Boston could be, by dint of the Boston Beer Co.‘s Samuel Adams Boston Lager alone, the most ubiquitous municipality in the history of American craft beer. I mean this in the most literal sense. Add in the brands of the Mass. Bay Brewing Company (a.k.a. Harpoon) and myriad smaller operations, and the actual word “Boston” is more likely than any other U.S. city to pass the lips of craft-beer consumers.
I thought the end of Boston Beer Week (and St. Patrick’s Day) might be as good a time as any to explain how this happened.
Boston’s last brewery, Haffenreffer in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, shuttered in 1964. (When Carling in Natick, 20 miles to the west, closed in 1975, brewing disappeared altogether from Massachusetts after nearly three centuries.) Brewing would not reappear in Boston for more than 20 years, and would come via New York via Manchester, England.
Richard Wrigley had opened the East Coast’s first brewpub in New York in the fall of 1984. A native of Manchester who once likened Michelob to “a soft drink,” Wrigley’s Commonwealth Brewing Company opened in August 1986 in the city’s West End, a block from where the Larry Bird era was unfolding at the old Boston Garden. Commonwealth served a ginger-flavored seasonal as well as five regulars: a golden ale, an amber ale, a porter, a stout, and what Wrigley dubbed Boston’s Best Burton Bitter.
It was a fortuitous time to bring brewing back to Boston. When Commonwealth opened, a Boston Globe article noted, “Wrigley isn’t the only successful Boston brewer.” The article told the tale of the two-year-old local homebrewing club, the Wort Processors (get it?). The club had just won an award at the annual American Homebrewers Association‘s national competition, and its members were evangelizing friends and neighbors throughout the Boston region, following a path already tread in popularizing craft beer in places like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.
Wrigley’s brewpub was joined within a year by the first brewery in Boston since Haffenreffer closed in 1964. Rich Doyle, Dan Kenary and George Ligeti all had other, more assuredly lucrative options than craft beer. Doyle and Ligeti knew each other from Harvard Business School, after all, and Kenary, a Worcester native who knew Doyle from before college, had an MBA from the University of Chicago. But travel abroad and to the first American craft operations in the West had introduced Doyle and Kenary in particular to the wonders and potential of locally produced, small-batch beer. Why couldn’t they get the same back home? The most exotic domestic brand on tap in Boston then was Coors‘ Killian’s Red.
So Doyle hatched a business plan as part of his Harvard curriculum: start a craft brewery. He enlisted Ligeti and Kenary; and the trio spent evenings at local bars and at Doyle and Ligeti’s Watertown apartment hashing out funding and physical details. They found space on the South Boston waterfront owned by the city, which was only too happy to have the brewery as a tenant. The Southie waterfront was then far from trendy; it was the waterfront of Whitey Bulger, immortalized in the movie The Departed. It was not the waterfront of studious enjoyment of IPAs.
The Mass. Bay Brewing Company (better known as Harpoon, after its famous brand) helped change that. In late 1986 and early 1987, with a production goal of 6,500 kegs and 8,000 cases annually by year five (goals they would smash) and a brewmaster in Russ Heissner from the University of California-Davis and the California wine industry, the company started producing its Harpoon Ale, a citrusy amber. The first kegs of it, delivered by Kenary and Doyle, were tapped on June 2, 1987, at bars in Beacon Hill and Jamaica Plain.
By the time the first Harpoon kegs and cases were rolling out, the 3-year-old Boston Beer Co. was already into a meteoric growth spurt that would make it not only the No. 1 craft brewery in the nation but, for a time, the No. 1 independently owned brewery, period, in the United States. Founded by Jim Koch and Rhonda Kallman in 1984, with an original goal of 30 accounts and through good, old-fashioned door-to-door salesmanship, the company now had more than 2,000 accounts on the East Coast and in West Germany.
What it did not have was a physical brewery like Harpoon’s in Southie (a fact that Harpoon never tired of pointing out to media in the late 1980s). Boston Beer’s brands, including its iconic Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which would become the best-selling American craft-beer brand ever, were brewed as far afield as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. That all started to change in early 1989. Boston Beer opened a brewery in Jamaica Plain for research and development, and for tours (it would open others outside the city, including in Koch’s hometown of Cincinnati). Boston Beer’s choice for its new brewery location? The old Haffenreffer, which had closed in 1964.
“Boston” was back in brewing for the long haul—literally.