October 24, 2005
Panorama takes an inside look at Boston's illustrious beer-making past and present by Josh B. Wardrop
It's not always a source of pride when a city builds its initial reputation on fighting and drinking, but in its earliest days, Boston's most thriving cottage industries were indeed political rebellion and-somewhat less famously-beermaking. From the issuance of the first license to brew beer in America to Robert Sedgewick of Charlestown in 1637, through the 1800s, when Boston was home to as many as 27 active breweries, the production of beer was a bonafide Boston obsession.
Although some breweries set up shop within the heart of the city, the neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury were Ground Zero for Boston breweries for three key reasons: they were located above the Stony Brook, an underground aquifer that provided ample fresh water; land in these outskirt neighborhoods was cheap; and beginning in the 1840s, the area housed a high concentration of German settlers who brought their native beermaking techniques to America.
Prominent beermakers from Boston's golden age of brewing included the Boston Beer Company (est. 1828), Haffenreffer & Co. (est. 1870) and the Croft Brewing Company (est. 1933), which produced Narragansett beer until 1976.
Prohibition, however, dealt a crushing blow in 1920, shutting all the Boston
breweries down. Many of the independents never reopened, unable to compete with
the rise of mass marketing which propelled major brewers like Anheuser-Busch
into a virtual monopolization of the market. Gradually, the local breweries
shut down, and by the time Haffenreffer closed in 1964, Massachusetts was left
without a single operating brewery.
Jim and Sam: Boston Brewing Born Again
It took a sixth-generation brewer with three degrees from Harvard to put Boston back on the map as a center of beer brewing. That entrepreneur was Jim Koch, an Ohio native who resuscitated his great-great-grandfather's beer recipe and moved into the site of the old Haffenreffer brewery in 1984 to create a beer that looked to one of Boston's original brewers and patriots for its name: Samuel Adams.
"I wanted Sam Adams the beer to create a brewing revolution the way that Adams the patriot created a political revolution," says Koch, of his decision to resuscitate the Boston Beer Company name and return to the hotbed of Boston's brewing history in order to launch his alternative to major mainstream beers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
Fast forward 20 years, and Sam Adams beers have won more international awards
than any other brewer, causing Koch's operations to expand significantly. As a
result, the Samuel Adams Brewery in JP is not a huge
production plant for Koch-"we brew some of the beer for the Boston market, but
primarily it's a place where people can come and see where we began," says
Koch. And people do just that, flocking there to take the Samuel Adams Brewery
Tours (refer to
listing), a free hour-long excursion that tells the history of Sam
Adams, takes visitors through the brewing process, and, best of all, provide
tastings of Sam Adams beers at its conclusion.
A Whale of a Beer
The success of Sam Adams opened the eyes of savvy business-minded folks such as Harvard business student Rich Doyle who, in 1986, got together with two classmates who agreed that a brewery might make for a profitable business venture. Close to 20 years later, they've been proven right as Harpoon Brewery has become New England's second-largest beer producer.
Doyle says the key to Harpoon's success-beyond high-quality beers like Harpoon
IPA, UFO Hefeweizen and others-is Harpoon's determination to "establish a
relationship between a brewery and its beer drinkers. Beer is a social product
by nature, and I've always felt that people feel an ownership of something when
they know where it's made and meet the people who make it." To that end,
Harpoon offers brewery tours of their own at their harborside facility (refer
listing). Additionally, the Boston brewery (a second production brewery
exists in Vermont) hosts four seasonal events each year combining Harpoon beers
with food, live music and revelry. "It's all about trying to build a community
among regional beer drinkers," says Doyle.
Grab a cold one
Looking for more places in Boston to enjoy a delicious brew? Check out the following establishments for some of the city's best beer options.
> Sunset Grill & Tap, 130 Brighton Ave., 617-254-1331. A mecca for beer lovers, Sunset Grill (pictured above) serves 112 beers on tap and more than 380 international microbrews. Sampling is made easy by way of its beer flights, or order a full yard of your favorite brew.
> Bukowski's, 50 Dalton St., 617-437-9999. Named for the author who found inspiration in barflys, the prices are right at Bukowski's, the selection is large, and the bartenders will be happy to spin the "Wheel of Beer" to help you make your decision.
> Cambridge Brewing Company, One Kendall Square, Building 100, Cambridge, 617-494-1994. This unassuming brewpub marries a menu of tasty upscale cuisine with delicious craft beers like their Cambridge Amber and Charles River Porter.
> The Publick House, 1648 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-2880. A serious beer pub of the first order. The Publick House serves 27 beers on tap, many from Belgium and most of them foreign to all but true ale aficionados. The bottled beers are even more esoteric, but go wonderfully with the House's artisanal cheese selection or entrees like the Arrogant Bastard Meatloaf.
Doyle's (which opened in 1822 as the Willow Athletic Club) is one of few bars in the city that can actually recall having served authentic old-time Boston beers such as Boylston Beer and Pickwick Ale. "Poor man's whiskey, we used to call it," remarks Jerry Burke Sr., whose family purchased Doyle's in 1971, thanks to a bootlegging partnership between the Doyle and Burke families back during Prohibition.
And Doyle's was also the first watering hole to take a chance on Jim Koch and his new-fangled "Sam Adams" brew back in '86-today, they get the first commercial batches of any new Sam product that comes out. "Bill Doyle used to insist on only serving Boston beers, and we always remembered that," says Burke. "If it's a local brew, we're all for it."
Today, this quintessential Irish bar with its tin roof and the (working) solid
oak telephone booth is a melting pot for anyone who likes a good brew (they
still sell a version of Pickwick-not the original, which hasn't been made since
1965-on tap), including politicians like John Kerry, Mayor Thomas Menino and
even a Kennedy or two. Doyle's has even been featured in Hollywood films like
Mystic River and TV shows like "Boston Public."
The early 1990s saw the arrival of scads of independent breweries with attached restaurants-brewpubs-in Boston. Some, like the Commonwealth Brewing Company, the Brew Moon chain and the Back Bay Brewing Co., have come and gone, but a select few have survived and emerged as some of the city's best spots for unique ales and lagers.
John Harvard's Brew House opened in Harvard Square in 1992, and now boasts 10 locations. Geoff DeBisschop, head brewer in Harvard Square since 1996, says expansion hasn't caused JH's to abandon the creative spirit that define microbrewers. "There's tremendous independence allowed to all the brewers," he says, noting that while every location might keep JH's popular Pale Ale on tap, "the recipes vary by brewer. The brewers really get to do their own thing."
Jodi Andrews has gotten to do her own thing at Boston's most successful brewpub, Boston Beer Works, since she worked her way up from waitress to brewer to, eventually, head brewer in 1999. Always looking to put a new spin on the brews BBW serves at its locations near Fenway Park and the TD Banknorth Garden, Andrews has dreamt up creations like watermelon, gingerbread and iced tea-tinged beers to accompany the more traditional variations.
"We brew 60 different styles of beer in a year," says Andrews. Acknowledging one of the unique strengths of brewpubs-the constant cycle of product change that keeps customers and brewers alike engaged-she says, "We change the dynamic of how we brew according to the season-we'll do the lighter, lower alcohol beers in the summer for the Sox crowd, and put heavier ones on for fall and winter."
Which proves that no matter the season, Boston's independent brewers will
continue to offer diverse products to one of the nation's most discerning beer
drinking populations. Koch perhaps sums it up best, saying, "Modern brewing is
about combining respect for classical practices with a desire for innovation,
and Boston has always been fairly unique in its ability to honor traditions
without being bound by them."
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