Rhonda Kallman has come full circle, from starting one of the most famous breweries in the United States to now running a distillery.
Kallman takes the stage at the Business Journal’s Top Women Owned Businesses event March 15, so last week, the Business Journal caught up with her for a Q&A.
In 1984, she went from secretary at Boston Consulting Group to co-founding Boston Beer Co., the makers of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, with Jim Koch.
She left Boston Beer in 2000 to start New Century Brewing Co. and later launched Boston Harbor Distillery, which she now runs.
Business Journal: You weren’t in beer, so why help start a beer company?
Rhonda Kallman: When Jim asked me to help him start a beer company, I said, “Jim, I don’t drink beer, I drink whiskey.” He said, “Well, I promise to make something you like.” And he did, and the more I learned about beer and drank it, now of course I love it, but whiskey still trumps beer for me.
BJ: That seemed like a big risk. How did you know to take the risk?
RK: I asked him what makes you think we can actually do this? He said, “Because I’ve never failed at anything in my life.” And neither had I, so let’s give it a whirl. We knew we could go back to what we were doing. When you’re young, you’re fearless, which I think is great. I’m still fearless, not as good of a thing.
BJ: You are pioneer for women in beer, what challenges did you face?
RK: Too numerous to count. Luckily, I believe in myself and my abilities. And I do cover some of this in my talk. Try being part of a boys club. I never really wanted to be part of it but was accepted for what I knew. After we became more successful, it got a little easier, and I obviously wasn’t just another pretty face.
BJ: Women in beer is still a hot topic. Why is it so male dominated? And is that different from other industries?
RK: Women, going back in the day, they were the brewers. Women made the beer. How it became male dominated over centuries of change, I’m not sure, but it definitely is. Is it different from other industries? It depends on the industry.
BJ: What advice do you have for women in business, beverage or otherwise?
RK: Believe in yourself and abilities. Gender shouldn’t play a role. At the same time, if it does, use yours to your advantage.
BJ: Where do you look for inspiration?
RK: My inspiration comes from customers.
BJ: What is your biggest success?
RK: I don’t think I’ve attained my biggest success at this point.
BJ: Biggest failure?
RK: I really haven’t failed yet. My Moonshot Beer, which got shut down by the federal government, the FDA. That was a blow. I learned a lot from it, like how important politics is.
BJ: Why did you leave Boston Beer?
RK: It was 2000, the whole millennium was going on and we became a public company something like four years prior, and I was getting further and further away from what I liked about the industry. It just wasn’t inspiring me anymore. It was time to move on and figure out the next chapter.
BJ: Why start a distillery?
RK: I kind of came full circle. Honestly, after the FDA shut down Moonshot, I lost heart for the business, and I just basically started doing research. Well, I didn’t need a lot, I just watched. Whiskey is the next evolution for beer, so I felt it was the right place to me.
BJ: What’s your favorite beer?
RK: Of course, I still love Sam Adams Boston Lager.
BJ: What’s your favorite spirit?
RK: We make a malt whiskey, but we haven’t launched it yet. We make liquors and rums. And we actually distill Sam Adams. My favorite spirit other than what I make, I can’t tell you. I love whiskey, but sometimes I drink gin.
BJ: What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed in the beer industry?
RK: Choice. It’s a good time to be beer drinker.
BJ: Will craft spirits ever hit the same level as beer?
RK: It’s difficult, (because) craft spirits is not quite the same. Craft beer is an ingredient story. When we started Sam Adams, it was a land of bland. Yellow, corn-based pilsners. When we came out with Sam Adams, it was whole grains. Whiskey has a lot of rules, and bourbon right now is the poster child. That by law has to be made with corn. There is a lot more education that has to come with spirits. If you look at them, a Diageo whiskey and any other bottle, forget the label, they look the same. That makes this a little harder.
BJ: Was there a secret to building a brand like Sam Adams?
RK: It was a lot of right decisions and things done early at the right time. There’s a combination of quality and passion and timing and luck.