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Sam Adams Seasonals - How do they do it?

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How does someone who supposedly flies to Germany every year to hand select all the hops used in making all their beers, and who runs a brewery that can crank out 32 (!) different beers, turn out a crop of seasonals that are so devoid of flavor?

My local favorite liquor store had a Sam Adams seasonal tasting recently. I've long been one of the voices against SA, on the premise that a) almost all of the SA on tap is their crappy so-called Boston Lager which is not the British ale that the real Sam Adams would have brewed putting them on the same footing as say, Killian's Irish Red - lager, b) for a long time most of their beers were licensed recipes brewed in a contract megabrewery, putting them on the same footing as say, Killian's, c) their made-up history and advertising hype - to me - undermines their credibility putting them on the same footing as say, Killian's Irish - licensed from the French and "brewed and brewed since 1875", and d) I've been lucky enough to live places where the local craft and small brewers turn out much better stuff without the hype.

But, that's a biased opinion and intrinsically unfair, and I owe it to myself, and to other beerhounds, to make as unbiased a judgement as possible. They make 32 beers. They can't all suck as bad as their so-called Boston Lager.

So, back to the tasting. The local SA rep set up their mixed case of seasonals on ice for free samples. I tasted the White Ale (wit-style), Winter Lager, Old Fezziwig, and Holiday Porter. I steered clear of the Cranberry Lambic.

How can I describe it? It was like being in a movie, where everything looks right, but it's just a facade. There was an initial mild flavor (only a small portion of what was promised in the descriptions on their web site), followed by an emptiness and the sense of waiting for, well, more. More of something. As an example, Old Fezziwig is described as "bursting with spices of the season". Well, it wasn't bursting with anything. I couldn't taste any spices at all. And I was waiting for some sort of ale-like finish, but it didn't actually finish. It just stopped. Same with the Holiday Porter. Described as "complex" and "robust", it just sort of sat there, almost tasting like something, but not quite.

And don't tell me it's because they were "too cold". They were on ice for about five or ten minutes before pouring.

So, how do they get such high ratings on ratebeer.com? What am I missing that I can't seen to take them seriously? What do other people find to enjoy in Sam Adams that they like, that I can't seem to find? And does it matter, if I have other great beers around to enjoy?

OK. Rant over. Back to my local faves.

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  1. I concur.......SA has never, in my opinion, lived up to the hype. It seems to me that their marketing is aimed towards the consumer who wants to appear a connoiseur by having lots of different labels but has a limited and unadventurous palate. It's the same marketing concept that has allowed the "canned air" approach to making beer survive so long in this country. I personally believe it's behind the current "IPA with the nuclear hops option" craze going on now. It amazes me that so many of these companies do so well while being so condescending to so many people. They just don't seem willing to give the beer-drinking public any credit. God forbid any major brewer should make a beer that some people might not like!

    1. Good rant. And let's not forget Jim Koch's BS tale about the recipe for his so-called Boston Lager being created by his great-great-great-great grandfather when it was really invented by a well-known (in brewing circles) contemporary brewer. Well, the guy died a few years back.

      Another complaint -- I really do NOT believe this amounts to nitpicking -- is that Koch misuses his beer terminology. The so-called "Cranberry Lambic" isn't a lambic. The so-called "Triple Bock" isn't even a lager.

      The main problem with the SA beers for me, though, is that most of them are merely boring. I did, however, enjoy the so-called "Imperial Pilsner."

      3 Replies
      1. re: Kenji

        Bock does not imply lager. See, e.g., Aventinus Weizen Doppelbock. IAC, it's clear that Triple Bock is a trade name, not a stylistic designation; how could it be, since there's never before been any such thing?

        Koch does come from a line of brewers, including his father. Yes, Joe Owades was involved in the recipe formulation, but one would probably need to make some changes to an old recipe to reflect current ingredients and processes.

