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.

Be Social:

In Praise Of The “One Beer”…

Tens of millions of barrels later, the craft beer renaissance can be traced to a single beer. Now, I don’t mean Anchor Steam, Redhook Ale, or even the New Albion Ale, though they might qualify for some of you. Instead, I’m talking about the experience every dedicated craft beer drinker has enjoyed at one point, the time that “the beer? set them upon the road to beer enrichment. It’s a moment you’d think we could never forget. But with all the excitement our industry has to offer, it sometimes seems as if we’ve forgotten the remarkable place from where we’ve come.

Sparking an interest in craft beer is all about the right beer at the right moment, the one sip that radically transforms the imbiber’s way of thinking about beer. After experiencing a flood of yellow, fizzy, cold monotony, it’s the scene stealing instant of real flavor that stops you in your tracks and ends with an exclamation point hovering in a speech bubble above your head. An internal cymbal crash signifies the breaking of long-held beer stereotypes, be they an avowed dislike of “dark beer? or a staunch opposition to “bitter beers.?

Depending upon when you came of age, the defining beer might be Sierra Nevada IPA or Samuel Adams Boston Lager, recalling a seemingly distant time when these beers were anything but omni-present and not derided by beer geeks as “mainstream brands.? For others, “the beer? may have been a locally produced pale ale, brown ale, or hefe-weizen. Others still may have first seen the light as it passed through an invitingly hazy Blue Moon Belgian White, a laudable product of Coors.

In truth, “the beer? is more likely a series of beer sojourns spaced over an extended journey into craft beer. For every beer lover, life is a series of single beers and defining moments, the right pub and atmosphere at the right time, warm weather and the perfect quencher, celebratory moments with family or stolen seconds of personal solace at the end of a long day, each accompanied by “the beer.?

After a long, monogamous relationship with Miller Genuine Draft, my personal interest in better beer started with the first sip of Guinness. A near polar opposite in terms of body, flavor, and overall perception from American-style premium and light lagers, this “gateway beer? led me to my first brewery tour and a romp through locally available imported brands. When a brewpub opened in my college town, I visited and ordered my first sampler, in the process unknowingly stumbling upon my second “the beer? moment. The first taste of Court Avenue’s Blackhawk Stout subconsciously taught me the difference between ubiquitous Irish dry stouts and the sweeter but less popular foreign-style or export stout variety. From there, Vermont Pub’s syrupy Wee Heavy, Capital’s malty Blonde Doppelbock, and Summit’s bitter IPA and smooth Maibock propelled my interest. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, along comes the Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, a wonderfully hoppy German-style pilsner whose remarkable complexity is matched only by the come-full-circle irony of enjoying the beer directly from its can.

These single beers define the development of a craft beer drinker, from early, beerphobic days to passionate travels to far-flung breweries. In this era of eBay’d extreme beers, Dark Lord Days, and famed international brewing collaborations, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of the simple origins of our interest. Perhaps more importantly, our passions can sometimes disconnect us from the 95-percent of beer drinkers who do not share our enthusiasm for the charming marriage of hops and malt. With this in mind, I’ve made a resolution this year to redouble my efforts to spread the good word of “the beer? to friends, family, new acquaintances, and strangers yet to be known.

Be Social:

The Boston Globe Reviews “Beer Wars,” Sort Of…

A curious article appears in the Boston Globe today. Written by Globe columnist Alex Beam, the piece discusses the upcoming documentary by Anat Baron, “Beer Wars,” that we’ve covered here before. The odd thing is that Beam isn’t really reviewing the movie, mainly because Baron is not pre-releasing copies for critical review. He does capture the unusual nature of the single day release and he was also allowed to watch ten minutes of the film. His grade based upon this “sip”: C+. While the “review” is interesting in itself, under the circumstances, it is the content of the limited portion of the film that seems to confirm many of my concerns in my last post. The concerns, namely, that Beer Wars would simply be a little-versus-big hatchet job and one based upon an anachronistic view of the beer industry. Definitely take a look at the column for yourself, but here is the heart of Beam’s piece:

What about the movie? Baron is review-proofing it, not scheduling screenings for critics, and not sending out DVDs to interested parties like me. Her people let me see about 10 minutes of “BW,” and it wasn’t very impressive.

