I took a field trip last week to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston to see the famed Samuel Adams brewery. I was in the city anyway, and it felt like an important beer-lover’s pilgrimage that I ought to make once in my life, in order to pay tribute to New England craft brewing’s wellspring: the place where the idea of making flavorful beer in America was revived.
Yet on the 20-minute T-ride from downtown, I wondered whether, in 2015, a majority of “beer nerds” wouldn’t scorn the adventure. Beer is a complicated thing, and there are a few different ways of viewing the Boston Beer Company, which, since producing its first batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager in Jim Koch’s kitchen in 1984, has grown into a nationally recognized brand, producing nearly three million barrels of beer annually and becoming, semi-oxymoronically, America’s “largest microbrewery.”
One perspective is that Sam’s rather adequate flagship product makes for a usefully inoffensive “gateway beer” for Budweiser drinkers who, not yet ready for an extreme IPA, have just begun their life-altering transition into a more sophisticated realm of alcohol consumption. Another is that—given that the Boston Beer Company spends more on TV commercials in six months than a “real microbrewery” earns in a decade—Sam Adams is essentially a macrobrewery in disguise, not a more successful version of Stone but a less successful version of Coors. A third perspective on Sam Adams is that it not only played an important role in transforming America’s beer landscape for the better (both as a tastemaker and as a provider of material assistance to younger breweries) but also continues to make some of America’s most enjoyable beer, both within the milder flavor profile that characterizes its solid core offerings and in its zany, hit-or-miss, envelope-pushing “one-offs,” which don’t get featured on TV commercials.
Very few serious beer drinkers seem to hold this third view of things.
If you’ve been on more than one brewery tour, you know very well that one is enough: the only thing that varies, really, is the size of the metal vats in the brewhouse. The process of creating beer is slow—it doesn’t allow for showmanship. Breweries are not scenic, like vineyards; they’re large, boring industrial spaces where thousands of gallons of water and grain are pumped from one vessel to another. I don’t know why breweries first sought to become tourist attractions, but somehow it’s worked out: now, without forgoing their usual alcohol consumption, weekend day-drinkers aiming to spice up their Saturday routine can have a “fun, educational outing” instead of plopping down at the local bar. Fortunately, most breweries recognize that the only appealing thing about them is their product, and they tend to keep their tours short: a glance at the facility; a quick lesson on how beer is made; now let’s do some drinking.
Sam Adams was a little different.
It was by far the largest brewing company I’d ever visited—though you wouldn’t know by its facility, a quaint brick complex built by the Haffenreffer Brewery in 1877. In fact, the Sam Adams six-packs in supermarkets come from massive brewing-bottling-distribution plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Jamaica Plain facility, with its almost toy-like brewhouse, functions as a supplier of fresh draft beer for Jim Koch’s favorite Boston-area bars and as an R&D center for small-batch, hand-bottled brews. Most of all, it’s the company’s symbolic home—relatively unimportant in the grand business scheme except as it allows Sam Adams to remain a “local craft brewery,” offering a soulfully curated heritage-brand touristic experience somewhat different from the unaffectedly pointless, narrative-devoid brewery tours of its newer competitors.
I took the Sam Adams tour—free, except for a suggested $2 charity donation—at 10:15 a.m. on a Monday (surely no other craft brewery has ever offered a tour at 10:15 a.m. on a Monday). My girlfriend and I were easily the youngest people in the group—an odd crowd by the typical standards of the activity, containing none of the usual large-bellied, bearded men under 40. Some of the elderly tourists even professed not to like beer. Presumably, they had come with an interest not in alcohol but in industry—visiting Sam Adams was like touring the Campbell’s Soup factory: they wanted to see how a successful American product was manufactured. The tour was geared more toward them than me.
Still, I had a fairly good time. The tour—by turns self-aggrandizing and genuinely informative—lasted a whole hour, amazingly. It included not only a healthy dose of company history and the usual views of the mash tun and the fermenter but also stops at a barrel-decorated, mock “ingredients room” where various grains and hops were passed around for sniffing, and at an imitation on-site pub, inaccessible except within the time-monitored tasting session that served as the finale of the tour
The three samples that day were Boston Lager (duh), Summer Ale, and “26.2,” a sadly timid Gose brewed as a refreshment for the Boston Marathon. Violating protocol, one person on the tour asked if we could also taste the “Ben Franklin,” an officially retired English bitter that happened also to be on tap that day. The tour guide acceded; it was the best beer of the morning. My (utterly implausible) dreams of tasting Utopias and KMF weren’t fulfilled, but I didn’t leave totally disappointed.
One last thing: to be clear, the Sam Adams brewery isn’t a brewpub. You can’t order a burger and a pint from an extensive menu of rare beers and mediocre food. Rather, for an authentically Bostonian experience (in the Dennis Lehane sense), the guides encourage visitors to walk a few blocks to Doyle’s Cafe, a famous old-timey bar that was the first place ever to serve Boston Lager. At peak hours, a free trolley runs between Sam Adams and Doyle’s, and I get the sense from the bar’s Yelp page that the brewery is almost single-handedly responsible for keeping its neighbor in business.