BEER CLINIC :: Boston is a great beer city: AKA forget Sam Adams

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on February 24, 2011

Boston is the Mecca of Western Medicine. It is the home of Harvard Medical School—the premier institution of its kind in the world, as well as 2 other med schools: Tufts and Boston University. Cambridge, just across the river, is a center of biotechnology research and the pharmaceutical industry. New drugs are discovered, analyzed, tested, and produced daily. MIT, also in Cambridge, is a powerhouse of science, learning, and entrepreneurs.

What does this have to do with beer? Lots. Boston has a disproportionate share of people under age 40, who are highly intelligent, have advanced degrees in biology, medicine, or engineering, and drink beer. Lots of beer. They demand good beer to go along with the variety of food that is available in Boston, which tends toward remarkably fresh fish and shellfish, vegetarian, and a variety of ethnic delights, including Portuguese, Irish, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Russian, Polish, among others.

What pairs best with seafood, vegetarian, and spicy ethnic food? — why IPAs of course! Bostonians prefer IPAs that have complex hops but are only moderately bitter and lower in alcohol than, say, San Diego ales. These IPAs more closely related to true English IPAs, rather than the higher alcohol and hoppier West coast IPAs. Though Boston has only a few breweries of its own, it is well-positioned to take advantage of the many East Coast microbreweries which are noted for this style of beer, including Victory, Dogfish Head, Ipswich, and Boston’s own Harpoon, to name a few.

In a recent trip to Boston over the New Year’s holiday, I was delighted to see that most restaurants had an excellent draft list, and some even suggested pairings. The 30-somethings of Boston were more likely to be found with a glass of ale than a martini or wine. In fact, there are considerably more beer bars in Boston than in most other cities twice its size (define beer bar as having 20 or more taps with a selection of drafts from independent brewers).

Why are the bar and restaurant draft lists good in Boston compared to, say, Chicago, where you are likely to be offered only Bud Light or Miller on draft? The answer is supply and demand. As my colleague Paul Ciminero (The Chicago Beat) will hopefully explain in a future article, it’s all about the beer distributorships, which have to move a certain amount of the large mass-markets beers. In Chicago, the bars and restaurants are expected to serve this stuff, and that’s all that the patrons expect. In Boston, there is such a demand from the bars and restaurants that they also provide the good stuff. This is something you hopheads should keep in mind — keep drinking those microbrews, keep requesting them at your local watering hole, and don’t settle for crap.

* Ed: Chicago Beat Reporter Paul Ciminero does, in fact, address the workings of beer distributorship and the Boston v. Chicago conversation Dr. Westbrook initiates above in Hop Wars :: Boston v Chicago – The Politics of Beer.

What I drank in Boston—

1. At the airport. The minute I stepped off the plane at Logan airport I walked over to Legal Seafood and ordered a fried clam roll, washed down with a large draft of Harpoon IPA. Yes, in the airport! In my opinion, Harpoon IPA is the perfect match for seafood. At 5.9% ABV, it contains substantial amounts of Northern Cascade hops, floral but not overly bitter, with a touch of Apollo hops to add strength.

2. New Year’s Day dinner party with some young professionals and 2 old geezers (me and spouse). Everyone brought beer to pair with vegetarian fare and birthday cake. What was drunk?

  • With starters: Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA: a much-loved East Coast IPA, brewed in Delaware. An IPA with northwest hops added continuously over 60 minutes. At 6.0% ABV its a good session beer to start the evening.
  • With the main course: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, 2010. This is a unique beer made with fresh hops, primarily cascade and centennial that impart a fresher, grassy flavor. ABV 6.8%, pairs perfectly with vegetarian fare.
  • With homemade chocolate cake: Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre: A spicy, hoppy barley wine (ABV 8.0%) made with beet sugar, and Belgian yeast.

3. At Bukowski’s. There are quite a few good beer bars in the Boston area, including the world-renowned Sunset Grill (112 taps!), the Publick House (31 taps) and Bukowski’s (30 taps). So much beer, so little time! Since we could visit only one, we went to Bukowski’s. The original Bukowski’s is a punk bar downtown in a parking garage. We prefer their other site, in Cambridge MA, which was within staggering distance of our old house.

Bukowski’s has recently expanded their draft list, and they serve up an ever-changing selection of regional microbrews and a few imports. They are also noted for a large selection of bottled beers, their proverbial “99 bottles of beer on the wall,” which is represented on a roulette-like wheel. If you can’t make up your mind, spin the bottle. In the picture Greg the bartender stands next to the wheel of beers.

We visited Bukowski’s with our friend Carly, who is an Associate Producer for NPR’s “Car Talk,” also a Boston institution. We tasted quite a few drafts, and here are two at the extreme ends of the spectrum:

  • Black Perle Dark IPA from RJ Rockers (South Carolina), is a remarkably dark IPA, made with a huge amount of roasted malt, giving it an ABV of 9.5%. It is “octo-hopped” with the German Perle hop.
  • On the other hand, Blanche de Bruxelles, from Brewery LeFebrve, an unfiltered white beer from Belgium, containing only 4.5% alcohol. It is made with 40% wheat, flavored with orange peel and coriander. It’s a very palatable session beer, but perhaps more suited to a summer afternoon than a snowy January day.

4. At the Harpoon Brewworks. If you visit only one brewery in Boston, this is the one. Visit on a weekday afternoon at 4 pm, and you can skip the tedious tour and go right to the tasting. Harpoon generously lets you taste any of their drafts as many times as you like, in 3 oz. portions. Their 12 taps had Harpoon standards, including their IPA, a Belgian Pale Ale (like Leffe Blond), several UFO beers (unfiltered wheat beer, with fruit flavors) a surprisingly palatable Harpoon cider, and two small batch “100 barrel” brews. The 100-barrel beers are brewers’ experiments. Of the two 100-barrel brews we loved the Leviathan, a huge barley wine, 10% ABV, at 120 bittering units, that’s about three times the IBU of a typical IPA. More interesting, but less drinkable, was the “Pilgrim Ale,” which attempted to reproduce a typical beer made in colonial America. This low alcohol brew was flavored with sage, since hops were not in cultivation in the US at that time.

5. With lobster, in Maine. Nothing! I was the designated driver for our drive up to LL Bean in Rockport, Maine, to catch the holiday sales. We ended our day with a fabulous dinner of fresh, local lobster. If I had a drink with my lobster, it would have been a good east coast IPA — Ipswich Ale, Alagash Ale, or Shipyard Ale.

Ed: Dr. Carol Westbrook is a medical oncologist. She received an M.D. and a Ph.D. (biochemistry) from the University of Chicago, and spent 20 years in academic medicine, teaching and doing cancer research. Dr. Westbrook is also an amateur brewer and a contributor to this column.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Richard February 23, 2011 at 3:21 am

Cahrol, did ya pahk yah cahr at the Hahvahd Yahd when ya got yah beah and chowdah?

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