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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Another Craft Brewer Response to Blue Moon Belgian White?

First, the news a few months back that our local Harpoon Brewery would be releasing a Belgian-style witbier to compete with the butt-kicking competitor from MillerCoors, the Blue Moon Belgian White. That beer is now starting to hit store shelves in the Boston area. Now, from across the country comes word that the Alaskan Brewing Company of Juneau is releasing its first new beer in two years. And you guessed it, the beer’s name: Alaskan White Ale. I didn’t see a lot of Blue Moon, or any other macro beer frankly, while traveling in Alaska last fall so I can’t say that this release is due to the success of Blue Moon. But I imagine the Summer Ale is also facing stiff competition in the brewery’s continental markets, especially as we recently learned of how tough things are for the Widmer Brothers and the Craft Brewers Alliance.

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The Post Where I Say Nice Things About Harpoon…A Quad Review.

Because it is my hometown brewery, I spend a lot of time talking about the Harpoon Brewery with friends and visitors. And while people often perceive my thoughts as being critical of the brewery, I consider them given more in a constructive vein. See, I want Harpoon to succeed, but I also want the brewery to offer a little more in the flavor department with its beers (although this criticism mainly related to the brewery’s year-round offerings). So it was with some excitement that I reported last summer about the brewery’s foray into stronger beers, with its Leviathan series. At that time, I wrote:

The Harpoon Brewery of Boston is preparing for the release of a new line of ‘big beers’ to accompany its existing line of mainstream ales. The new series, named ‘Leviathan,’ will start out with draft only offerings and eventually transition into 4-packs and limited availability on draft. The line is designed to appeal to the niche of beer geeks who felt that the brewery’s ‘100 Barrel Series’ lacked sufficient punch as a specialty release. The 100 Barrel Series was initially designed to help Harpoon push beyond its stock lineup of traditional, mild flavored beers. While it offered several ‘extreme’ or higher gravity offerings, the 100 Barrel Series eventually focused on more traditional styles, such as oatmeal stout and wit, that were not designed to push the brewing envelope, the Leviathan series is expected to forage into new brewing areas for Harpoon.

quad.jpgSo far in the series we’ve seen a revamping of the Triticus, originally brewed with the BeerAdvocate guys, a nice Imperial IPA, and a very solid Baltic Porter. So this month has seen availability of the most recent release, the Harpoon Quad. Listed at 11.75-percent alcohol on the label (although brewer Scott Shirley told the good folks at hereforthebeer.com that it was actually 12.6-percent alcohol), the Quad is a bruiser. But we’ll get to the flavor in a moment

The Quad style bears a moment of mention, not so much for what it is but perhaps for what it is not. If not a creation of American craft brewers than at least a rebranding, the quadruple/quadrupel style has a pretty sketchy history, even compared to other styles about which it turns out we know very little. Up until a few years ago, beer lovers used to call quadrupel-style beers either trappist ales, trappist-style ales, or abt-style. There was inevitably a bit of friction with the seven, then six, now seven again European trappist breweries. So a name change was required to describe this strong, malty, phenolic beer.

The style doesn’t appear in the Brewers Association’s recent 2009 style guidelines release (though curiously a quadruple Pilsener is referenced, whatever abomination of man that might portend). The BJCP folks also do not list quadrupel as an independent category, but instead place it in the Belgian Specialty Ale grouping. BeerAdvocate lists beers of the style as Quadrupels and it lists nearly 90 examples, including some of the site’s most highly regarded beers, such as Westvleteren 12 and Rochefort 10. BA describes the style this way:

Inspired by the Trappist brewers of Belgium, a Quadrupel is a Belgian style ale of great strength with bolder flavor compared to its Dubbel and Tripel sister styles. Typically a dark creation that ranges within the deep red, brown and garnet hues. Full bodied with a rich malty palate. Phenols are usually at a moderate level. Sweet with a low bitterness yet a well perceived alcohol. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 9.0-13.0%