        I don't often drink Sam Adams Boston Lager, but when I do, I always marvel at how well it's made. Michael Jackson seemed to like it as well, giving it three stars out of four in his Pocket Guide as I recall.

        1. re: Jim Dorsch

          Jim, it is not clear to me that "Triple Bock" is a trade name rather than a stylistic designation. Your comment that there "never was" a TB seems to beg the question. IIRC, Koch talked in advertisements for "TB" upon its introduction as though he was inventing a new style. While we are citing Jackson, I remember reading in a book or article of his that the brew was "really a barley wine."

          I know Jim Koch has ancestors who were brewers. But it doesn't make his claim about his great great great great grandfather's recipe any less false. Owades created the recipe for the Boston Lager; it is a contemporary recipe. Further, the last time I was able to get a look at stats for typical brews from the appropriate time period (or as near as I could get) they were radically far afield from the Boston Lager -- which originally wasn't even brewed in Boston. Koch was ridiculed by brewers and beergeeks for this -- so he ended up buying the old Haffenreffer brewery in Jamaica Plain, MA., to silence his critics. But I visited that brewery in the early 90s -- and they STILL were not making any so-called Boston Lager there.

          Koch has engaged in numerous misleading advertising. For example, there was a time when he claimed the BL won at the GABF "four years running" when it wasn't even entered four straight years.

          1. re: Kenji

            Not to beat a dead horse, but: I also remember a writing by Jackson in which he mentioned that, before Koch came out with the BL, Jackson and Koch had spent a night in various Boston bars. Koch said it was his intention to come out with a beer that was (I am paraphrasing here) evocative of Samuel Adams-era Boston. Jackson said that he proposed to Koch that Koch produce some type (I cannot remember specifics) of ale.

            Also, Koch claimed in many of his radio ads that the BL was brewed according to a relative's recipe he had found in his attic; that he brewed his first batch *himself*; and that he brewed it in his kitchen. Most likely every single one of these claims is false. It's all part of the myth Koch cooked up.

            Koch's background *is* in marketing, not brewing. (Though in fairness it doesn't follow that he couldn't brew.)

      2. I don't understand how you equate these beers with Killian's. Boston Beer Co has a staff of brewers who work closely with contract producers. They make changes in those breweries to meet their production requirements and methods. They specify the recipe. The brewery is essentially theirs while they're making their beer. It's nothing like Coors making Killian's under license.

        As I mention above, I think SABL is far from crappy. It's called lager right on the label. Nowhere do they connote that it's something associated with any beer Samuel Adams might have made (and wasn't he a maltster, btw?); it's just a name.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Jim Dorsch

          I'm with you, Jim. I remember being introduced to Killian's in 1984ish, as well as making sure to always bring some back home with me whenever I could get it (it wasn't available in the NYC area until a few years later)- I really enjoyed the stuff. It most certainly has gone way downhill long since then. SABL is a different story: it has 'always' been a more variable beer than most of its contemporaries, sometimes merely good, but occasionally awesome (think a Hallertauer version of SN Celebration Ale), and I'm still not ready to declare it as a 'downhill' beer. I've said it before and I'll say it again- the valleys are much longer than the peaks these days, but it will still surprise you every now and again. SABL on its worst day would severely kick the ass of Killian's on it's best. Actually- IMO it is the only beer in SA's lineup that I would consider attaching the term 'great' to.

          As to the rest (take Imperial Pils, Utopias, et al out of the picture)- it seems that they have staked out an affordable 'solid middle ground' territory. I'm not in love with most of 'em, though the Cream Stout is probably the best of the lot, but they are certainly not 'bad'. I never loved their porters, but would gladly consume them if the context was right. FWIW- I don't think they are at their best, whatever that may be, during their first ounce or two. Those are 'three pint' beers, where the third is better than the first.

