Hop-Ed: Brewery Hopping with Boston Brew Tours

Cambridge Brewing Co.'s taproom. Photo by Alex Wilking.
Written by Alex Wilking

By Alex Wilking
BU News Service

Last weekend, I hopped into a stranger’s bus to tour three of Boston’s finest breweries.

A terrible picture of our sorta-sketchy bus. Photo by Alex Wilking.

A terrible picture of our sorta-sketchy bus. Photo by Alex Wilking.

I was gifted tickets for a Boston Brew Tour, an organization that fills buses with thirsty patrons and drives them to Boston’s local breweries (for a fee). The tours are usually quite long — close to six hours — but my specific package only hit three breweries in three hours. So my friend Heather and I, along with about 14 others, met at Charles Street Liquors in Beacon Hill to get things rolling.

Well, kind of. There was a lot of uncertainty to kick things off — is that unmarked van ours? Which one of you is our tour guide? Four groups of people huddled awkwardly outside the liquor store until a giddy, bearded man named Nate corralled us together. He ID’d us and we were off.

Our group hit three spots during our tour — Harpoon Brewery, Cambridge Brewing Co., and Somerville Brewing Company (Slumbrew). While in transit, Nate gave us all a broad history of beer in Boston, and how some brewing methods have changed over the years. It all felt more like friendly banter than a history lesson, especially when I sparked up a discussion about the use of gruit in beer.

Our first stop was Harpoon Brewery. We arrived to find a line of people close to two blocks long waiting to enter the brewery for St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, our group was able to bypass the whole thing — the angry stares were juicy. Once inside, we were whisked into a tour group without the chance to really experience the taproom.

Harpoon Brewery's taproom. Photo by Alex Wilking.

Harpoon Brewery’s taproom. Photo by Alex Wilking.

The brewery tour itself was clearly not aimed at people like me — “these are what hops look like” — but there was a great tasting session in a private room near the end. A single bartender served us as many samples as we could put down for 10 minutes, including some hard-to-find Harpoon beers like the “Harpoon Dark” Dunkel lager and “Hoppy Adventure” double IPA. I also snuck in a few swigs of “Thunder Foam,” a luscious porter brewed with poblano peppers that I’m elated over.

After the tour, we were rewarded with a fresh pint and a warm pretzel. Just kidding, we were thrown back in the bus to start trekking toward our next stop: Cambridge Brewing Company.

And let me say, it was an amazing place. I’d wanted to visit since moving to Boston last September, and their tap list only reinforced the error of my ways — strong ales, house lagers, peach wild ales, it was a beautiful sight. Notable sips from my time there include the brewery’s Weekapaug Gruit, a gruit-based ale that tasted like alcoholic herbal tea. I also tried the brewery’s Brett Sematary — a wild ale derived from the brewery’s batch of pumpkin ale from last year. Funky.

Our final stop let us slum around behind the scenes of Somerville Brewing Company, or “Slumbrew.” Out of all the stops we made, this one felt the coziest. We were greeted by one of the owners and led into Slumbrew’s cramped brewing space to watch them work. The whole operation felt more genuine than the two before it – tubes slithered along the walls, the smell of malt stagnant in the air, mounds of kegs here and there. I felt like I had been welcomed into a homebrewer’s den.

Behind the scenes at Slumbrew. Photo by Alex Wilking.

Behind the scenes at Slumbrew. Photo by Alex Wilking.

The co-owner brought us all flights of Slumbrew’s flagship beers — “Happy Sol,” “Porter Square Porter” and “Flagraiser IPA” — and talked about the brewery’s inception. They also let us try a newer beer called “Banker’s Hours,” a Belgian strong pale ale that was somewhat overshadowed by the quality of the first three beers. Most of the brewery’s offerings are so high in ABV that I felt tipsy after finishing just the samples that I had. The staff and owners were down-to-Earth and answered all our naive questions while I went around and snapped a few shots of the place.

Before I knew it, we had hopped back on the bus and the tour was over. Funny enough, I was anything but drunk by the end of it; I actually went home and drank two beers. Each tour-goer was given the equivalent of a pint at each stop, so you had to really work to overdo it. But that meant each of us had 12 unique beers in three hours, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

As I sat in my apartment relishing the entire experience, I realized how radical it was that a company takes the time highlight Boston in this way. We as consumers spend so much time drinking at bars, or buying bottles at stores, that it’s easy to forget where all of our beer originates from. It comes from small operations like Slumbrew, or shiny and well-oiled machines like Harpoon. Looking behind the curtain at these places put a whole new face to the idea of drinking local beer.

So next time you’re out, breeze past the sea of bars and try seeking out a brewery taproom. You’ll find fresh and exclusive beers you can’t drink elsewhere, and witness the pride these places have for their respective cities.

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