Before I even notice the sign, I catch a whiff of the bar I’m hunting for – a sour, yeasty fragrance washing out the door of Deep Ellum. As I follow my nose inside, I spot my friend Jim Breck, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and as encyclopedic a beer mind as I’ve ever known, already halfway through a straw-pale glass of Session Pils from Notch brewery in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
“Every single one of the beers on this tap line is intriguing,” Jim gushes. “I want to try all 30!” I order a pint of Clementine, an orange-peel-and-coriander-infused Belgian wheat beer by Clown Shoes, also of Ipswich, and remind my friend that we have a long day ahead of us if we’re going to get to the bottom of Boston’s obsession with barley, hops, yeast and water. Pacing. Is. Key.
Brian K Chan
You’d think the town that brought the world the TV sitcom Cheers would be a hub for bars and breweries. And, indeed, for three centuries, Boston – home of America’s first pub in 1634 – was the country’s headquarters for beer. Eventually, though, Massachusetts lost its brewing mojo; by the 1960s, not a single working brewery called the state home.
But we’re talking about Boston, after all, which revolves around two passions: beer and sports. Cue the comeback.
Up the street, we locate Boston’s nucleus of beer obsessives: the Sunset Grill and Tap. Along with 112 taps and a 16-page paper beverage menu, reprinted weekly, the Sunset has Eleni Karakitsou, soft-spoken Greek bartender and beer savant extraordinaire. Eleni prepares a custom Massachusetts-only tasting flight, hand-scrawling a legend that includes one red-brown, malty-sweet ale from Sam Adams, the brewery that blazed the trail for Boston’s beer relaunch. The widely distributed brewery still crafts such local iterations as the Brick Red Irish Ale, available only in Boston. This brew, the Colonial, is even more exclusive. “The people who come to Sunset are the biggest beer geeks around,” says Eleni, “so Sam Adams uses us as sort of an exit poll for their experimental beers.”
Jim and I hop a Green Line trolley to American Craft and its red, white and blue bunting, rock ’n’ roll jukebox and 40 taps, all but two of which are American. While Jim takes down a pint of Paper City’s Green Monster Hoppy Ale (named after the famous outfield wall at Boston’s Fenway Park), I explore a heady glass of Larry, a small-batch double IPA by Wachusett Brewing in Westminster that’s named after one of the staff at American Craft’s Belgian-inspired sister bar, Publick House. At this point, the beer stains on my notebook are multiplying. I tell Jim it’s time to retreat, retire for the night and regroup.
The next afternoon, I make the acquaintance of Boston’s other trail-blazing big brewery, Harpoon, founded in 1986 by three Harvard grads. At Jacob Wirth, a German beer hall near Boston Common, my bartender, Monica, introduces me to Harpoon’s Hundred Barrel Series. Crafted by younger brewers, the series focuses on experimental, one-off recipes that circulate locally. Monica proposes pairing a glass of the Oyster Stout with my soft German pretzel, though before I can try the dark, creamy elixir, there’s a disclaimer: “You’re not allergic to shellfish, are you?” Apparently, Oyster Stout isn’t just a clever name.
I cross the Charles River on the Red Line to rendezvous with Jim at Cambridge Brewing Company, a brew pub near MIT whose wall rack of laminated tasting sheets reveals a serious mission to craft innovative beer. A peppercorn-infused Saison-style brew called Sgt. Pepper sets off some interesting debate, but the real wild child on today’s menu is the Banryu Ichi, an experimental beer-sake hybrid that clocks in at a spine-tingling 15 percent alcohol. “This is as unique a beer as you’ll find anywhere in the country,” says our bartender, Ben, sliding us a 150-millilitre glass cradled in a traditional sake-serving wooden box. Nobody’s quite sure how to describe it; the combo of bitter hops and sour, pungent rice wine is like something from another world.
A short stumble away at the swanky Lord Hobo, Jim does a quick inspection of the thick leather beer menu and selects a different brew for each member of our swelling regiment of friends. We order snacks, too, and though Parmesan frites with truffle aioli and pan-seared foie gras aren’t exactly your traditional drink snacks, somehow it fits the particular scene we’ve stumbled into.
My assignment is the dried-plum-flavored Baby Tree, brewed by a hot new local outfit called Pretty Things. This “gypsy” brewery rents time at other Boston-area breweries on nights and weekends, taking whatever they can get. As I tip the dense, dark-amber liquid down my throat, I taste the cutting edge of Boston brewing. The night’s grown hazy, but the future of beer in this town is undoubtedly bright.