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Boston Calling
By Stephen Beaumont

For reasons I still haven’t been able to fathom, springtime tends to lead me to Boston. It’s a daft time to visit, mainly because the roughly one million schools in the area are all holding their convocations at that time, but oddly enough even that knowledge doesn’t seem to stop me.

I did it again this year, and for my illogical efforts was attacked by a singularly nasty virus. Not that I blame Boston, mind you; up until the fever and the sweats, I was having quite a good time.
Actually, my illness was such that it came and went over the course of my four-day visit, which afforded me sufficient mobility to explore a decent chunk of the city’s beer spots. Boston being Boston, though, I would have lacked enough time for the full circuit even if I had been in the pink of health.

It is my opinion that Boston does not receive nearly enough credit as a beer town, and in retrospect, perhaps that’s what spurs my seasonal jaunts. People rave about Portland (Ore.), Philadelphia, Seattle, even Denver, and rightly so, but how often outside of the rarified confines of the Beer Advocate does one hear about the booming beer scene in Beantown? (The popular beer-rating Web site, beeradvocate.com, is Boston-based and, as such, promotes its hometown’s beer appeal, even presenting several annual beer events, such as the New England Real Ale Festival, known as NERAX, which I missed by a day!) It’s a habitual oversight that is entirely undeserved.

On the brewery side of things, Boston boasts some fine specimens. It is, of course, home base for the Boston Beer Company, which, despite its size and Sam Adams Light, is still a legitimate pioneer and innovator in the craft-brewing biz, and a great asset to any city. But Boston’s beer hardly stops at Sam, with the Harpoon Brewing Company, Boston Beer Works, the original John Harvard’s Brew House and the Cambridge Brewing Company all claiming territorial rights to the Massachusetts capital, and with Watch City Brewing located just outside of town in Waltham.

It is my opinion that Boston does not receive nearly enough credit as a beer town.

Of that group, I was able to visit only Cambridge Brewing, a brewery that caught my attention in the fall of 2004 at the Belgium Comes to Cooperstown event, put together by Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York. There, brewer Will Meyers turned a number of heads with a massive ale he called Benevolence, a beer so extraordinarily complex that I named it my Taste of the Month at worldofbeer.com for September of that year.

Although Meyers had nothing on offer at his Kendall Square location to match Benevolence in size, the lavender-accented L’Amour du Jour certainly rivaled it for curiosity. This beer had a big, fragrant aroma reminiscent of a summer in the south of France and a light, perfumey body that at first strikes as almost too much, but in the end, just enough. Also pleasing to the palate were an unusual cask-conditioned Vienna Gold (an altbier–Vienna lager hybrid dry-hopped to full floral appeal with Hallertau hops, staying faintly fruity in the body and bone-dry on the finish) and a balanced, plummy, chocolaty, raisiny Cambridge Amber. I could have stayed for more, but at that point I had a plane to catch.

Of Boston’s non-brewing establishments, I had earlier managed to attend the legendary Redbones, where delicious barbecue meets a healthy selection of draught beers, and Bukowski’s Tavern, a comfortably dive-ish beer bar on the edge of the toney Back Bay neighbourhood. I also stopped in at Jacob Wirth, a great old tavern with atmosphere to burn and just enough interesting beer that I was happy to stay for two pints.

As an aficionado of historic American taverns, I find plenty to like about Jacob Wirth, even when it’s chock-a-block with tourists, as it was when I paid my visit. From the 19th century façade to the creaky wood floors and rickety piano up front, the place reeks ambiance. On the basis of my visit, however, I would suggest that management would be well advised to (a) spend a little more time training the staff about beer, and (b) watch their boasting, since the Jacob Wirth claim of “the largest selection of beers on draft in New England” will come as quite a surprise to anyone who has visited the 112 taps of the Sunset Grill in nearby Allston.

About Redbones I think little has to be said. The combination of good beer, some of the best barbecue in the Northeast and the engaging atmosphere of a true Southern-style ’cue joint should be enough to put it on top of any visitor’s list, especially if, like me, you enjoy the occasional gnaw on a mammoth Texas-style beef rib. In fact, about the only criticism I can make of Redbones is that for a place that offers 22 taps, most of them desirable, and a couple of dozen laudable bottled selections, their paucity of bathrooms is scandalous.

Truly perched in a most curious spot, sandwiched between the Massachusetts turnpike and a parking garage, Bukowski’s is hardly the beer paradise some Web-based adherents would have it be, but neither is it in the beer-ignoring class of its nose-in-the-air Back Bay neighbours. Rather, it’s somewhere in between, with a very good beer selection and, to my tastes at least, damn fine music played at entirely suitable volumes. (Criticisms of “too fast, too loud” have been voiced in some reviews.) It’s also dark and dingy, but that’s the mood they seem to be trying to set, and it works.

What perhaps recommends Bukowski’s most, though, is its central location. For while Boston is indeed a great beer town, home to fine breweries and beer bars, very little of its wealth is located within walking distance of the downtown hotels. And as a visitor, let’s face it, that’s always a plus, particularly when you are spending your days wondering when a virus is going to again overtake your immune system.

CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).


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