An Alternative Drinking Guide To Boston: The Craft Brewers Conference Edition…

Brewers, distributors, beer writers, and other industry types are getting ready to descend on Boston next week for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, hosted by the Brewers Association. After the conference lets out and folks have finished attending the various industry events, they’re going to be headed out on the town to visit some of the city’s well-known beer bars. Places like The Publick House, Deep Ellum, The Roadhouse, and Sunset Grill will be jammed with beer lovers from all across the country and beyond. Ground zero will inevitably be the Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square. Getting to the bar for a pint, hard enough at some of these places on a Tuesday in February, is going to be damned near impossible during the conference.

And you don’t need me to tell you about these places. You know about them, have read about them, and may even have been to them before. So I thought I might offer some thoughts on alternative places to get a drink during the conference, for people who want to delve a little deeper into the city’s pubs.

First off, a few words of advice. Boston is home to an army of boring, lifeless, pre-fabricated faux-Irish pubs. So if it has an Irish-sounding name (say, the Purple Shamrock), it’s a good bet the place is crap. This is not an infallible truth but a pretty fair rule of thumb. Next, if you’re staying downtown, it’s pretty much a dead zone for good beer. There are a few places here and there that I’ll mention but you’re pretty much going to find the following beers on tap at every single bar: Harpoon IPA and/or UFO Hefe-weizen, Bass, Guinness, Harp, Miller Lite, Bud Light, Budweiser, Blue Moon, Stella Artois, Sam Adams Boston Lager and a seasonal, and maybe Newcastle. For a more interesting pint, try these places out.

Boston

The Kinsale, 2 Center Plaza, Downtown Government Center

    -Your best bet for a range of good beers on tap in the downtown area. There is nothing else like it anywhere nearby and the interior is part-Irish pub, part-Alice in Wonderland dream sequence.

Drink, 348 Congress Street, Downtown Fort Point Channel

    -Not a beer bar but a great subterranean haunt that focuses on high quality cocktails. If you can name it, they can make it and the staff uses only fresh ingredients, often made in-house. In the same general area as the World Trade Center, home to this year’s conference.

Barking Crab, 88 Sleeper Street, Downtown Fort Point Channel

    -A short walk from Drink and the conference center, the Crab is a series of shacks and tents where good seafood and decent craft beer is served, all with a nice view of the city over the channel. Long communal picnic tables create a homey, New England environment in the heart of downtown.

Jacob Wirth’s, 31-37 Stuart St, Downtown Theatre District

    -The second oldest bar in Boston and one of the few authentic old-time pubs in the city. Add to the historical value that it is also one of Boston’s only German restaurants. Jake’s offers a range of solid and sometimes hard to find German beers as well as some American crafts. A must visit for lovers of old bars or lager beer. Try and track down a copy of the pub’s history book (often given away free) called A Seidel for Jacob Wirth.

Rock Bottom, 115 Stuart Street, Downtown Theatre District

    -A popular outpost for this brewpub chain, Rock Bottom doesn’t get its due in this city. In truth, it’s probably the second or third best brewpub in the Boston area. A two-minute walk from Jake’s, stop by both for a quick pint.

Parish Café, 361 Boylston Street, Back Bay

    -A wide ranging if relatively pedestrian bottle list supplemented by a decent, New England heavy tap list. The Parish is really only worth a stop if you’re nearby or if the sun is shining and you want to hit one of downtown’s only outdoor patios.

The Other Side Café, 407 Newbury Street, Back Bay

    -After a long day shopping on Newbury Street or at least walking downtown and the Back Bay, stop by nearby Bukowski’s to check it out and then leave and head to the very underrated Other Side Café across Boylston Street. Always an outlier in the Boston beer scene, the Other Side has long offered a small but interesting range of craft beers in a hipster but pleasant atmosphere. Solid lineup of food, heavy on veggie-friendly options. Now under new management by the former owner of The Moan & Dove and Dirty Truth beer bars in Western Mass.

South of Boston

Doyle’s Cafe, 3484 Washington Street, Jamaica Plain

    -A necessary stop if you’re a lover of old-time neighborhood bars, interested in either Boston or brewing history (of which it has plenty on the walls), or just enjoy a great barroom. A classic piece of the city’s history. Near the Boston Beer Company’s JP brewery.