What I saw was Michael Moore 101: Little craft breweries like Dogfish Head and MoonShot = Good. Anheuser-Busch, a.k.a. “the soulless machine,” the “monopoly,” the “corporate behemoth with their insatiable appetite for growth” = Bad. Baron takes a page right from the “Roger and Me” playbook, making much of Anheuser CEO August Busch’s refusal to grant her an interview. They did allow her on the premises, however, to hang out with the Clydesdales. “They were my best interview,” she joked.

I asked Baron why she insists on calling Anheuser a “monopoly,” when there are plenty of other beer companies out there. “I went to business school, I know what ‘monopoly’ means,” Baron shot back. Well, I went to eighth grade, where I learned that monopoly means “one seller.” I’m sure Anheuser would like to be a monopoly, but alas, Coors, Miller, Sam Adams, and Dogfish all stand in the way.

In the movie, Dogfish founder Sam Calagione decries publicly owned companies whose goal is “maximizing shareholder value.” Maybe he should hang out with Jim Koch, who runs a publicly owned company, and ask him why he’s in business. For the betterment of mankind, perhaps? “Sam” wages its own amusing deception campaign, calling itself a “small, independent craft brewer” when, with $400 million in revenues and three breweries under its belt, it is the largest American beer company in the United States. (Busch, Miller, and Coors are all foreign-owned.)

Be Social:

The Brewers Association’s Quiet War On Blue Moon, Leinenkugels, Goose Island, and Maybe Even Elysian, New Belgium, and Your Brewery…

Six months ago I spent a few weeks traveling around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I’ve written a few pieces on the trip, including one long-form interview with Dick Cantwell, co-founder of the Elysian Brewing Company of Seattle, Washington. Cantwell is an interesting guy and also serves as one of the board members for the Brewers Association. So during the interview I asked him a little about the association and its politics. In one specific part of the interview, I asked him about how he thought the Brewers Association would react when the Boston Beer Company’s production exceeded its defined ceiling of two million barrels. In response, Cantwell said:

It’s inevitable that they will go above two million barrels and this was my point in saying we should dismantle it. The definition of our success ensures our failure. All of a sudden our market share would drop. And yes, Blue Moon, or what we are now calling it, Blue Moon by Coors, their success and the decency of their beers—I mean twenty years ago wouldn’t all of us have considered that a good thing, that one of the big brewers is actually making a beer we can drink, it is a victory in terms of sensibility but it’s scary in terms of the inroads it makes on our more purely defined arena but I still think it’s a victory.

The idea that the association was suggesting that its members use a certain terminology when referring to a competitor, namely ‘Blue Moon by Coors’, intrigued me so I inquired further. And that’s when Cantwell let slip some of the association’s plans for the future.

We’re going to do a whole campaign of ‘who makes your beer?’ So that it is right out there. It will be right out there that this percentage of our beer is made at New Belgium and I’m ok with that. But it’s also going to be, ‘how much of your company is owned by Anheuser-Busch’ and ‘who makes this’ and what the Plank Road Brewery really means. We want consumers to go to the website or generally have it forged into their consciences so that they pay attention and give a damn where it comes from and who does it.

I found the concept sufficiently interesting that I inquired of Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association. Herz denied that the Brewers Association had such a plan. After a little more digging, I determined that the association had indeed registered a website, whobrewsyourbeer.com. A follow-up with Herz confirmed that the Brewers Association didn’t have a campaign planned on the issue, at least for 2008 or 2009, but that the association had indeed registered the website. “I personally feel it is increasingly more important for beer drinkers to ask what brewing company makes the beer they might enjoy, because that information is not always readily available on the label,” Herz said.

