Updated August 22, 2018
Despite the puritanical alcohol laws in Massachusetts (no happy hours, no alcohol sales on Sunday morning, very limited alcohol at grocery stores…), the Boston craft beer scene has really taken off. Though there are many more in the surrounding suburbs, this post explores the eight craft breweries in Boston proper. If you’re a beer lover in the city, be sure to check one out, or try them all!
Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Company)
When people think of Boston beer, they’re almost certainly thinking of Sam Adams. It’s by far the biggest craft brewery in Boston, and their Boston Lager is probably the most popular microbrew in the U.S. today; in fact, its ubiquity makes me reluctant to even call it a microbrew.
Back in the late-80s, Jim Koch founded the Boston Beer Company (the parent company of Sam Adams) in an effort to bring the flavorful and complex tastes of European beer to America, which at the time was mostly serving up bland mass-market brews from the likes of Budweiser and Miller. When Sam Adams Boston Lager debuted in Boston in 1985, the company had just two employees and no office, and Koch distributed the beer by going door-to-door asking bars and restaurants to serve it.
But the Boston Beer Company has come a long way since then, developing dozens of year-round and seasonal brews and expanding its distribution to all 50 states and 20 other countries. With the wide distribution network it created, Sam Adams can take a lot of the credit for popularizing microbrews and starting the craft beer revolution that continues today.
Though founded in Boston, most of Boston Beer Company’s product has always been brewed elsewhere, and the main factories are now in Pennsylvania and Ohio. If you’re picking up a six-pack of Boston Lager, you can bet it wasn’t actually produced in Boston. The Boston brewery is more of a test kitchen, where they work out the kinks in the flavor before scaling up production at the main facilities. However, Sam Adams does produce a couple small-batch beers in Boston that are only distributed in keg form to select bars in the area – most notably the 26.2 Brew that’s created each spring for the Boston Marathon.
The Sam Adams brewery tour is really hands-on; you can nibble on roasted barley (delicious) and rub hops flowers between your hands to release their telltale scent (which will make you smell like you’ve been drinking all day). Since the brewery is mostly used for small-batch experimentation, it’s relatively uncrowded and quiet. The pre-war brick walls and copper brewing apparatuses give it a quaint feel; you can easily imagine men with large beards getting together to sip beers straight from the brewing kettles, pondering whether they should add a little more hops or perhaps some orange peel and coriander.
The tour doesn’t give the sense of the massive quantities of beer that need to be canned and bottled to send Boston Lager and its sister beers to bars, supermarkets, and convenience stores across the country, but it’s a pleasant environment for learning about the brewing process.
I took the Morning Mash In Tour, which starts at 9:30am and entails drinking a fairly substantial amount of beer by 11am. If you’re game for some morning drinking, this tour seems less rushed than the regular ones, and it allows more time for sampling at the end.
If you’re looking for souvenirs or presents, the gift shop has all manner of Boston beer memorabilia, plus growlers with some of Sam Adams’s lesser-known beers. Tasting these beers and bringing a couple bottles of them home was the highlight of the tour for me. The Sam Adams beers I’d had in the past weren’t terribly interesting, so it was great to try out some of the more unique brews from America’s second-biggest microbrewery.
Visit the brewery: The regular tour and tastings are free with a suggested $2 donation, which goes to Boston-area charities. Regular tours run every 40 minutes, Monday-Saturday. You must pick up a ticket in-person on the day you want to take the tour. Tickets often run out, especially on Saturdays, so arrive as early in the day as possible.
The Morning Mash In Tour starts at 9:30am every day except Sunday. Unlike the others, it costs $10-$15 (depending on the day) and requires online sign-up, so be sure to register at least a week in advance. For something more in-depth, try one of the new Sam Adams tours – Beyond the Brewhouse and The Bierkeller. They cost $20-$30 and are only offered a few times a week, so sign up online as early as possible.
Location: Sam Adams is located in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, just a few minutes’ walk from the Stony Brook stop on the Orange Line.
Visit Sam Adams for a relaxing experience where you’ll learn the basics of the brewing process in a great atmosphere. Ideal place to take friends visiting from out of town.
Harpoon is easily the second most famous craft brewery in Boston, and it was actually granted the state’s first commercial microbrewery permit in 1986. Like Jim Koch, the college classmates who founded Harpoon were disappointed with the beers available in the U.S., especially after returning from a trip to Europe. While its first beer was a mild ale, you might know Harpoon for its hoppy IPA, introduced in 1993, at a time when IPAs were brewed almost exclusively on the West Coast.