Cambridge

Cambridge Common, 1667 Mass. Avenue, Between Harvard Square and Porter Square

    -Don’t let the Common’s inexplicably modest rating (B+) on BeerAdvocate fool you. It’s actually one of the area’s best, no-BS beer bars. Run by two great beer loving ladies, Suzanne and Kate, the Common plays host to more beer events than any other beer bar I can think of in the Boston area. Several of the 30 taps turn over on a regular basis and there is always just the right balance between local and faraway beers, of a range of styles. A look at the beer prices might have you believing that it’s 1995 all over again. The glasses, however, are an ounce or two short of a full pint, which is no problem considering the prices. One word of advice, however: be sure to ask for a room temperature glass as the bartenders are often a little quick to pour your beautiful beer into a frozen glass.

Charlie’s Kitchen and Red House, Harvard Square

    -Two polar opposite operations owned by the same people. Charlie’s is the square’s popular dive bar, but with some good beer on tap. Lots of atmosphere and cheap food here. Charlie’s opened an excellent patio that may be open during your visit. Around the corner, the Red House is an upscale eatery with a really nice, cozy bar. The Red House’s bar offers a half-dozen well-chosen taps that often include some eccentric offerings.

Atwood’s Tavern, 877 Cambridge Street, Inman Square

    -Several blocks outside of hip Inman Square and a shorter walk from Cambridge Brewing, Atwood’s is a cozy pub with good food, lots of live music (no cover), and a healthy selection of craft beers. A little out of the way, the pub is an enjoyable place for a pint and a meal.

Plough and Stars, 912 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square

    -Not much on good beer but a great old barroom/Irish pub. Worth a visit for a Mass Ave pub crawl between Harvard and Central.

People’s Republik, 880 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square

    -Another good stop on that Mass Ave pub crawl, the faux-Communist People’s
    Republik (great exterior painting) is actually a good place to find some unusual New England beers on tap, including Magic Hat offerings.

Christopher’s, 1920 Massachusetts Avenue, Porter Square

    -Mainly a restaurant but also with an unusually diverse tap list of 24 beers. There are many average mainstays here but also finds, such as Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Samplers are available.

There are a few dozen other places that could certainly make this non-comprehensive list but this is a pretty good start, considering the limited time you may have to explore the city. For those of you staying downtown, escape to Cambridge or at least the Back Bay. And definitely stop by Jake’s or Doyle’s for a truer Boston experience than you can find in some Cheers-wannabe, prefab tourist trap.

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Reflections on Beer in Chicago…

After ten days in Chicago, I have to admit that the first thought on my mind is that I hope I don’t come across another stout or porter before Spring. I don’t usually gravitate towards any one particular style of beer but my sub-conscious buying choices led me to have a fridge full of roasty, dark beers. Now this was no explosion of beer geekery. With the exception of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout from America’s Brewing Company in Aurora, all of my stouts were standard session fare, be they oatmeal, dry Irish, or coffee-infused. I believe I had at least three different stouts from Dark Horse in Michigan. And commensurate with its name, this brewery really came out of nowhere to be a real hit this trip. The tasty Scotty Karate scotch ale was available at several local bars and each of the offerings, including the Perkulator coffee doppelbock (which I expected to hate) was top-notch. I’m beginning to think that Michigan may be the world’s capital of quality stouts and I look forward to visiting the state this summer or fall.

The holiday beer drinking experience was an especially difficult transition for me as I’ve recently experienced an unparalleled period of beer brand monogamy. During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I became enchanted with a particularly sharp and attractive little number. With golden waves and floral hints, this one knocked me over right away. From the first sip, I was enamored with the Pikeland Pils from Sly Fox. Better yet, the beer comes in a handy suitcase of cans that is easily transported and stacked in the fridge. I almost shed a tear when I finished my last can before leaving for Chicago. Happily, on my return, I was reunited with my new found friend and she brought along a companion, a case of Dunkel Lager cans from Sly Fox. I look forward to sampling this potent one-two hop malt punch for the next month or two before I have to start bugging friends to smuggle cases back for me.

While back in Chicago, I was once again reacquainted with how great a drinking city it is. We spent part of Christmas Eve at the recently reopened Berghoff Restaurant and Goose Island’s recently saved Clybourn pub, as well as pints at Delilah’s, the Hop Leaf, Map Room, Piece, Sheffield’s, and a half-dozen other great places. With the addition of a new package brewery, a soon-to-be opened new brewpub, and the emergence of strong nearby contenders and several new beer bars, such as the Local Option, I may have to revise my most recent BeerAdvocate column (recently posted here) as Chicago is making a run for the title of America’s best beer drinking city. And while I was very pleased to find Bell’s back in the area, I still longed for some Two Hearted, which was nowhere to be found. I was also disappointed that Summit was completely absent from everywhere I went (from bar to pub and grocery store to package store) and surprised that Summit’s twin city sibling, Surly Brewing, was nearly everywhere. I was also disappointed that the city’s global warming nose thumbing weather caused me to cancel a meeting I had at Miller’s pilot brewery in Milwaukee. I hope to reschedule a visit during a return trip to Wisconsin this June.

