Under that prim and proper exterior, Bostonian bar patrons are equally well-known as gregarious beer drinkers who have kept area brewpubs hopping. One of the homes in the 1980s to the burgeoning brewpub scene, Boston has been a focal point of New England’s enthusiastic embrace of the new American romance with beer.
Brewmoon marketing manager Dan Cahill believes beer is big and getting bigger in Boston.
But competition remains fierce, forcing brewpubs and other beer-oriented operations to improve their products and atmosphere constantly. Brewers have developed innovative beers, menus have evolved and become more sophisticated, and many pub owners have learned that they must offer their customers more than just a selection of beer.
“Stylistically there is more diversity and more experimentation here than any other city in the country. Between all the brewpubs in town, there are probably 25 styles on tap in Boston,” says Dan Paquette, a brewer at North East Brewing Company, one of the city’s newer brewpubs.
Darren MacDonald, a bartender at Boston Beer Works, says more micro-breweries and pubs are “popping up all over the place. I think there are twice as many brewpubs as there were five years ago. Every town has its own beer-loving crew,” he says, describing the clientele at the Beer Works Kenmore Square locale as a mix of college-aged guzzlers and pinstriped clock-punchers. Located close to Fenway Park, Boston Beer Works is packed when the Red Sox play.
Which begs the question: Are beer and sports, another city obsession, closely aligned in Boston? Just ask the folks at Commonwealth Brewing Co., where the NBA lockout hammered a devastating dent in business. (It’s hoped that the new, state-of-the-art federal courthouse going up on Boston’s downtown waterfront will counteract effects of the recently resolved pro basketball blackout, as well as the ripples from the other downtown problem, a multi-billion-dollar road reconstruction project known as the Big Dig.)
But they may be reaching critical mass, which will demand more innovation from operators. “Boston is a very big beer city,” says Dan Cahill, marketing manager of Brewmoon, based on the number of microbreweries in New England. But he doesn’t expect that number to continue to increase because Boston is at its “maximum density.”
Kristin Toli, marketing director for Commonwealth and Back Bay brewing companies, says Commonwealth was New England’s first brewpub and “was so ‘It’ when it opened” in 1986. With its hardwood floors and shining copper kettles, the look of Commonwealth is very “English pub,” while Back Bay has the appeal of a sleek bi-level restaurant, with vats and kettles behind the bar, heavy library chairs, wooden stool, and a dignified upstairs dining area.
Business at Back Bay is improving annually (10% to 12% from last year) since it opened in 1995, she says. Part of Back Bay’s business strategy is “going against the grain of what a typical brewpub offers” with more upscale food. “You’ll never find chicken wings and nachos on our menu,” says Toli. Instead, menus list maple-glazed brie, date and marscapone ravioli, and mahi mahi roasted in a banana leaf, all created by an adventurous 28-year-old chef named Jim Casey III.
Casey debuted last fall by inviting diners to “walk on the wild side” with a game menu–alligator fritters, apricot glazed antelope salad and grilled ostrich filet with maple-blackberry glaze. He works with head brewer Todd Mott to create recipes using beer, such as a porter steak sauce for roasted garlic-crusted Angus sirloin and amber beer butterscotch sauce for a dessert gelato trio.
North East owner Patten knows his brewpub must also have an exceptional menu. “Beer gets them in the door; food keeps them coming back.” Last year North East hired chef David McCluskey to preside over their wood-burning grill, firing up mustard-glazed salmon with beet vinaigrette and herb-crusted chicken.
Brewpubs have developed new ways to sell draft beer. Brewmoon’s Darrah Bryan pours Cahill a brew from a large glass jug dubbed the “Growler.”
Samplers and flight programs have caught on virtually everywhere in the area. Patten says he tries to narrow the selection for customers by getting a feel for their favorite foods and flavors. Are they coffee drinkers? Then perhaps they’ll go for North East’s Whiskey Porter. Conditioned in Tennessee oak casks, the brew has a bourbon character with hints of green apple, vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Another seasonal favorite is the Trappist Monk Abbey made with a yeast strain that comes from a Belgian Trappist monastery.
“I’m not sure if in other parts of the country brewers are allowed such creativity. Experimentation is not going down the drain,” says North East brewer Paquette. But some experiments can blow up in your face; Paquette recalls a Christmas brew flavored with apricots and peppermint that wasn’t well received.
North East, halfway between Boston College and Boston University, attracts crowds of graduate students and young professionals, classic beer consumers. The down side is that business slows in summer when students leave the city. But owner Patten sees success in other arenas, like the number of repeat customers, a steady increase in sales, a move into tap sales at local arena the FleetCenter, as well as several area restaurants and the marketing of half-gallon growlers at local liquor stores.
