With warmer days approaching, patio season has arrived and not a moment too soon (and in a bit of a twist, local beermakers are leading the charge in some ways)
For many, the winter of 2020-2021 couldn’t end soon enough, as it has been a pretty scary time that included a terrifying surge in COVID cases. And for those in the food and drink industry, the endless days of cold weather, snow, and rain made outdoor dining nearly impossible.
Indeed, December, January, and February were all about takeout, delivery, and very limited indoor dining (and many if not most diners wanted nothing to do with this last option). But we are now entering a period of renewed hope with the sun being higher in the sky, the temperatures rising, and the COVID numbers getting a bit more under control. And interestingly enough, an entire segment of the food/drink business that had once seemed to be teetering due to coronavirus-related restrictions is now stronger than ever, due in part to pivoting and reconcepting in light of what felt like its possible demise.
When the pandemic first took hold in March of last year, there were a lot of unknowns in the restaurant industry, including when places might be able to reopen other than for takeout/delivery and how outdoor patios might play a role in their survival. It soon appeared that bars, nightclubs, and breweries were in deep trouble because Stage 2 of the state’s reopening plan that began in the early days of summer left these segments in the lurch because a good number of them didn’t have kitchens and/or seated food service, which were among the requirements for reopening. To this day, some bars and many nightclubs remain shuttered because of this, but many of the breweries did something that in retrospect was absolutely brilliant—they found ways to basically morph into full-fledged restaurants, offering food via expanded, permanent kitchen setups and/or food trucks. And today, as we begin year two of the pandemic era, breweries—which had been completely written off by some not all that long ago—are now industry leaders in a way, showing increasing strength via a model that really didn’t even exist not all that long ago.
While not all breweries have been able to blossom (due to a lack of space for patios, a lack of foot traffic, and so on), there are certainly many examples of big successes locally and elsewhere in New England, including a couple close by that were visited recently as the patio season has just started to get up and running, and one other a bit further out that has been a go-to throughout the winter. And while Shovel Town Brewery in North Easton, Mighty Squirrel Brewing Co. in Waltham, and Wachusett Brewing Company/Brew Yard all have quite different vibes, they really show how the beermakers have tapped into something that has turned them into destination spots, and not just for their brews.
In some ways, Shovel Town is the perfect brewery, being hidden away in an old shovel factory (hence the name) on the outskirts of a charming old village with all kinds of fascinating historic structures, including the factory itself. The brewery is rather tough to find which can make it an adventure just getting there, but once you do, you’ll be rewarded with a low-key place with a couple of rooms inside and a well-spaced patio with heaters out front.
Unlike some breweries closer to Boston, Shovel Town is generally pretty quiet and seems to cater mostly to locals along with college students at nearby Stonehill, and the beers can be outstanding; the PB Crunch, for instance, is a ridiculously great peanut butter coffee stout while Pillow Factory is a wonderful New England IPA that holds its own against its better-known competition.
Food-wise, the brewery does a fine job with its somewhat limited menu, with highlights being its aromatic truffle tots, classic Bavarian pretzel stix, garlicky hummus, tasty Cuban sandwich, and simple but satisfying flatbread pizzas. As with all breweries these days (as well as restaurants and bars in general), you have to order food if you’re going to drink, but judging by the quality of the food along with the fact that this isn’t a bar where you’re going to get drunk, that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Shovel Town Brewery, 50 Oliver St., North Easton
Closer to Boston, Mighty Squirrel resides near the Waltham/Belmont line in a rather generic-looking strip mall that bookends with the terrific City Streets restaurant. This brewery is much bigger than Shovel Town and actually includes an indoor rock climbing facility (thanks to a partnership with Central Rock Gym) along with plenty of indoor seating, but for those who are still not comfortable with indoor dining as the pandemic continues, there are two separate patios here, including one (at the time of this writing) that is heated.
The patios at Mighty Squirrel are somewhat exposed due in part to the large parking lot out front, so it might not be the best place to sit on a cold and windy day, but there is quite a bit of room to work with and like Shovel Town, the tables are spaced apart quite nicely. Mighty Squirrel is known in part for its beloved Cloud Candy, a New England IPA that is a favorite among those who prefer juiciness over bitterness, but their other beers are worth looking at as well, including some special beers from their “Indulge” series such as a French Macaron stout that has a nice mix of bitterness and sweetness.
Food can be purchased from a rotating group of food trucks as well as from their kitchen so the options are always changing here, but expect pub grub and comfort food such as burgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken and rice, guacamole, hummus, grilled cheese, and meat pies.
Mighty Squirrel Brewing Co., 411 Waverley Oaks Rd., Waltham
Driving an hour or more to have a beer and a bite to eat may seem silly to some, but the Wachusett Brew Yard in Westminster has become a real destination spot that’s a model for what to do right during the time period. Located on Route 2A near the Fitchburg line (and several miles from the mountain and ski area by the same name), Wachusett is a welcoming place all year long, with its heated patio (complete with a fire pit) adjacent to the building, a sprawling tree-shaded area off to the left that is open during the warmer months, a bar in a custom Airstream trailer, a lot of indoor dining, and live music.
The fire pit area has been the place to go during the winter, and will continue to be a nice spot to hang as things start to warm up this spring, though the area under the pines with picnic tables will be perfect once it’s fully open again. Wachusett has some very popular beers, with its sweet and easy-to-drink Blueberry Ale perhaps being its best-known, while Wally (New England IPA) and Larry (Double IPA) are tremendous and often-overlooked brews that should make even the biggest beer snobs happy.
The Brew Yard tends to put more focus on their food than some of the other breweries in the region, offering up restaurant-caliber food that can sometimes make you forget that this is actually a brewery; here you’ll find great takes on fried pickles, wings, pretzels, a Caesar salad, pizza, macaroni and cheese, burgers, a pulled pork grilled cheese sandwich, a chicken Caesar wrap, and more.
To say that breweries have come back from the dead during the pandemic might be an overstatement, as they were always able to sell their cans and bottles of beers even before the patios (and eventually indoor areas) reopened last year. But the fact that some of them were stressing over their business models less than a year ago shows just how far they have come while so many in the restaurant industry have struggled. Hopefully the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory will come true for restaurants, bars, and nightclubs of all kinds as things start to improve over the coming weeks and months, and those businesses may end up taking a look at what some of these breweries have done that helped them not only survive, but flourish during such difficult times.
Wachusett Brewing Company/Brew Yard, 175 State Rd. E, Westminster
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.