While shopping in local package stores and perusing tap handles throughout the city, I was amazed at how national the beer industry has become. The selection at Binny’s, Sam’s, or the Hop Leaf in Chicago looks like the selection at Downtown Wine and Spirits in Somerville, MA or the Foodery in Philadelphia and area bars. While we have several more years before nationalization really becomes an issue, I’m curious to see how breweries achieve growth and sales increases when they run out of new markets to conquer. My financial advice for the several business industry analysts who have been trying to contact me lately: Bet the farm on breweries in the 10,000 to 50,000 barrel range that are in fewer than five to seven states.

I’m looking forward to heading back to Chicago this June for a further review of local places, including Lunar Brewing on the city’s west side and the new Metropolitan Brewing Company.

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The Great Beer City Debate…

In the United States, we’re obsessed with debating the respective merits of just about everything and then assigning it a blue ribbon or gold medal. We have pig beauty pageants, pumpkin chucking contests, and the Summer Redneck Games. In the brewing world, the drive to judge things extends far beyond the usual beer competitions and festivals.

In the last two years, cities around the country have promoted their local beer offerings by touting their ranks as America’s best beer town. In Philadelphia, local supporters of Philly Beer Week extol their virtues in “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City.” Denver offers the “the Napa Valley of Beer,” San Francisco represents “America’s Original Craft Beer-Drinking City,” and Portland, Oregon proclaims itself “Beervana.”

In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to travel around to most of America’s top-tier beer cities and after quite a few pints, tasters, and tours, I’ve come to one conclusion: there actually is no such thing as America’s best beer city. While this may be the inevitable end result of a hopelessly theoretical comparison of some highly competitive locales, the intellectual exercise of debating America’s best beer cities demonstrates the remarkable strength and diversity of our burgeoning regional beer cultures.

To the extent possible in our mental gymnastics, we should try and define the criteria underlying a great beer city. The core of a great beer city revolves around a handful of passionate breweries and brewpubs. Add to that a few superior beer bars focusing on diverse craft taps, fair prices, and offering events promoting better beers. Finally, throw in a few less tangible criterions, including how well craft beer and better beers integrates into the local scene and the number and quality of local beer festivals.

When beer drinkers toss around potential candidates, a few names always make the top-tier, including those mentioned above along with Seattle and San Diego. While these big cities pack some serious punch, size is hardly the denominating factor. America’s three largest cities, for instance, almost never get a mention. Between them, New York, L.A, and Chicago, all good drinking cities, offer fewer than ten breweries and brewpubs. By way of comparison, Portland (OR) has less than 4-percent of their population while offering three times as many brewpubs and breweries.

Size does matter and it’s another factor to consider when assessing smaller cities. Sure it’s easy to support a few good beer establishments when you have a couple million customers nearby. But it’s when you start taking a look at some of America’s smaller towns that you get a full appreciation of what constitutes a great beer city. While medium sized towns including Milwaukee, Austin, and Pittsburgh all have impressive offerings, let’s get even smaller. How about we nominate Portland, Maine, or Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Fort Collins, Colorado, or Madison, Wisconsin? And where else but Burlington, Vermont (population 40,000), can you hit three brewpubs in a three block radius and still have two breweries to visit?

The creation and celebration of citywide beer appreciation festivals is a significant development in the history of American craft beer and they should be supported. But it doesn’t take the aid of local chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus for people to help develop, nurture, and promote their local beer scenes. Although a handful of quality craft beers may not be available at average, budget Chinese food restaurants in our area, as is the case in cities throughout Oregon, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to support prefabricated pubs with run-of-the-mill beer offerings. Instead, it’s time to think before we drink and pledge our support for local places that appreciate the diversity of craft beer while respecting their customers with fair prices. Because looking inward and celebrating our local beer scenes is the only way to make every American city a great beer city.

