So this is it. Our big craft beer issue, which looks at the past, present, and future of Boston beer, is out for the year, and, if you pardon the slight pat on the back, it’s a good one, chock-full of local beer history, present-day scene, and beers and breweries to look forward to.
But wait, there’s more!
While talking to Chris Lohring, Dann Paquette, and Tod Mott for Boston’s Beer Scene: The Lost Chapter, the piece on brewing in Boston in the ’80s-early 2000s, I was struck by how little I knew about that era of brewing, and by just how different and fascinating it was.
Because we couldn’t fit all of their thoughts and reflections in print, I wanted to include some here.
First, I wish we could have printed all of the names and breweries mentioned in the beer scene back then. There were many, many people who helped build the scene, all of whom I’m sure have some fantastic stories and wise words. I look forward to seeking them out as we continue to dig up some of Boston’s beer history.
Secondly, what struck me was how radically different the scene is from today, even looking back just 15 years. Craft beer, for the most part, wasn’t cool; today even the big brewers are desperate to emulate their coolness. Back then, brewers often used a limited variety of hops, and one or two yeast strains per brewery; today brewers are searching for the next experimental hop and Brettanomyces is a buzzword. It’s not all sunshine and daisies today though—Lohring cites his frustration with the lack of local support in Boston bars, and Paquette voices his concern that there is a lack of permanence in the Boston brewing scene.
What seems to be the most dramatic difference, however, is today’s craft beer consumer. First—that there is one, or plenty of them who are drinking craft, visiting breweries, and supporting brands—but also that they seem to be in it for the long haul, that craft beer is integrated into the marketplace in a way that it wasn’t in the ’90s.
But read on and decide for yourself.
ON THE (NOT ALWAYS) GOOD OL’ DAYS:
Early on in his brewing career, Paquette went back and forth between several breweries, including working on the bottling line at a brand new brewing company, Mill City Brewing in Lowell, and at Pilgrim Brewing, which initially brewed at Ipswich before they opened their own brewery in Hudson. The pay was miserable and the work was hard.
“I remember one year doing my taxes and realizing if I had worked 20 hours less, I would be under the poverty line.
It was hard work to work in a brewery, it still is hard work, but even more so back then.”
ON TREMONT AS A PUNK ROCK BREWERY:
“We were considered the punk rock brewery,” says Lohring, co-founder of Tremont Brewery in Charlestown.
They hired musicians in the Boston rock scene who would leave to go on tour and came back on as delivery drivers when they returned.
“There was a creative element, we supported local music series at T.T.’s [the Bear’s Place], the Middle East. We were ubiquitous in music venues. … “Tremont was the first one to make craft beer cool to Allston hipsters.”
Paquette echoed this:
“Tremont was kind of a big deal. It was the first time beer was ever cool.”
ON BEER BARS AND THE INDUSTRY SCENE:
“The first Tuesday of every month, every single month, the entire scene would get together [at Redbones],” says Paquette. “It was all you can eat BBQ and we drank each others beers and we knew each other really well.”
He recalls Redbones owner Robert Gregory standing on top of a table announcing to the gathered brewers: “I will do this forever, as long as you guys promise to give me your best stuff.”
It must have worked, as Redbones established itself early on as one of the best beer bars in town.
When I asked Lohring what he missed the most, he immediately responded “the people.”
“It’s the personalities that I miss, we had a lot of fun. … There weren’t a lot of us, but a lot of camaraderie, lot of industry nights in the basement of Redbones. … Today seems a little more fragmented, more cliquey.”
ON BEER FESTS BACK THEN:
They were “absolute shit-shows” says Lohring.
“Think ACBF (American Craft Beer Fest), the last hour of Saturday night the entire time. Just utter drunk fests; they were brutal.”
He cites one “really good one,” the WBUR Brewer’s Offering in the old Cadillac showroom, a smaller more intimate fest with local, regional breweries and cool music.
ON BREWERIES CLOSING:
Lohring recalls going to brewery auctions in the late ‘90s when Tremont was expanding and in need of equipment, and it ending up being “friends whose places were shut down and it was their equipment on auction.”
“You could put yourself a brewery together for $100,000,” says Mott. He recalls installing the 10-barrel brewhouse at The TAP/Haverhill Brewery (now Tap Brewing Company) for $65,000–and that was one of the most premier breweries around. Today, that would run you several tens of thousands of dollars more.
“Things felt pretty depressing,” says Paquette, who was at North East when they closed New Year’s Day 2002. “It was just a crazy time. … But the good thing about those days, there was always another job, you heard about someone opening another brewery.”
ON TODAY’S LACK OF LOCAL SUPPORT:
“It’s been a 20-year complaint of mine that Boston is more enamored with beers from other places than their own,” says Lohring when I asked what still surprises him about today’s scene.
“I don’t understand why with so many great local beers, why the consumer doesn’t demand more local beer and why San Diego has more representation than Massachusetts.”
“It’s gotten better, a lot better,” he says, but cites a recent visit to a local bar with 25 tap handles and only one beer from Massachusetts and no others from New England.
The bar scene was much different in the early era. Beer bars were few and far between, and among the best were Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, Cornwall’s in Kenmore Square, and Redbones, but they found local support in surprising places.
“The Irish bars in the ’90s really supported craft beer,” Lohring said, citing bar owners who wanted to support other local, small businesses.
ON THE FUTURE OF THE BOSTON BEER SCENE:
“The frustration for me, the second wave, we really haven’t done much to make this permanent. What we should do is build buildings and really make this a permanent culture,” says Paquette.
He cites the number of beer brands that brew their beer at other breweries—like their own beer company Pretty Things (“we’re floating around until a strong wind comes and then it’s gone”), and the lack of new brewpubs or larger breweries to open in the area.
“We tried to build a bit of a permanent culture back then; now it even seems more ephemeral than ever.”
But still, structures don’t guarantee stability. He recalls giving tours of the old Franklin Brewery in Jamaica Plain, active from 1894 to 1918. Now the brewery is a storage unit warehouse.
“Even with that kind of permanence, you can still lose it. You can still lose a business. It’s not all about building buildings.”
. . .
And on a totally unrelated, slightly sillier note, here’s our list that didn’t make the cut of “Failed Boston Beers,” or rather “Beers We Kind Of Wish Existed, But It’s Probably Good They Don’t.” Who’s down for a round of Green Line Lager after work?
FAILED BOSTON BEERS
Whitey IPA: Drink this one fresh; it doesn’t age well
Green Line Lager: Very limited release—if it ever comes out at all
Allston Ale: Extremely unfiltered, pungent aroma, tallboys only
Dunkin Donuts “Regular” Cream Ale: Served over ice, two sugars please
Menino Barleywine: Barrel-aged for 20 years; may induce muttering
Boston Bitter: Not made in New York
. . .