World-class breweries are only one part of what makes Boston a truly great beer city, as Richard Croasdale and Callum Stewart discover
Richard Croasdale and Callum Stewart
Monday 10 December 2018
This article is from
The Boston Beer Party
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One of America’s oldest cities, Boston has always played a central role in the nation’s history. Founded in 1630 by puritans fleeing religious persecution in England, it was also at the centre of the eventual revolution against British rule, providing the scene for the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Today it’s a beautiful, exciting, multi-cultural place, with world-famous colleges and universities including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
We’re lucky enough to be visiting at the height of autumn, when the sun is low and crisp against the city’s iconic redbrick buildings, and its abundant trees turn a vivid red before the hard winter sets in. The moment we drop our bags, Richard is keen to get out and explore the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile self-guided walking tour among the churches, meeting houses, cemeteries and monuments that mark out the key events and famous figures in Boston’s storied past. It’s also a great opportunity to get our bearings, and find out how “America’s walking city” got its reputation.
In short, it’s everything you would expect from film and television: a jarring but distinctive mix of colonial and Victorian buildings, surrounded by towering glass and steel, with steaming vents on street corners and the pervading sense that this is still a maritime town, on the ragged coast of Massachusetts Bay.
There are also a huge number of bars and restaurants, particularly in the downtown area, promising cold brews and fresh seafood. Beer delivery trucks roam the streets, loudly promoting everything from Coors to Harpoon and Stone, and we stop at several points on our walk to slake our palates. The tour ends at the monument on Bunker Hill, an oasis of peace that gives us a great view of some of Boston’s most historic streets, against the backdrop of its modern heart.
It’s getting late now though, and the next stop in our cultural education couldn’t be more different: tickets to see the Boston Celtics play the Detroit Pistons at basketball. TD Gardens is a great venue, a million miles from the grotty painted concrete and sad pie stands of most British stadiums. Even though we’re right at the back, it still feels like we’re at the heart of the action and the atmosphere is oddly intimate for a big-ticket event.
From the moment the house lights go down, it’s a non-stop, two-hour assault on the senses. Despite the many interruptions to play, from fouls (there are many) to time-outs (each team uses its full complement of five) the crowd is kept writhing on the attention-deficit hook every moment, with lulls filled by tightly orchestrated dance routines, competitions and audience participation.
We’re slightly confused that there are so many empty seats for the first quarter, and that seemingly committed fans are still rolling casually in 20 minutes after the start of the game. Soon enough though, we learn that it’s really the final moments of the final quarter where the drama happens, where every second on the game clock is strategically eked out for a final chance of redemption or glory.
the crowd is kept writhing on the attention-deficit hook every moment, with lulls filled by tightly orchestrated dance routines, competitions and audience participation
In the end, the Celtics snatch a victory by the narrowest of margins, pushed over the line by a home court advantage that seems positively unsporting to our eyes – the visitors’ every move is accompanied by booing fans and distracting sound effects from the powerful PA system. Throw in a rolling light show that Jean-Michel Jarre would have found gaudy, and you have the sensory equivalent of corn syrup, leaving us jittery and elated. Time for a drink.
Fortunately, we’re not far from the newly-opened Trillium taproom, and decide dank and juicy is the way to go. The bar itself is very cool and very slick, playing host to an after-work crowd enjoying live football on several massive screens. The staff react with friendly but poorly-concealed concern at a beer magazine bowling up unannounced, so we put the camera away and settle in for a strictly off-duty drink. It’s a shame that New England IPAs travel so badly, because when they’re freshly brewed by people who really understand the style, they’re truly exceptional.
We rise bright and early the next day, which we’ve set aside for exploring Boston with Harpoon’s Jon Schwartz and our export partner Qurban Walia.
As luck would have it, our trip has coincided with both the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series and Halloween, plunging the entire city into a confusing but colourful sports/apocalypse-themed party. Even luckier, our hosts at Harpoon have a couple of spare tickets to the iconic Fenway Park, for the start of the Red Sox victory parade, which they offer to us. When you’re in Boston and you’re asked “would you like to go to Fenway Park?” the answer for anyone who has ever followed a sports team is an unequivocal “Yes”.
So it was that we entered the actual Fenway Park, emerging from a dark concrete tunnel onto the bleachers, the diamond before us and neon advertisements for Coca-Cola, John Hancock and Sam Adams towering above. We’re there to welcome back the city’s baseball stars, as one-by-one MVPs, dignitaries and owners come up on stage to reassure the select, 3000-strong crowd that Boston has the best sporting fans in the world (and stick it to the haters). But this is just the start of a day (and night) of celebrations for Sox fans, as the players, their significant others and hangers-on are loaded into ‘duck boats’ – those strange amphibious buses that, for reasons nobody seems able to explain, are traditional for Bostonian victory parades – and trundled around the city to have beer thrown at them.
Sometimes referring to itself as ‘Title Town’, Boston is certainly in the habit of sporting victory, whether you’re a fan of the Celtic’s (basketball), New England Patriots (American football) or the Bruins (ice hockey). For the Red Sox in particular though, this latest victory rounds off a decade in the top tier, which followed 86 years without a World Series win, so it’s a big deal.
By late morning, the streets of Boston are flowing with beer, both literally and figuratively, as the entire population has clearly sacked off work for the day, and it’s time to dive into one of the most epic bar crawls that Ferment has ever attempted.