Moon Over Boston
One of Boston’s most successful brewpubs Brewmoon (four locations in Greater Boston, one in Pennsylvania and a recently opened Honolulu outlet) is also playing up the food angle, an increasingly important side of the brewpub business.
“We don’t like to be called a brewpub. It’s not a bad connotation, but it’s not who we are,” says Dan Cahill, marketing manager. What are they, then? A restaurant and microbrewery serving ‘creative contemporary cuisine,'” he says.
Cahill believes Brewmoon’s customers are as avid for their food as they are for the beers. Their menu, a global array of jerked chicken, ribs, highly-regarded beer-battered onion rings, salads and such seafood dishes as coriander-crusted mahi mahi, can be seen as a sign of the maturing of the brewpub business. Today, operations are forced to further distinguish themselves; rare beers on tap aren’t enough of an attraction anymore. All Brewmoon locations also offer Sunday jazz brunches.
When it comes to beer, Brewmoon keeps five brews on the standard menu and adds brewmaster specials, such as December’s Rudolph’s Red, made with nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, and an autumn special that is flavored with toasted almonds and maple syrup.
Brewmoon, like other area brewpubs, is busy because, Cahill says, “Beer is now coming around. It’s a renaissance, like wine had a few years ago.”
At John Harvard Brew House across the Charles River in Cambridge, business is excellent and has steadily grown since they opened their doors seven years ago, says general manager Steven Peljovich. The Harvard Square location is subterranean and cozily furnished with antique sewing machine tables and the like. Blocks from the hallowed halls of its university namesake, it’s the oldest of the national chain’s 14 brewpubs.
Six to eight beers are available at once–two or three standard brews and four or five seasonals. “The middle-of-the road, the ambers, do the best. Not too light and not too dark,” Peljovich says. And John Harvard, too, is exploring the food niche, offering monthly, five-course brew dinners, with each matched with a particular beer.
Tapping A Vein
Of course, not all beer aficionados seek out on-site brewpubs. For sheer numbers, it’s hard to top the 111 draft beers on tap and 450 in bottle served at Sunset Grill, a popular haunt that changes beers every day, prints a weekly beer menu and offers hard-to-find imports from every corner of the world. Foreign transplants, especially students from abroad, go to Sunset Grill for a taste of home, but owner Mark Kadish encourages them to venture in another direction. “I say, ‘Hey, you’re here in Boston, try to taste some of the local brews.'”
Sunset carries Belgian beers on tap and bottled imports from Africa, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan, as well as beer from tiny local microbreweries, such as Paper City in Holyoke, MA. and Beacon in Newton, MA.
“People come in looking for certain qualities in a beer,” Kadish says. “They want something that is “strong, hoppy and interesting.”
John Harvard’s Grenville Byford has opened 14 brew units since the original opened its doors eight years ago.
But while Kadish likes to think of his place as “cutting edge,” with the best beer selection in Boston, he, too, thinks customers now look for food as much as beer. Sunset’s signature dishes–giant plates of nachos, baby back ribs with beer barbecue sauce, beer-marinated steak tips, chili, shark sticks and steamed beer burgers–rely more on winning tastes and enormous portions than sophistication.
While some brewpubs make a big deal out of which beer should accompany a particular food, Paquette refers to the pairing trend as “posturing” and “elitist.” His theory is simple: “The best beer to go with each dish is your favorite beer.”
But for beer fanatics, the scents of gourmet cuisine aren’t any more appealing than the smell of beer brewing. Brewpub customers still want to be assured their beer is really made on the premises. At Watch City Brewing Company in the suburb of Waltham, beer is brewed one to three times a week. Brewer Aaron Mateychuk compares the aroma to oatmeal or Grape Nuts with hot milk and says the smell is carried out to the street by a steam stack.
Watch City makes only ales, no lagers and uses open fermentation rather than concealed tanks. Most brewpubs use their shiny tanks as interior decor, but Watch City’s tanks are in the cellar. One of their more popular beers is the Frostbite Winter Ale with orange, allspice and cardamom. Mateychuk is especially enthusiastic about their Vermont, Jon’s Hop Explosion, an IPA made with New England hops and dedicated to Jon Blumeberg of University of Vermont who developed a special strand of hops resistant to mildew.
The three-year-old Watch City draws from the surrounding towns of Newton and Wellesley, and has become a hot spot for suburban professionals and families. Mateychuk says though he sees “the industry trend as slowing down, but we’re holding our own.”
Lisa Amand covers the restaurant and bar scene for Boston magazine.