The most important thing to note about visiting Harpoon is that it’s a production brewery. Unlike Sam Adams, it’s hot, it’s loud, you have to wear safety glasses, and there are a dozen or so workers milling around producing lots of beer. The tour actually takes place on a series of catwalks above the brewing systems so you don’t get in an employee’s way. It’s a great contrast to the quaint, artisanal experience at Sam Adams. If you have time for two brewery tours in Boston, I definitely recommend taking both.
On the Harpoon tour, you get to see the nuts and bolts of how thousands of bottles and cans worth of beer go from the barley barrels to your refrigerator. You also get a complete rundown of how each machine in the brewery functions and the chance to see them in action.
Midway through the tour, it’s time for the tasting, and you’re taken to what looks like it used to be the brewery boss’s office. Surrounded by an impressive collection of beer cans from the past several decades, you get to sample the beers that are currently in production. The tour guides become bartenders, and you can sample as many of the brews on tap as you like, as many times as you like (yes, unlimited beer tastings!). It also gives you time to pick the tour guides’ brains about any and everything beer-related.
Afterward, you have the option of hitting up the beer hall, where you can get a delicious German-style soft pretzel (highly recommended, especially with the cheese and garlic butter dipping sauces). It’s a great way to end the tour and soak up all the alcohol you imbibed in the tasting room. Harpoon’s beer hall is modeled on the beer halls of Bavaria, with long tables where people can spend time with friends and make new ones who share their passion for good beer.
Visit the brewery: Tours of Harpoon run seven days a week, once an hour on weekdays and more often on weekends. Tickets are $5 and must be purchased in-person on the day you want to take the tour. It gets busy on weekends, so you’ll usually have to buy your ticket a couple hours before the tour. If you find yourself with some downtime before your tour starts, the Institute of Contemporary Art isn’t too far away.
Location: Harpoon is in the Seaport District of Boston. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but the SL2 silver line bus stops right outside the brewery.
Visit Harpoon if you want to see how beer is really made in America, production line and all (and you like tasty German pretzels). Great place for beer enthusiasts who like to understand the details of how things work.
Beer Works Brewing Company
Whether you want to pregame your favorite sporting event or a grueling long-haul flight, Beer Works has you covered. There are locations at Fenway, TD Garden, and Logan Airport, as well as a few other spots in Massachusetts.
Beer Works has been open since 1992, so I’ll give credit where credit is due – they were one of the early pioneers of the Boston craft beer movement, along with Sam Adams and Harpoon. That being said, I’m not personally a big fan of the drinking experience here; it feels more like a sports bar than a brewery. I probably should have expected that, since their main locations are right by Boston’s two biggest sports venues, meaning they’re packed before and after games. In the absence of a sporting event, though, the spacious taprooms are usually pretty quiet, with patrons absent-mindedly staring at the screens above them.
So, what about the beer – even a ho-hum taproom can have excellent brews, right? True, and Beer Works has a decent selection, with multiple IPAs available year-round and some interesting seasonal options, too. If you’re hungry, they also serve great burgers and sandwiches.
Visit the brewery: Every Beer Works location in the city opens at 11:00am, seven days a week. To make the most of your visit, time it for a sporting event you want to watch on one of their screens.
Location: Beer Works has three locations in Boston proper: one near TD Garden in the North End, one across the street from Fenway Park, and one in Terminal C at Logan Airport.
Visit Beer Works if you’re looking for a sports bar atmosphere or you’re heading to a game at the Garden. Probably the best Boston microbrewery for sports fans.
Trillium Brewing Company
The third microbrewery in Boston, Trillium opened in 2013, in the shadow of Harpoon’s Seaport location. Unlike its neighbor, Trillium doesn’t do tours or beer tastings – in fact, you can’t even order a beer there.
The brewery is more of a retail counter where you can pick up cans and growlers of their signature brews. I know that might not sound too exciting. BUT, this is an amazing brewery. Trillium makes some of the finest beer I’ve tasted in New England and probably the very best beer in Bostons. Their Pocket Pigeon Pale Ale is one of the best beers I’ve had in a while. Since I first started writing about Trillium a few years ago, its reputation has exploded, and it now regularly appears on lists of the world’s best breweries.