It’s not really clear how quads are distinguished from Belgian Strong Dark Ales, which the site describes as:

On the same path as the Belgian Dark Ale but obviously higher in alcohol with more of an all around character. The alcohol character can be deceivingly hidden or can be very bold and in your face. Look for lots of complexity within a delicate palate. Hop and malt character can vary, most are fruity and may have mild dark malt flavors. Phenols will range from minimal to high and most will be light on the hops. All in all most are spicy and alcoholic. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 7.0-15.0%

So maybe this is one of those times where we put style guidelines aside and just decide whether we enjoy the beer on a personal level (a bit of a rarity in this rate-happy world). Harpoon describes its Leviathan Quad this way:

[F]ermented with a blend of two traditional Trappist yeasts. A mixture of two-row pale malts, caramel malts, and special aromatic malts gives the Quad its richness and texture. The subtle hop flavor imparted from Brewer’s Gold hops lingers in the background and provides just enough bitterness to balance the malt sweetness. The addition of imported Belgian Dark Candi Syrup rounds out the beer, giving the Quad its full body and deep auburn color. Expect notes of honeyed dry fruit with peppery phenols in the aroma, a velvet-like mouthfeel, and a superbly drinkable beer…Original gravity 26.2, ABV 11.75%, 44 IBU’s.

So let’s get to the beer. I bought a 4-pack of the brand for about $10 at a local package store, stored cool. Pours with a slightly murky/hazy purplish rouge color, mild but active carbonation. Aroma is very complex and playful, with immediate notes of the classic Trappist yeast strain, big deep sweet malts, and numerous fruits and phenols, from banana to bubble gum. A real pleasure just to smell. There is the slightest hint of a peppery spiciness deep in the beer but is pretty overwhelmed by a substantial but not overbearing alcohol note. The alcohol is not hot in the aroma but adds a pleasant warmth. Mouthfeel is medium to heavy and easily coats the entire mouth with malt sweetness, with some carbonation bites rounding out the edges. As it warms, I’m noticing some slightly sour notes in the aroma. Flavor waits for a second and then explodes in all directions, unleashing a torrent of banana and fruity tones, then a splash of European malt sweetness, followed by that previously hidden black pepper spiciness, and then ends with a surprisingly bitter finish mixed with big alcohol notes. With these descriptions, such a beer could easily devolve into a completely undrinkable mess. The Harpoon Quad doesn’t; instead it just shows you sharp glimpses of each before retracting into a balanced finish. While all of these notes mellow as the beer warms (and it sweetens considerably), I think the Harpoon Quad is still a pretty young beer. I’m going to lay down my remaining bottles for a few months and check on their quality. I would imagine that the beer could easily lay down for a few years. And considering that I had a nearly five-year-old bottle of Harpoon’s Barleywine (Release Four of the 100 Barrel Series) that aged beautifully, it’s a pretty safe bet.

The next beer in the Leviathan series, a huge Bohemian Pilsner, will be out in a couple of months. Using German pilsner malt and Saaz hops, the beer will clock in at 10-percent. I’m generally not a fan of imperializing classic German styles but look forward to trying the next release after the solid to excellent Leviathan releases I’ve had to date.

With its year-round line, the brewery has proven that it can make very approachable beers for a wide-audience, often as a bridge from macro brands to the craft world. With the Leviathan series, Harpoon has demonstrated its ability to break out of that mold and to craft solid versions of styles popular with beer geeks. For its next act, I’d like to see Harpoon show mastery of the ground in-between. While I look forward to trying the UFO White when it debuts at the end of this month, another addition to the brewery’s regular portfolio of IPA, Ale, Brown Ale, UFO hefeweizen, Munich Dark, and Raspberry Hefeweizen is sorely needed. With its sustained sales and trim portfolio, I appreciate that the brewery likely has no real interest in adding to its year-round offerings. But that can’t keep local beer drinkers from hoping…

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