citrusy sahti that was an instant hit with early tasters. For years she had made just enough of her brews to serve visitors to the brewery and coworkers. But Sam Adams released Glanville's sahti as a limited edition nationally in 2011, under the name Norse Legend.
Glanville, who has been working at Sam Adams for 15 years, has played a key role in helping the brand keep up with the changing tastes of the American beer drinker. She's launched the Nano-Brewery, which serves as a lab for all kinds of cool experiments. She's imported massive casks to create Belgian-style aged beers. And she's ensured that at least half of all brewers are female because she believes that diversity improves the beer-making process. As the sahti saga reminds us, women have had a long history of making delicious beer.
Sam Adams was founded in 1984 by Jim Koch, a man who earned three degrees at Harvard and landed jobs in finance and consulting before jumping ship to pursue his real passion: beer. When he concocted his signature Boston Lager in his kitchen, the concept of the microbrew was still novel in America. Throughout the 1970s, there were fewer than 100 breweries in the entire country, and the market was controlled by Coors, Budweiser, and Miller. But as Koch went from bar to bar selling his small batch of beer, he discovered that there was a budding interest in craft brews.
In 1985, he moved into the former Haffenreffer Beer brewery, built in 1870. In that historic space, Koch started to make beers that many believe launched America's craft beer revolution. He named the company Samuel Adams, inspired by that other great Boston revolutionary who also happened to make beer.
These days, Sam Adams has lost a bit of its mojo among the thousands of new craft brews that have flooded the marketplace. Three new beer makers set up shop every day, and the total number of breweries in the U.S. has doubled over the past four years to 4,200. According to the Brewers Association, the last time there were this many breweries in the country was in 1873, when each individual pub manufactured its own beverages. In this new landscape, Sam Adams isn't as hip as it once was.
Craft drinkers now have thousands of intriguing new options to choose from, and in this saturated market, Sam Adams has struggled to reassert itself as unique. It doesn't help that the brand did so well in the '90s and early '00s that it became ubiquitous; Koch took his business public in 1995. Today, the company manufactures 4.1 million barrels and has seen profits continue to increase. Its stock price is currently up 15%.
But for all its success, Sam Adams is still losing market share. That's where Jennifer Glanville comes in.
Glanville joined Sam Adams in 2001 during the dotcom bust, when her career in the tech sector began to fizzle out. Having seen how quickly money ebbed and flowed during the tech bubble, she decided to focus on finding an occupation that would make her happy rather than rich. She chanced upon a posting for the brewery manager job and since she loves beer—particularly Boston Lager—she applied. "The job description had everything from beer inventory management to organizing tours of the brewery to driving a forklift," she says. "Everything except actual brewing."
Koch was impressed with Glanville's passion for beer and decided to take a chance on her. After a year in the position, he sent her to Doemens Academy, a well-known brewing school in Germany, so she could learn the art of beer making.
Upon her return, she took on more responsibility, helping Koch create new beers, expanding the team from nine people to 25, and developing innovative new systems that would help Sam Adams compete in the marketplace.
Glanville says that creativity has always been part of the corporate culture. "I think it has to do with the fact that the company was started by an entrepreneur," she says. "All of us at the brewery are coming up with new ideas all the time, and [Jim] has always encouraged us to try to turn them into beer."
Some of the company's best-selling beers have come from random ideas that staff members have thrown around. Glanville has her own repertoire of greatest hits. A decade ago, for instance, she thought it might be fun to create pumpkin beer for the company Halloween party. "This was well before the pumpkin beer craze," she says. "Nobody at the brewery thought it was a good idea."
She was determined to make it work. She found a local caterer who helped her roast mountains of pumpkins, then carried the trays over by hand to the brewery. The beer she created ended up being a holiday favorite at the staff party, so she kept making it for the team until 2005, when Sam Adams launched the Fat Jack Pumpkin Ale nationally.