Trillium’s style brings back fond memories of my home state of Montana, where the hoppy West Coast-style IPA is so popular. But it also has an experimental feel to it. Trillium’s flavors are unique and interesting; they’re not trying to please everyone. You get the sense that the brewers just enjoy trying out new recipes, seeing what works. The staff all seem excited to be working there and are knowledgeable about the beers they’re selling. Trillium’s Boston brewery might not be an attraction to visit while you’re touring the city, but I’d definitely suggest picking up a growler or a few cans to enjoy back home.
There are also now two other ways to enjoy Trillium’s brews in the Boston area. A couple years ago, they opened up a tasting room an hour or so away in Canton, MA, which is now their main production site. I haven’t been out there, but knowing how good the beers are, I’m sure it’s worth the trip. Closer to the city, Trillium has also been running pop-up beer gardens, including ones on the Rose Kennedy Greenway during the summer. where you can enjoy the warm weather while sipping one of the world’s best beers (it’s also dog-friendly).
Visit the brewery: Head to Canton or to one of the pop-up beer gardens if you can. Otherwise, swing by the main location any day of the week to pick up some beers for later.
Location: Trillium is located in the Fort Point neighborhood (very near Harpoon). Take SL1 or SL2 on the silver line, or walk 10 minutes from South Station.
Visit Trillium if you’re looking for the best craft beer in Boston. Good for people who need to pick up drinks for a party or a souvenir for beer-loving friends at home. During the summer, the beer garden is the place to go for after-work drinks if you’re near the Greenway.
Turtle Swamp Brewing
One of the things I love most about visiting smaller craft breweries in Boston (or anywhere) is getting some face time with the person doing the actual brewing and creating the recipes. The four previous Boston breweries have all become too large and the brewmasters too busy for that sort of interaction to happen, so I was pleasantly surprised to come upon the much smaller Turtle Swamp. This brewery is run by John Lincecum and Nik Walther; John is a home brewer with a background in biochemistry, and Nik worked for Harpoon until recently. Both seem passionate about experimentation and bringing great craft beer to Jamaica Plain.
The tasting room at the brewery is fairly small, and the bar even tinier, but what Turtle Swamp does have is an excellent patio. Yes, it’s actually just a roped-off section of the parking lot, but repurposed wire spools as tables and the magnificent mural of a turtle shepherding a pint through the forest give it personality and a homey feeling. There’s not a whole lot of shade out there, though, so it’s best enjoyed on a cloudy afternoon or while the sun is going down.
Not sure what to drink at Turtle Swamp? The bartenders are perfectly happy to hand out some free samples to help you make your decision. I sampled the Orange Line IPA and fell in love with its citrusy aroma and lightweight body – the perfect beer for a hot July afternoon.
Visit the brewery: Turtle Swamp is open Wednesday through Sunday (opening at 4:00pm on weekdays). Some of the area’s best food trucks – Oath Pizza, Compliments Food Co., and Da Bomb Truck – stop by a couple days a week, so you can make a meal out of your visit. The brewery is dog-friendly, so feel free to bring your pooch along.
Location: Turtle Swamp is conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk from the Green Street station on the Orange Line in Jamaica Plain.
Visit Turtle Swamp to enjoy a relaxing evening of great beer on the most relaxed patio in the city.
Cheeky Monkey Brewing Company
You might be forgiven for not noticing Cheeky Monkey down at the end of Lansdowne Street, across from Fenway. After a long afternoon watching the Sox and drinking Sam Adams, it’s easy to miss. But rather than paying ballpark prices for a Boston Lager, I’d suggest enjoying a couple pints in here before heading to the game.
The Sox weren’t playing the day I visited Cheeky Monkey, so it was pretty quiet inside. I ordered the Harambe’s Ghost IPA (they have a somewhat twisted sense of humor) and watched the Cornhole World Championships. It should be noted that this was during the World Cup, so I was surprised that bar patrons were more interested in a beanbag toss, but it made for an interesting visit.
While the IPA was solid, I didn’t love that this brewery is also a full bar with a wall of liquor bottles behind the counter. I mean, I get it – some people aren’t into beer, and you might want something stronger every once in a while, but it also feels like it chips away at the character of a brewery. The dining area and bar just felt like your average trendy spot, with contrasting lighting and, in this case, a giant light board that says “PEACE.”