–Article appeared in Volume II Issue XI of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Welcome to Portland, Maine, the Best Beer Drinking City in New England…

When I was giving talks and doing press interviews in support of The Good Beer Guide To New England, I would inevitably get asked about my favorite New England beers, breweries, and brewpubs. A less frequent question that I spent little time pondering was what city is the best for beer drinking in New England. As with my selections of Great Beer Bars, a few ground rules are necessary in this intellectual exercise. Of beer bar greatness I have written,

These places excelled in several crucial respects, including “extraordinary selection of craft beers, respect their clients in terms of keeping prices fair, hold events promoting craft beers (from beer dinners to brewer meet-and-greets), make craft beer key to their business, and also offer true character as pubs.?

When it comes to defining a great beer drinking city, many of the similar criteria apply (and it certainly helps to have some great beer bars in your pocket). In addition to possessing a few great or good beer bars, a great beer drinking city will support a few to several local breweries and brewpubs. You should also look at how well craft and better beers in general have integrated into your local scene. When you patronize a local restaurant or even a chain, how is there beer selection? In cities, such as Portland, Oregon, where integration of better beer into the local scene is seamless, you can find excellent craft offerings even at the most pedestrian restaurants, say a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place or even a TGIF’s. You’d also like to see a host of beer related events throughout the year, from larger festivals to smaller, more locally oriented events. Pricing is of course importance. Better beer doesn’t do you much good if you can’t afford it. And finally, proximity and size of the town itself are factors to consider. Of course, cities such as Chicago and New York by their sheer size have a larger volume of drinking establishments to offer. Quantity doesn’t mean quality and an unscientific weighting has to take place to give smaller cities a chance to compete. Obviously, this whole process is hardly a quantifiable pursuit. I also have to take into account that I simply prefer the beers produced in certain towns and the general feel of the drinking vibe of some as compared to others. Now there are inevitably other criterion I have missed and I’m happy to reanalyze with your suggestions but I think we’re off to a good start.

Here in New England, several cities vie for the title of Best Beer Drinking City in the region. While listing my top cities, I think its important to do some geographic arithmetic. Of the top cities, the Massachusetts nominees include Boston (including Brookline), Cambridge (including Somerville, i.e. the near North of the River communities), and Northampton and Amherst. Maine offers Portland. New Hampshire offers Portsmouth. Rhode Island offers Providence. Vermont offers Burlington. Connecticut doesn’t really have a competitive offering but I’ll be polite and suggest New Haven.

Without extolling the virtues or decrying the flaws of particular places or breweries and pubs in each city, I’ll cut to the chase. The top three nominees are Boston, Burlington, and Portland. While I love Amherst/NoHo, the scene is just too small to sustain the title and they offer no breweries. The same fate befalls my home town of Cambridge and nearby Somerville. Portsmouth offers both a brewpub and a brewery but no beer bars and again is too small to compete. Providence is of sufficient size but its two brewpubs do not provide enough substance to rise to the competition. While a good stop for a night, New Haven really shouldn’t even be competing here.

That leaves Boston, Burlington, and Portland. While it may be a bit surprising, I think Boston places third on this list. I’ve done the city a real favor by tossing in Brookline, which includes the Publick House and soon the Road House, even though it’s not at all part of it. While Boston offers three brewpubs, a brewery, and two Great Beer Bars and two good beer bars, it’s actually not a great drinking city for other reasons. Boston is a city dedicated to the average, pedestrian bar experience. Walk into nearly any bar in the city and you will see the same 6-10 taps. Harpoon IPA, Harpoon UFO or Blue Moon, Bass, Budweiser, Bud Light, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sam Adams Seasonal, Stella Artois, Guinness, and then a shortlist of other stand-ins, be they Smithwick’s, Harp, Old Speckled Hen, Miller Lite, or Coors Light. With its predisposition towards prefabricated pubs, such lists are not surprising. In a city the size of Boston, it’s not surprising that you would find some solid beer bars. When I start to ruminate on Jacob Wirth’s and Doyle’s Cafe, I start to rethink a third place slot. But when you really have to search for them, the city deserves to be docked a few points. The presence of Beer Advocate and its beer events (of which I am usually a part) add back to the positive side of the ledger. But that a city so well known for beer offers three brewpubs, all of which are part of chain operations, is troubling. And while Harpoon is certainly a consistent, serviceable, and solid craft brewery, the brewery’s products don’t offer a lot of inspiration to consumers (although the upcoming Leviathan series may change that). And no, the limited presence of Boston Beer doesn’t add much when gauging the city’s place in the region’s beer scorecard. The city would seem ripe for a small, inventive brewpub or brewery to target niche consumers, similar to the way the Surly Brewing Company has successfully competed in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market.