Our first stop is the Yard House, just a minute’s walk from Fenway. Primarily a sports bar, it’s famous for having more than 100 taps, optionally pouring into huge ‘yard’ glasses (not the recommended glassware for craft beer, but when in Rome…). Even though we arrived at 11am, the bar is soon packed with sports fans. It’s early, and we’re not animals, so we decide to start with some of the easier-drinking ‘brunch’ beers. Rich has the delightfully sweet and tart raspberry hefeweizen from UFO, while Callum goes for Abita’s Purple Haze, a raspberry lager which is just as drinkable. The bar is typical of the American craft scene, full of sports fans of all ages, multiple TV screens to watch the game, and a huge variety of beer from across the country.
As is typical here – and across the US, to be honest – the best seats are right at the bar, and strangers are keen to talk to one another. Boston is home to the Cheers Bar (apologies to readers under 30 for this reference) and, while nobody at the Yard House knows our names when we arrive, an awful lot of them do by the time we leave an hour later.
Our next port of call is technically the Cask ‘n Flagon, which markets itself as a craft joint, but is actually a pretty charmless drinking warehouse, with surly staff and scant atmosphere. We duck out after one lap around the monolithic bar.
Seeking refuge, we head to Cornwall’s Bar, a ‘British-themed’ pub where we are made to feel at home with Old Speckled Hen on cask, a mural of Margaret Thatcher riding into battle with Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes, and authentically disappointing food. This is much more to our taste. Callum chooses the Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine DIPA, which is lush and tropical, featuring an abundance of US-grown Citra and Columbus hops. Rich (still sulking over his pie) opts for the more obscure Extra Dry Sake Saison from Stillwater N.Y., a low-alcohol, dry-as-a-bone saison brewed with a hefty slug of rice for a delicate, sake-like character.
Another favourite shared by the group was Hop, Hop and Away from Aeronaut Brewing Co, a light and hazy easy-drinking session IPA. Founded by students at MIT, Aeronaut is using this science knowledge to brew beer in the Boston suburb of Somerville, and has developed a steady following within the state.
The next stop is a strong contender for ‘Ferment’s Favourite Dive Bar’. Bukowski’s Tavern, also known as the Dead Authors’ Club, is tucked in a shady corner under a multi-storey car park, and lighting is almost non-existent. The walls are full of graffiti, with quotes from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Brontë and of course Charles Bukowski himself. Loved by locals and college students alike, the bar’s beer list is uncompromising to the point of being aggressive, favouring obscure local brews with a smattering of international bottled oddities. You can also order Pabst Blue Ribbon, just to show you’re in on the joke.
Callum goes for Pinot Brune from Baxter Brewing Co. in Maine, a complex sour, with noir grapes and cherries, but darker like a brown ale. Rich finds his beer-of-the-trip here: Singlecut’s Bowie-themed Cold Fire, a syrupy New England-style, double dry-hopped imperial IPA, which body-slams you with juicy mango, pineapple and stone fruit, layered with dank resin notes and a real bitter edge. Violating our self-imposed rule early in the day, we stay for a second round here: the super-hoppy and delicious Galactica DIPA from Clown Shoes, featured in this month’s VIP box.
Moving on across the road, Pour House seems at first to simply be a well-stocked, atmospheric craft pub, the likes of which Boston does so well (okay, we’re spoiled at this point). Our host Jon, however, chooses this moment to bring out the big guns, pulling off his fleece to reveal the Red Sox Jersey he’s been secretly wearing all day and shepherding us down a winding staircase.
The downstairs bar is a party in full swing; a zombie, vampire, baseball frat house, with plastic pumpkins and cobwebs dangling in plentiful pitchers of beer. The ghost of John Belushi is at our shoulders. We’re probably the only two people not wearing Red Sox caps (Callum would mysteriously wake up wearing one the following morning) but we dive into the celebrations regardless, with several pints of Harpoon’s superb and timely Flannel Friday autumnal amber ale.
Callum’s Scottish accent plays well here and everyone claims some sort of Celtic lineage, with at least half the bar being direct maternal descendants of Robert the Bruce. We’re adopted as official party photographers and everyone is keen to have their presence at this historic moment marked for posterity (or have their picture taken with Callum, for some reason).
Disentangling ourselves, we make a quick stop for breath in McGreevy’s next door, before heading back towards Fenway to Bleachers Bar. Hidden inside the baseball stadium itself, but accessible and open to the general public, this bar offers stunning views across Fenway Park, with tables on gameday being reserved weeks in advance.
We’ve been in dark bars since 11am and are, in any case, still a little jetlagged. So by the second pint here, our senses are like molasses and time has ceased to have any real meaning. Jon and Qurban have hung on gallantly, despite having a full day of work tomorrow, and we seem to have accumulated a lot of new friends too, all of whom are very enthusiastic about introducing us to their favourite local brew. How long are we there? What beers do we drink? All sense of proper journalistic record has long since flown, and it’s all we can do to keep hold of Richard’s camera. Everyone is trying to turn us into Red Sox fans, but the truth is we have been for about 12 hours now. How could we not be?
Miraculously, we wake up back in our hotel room, with the promise of bottomless coffee and loaded breakfast burritos wafting up from the restaurant downstairs. We’ve accumulated a surprising number of business cards, cryptic notes scrawled on napkins and a gaggle of Facebook friend requests, most of which seem attached to some kind of half-baked plan or vague promise of magazines. There’s absolutely no question that Boston boasts some of the finest breweries and beers anywhere in the world, but we feel we’ve just experienced what makes it a truly great beer city.
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