Where Cheeky Monkey gets interesting, though, is in the back room, an area you might not even know existed unless you were headed to the bathroom. It’s loaded with pool tables, shuffleboard, and overstuffed couches for lounging. Suddenly, Cheeky Monkey seemed less like the standard trendy bar and more like the best place to hang out after the game. My only regret was that I didn’t bring a posse of friends with me.
Beer and games aside, Cheeky Monkey is unique in that it’s actually a brewpub with plenty of food options. They pride themselves on their full menu, which includes a variety of street food-inspired dishes like Korean BBQ beef tacos and Singaporean street noodles. Don’t fill up on hot dogs and popcorn across the street when this deliciousness is available after the game.
Visit the brewery: Cheeky Monkey is open until 2:00am every day of the week, so swing by whenever you want for a brew and a bite.
Location: Cheeky Monkey is at the northeast corner of Fenway Park, right next to the House of Blues and just a few minutes’ walk from the Green Line’s Kenmore stop.
Visit Cheeky Monkey before or after your next Red Sox game (just prepare for the crowds). Ideal for hanging out with a group of friends, especially if you want to challenge them to some shuffleboard.
Dorchester Brewing Company
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more at home in a Boston brewery than when I walked through the doors of Dorchester Brewing. Long wooden tables invite people to actually talk to each other rather than stare at their smartphones, and the shelves in the back are packed with board games to keep patrons entertained (there’s also trivia every Tuesday night). White brick walls, exposed pipes, and vintage lighting remind visitors of the neighborhood’s roots without coming off as cringe-inducingly hipster. Dorchester Brewing is a communal meeting place for people who enjoy great beer.
I’m definitely getting the warm fuzzies for the atmosphere, but let’s not forget that we’re here to drink, too. I sprung for the Embarrassment of Riches Hoppy Ale, which was the perfect after-work brew: a medium body with a lower alcohol content (5.5%) compared to some of the stronger IPAs. If you can’t wait to get home for dinner, they have some snacks like pretzels and guac, along with food trucks in the parking lot on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Dorchester Brewing is also all about promoting the craft beer community on the East Coast, so you’ll find a rotating selection of beers from breweries like Entitled Brewing Company (Hingham) and Decadent Ales (New York) in addition to their in-house options. If you’re keen on learning about how their beers are made, there are short tours on Saturdays. They’re nothing like you’d see at Sam Adams or Harpoon, but also won’t be as crowded.
Visit the brewery: Dorchester Brewing is open seven days a week, starting at 11:30am. Twenty-minute tours run on Saturdays between 1:00 and 4:00; they’re free with a $5 donation to a local charity.
Location: Dorchester Brewing is located near the Southbay Shopping Center in Dorchester. It’s a 15-minute walk from the JFK/UMass stop on the Red Line.
Visit Dorchester Brewing to see a less touristy side of Boston. Just be sure to get there early, before all the tables and games have been claimed.
Backlash Beer Company
Backlash is the newest microbrewery in Boston – well, technically it isn’t even open to the public yet. But cans of Backlash beer are already available around town, and their taproom in Roxbury is under construction. It’s supposed to open soon inside a former piano factory, which sounds pretty interesting, and I hope we get the chance to see it. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the cans.
Speaking of which, I love the artwork on Backlash’s cans! The funky and uber-detailed pen-and-ink drawings of various Boston neighborhoods were created by Massachusetts College of Art and Design grad Ben Judanian. They’re an excellent local touch for this upstart Boston brewery.
While I can’t say much about the drinking experience at Backlash, I will gush about the quality of their beer. I picked up a four-pack of the Allston IPA, the first iteration of their Boston neighborhood-themed Stomping Ground Series, and thoroughly enjoyed its juicy bitterness. It’s not as big on fruit flavor as Trillium’s IPAs, but it has the same level of West Coast-style hops flavor.
Location: When Backlash’s taproom does open, it will be located in Dudley Square in Roxbury. Take the SL4 or SL5 to Dudley Station or the Orange Line to Ruggles and then the #15 bus.
Until Backlash’s taproom is up and running, pick up some of their cans around the city – I found them at Pemberton Farms Market in Cambridge.
One last note: After we wrapped up our research for this update, another new brewery opened in Boston! Democracy Brewing, located at Downtown Crossing, is a worker-owned cooperative whose founders are passionate about their employees and their community.
Which of the craft breweries in Boston would you be most interested in visiting?