Step into any thriving bar these days and you are bound to come face-to-face with an imposing selection of ornate beer taps offering a wide range of drinkables. Craft beers have taken over and the variety, from tart gose sours to smooth chocolate milk stouts, means a greater choice than ever. Small town breweries are popping up across the map and, in some cases, regions are becoming known for their success with certain beer types. For New England, that means juicy and hazy India Pale Ales (or, simply, IPAs). While the American North-West has laid a strong claim on those of a dank and bitter variety, the American North-East leads with a style that is often visually dense and fruitfully aromatic to the nose, unfiltered and strongly dry hopped. Vermont breweries have made great strides in attracting drinkers from all over (including us south-east Canadians who are within relatively easy touring distance), yet it is not the only New England destination for beer lovers. Massachusetts, a beautiful state with a not so easy to spell name, has a tremendous yet largely untapped scene that offers much to the adventurous beer connoisseur and casual drinker alike. Having discovered a Massachusetts Craft Brewers Trail brochure with an oh-so-inviting map laying out routes to explore, I was keen to head down and check out some of its offerings. Thus began four days of roaming across Massachusetts and seeing what came (and was poured) my way.
An early morning flight on Porter Airlines out of Toronto got me to Boston and soon after into a downtown pub for a rite of passage — a pint of Samuel Adams on tap — and an escape from the scorching mid-summer sun. Samuel Adams and its stalwart lager has been a staple of the scene for over thirty years, its beers available internationally and its brewery a popular destination for tourists.
Yet I opted to pass on touring the brewery and instead made my way to Harpoon, where craft beer and large-scale success have gone hand-in-hand. With a large selection of beer brewed onsite and a bright and inviting (if busy at times) tap room, Harpoon offers a good option for visitors to Boston keen on learning how beer is brewed, as evidenced by the large groups that seem to continuously rotate through the facility throughout the day.
Harpoon IPA has a strong presence across the state but be sure to try one of the many other beers that they offer onsite at the brewery, and order up a classic pretzel while you are at it.
Keen to check out the brewery scene outside of Boston, particularly those of a smaller craft variety, I jumped on a ferry and headed northwards. Salem is known less for its beer and more for the Witch Trials, which despite all their infamy lasted only about a year in the late 1600s. Yet strip away Witch hype and you still have a funky yet cozy locale, one framed by old bones of red brick and weathered timber. History is deep here due to its early role as a key seaport. People and money alike flowed through this coastal port, a key site for trade with China, the West Indies, and Africa. Pepper first entered American via Salem. And it is here that one finds the first commercially made candies, the first militia, and the first long-distance telephone call (Alexander Graham Bell to Mr. Watson down in Boston), among many other firsts.
Checking into the historic century-old Hawthorne Hotel, a majestic building that fits well into the museums and historic sites lining Salem streets, seemed fitting. From here one can easily meander around the downtown attractions, which includes a requisite number of witch hotspots, of course.
For me it meant grabbing dinner at FINZ and its selection of fresh fish, seafood, oysters, and of course the famous New England lobster roll. To be on the coast and not have seafood for my first proper meal seemed anathema, and my decision to have the Lobster Mac and Cheese paired with Cape Ann Brewing’s Real Easy IPA — a juicy New England IPA — was a no brainer. With ten Massachusetts breweries on tap along with a few out-of-state’rs, FINZ proved to be a great culinary starting point and perfectly located just across the road from Notch Brewery and Tap Room, Salem’s brewery standout.
Whereas New England is famous for its juicy IPAs, Notch is notable for bucking the trend and going in its own direction. Founded in 2010, Notch was the first brewery in the U.S. to focus on session beers and has drawn rave reviews for its classic European beers. With owner and brewer Chris Lohring at the helm, Notch combines inventive beers with a sense of community. Its gentrified warehouse building on the river offers harvest tables for a European communal drinking experience in a family friendly atmosphere and prides itself on, as Chris explained to me, the art of how things are done rather than just what is produced. One finds not only Czech lager and Belgian farmhouse saison but a very interesting oak smoked Polish wheat beer. In Notch one not only finds great craft beer but a welcoming atmosphere that prides itself on having a coffee shop style ‘come hang out’ vibe. It would be hard to think of a better daytrip from Boston than combining the scenic ferry ride with a pint of beer at Notch.
Coastal attractions make Massachusetts an easterly-heavy state when it comes to visitors, so I opted to head to the western end to check out some of the less visited locales. Arriving in Northampton, tucked away in Hampshire County and pretty much equidistant between New Hampshire, New York State, and Connecticut, its artistic and cultural vibrancy was quite immediate.
Northampton is a city of community inclusiveness and collaboration, social awareness and countercultural critique, home to a bustling academic scene and the artistic energy that often accompanies it. Farm to table restaurants benefiting from a bountiful agricultural valley, small independent boutiques offering unique goods, and red bricked buildings decorated with murals and brightly painted storefronts.
When it comes to beer, this sense of collaboration and creativity is embodied by Beerology, an innovative home brew school and supply shop that acts as an epicenter for the local beer scene. Husband and wife team Mike Schilling and Jordana Starr offer a space not only for the craft of beer making but also to share the love of beer and to help plan local events. Jordana, for example, is on the Western Mass Beer Week planning committee and writes about beer, wine, cider and other libations for the publication Edible Pioneer Valley. “It is very important to us to see the industry growing,” and for Beerology that means teaching people how to craft beer, how to enjoy beer, and to expand that appreciation. “Beer is something you think about, something that you taste, not dissimilar to wine.” ‘Style focus’ classes, for example, allow participants to learn about beer diversity, much as one finds amongst wine drinkers. “Home brewing makes craft beer interactive. You can understand it better when you make it yourself…. you can engage so much more when you actually understand how the product is made, and what goes into it in the process, it helps you understand what you are tasting more.”