So I let the issue lie until today, when a new press release rolled in from the Brewers Association, a Declaration of Beer Independence. The proposal reads:

I declare that these are historic times for beer with today’s beer lover having inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of hops and malt fermented from the finest of U.S. small and independent craft brewers with more than 1,400 of them brewing today, and

I declare the beer I choose to enjoy is not a commodity, but more importantly an artistic creation of living liquid history made from passionate innovators. The beer I drink furthers our culture and teaches us geography and helps to nurture a sense of community, and helps to make the world a better place, and

I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company. I want to know why so many of my local beer brands are not available in many of my favorite restaurants, bars and beer stores, and I encourage beer sellers to offer a wide selection of beer styles and beer brands that includes beer from my local and regional breweries, and

I declare American craft brewers provide flavorful and diverse American-made beers in more than 100 distinct styles that have made the United States the envy of every beer drinking nation for the quality and variety of beers brewed in America to such an extent that beer made by American craft brewers helps to reduce dependence on imported products and therefore contributes to balanced trade, and

I declare to champion the message of responsible enjoyment of craft beer, the beverage of moderation, as the makers of these beers produce libations of substance and soul that are sincere and authentic, and the enjoyment of them is about savoring the gastronomic qualities including flavor, aroma, body and mouthfeel while practicing responsible appreciation.

I therefore declare to support America’s small and independent craft brewers during American Craft Beer Week May 11-17, 2009 and beyond…

While most of this language is PR for craft brewers, it was this line that again caught my eye: “I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company.”

The association’s continuing definitional war has a lot of people in the industry scratching their heads. We’ve discussed here and elsewhere quite a few times the history of the association’s process of defining ‘craft beer’ or ‘craft brewer.’ The ‘who brews you beer’ idea is just the latest salvo. And it’s one that even Dick Cantwell worried about, considering he had just announced plans to contract brew several of his brands at the New Belgium Brewing Company’s facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. When I asked him about the whole definition controversy, which saw voting members actually abstain due to the friction involved, Cantwell noted:

I wasn’t on the committee that came up with it but that is such a tough thing. At times, I’ve argued about every possible point of view and have been on both sides of this issue. The most recent thing I think I’ve said is that we should just give up and not have a definition and trust the consumer to make the right choice. But that was admittedly a rarified position being as small as we are. I got reaction from other people on the board saying, “You know, you’re wrong.? I guess at this point that we’re just trying not to make too much of it. I do, however, see some positive effects even though there is disagreement and there is disagreement, even among members of the board. There are absolutists who think that if you even have any ownership by someone else that you couldn’t be considered independent. And I don’t even know if we would qualify because we have like six percent foreign ownership, depending upon where you draw the line. I mean it’s like, “How much of a vegetarian are you??

It’ll be interesting to see when the Brewers Association decides to unleash this new campaign or at least press the issue further, as it raises issues that may leave many craft brewers on the outside looking in.

Be Social:

Craft Beer And The Recession and Sam Adams No Longer Qualifies As A Craft Brand?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is one of the first publications to print numbers for the beer industry’s performance in 2008 and things are about on par with where industry experts expected. Sales of craft beer, as defined by Beer Marketer’s Insights, totaled 9.45 million barrels in 2008, a 5-percent increase over the previous year. As the Brewers Association’s total craft beer production number for 2007 was 8,071,241 barrels, BMI likely includes several larger near-craft brands excluded by the BA. The craft segment again beat the overall industry, which turned in a healthy gain of .5-percent. Craft sales enjoyed double-digit growth rates in recent years.

I haven’t seen the BMI numbers yet but a few highlights from the report include a 1.1-percent increase in sales by Sierra Nevada Brewing, a 3.5-percent drop for Miller Lite, which now becomes MillerCoors’ second best-selling brand after Coors Light, and Budweiser dropping 6.1-percent.

Perhaps of greatest interest is that the Boston Beer Company finally went through the magic 2 million barrel mark after posting a monster 8.5-percent increase. With this achievement, Boston Beer and the Brewers Association and its members are going to have to seriously discuss how to handle a “macro craft” brewer. Boston Beer’s numbers include the Twisted Tea line of products, which it could argue should be subtracted from its beer totals for purposes of sneaking in under the Brewers Association’s below 2 million barrel definitional requirement. Boston Beer remains a craft brewer under it’s own definition, which as you may recall defines “small brewer” as one with an “annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria.”

Be Social: