Still making waves from its Boston Dockside home, Harpoon is proof that success doesn't mean selling out


Harpoon was one of the very first Massachusetts craft breweries, founded only a year after the now-monolithic Sam Adams, and remains in its original dockside home, albeit occupying rather more of the building. Gulls wheel overhead in the chill autumn morning as we arrive at the Massachusetts Bay Brewing Company, where Harpoon brew their beer, and gleaming articulated trucks come and go from the neighbouring fish markets.

Despite having broadened its distribution across the states and internationally, Harpoon is one of those brands that’s synonymous with its home town, and which will always have a special place in the heart of local beer lovers. And, although the days are long gone when you could simply order “an IPA” anywhere in the city and automatically be served Harpoon’s brew, it’s clear there’s still a lot of affection and respect for the brewery that helped bring craft here 32 years ago.

That’s partly down to founder Dan Kenary’s commitment to integrate Harpoon tightly into the local community, but also says a lot about the character of Boston itself. You only need to look at how the city venerates its sporting heroes and celebrates its history to figure that Bostonians are immensely proud and supportive of local success stories such as Harpoon. 

For a large regional craft brewery though, Harpoon has a very laid-back, communal feel. VP of business development Jon Schwartz is there to meet us in the brewery’s ‘beer hall’, a tap room with an appropriately Germanic feel, featuring long benches as well as tables, plenty of dark wood and beautiful views out over Massachusetts bay. 

Then it’s onto the brewery floor itself, with a state-of-the art 120-barrel German-made brewhouse at its heart. “This has been here since 2002, and replaced a 20-barrel gas-fired brewhouse,” says Jon proudly. “We can brew around 4000 litres at a time, filling 16,000 or 24,000 litre fermentation vessels outside, and a range of smaller sizes indoors. We also have a 10-barrel pilot kit which gets used three of four times a week; pretty much anyone can put forward an idea for what we do with that – it’s a really open, experimental process.”

While Harpoon’s flagship IPA still makes up around 45% of the total company sales, 25 years after its launch, this experimentation is still very much part of the brewery’s culture, and new beer ideas are not restricted to the “rockstars” on the brewhouse floor. All employees are encouraged to take an active interest in brewing, and Harpoon’s annual staff homebrew competition has evolved into a major event in the company calendar, with each year’s winner given the opportunity to scale their recipe up, for serving in the beer hall and select local pubs and bars.

As well as Harpoon and Clown Shoes Beer, a super-creative local brewer acquired by Harpoon a year ago, Mass Bay Brewing Co. also has the UFO brand, which brews some great wheat beers, many packed with delicious 

fresh fruit.

Factor in the brewery’s second site in Vermont, which specialises in smaller-batch brews and barrel-ageing, and you begin to understand the breadth of activity and invention at play here. During the times we’re hanging out in the beer hall, the chalkboard is constantly being lowered and amended, and there’s a real buzz among the punters around what fresh kegs have just been tapped.

Of course, this is all well and good, but we’re in the 18th largest brewery in the US here, not brewing out of an Ikea pan in a railway arch in Bermondsey. Brewing cock-ups in this environment are not kooky and charming. So I’m curious how Harpoon sustains such an ambitious release programme while safeguarding its high reputation for quality.

Enter head of quality control Jaime Schier and his team of six scientists. Harpoon’s QC lab is tucked away behind the staff canteen. It’s obviously a busy workspace, with some rough edges and personal decorative touches, but boasting several pieces of sophisticated kit, each of which most brewers would happily chew off their left arm to possess. 

It’s just as well they’re properly equipped, because the QC team’s brief is broad, as Jaime explains: “Our job is to evaluate all the inputs that go into the product we sell to customers. It’s the raw brewing materials, of course, but it’s also the boxes, the cans, the bottles and the crowns. It’s the conditions under which the beer is transported and stored; we have to consider and measure every variable that might affect the quality of the beer once it reaches the customer.”

This doesn’t just mean spotting technical errors, but anticipating and correcting for the tiny variations which could make the end product less consistent. 

“And that’s what makes working in the quality lab the coolest job in the whole operation, because we’re the only people to get to touch on every single part of the process. Even upstream of the brewery, we have relationships with our hop growers and our maltsters, with people at our local water authority.”

Interestingly (and tellingly) Jaime also has a kind of customer service role, as any feedback on the beer itself will generally end up with him or one of his team. When he started working with Harpoon in 1999, he would get hand-written complaints from customers when things went wrong, which he found tough at first, “after all,” he observes, “who wants to admit they’ve screwed up?

“What I learned very quickly, which has been borne out through the subsequent 20 years or so, is that the people who are motivated to get in touch with you aren’t crabby – they’re not unhappy people – they’re your biggest fans to begin with. It’s like your favourite uncle is saying ‘come on, you can do better than that’.”

We leave Jaime and his team to their beakers, and head back downstairs to the beer hall for a bite to eat (see box out) and to chat about another aspect of the business that has caught our attention: Harpoon Helps.

Harpoon Helps, the brewery’s charitable operation, grew out of its founders’ general desire to be a force for good in the local community, as well as the natural tendency for people to see breweries as a great source of free stuff for raffles. Many years after Harpoon Helps was established to organise such good work, the latter form of ad-hoc giving is still an important part of its activities. But as Harpoon Helps manager Michelle Palermino explains, these days there’s much more to it.

“The next tier up consists of major partnerships, where we give significant support to various organisations – including The Foundation To Be Named Later, which is one of the Red Sox charities, the Jimmy Fund and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – putting on events, or through dollar-per-pint programmes in the beer hall. 

“The largest way we give, the top tier, is by holding our own fundraising events here and at our brewery in Windsor. Those are charities we’ve worked with for over a decade in most cases. For example, we have the Harpoon five-miler – a 5,000-person road race – which raises a quarter of a million dollars every year for ALS research. Then we hold a similar race out of our Windsor brewery for Oktoberfest, which benefits a local cancer centre. We also work with a local food bank to fund 30,000 meals over the holidays.”

Charitable work is deeply embedded in the culture at Harpoon, and many employees are very hands-on in their participation. One annual event that’s clearly special to Michelle is ‘Harpoon Helps Spread Holiday Cheer’ in which brewery volunteers and their families take Christmas decorations to brighten up soup kitchens, half-way houses, children’s centres and shelters.

“I love that this is something those places probably wouldn’t be able to prioritise for themselves – they have more pressing things to use their limited resources on – but it’s a small gesture that makes peoples lives a little brighter at what might be a tough time of year. This is something we do in all our territories, across the US, not just Boston and Vermont. When I see a new employee put their name on the sign-up sheet, that’s probably the most satisfying part of my job.”

We take it as read that the breweries we visit for Beer52 will put out some great beers, and Harpoon is definitely no exception. But there’s something genuinely special about this place and the people who work here; a sense of pride not only in the product, but also in the business, its role in the community and what it can achieve more broadly. Consistency and innovation, tradition and boldness, success and integrity – Harpoon is proof that these are not binary choices. 

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