Venturing into the world of craft beer, if when it comes to simply ordering a pint from amongst a row of often ornately shaped tap heads, can be imposing. So Beerology is keen to help guide people who are interested in craft beer but unsure as to what to drink. “It is always about finding that right transition to guide people.” If they like Budweiser, then offer them a craft golden lager. “You start them on something they enjoy” and in turn a new world opens to them.
Being closer to Vermont than to Boston means that the western Massachusetts beer scene often has more to do with its neighbor than it does its capital, Jordan explained. It is natural to feel like an extension of that scene, and for that reason beer drinkers hitting the Vermont scene should swing down and check out what is going on amongst the likes of Brick & Feather and Tree House Brewery. “We have a lot of small breweries here doing cool stuff.” And with Northampton being situated amongst lush agricultural production, bringing local food together with local beer naturally goes hand-in-hand. “We are all working together, we are all working as a team, it is not a competition.” Seven Strong, Dirty Truth and the Foundry are key restaurants that should be on the list of any visitor to the area who is interested in combining locally source food and drink.
For me, coming to Northampton meant a trip to Northampton Brewery, the oldest operating brewpub in New England. Since 1987 Northampton Brewery has offered up a selection of local craft beer and fine pub grub. No trip to Northampton would be complete without stopping in to check out their massive outdoor upstairs deck or simply to grab a quick pint in their rustic bar.
Although Northampton Brewery draws quite the crowd in its family friendly locale, if you are looking for a pint of fine craft beer with a bit more edge, then Packards is the place you want to be. Located a few doors off the main drag, Packards has the kind of well-worn atmosphere that fosters the loyalty of locals and wonderment of visitors. Grabbing a seat at the bar, I saddled up adjacent to a mounted moose head adorned with bras and next to a blue-haired university student mixing whiskey and crocheting. The 16 beers on tap, many of them from across the state, sealed the deal. The Berkshire Brewing Company’s Coffee House Porter on tap ended up being one of my favourite beers of the trip and definitely put the Berkshires on my list for a return trip.
With so many breweries stretched across Massachusetts but with so little time at hand, filling the gap between east and west meant picking just a few more before it was time to head home. Multiple times the name ‘Tree House’ had been mentioned as a must-visit brewery, but with the warning that it was going to require patience. Tree House Brewing Company in Charlton has found its beers so in demand that one can only get them direct from the brewery and even then one needs to wait. In my case it was 45 minutes in a long meandering lineup amongst hardcore fans bearing coolers ready to be filled. With just two types of beers — an IPA and a Double IPA — available at that time and a limit of six tins of each beer per person, the experience was an interesting mix of patience and the pride of securing an exclusive prized beer. It was sheer coincidence that I stopped next at BT Smokehouse for lunch only to find it filled with many of the people who had just gotten their beer ahead of me at Tree House. Turns out that there is a well-established routine going from Tree House to BT Smokehouse as one can bring their beer to wash down an authentic southern style BBQ. The Tree House Green IPA, a citrusy ‘juice bomb’, cut through the greasy brisket with tasty ease. I would definitely recommend that others do the same combination of locales (and food and drink!) and then follow it with a quick trip just 5 minutes up a winding road to Rapscallion Brewery.
Whereas Tree House meant jostling between three full parking lots of roaming cars and a whole lot of waiting in line, Rapscallion is nestled amongst lush greens and exudes a calming vibe with its renovated yet still rustic barn-house tap room. Here one can relaxingly waste away time with a selection of classic ales including a flagship beer that makes use of locally farmed hops and honey. There is a distinctly cozy feel to Rapscallion, making it a perfect afternoon retreat with a book and pint while the rest of the world churns away outside its bright red wooden exterior. And if you happen to enjoy a round of disk golf, Rapscallion’s facilities more than have you covered!
Heading from the centre of the state back towards Boston (and a flight home) gave me a chance to slip one more brewery into the mix, and luck had it I was able to meet up with Scott Drake, Head Brewer at Wormtown Brewery in Worcester. In 2014 Wormtown was named Grand National Champion at the U.S. Open Beer Championships, winning three gold medals and one silver medal in an event that had more than 3,000 beers and ciders from around the world entered in 81 categories. That Wormtown brews with Massachusetts ingredients in all of its beers makes the brewery all the more enticing when it comes to drinking local. New England is a hoppy IPA market and Wormtown is a part of that with its popular Be Hoppy, described by Scott as a “right coast version of a left coast IPA,” and that success allows Wormtown to also venture into some creative beers. Last year, for example, they brewed a pumpkin beer in collaboration with a local pie shop, adding pumpkin pies directly into the mash along with a blend of spices. Connecting with local restaurants for pairings with their beer, participating in Massachusetts beer week, and joining in on charity events such as Ales for ALS allows Wormtown to stay in touch with their community.
Here at Wormtown, the final stop in a rapid journey of emptying pint glasses across the state, the connection between local and craft once again rang clear. Massachusetts is not only is brewing up some great beer, it is doing so with a great sense of community and excitement. As Wormtown proudly states in its slogan, there is “a piece of Mass in every glass.” And although New England is known for its juicy IPAs, with Vermont having the lion’s share when it comes to beer tourism in the area, Massachusetts proved to have a lot to offer to those with a variety of beer tastes, all the more so when you are keen to follow a less trodden beer trail. Given the importance of supporting not only great craft beer but breweries who engage with their local community to help make it possible, that is something to raise your glass to. Cheers!