Despite the puritanical alcohol laws in Massachusetts (no happy hours, no alcohol sales on Sunday morning, very limited alcohol at grocery stores…), the Boston area has a great craft-brewing scene. Though there are more in the surrounding suburbs, this post explores the three breweries located in Boston proper. If you’re in the city, be sure to check one out, or try all three!Are you a beer lover? Check out one of these great microbreweries on your next trip to Boston. Click To Tweet
Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company)
When people think of Boston beer, they’re almost certainly thinking of Sam Adams. 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 serving up mostly 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, the majority of Boston Beer Company’s beers have always been brewed elsewhere, and now the main factories are 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 brewery here is more of a test kitchen, where they work out 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 – particularly the 26.2 Brew that’s created each spring for the Boston Marathon.
The tour at the Sam Adams brewery 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 signed up for the Morning Mash In Tour, which starts at 9:40am and ends with 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 at the brewery has all manner of Boston memorabilia, plus growlers with some of Sam Adams 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 tried 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 tour and tastings are free, but there’s a suggested $2 donation, which goes to Boston-area charities. Regular tours run every 45 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 9:40am every day. Unlike the others, it requires online sign-up, so be sure to register at least a week in advance.
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 Massachusetts’s second most famous brewery, and 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. Here, 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’re given the opportunity to sample the beers that are currently in production. The tour guides transform into bartenders, and you can sample as many of the brews on tap as you like, as many times as you like. It also gives you time to pick the tour guides’ brains about any and everything beer-related.
Afterwards, 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 run seven days a week. Tickets are $5 and must be purchased in-person on the day you want to take the tour. On weekends, they usually have to be purchased a couple hours in advance. 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 Southie neighborhood 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.
Boston’s third brewery, Trillium opened just a few years ago, in the shadow of Harpoon’s Southie location. Unlike the other two breweries in town, Trillium doesn’t do tours–in fact, they don’t even do tastings. It’s 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; they pride themselves on producing really hoppy (but still well-balanced) brews. Their style brings back fond memories of my home state of Montana, where the hoppy West Coast-style IPA is so popular.
Trillium has an experimental feel to it. The 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 seemed excited to be working there, and were knowledgeable about the beers they’re selling. Of Boston’s three breweries, Trillium was my favorite for good-tasting beer – their Pocket Pigeon Pale Ale is one of the best beers I’ve had in a while. So even though they don’t have tastings or tours, Trillium has the best product. It’s not an attraction to visit while you’re touring Boston like the others, but I’d definitely suggest picking up a growler or a few cans to enjoy back home.
Last December, Trillium opened up a tasting room in Canton, MA, which is now their main production site. I haven’t made it out there yet, but knowing how good the beers are, I’m sure it’s worth the trip. The new tasting room also has a number of interesting events going on each month.
Visit the brewery: Swing by Monday-Saturday to pick up some beers.
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-tasting beer in Boston. Good for people who need to pick up drinks for a party or a souvenir for beer-loving friends at home.