          I haven't had the Fezziwig this year (and can't be sure I had it last year either...maybe the year before), because I usually avoid it if I can. Sometimes curiosity gets the best of me at the family holiday gatherings, though, and I just have to try it. I have always found it to be an inelegant and well...obvious...beer, and the spices have always seemed way overdone to me. And now...Loren3, you've piqued my curiosity again, and made it seem like they've finally gotten it right ;) Either that or we just don't share the same sensibilities in regards to this particular beer. We shall see come Christmas Eve, when I am sure it will be available to me yet again.

          1. re: TongoRad

            the one thing they do great is the glassware. have you used that amazing glass.

        2. All those descriptions are good, if you are advertising to the Bud and Miller crowd. They are.
          When was the last time you saw a national commercial for Bell's?
          Give them credit. They are bringing a lot of people into the world of beer with some taste. It honestly doesn't take much, just an awakening. Sam Adams can provide that.
          The craftbrew industry will ultimately benefit from it.
          Jim Koch is a damn good beer advocate.

          8 Replies
          1. re: Bobfrmia

            Training wheels and baby steps folks! Better beer is still a niche industry, and its enthusiasts are still a micro minority. Lets not eat our own yet. Wait till the market share is a little larger. Besides, for me that first time I had their cream stout or double bock back in college surely opened some doors for me, I hope.

            1. re: bigchow

              Yeah, I just wish Koch was a little more honest. He actually used to claim that Samuel Adams "started the microbrewery revolution" which is utterly delusional. I mean, what about Anchor, New Albion, Sierra Nevada, Grant's, et cetera?

              1. re: Kenji

                Man, there's a lot of hate out there for SA. I guess you get big and someone wants to cut yer legs off. SA Lager is a good beer. Not great, not anything super unique. But then again, it doesn't claim to be. If I can't get a Sierra or soemthing special in a bar, then I always go for a Sam. I know it'll be good, and can always check the date for freshness. Yeah, Koch has some advertising bs, but so does any firm that advertises. AB. says we know of no other brewey.....blah blah blah. 20 years ago in NY we were lucky and happy to have New Amsterdam. A good brew as well. SA is a very similar flavor, but Koch was a better businessman than Matty Reich. Who cares if it's a contract brew? Have you ever opened a business, especially a mfg'ing biz? I have, and it's mega expensive. Look, most of Brooklyn brewey beers are made in upstate NY. That should be the comparison, not Sierra, not Bells (though I love them both). Though, I have toa dmit outside of SA lager, the rest of his porfolio does nothing for me.

                1. re: MOREKASHA

                  It has nothing to do w/ the BBC's commercial success. And It's not hate -- not from me, anyway -- so much as a will to sort out the facts from the fiction.

                  BBS's status as a contract brewer wouldn't be an issue at all for me if Koch didn't have a history of BSing about its origins and production.

                  New Amsterdam? I remember them. Those brews didn't strike me as tasting similar to the "Boston Lager." I did quite like their dry-hopped pale ale, which I used to occasionally encounter in the early 90s (and maybe a bit earlier than that).

                  1. re: Kenji

                    NA had a dry hopped pale ale? I do remember a NA 2nd label beer, had it @ their brewpub 21 years ago but don't rememberthe details. Doesn't SA now own a "real" brewery in Cincinnati? The odl H....pool?

                    1. re: MOREKASHA

                      Yeah, I'm pretty sure NA had a dry-hopped ale.

                      I don't know about SA having a real brewery in Cincinnati. They purchased the old Haffenreffer brewery near Boston a long time ago and still give tours there.

                      1. re: Kenji

                        Boston Beer Co., purchased the old Schoenling brewery (which at the time was going by the combined Hudepohl-Schoenling name and brewing a lot of SA under contract) in Cincinnati back in the late 90's.

                        They own part of the old Haffenreffer brewing complex (they moved it in the 80's) but what they own there is in no way the actual old brewery/brewhouse (which had closed 20 year before and was pretty well gutted IIRC). http://www.jpndc.org/help_business/br...