Glanville's love of Wellfleet Oysters inspired her to test out brewing with the whole mollusk, shell and all. That experiment yielded a stout that is sold at Boston's famous Union Oyster House and has become a staple at local festivals.
Glanville points out that every one of the six brewers at Sam Adams has similar stories of experiments that have evolved into beloved, nationally distributed varieties. It's such a small, collaborative environment that it's often hard to determine who should take credit. "People often asked who came up with the beer," she says. "The truth is, we all do it together. We throw a lot of ideas against the wall. They don’t always stick in their original format, but it’s that spirit that keeps us making innovative beers."
In 2012, Glanville helped set up the Nano-Brewery to incorporate innovation into the actual brewing process, much like a microbrewery does. Every day, Sam Adams brewers use the Nano as a lab for experimenting with new flavors, textures, and processes. Some projects are simply about incremental improvement: how to tweak a recipe to make a beer tarter, more citrusy, or with a less overwhelming aroma. But some projects are about creating something entirely new and unlike anything else on the market.
A year ago, Sam Adams hired Megan Parisi, a master brewer with years of experience on the craft beer circuit, to run the Nano. The day I visit the brewery, Glanville and Parisi have been working to perfect a plum beer made in a Belgian-style pale ale style known as a saison. They pour me a glass from one of the 30 beers on tap that are in various stages of testing. I'm not a big fan of beer, but this is unlike anything I've tasted before. It's a little sweet and fruity, but not cloying. It's moderately carbonated, so the bubbles don't overwhelm you. And it's light and refreshing, perfect for a hot summer day.
Parisi is very scientific about these experiments. Every ingredient and each step is recorded on a computer, so that when a recipe hits the mark, she is able to replicate it. Beers that the brewers think are ready for prime time will get brewed in small batches, then served to the 250,000 or so visitors who come to the brewery every year. These guests serve as a focus group of sorts, providing formal feedback. And beers that do well with drinkers end up among the 60 beers that Sam Adams releases for retail annually.
One of the Nano's recent successes with critics and consumers is the Nitro Project. Released earlier this year, the beers come in cans with widgets that activate upon opening, infusing the drink with a creamy texture. While nitrogenation has been frequently used in stouts (think Guinness), it isn't found in wheat beers or pale ales—until now. Sam Adams has released a trio of beers including an IPA, a white ale, and a coffee stout. I try all of them. The white ale is my favorite: As you pop open the can and pour it into a mug, it fills with froth that cascades downward. This makes the beer very smooth, but it also brings out some of the subtle flavors that you might not otherwise taste, like the citrus and pepper undercurrents.
As the end of my visit nears, I sit around a table with four female master brewers who are sampling beers that are being developed. They take notes about flavors, aromas, and finish, then discuss what needs to happen to turn them into finished products.
Earlier in the day, Glanville explains that the company's approach is to hire the best people for the job, rather than fill quotas. Still, she says that she tends to attract female job candidates. And of a total staff of 25 people, 50% are women. While there isn't a way to quantify how this affects the culture and creativity at the brewery, Glanville believes that it helps create a diversity of palates among her brewers. (There's some evidence that men and women have different perceptions of taste.)
Will all these efforts transform Sam Adams into the craft-brewing sensation it once was? Maybe. The beer landscape in this country is forever changed. Years ago, a drinker would profess a loyalty to a particular brand, but today's consumer is promiscuous, preferring to sample new products.
"There was a time when people wouldn't want to order a beer they were unfamiliar with in case they didn't like it," Glanville says. "But now, they'll walk into a liquor store and buy an entire six-pack they've never tried before, willing to take a chance on it."
Glanville believes that the only way to respond to this brave new world is to keep coming up with exciting new offerings that will spark people's interest when they see it on a shelf or on tap—without ever compromising the craft or the quality. "People come to us because they trust the quality of our product," she says. "We just need to keep giving them new flavors to try."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.