That leaves us with Portland and Burlington. Perched on beautiful, opposite ends of New England, these twin Queen cities really offer the beer drinker a range of offerings. Despite their small sizes, neither forgoes quality or makes excuses. At nearly 40,000 people, Burlington is by far the smaller of the two (Portland clocks in at 65,000, compared to 650,000 for my Boston/Brookline hybrid). Despite its size, Burlington is all about the beer. It is the home of the quirky Magic Hat Brewing Company, one of the nation’s fastest growing craft breweries. Magic Hat sponsors an annual Mardi Gras parade down the snow covered streets of Burlington and offers some seriously odd tours. It also can’t seem to grow content with any one flagship product, constantly switching up their available beers and keeping it interesting. The old standby, #9, remains to this day an interesting pint and the recently released Lucky Kat is an unusual IPA anywhere in the country. Burlington’s downtown is perhaps the only place in the world where you can visit three brewpubs in a three block walk (with two of them, the venerable Vermont Pub and Brewery and American Flatbread-Burlington Hearth, directly across the street from one another). Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub has helped push craft brewing in Vermont and beyond and his smoked porter helped reinvigorate a dying method of adding flavor to beer. At American Flatbread, Paul Saylor produces some of the region’s best beers and has also selflessly promoted other better beers, from Vermont and beyond, in his own pub. Down the street, the funky 3 Needs remains the town’s bad boy brewpub experience, although a littles less so without the smoke. Burlington also hosts the fantastic Vermont Brewers Festival on the banks of beautiful Lake Champlain.

On the other side of New England, the City of Portland is an eclectic mix of different elements and interests. Portland is home to a surprising number of breweries, five in total. I am including Sebago in this list even though it is located in nearby Gorham as Sebago still owns two tap rooms in the city where its beers are delivered for fresh consumption right out of the tank. The others include Allagash, Geary’s, Shipyard, and Stone Coast. Even with the loss of the Stone Coast Brewing Company (and its excellent Knuckleball Bock), which is rumored to be closing August 1, the city remains a tough competitor. Add to that the presence of Great Beer Bar The Great Lost Bear and things look good for Portland. The city also hosts the long running Maine Brewers Festival and the Bear hosts a series of fun beer events throughout the year, including a competition among the city’s brewers in a consumer poll.

Needing to confirm my feelings, and because of a trip with friends, I visited Portland again this past weekend. While Gritty McDuff’s, a brewpub that serves classic English-style ales, remains a great place to spend a snowy, Winter afternoon, and Sebago’s Old Port pub is the perfect place to end an evening, I was most interested in stopping by two new places that could seal the deal for Portland. Well, we went one for two which isn’t too bad. The Prost International Beer House is located right in the Old Port and promised a German themed beer experience, an angle sorely missing in most of English-oriented New England. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up because these things don’t usually work out very well. That was the case with Prost.
We stopped by late in the afternoon, but before it grew dark (beware the nightclub crowd after dark). Prost felt like a German themed Bennigan’s or TGIF, with a sterile environment where the theme made little sense. In a bar where women were made to wear tartish dirndls, you shouldn’t be surprised that the place only serves two German beers. The plastic encased German themed menu was ridiculous both in presentation and content. It’s a German restaurant in theory but it serves Italian and Spanish sausage? And just because you add a German name or reference to a pedestrian American food item does not make it German (waffle fries called Luft Waffle Fries, the Zimmerman Nachos) and why is Shepherd’s Pie on the menu again? The skull and crossbones on the menu designating the higher alcohol beers notations would make good evidence in a lawsuit for over-serving or make you think the beer is poison. The waitress immediately apologized for several missing beers despite advertisements that “Yes, we really have 100 taps.” Just don’t expect them to be filled.

Disappointed, we traveled to Novare Res, a place run by Eric Michaud, formerly of the Moan and Dove in Amherst, Mass. You can immediately sense the connection upon entering the small, oddly shaped space. The tap list is straight out of the old M&D playbook, with a solid range of Belgian ales and German lagers tossed in for good measure. Beers were properly presented and served and tasted clean. The large and spacious outdoor deck more than doubles the size of the place and is a bit of a novelty in downtown Portland. Having only recently opened, the place is still experiencing some hiccups but nothing it won’t overcome. Add to the mix occasional events with breweries and you’ve found an excellent addition to the Portland scene.

Digressions aside, despite its small size, Portland offers a whopping number of good beer choices. With its diverse beer offerings, from breweries producing a wide-range of world class beers to homey beer bars and a Belgian beer cafe, reasonable prices, welcoming drinking vibe (except very late on weekend evenings), Portland is my choice for the Best Beer Drinking City in New England.

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