                        They also purchased the former Schaefer (and Stroh and Pabst and Deigeo) brewery near Allentown, PA this year, but that's not online yet.

                        New Amsterdam (which was contract brewed by Matt, and eventually owned by them) had a couple of interesting ales, including a real nice dark IPA, IIRC. Here's a link for pics of their old labels, to nudge your memory: http://www.beerlabels.com/labels/beer...

                        1. re: JessKidden

                          Thanks for the info.

                          I never encountered New Amsterdam's dark IPA. I enjoyed their Amber, IPA, and New York Ale (IIRC, the latter brew was dry-hopped; possibly the IPA too).

          2. These seasonals were fantastic 10 years ago when I was in college and learning about beer for the first time. I remember loving (and waiting all year for) the Fezziwig and Winter Lager. Since my palate has tasted thousands more beers since then, I do find these offerings rather bland. That's not to say that they are poorly made (with the exception of that "lambic"), I just think they're training wheels on your way to a more refined palate.

            9 Replies
            1. re: Ralphus

              Another problem is that some of the Samuel Adams beers -- I'm thinking of their double bock, their oktoberfest, their Winter Lager, and the Old Fezziwig -- were good in their earliest incarnations but have been dumbed down. I even liked a couple of the so-called "Cranberry Lambics" they did around '93; it was not a lambic but an interesting, tart (not excessive with the artificial sweetness in the way the Cherry Wheat is) fruit beer.

              SA once also had a really good dunkelweizen among their lineup, but it was short-lived.

              1. re: Kenji

                I remember really liking the Cream Stout and Honey Porter.

                1. re: Ralphus

                  The Cream Stout is still around. It's easy on the palate, but I want more richness from a stout (any stout).

                  I thought that the Honey Porter was alright -- not as good as the ones made by Sierra Nevada, Anchor, and the now-defunct Devil Mountain and Nor'Wester.

                  1. re: Kenji

                    Devil Mtn? Now that was a good little brewey. Nor'Wester was Sam in disguise.

                    1. re: MOREKASHA

                      Was Nor'Wester really a front operation for Sam? I thought their porter was fantastic. I remember the "Oregon" line of beers which was supposed to be Sam in disguise.

                      Yeah, Devil Mountain was great. They had a terrific porter, and their Railroad Ale was a favorite of mine.

                      It might be fun to do a thread sometime on defunct and missed micros.

                      1. re: Kenji

                        Maybe you'd like to start the thread on defunct/missed micros? There certainly are lots of them, and they're fading from memory.

                      2. re: MOREKASHA

                        IIRC (and sometimes I don't) Devil Mountain was an independent brewery that was bought by Seagram or some such, and then became a contract brand.

                        Nor'Wester had nothing to do with BBCo. It was a company that tried to get big and failed, its assets going to United Breweries of India.

                        As is mentioned above, BBCo produced the Oregon Originals line, which incensed many people, not least of which were principals in Oregon breweries.

                        1. re: Jim Dorsch

                          Right you are, I got the two confused. Yeah Devil Mtn was purchased and then left to wither on the vine. Eau Claire, ChesBay, Maine Coast, the road goes on forever.....

                          1. re: MOREKASHA

                            I started to reply to this comment, and decided instead to start a new thread on early microbreweries.

              2. I must respectfully disagree. I mean, sure, the BL might not be my favorite lager, but it's tasty. And (and I think this is why it does well on ratebeer), it's in that middle-ground of being popular enough to be stocked in many bars, and yet not so big that it's terrible. I often find myself while traveling stuck in bar or restaurants (or parts of the nation) where it's the only good beer around.

                That said, I really, really enjoy Old Fezziwig (though haven't tried it yet this year) and often lament that it isn't available by the 12-pack. I typically buy a case of Winter Lager around Patriots play off time, which will be upon us shortly.

                Finally, I wish more places had the Boston Ale on tap instead of the Boston Lager, it's my preferred non-seasonal Sam Adams and a bit more versatile with seasons and foods.