The historic beer city keeps the suds fresh
Boston’s beer history runs as deep as its harbor, from its first licensed “publick house” in 1634, to the industrial breweries of the late 1800s, to the artisanal brewers of today.
The modern Boston beer story, as even casual beer drinkers can tell you, begins with Sam Adams. Launched in 1984, its Boston Lager was among the first of what would become a tidal wave of craft beers—full-flavored brews that offered an alternative to the dominant brands at the time. Its enthusiastic reception was proof of a market waiting to be tapped.
Phil Bannatyne didn’t miss the memo. He opened the Cambridge Brewing Company in 1989 in Kendall Square—a formerly industrial area that now boasts among the highest concentrations of biotech firms in the world—and it’s still going strong.
“We were the number five brewery to open in Massachusetts,” Bannatyne says. “Now there are 180, with more coming.”
Craft beer has come a long way since Bannatyne launched the spacious brewpub, which serves beer made onsite alongside a full food menu. He learned early on that Boston beer enthusiasts enjoy trying different styles, so he made sure his repertoire kept pace with their curiosity.
“When we first opened, we were doing what every craft brewer was doing in the late 1980s, which was a golden ale, an amber and a porter,” he explains.
Things got interesting quickly. In 1990, CBC became the first commercial brewery in the United States to brew a Belgian-style beer, followed by one of the first German-style hefeweizens as well.
“We were also one of the first to start aging beer in wood and producing sour beers,” he adds, crediting his longtime brewmaster Will Meyers for much of the innovation. Guests today will find 14 to 16 different drafts on offer at the brewpub, and the company’s beers are also available on draft and in cans and bottles at bars, restaurants and retail stores.
New beers are released weekly, a pace that’s all but essential in a social media environment led by fans who post their latest discoveries on online rating platforms. Yet certain beloved staples stand as flagships.
“We have four beers that we produce more of for distribution: Flower Child IPA, Remain in Light pilsner and Working Class Hero, which is a saison,” he notes. “Then we have our old school Cambridge Amber, which we sell a lot of, and the reason for that is nobody else makes one.”
At Branch Line, an upscale rotisserie and grill in Watertown, Liz Alfonso ensures that her guests find the perfect beer for the food and the season. The service manager and wine and beer buyer curates an impressive list of 20 draft beers and nearly as many cans and bottles in categories ranging from “Hops & Haze” to “Dark & Darker.”
The goal, she explains, is to provide guests what they want along with a chance to experiment.
“We’re meeting our guests halfway and giving them some really cool, exciting stuff that they might not have tried otherwise as well as those comfort IPAs and pilsners,” Alfonso says. “We try to do mostly smaller breweries and feature a couple that are local on the menu.”
With a list that changes weekly, staff education is crucial in helping guests make new beer discoveries.
“They have the most face time with guests, so we want them to be able to make recommendations,” she explains. “They are number one in getting people out of their comfort zone and into those weird beers.”
Another way to encourage discovery: beer-pairing events.
“We’ll do beer brunches, where we have a brunch menu with a beer pairing for each item,” Alfonso says.