date published: October 22, 2007

Panorama’s guide to Boston’s best beers and where to drink them
by Josh B. Wardrop

utsiders might associate Boston more with tea than with beer, but in Boston’s earliest days the city was renowned for its beermaking. At one time, Boston was home to as many as 27 active breweries, including the Boston Beer Company (est. 1828), Haffenreffer & Co. (est. 1870) and the Croft Brewing Company (est. 1933), which produced Narragansett beer until 1976. Prohibition dealt a crushing blow that many independents never recovered from, but Bostonians’ love of beer never waned—and today, there’s no shortage of ways for beer lovers to savor a tasty drinking experience in and around the Hub.

The Breweries
Boston’s golden era of brewing history came to a close when the last surviving brewery—the Haffenreffer plant in Jamaica Plain—closed in 1964. It was 20 years later when a sixth-generation brewer with three degrees from Harvard took the first steps toward putting Boston back on the brewing map. That entrepreneur was Jim Koch, an Ohio native who resuscitated his great-great-grandfather’s beer recipe and moved into the old Haffenreffer brewery 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 to launch his alternative to major mainstream beers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors. “It was a grandiose mission to change the way Americans looked at domestic beer.”

Two decades later, Sam Adams is a globally-beloved and much-acclaimed name in beer, and the Samuel Adams Brewery has people flocking to JP to take the Samuel Adams Brewery Tours (refer to tours 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.

The success of Sam Adams encouraged Harvard business student Rich Doyle to, in 1986, partner with two classmates in the creation of the Harpoon Brewery— a microbrewery that has grown into New England’s second-largest beer producer (just behind Anheuser-Busch’s New Hampshire facility).

Doyle says the key to Harpoon’s success—beyond the high-quality beers, such as 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, meet the people who make it, and so on.”

To that end, Harpoon offers brewery tastings every Tuesday–Saturday at their harborside facility at 306 Northern Ave. (refer to tours 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.

Boston has a third active brewery that’s unfortunately not open to the public. But Tremont Brewery in Charlestown still maintains a presence in Boston, producing quality beers like Tremont Ale, Tremont IPA and seasonal brews including Tremont Winter and the special Tremont Old Scratch Barley Wine. These brews can be sampled at Delux Cafe (refer to restaurants listing), Firefly (130 Dartmouth St., 617-262-4393) and many other establishments.

The Brewpubs
Hard to believe, but until the late 1980s there wasn’t much common ground between beer-drinking and fine dining. The advent of the brewpub, though, brought superior, creative beers and delicious, diverse cuisine together. While the heyday of the brewpub may have already come and gone—at least on the East Coast—Boston is still blessed with a handful of great ones.

The Boston Beer Works (61 Brookline Ave., 617-536-BEER; 112 Canal St., 617-896-BEER) has two locations—on Brookline Avenue, directly facing Fenway Park, and on Canal Street, practically steps away from the TD Banknorth Garden—that guarantee fans of the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics have a perfect place to come in and sample any of the more than 60 different beers that BBW brews in a year. Whether you’re partial to year-round brews like the Back Bay IPA or the Bunker Hill Bluebeery Ale (its best seller, loaded with real Maine blueberries), or its constantly rotating seasonal beers (the Oktoberfest Lager and Pumpkinhead Ale being the current selections), there’s literally something for every taste.

Cambridge Brewing Company (1Kendall Sq., 617-494-1994), established in 1989, is the area’s oldest brewpub. Hand-crafted artisan beers like the Tall Tale Pale Ale, Cambridge Amber and their award-winning fall favorite, the Great Pumpkin Ale, nicely complement a diverse menu including everything from tandoori rubbed lamb steak to seared ahi tuna, to burgers, pizzas and appetizers. Nestled away in the less-than-bustling Kendall Square area, CBC is something of a hidden jewel worth seeking out for a night of beer enjoyment, or a satisfying meal prior to catching an indie flick at Kendall Square Cinema.

Harvard Square is home to John Harvard’s Brew House (33 Dunster St., 617-868-3585)—a New England chain of brewpubs that originated here in Cambridge in 1992. JH stocks five signature beers year-round—Pale Ale, All American Light Lager, Nut Brown Ale, Dry Irish Stout and Old Willy India Pale Ale—and regularly adds seasonal beers (like their current selection, the Oktoberfest) to the mix. The food menu contains mostly upscale takes on traditional pub cuisine, but really excels with its desserts—sweet and rich selections like butterscotch bread pudding and chocolate cobbler drizzled with raspberry sauce.

Boston’s Best Beer Bars
If you’re just looking for a bottle of Budweiser, Coors Light or Corona, you can probably drink just about anywhere in Boston and be happy as a pig in you-know-what. But if your palate craves a bit more variety, there are a few watering holes in Boston that immediately rise to the head of the class.

The Sunset Grill & Tap (refer to restaurants listing) represents the crème de la crème of beer menus here in Beantown. How big is the beer selection? Think 112 beers on draft big. Think more than 400 different bottled beers big. Think a 16-page beer menu big—and you’re still not getting the full magnitude of what owner Marc Kadish’s Mecca for beer-lovers represents. Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary, this Allston staple for lovers of quality brew serves everything from fruit beers, to meads, to Belgian beers to framboises to Scotch ales to…well, simply put, if they don’t have it, then it can scarcely be worth drinking. ‘Nuff said.

Discerning beer drinkers—who value the art of a perfect pour as much as the experience of drinking the beer itself—may find themselves in hops Heaven at Brookline’s Publick House (1648 Beacon St., 617-277-2880), an establishment run by, employing, and catering to folks obsessed with beer. The bar specializes in Belgian craft beers, but serves more than 100 varieties of all sorts in bottles. The beers are poured into the proper glasses by bartenders who know their stuff, and the menu is packed with upscale cuisine like mussel pots and artisanal cheese and bread platters that elevate the experience nicely. (Additional note for Belgian beer fans: make sure to save some room for the multitudes of fine Belgian brews at the annual Belgian Beer Festival. Refer to special events listing.)

One of Boston’s oldest restaurants is also one of the Hub’s best places for a good beer. Jacob Wirth—located in the heart of the Theatre District (31 Stuart St., 617-338-8586)—is an old-fashioned German eatery that boasts one of the city’s largest collections of German and Belgian beers on tap and in bottles. Sample a Hofbrau Munich Original, a Spaten Lager or a Hoegarden White, and you’ll understand why the Germans feel the way they do about the sacred art of brewing. They’re the kinds of beers meant to be held aloft in swaying mugs—which may be why Jacob’s still has Friday night sing-a-longs in front of the piano.

F.J. Doyle & Co. (3484 Washington St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-2345), which opened in 1822 as the Willow Athletic Club, is one of few bars in the city that can actually boast of serving authentic old-time Boston beers such as Boylston Beer and Pickwick Ale. They were also the first watering hole to take a chance on Jim Koch and his new-fangled “Sam Adams” brew back in ’86, and today, they get the first commercial batches of any new Sam product that comes out. “[Original owner] Bill Doyle used to insist on only serving Boston beers, and we always remembered that,” says current owner Gerry Burke. “If it’s a local brew, we’re all for it.”

Others spots that beer aficionados won’t want to miss are: Deep Ellum (477 Cambridge St., Allston, 617-787-BEER) a relative newcomer that serves 22 beers on draft, more than 100 bottled beers, and cask beers; Cambridge Common (1667 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-1228), a cozy hangout specializing in comfort food and a rotating selection of local microbrews; and Bukowski’s Tavern (80 Dalton St., 617-437-9999; 1281 Cambridge St., 617-497-7077).

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