The Lush Life: Inside Harpoon Brewing
May 07, 2004
Have you ever bitten off more than you could chew? That is what I did Friday in preparation for this article. I dragged my best friend Barry along with me to document a classic Boston pub-crawl. As I sit here with my notes I am quickly realizing it is way too much data and too much beer to fit into one column.
I know, you are thinking how could it possibly be too much beer to fit into a column. I will summarize our day and you will quickly realize why I have to turn this single day into a multi-column series.
We started around noontime at Harpoon’s South Boston facility. In New England, Harpoon’s annual beer production is second only to Anheuser-Busch and is greater than any other New England specialty brewer.
As if that wasn’t enough, we then journeyed to one of Harpoon’s first customers – Sunset Grill in Allston. Sunset has 380 beers in the bottle and 112 on tap. Lesser men would have stopped right there, but not us. From Sunset we took the bus, yes the bus (Did you think we could drive to Cambridge?) to the home of Cambridge Brewing Company, one of Boston’s oldest brewpubs. Cambridge Brewing Company is standing room only on a hot Friday afternoon, but not today. The poster on the wall there reminded us that every beer geek and beer snob in Boston was at NERAX, the New England Real Beer Exhibition.
We hopped in a taxi to Somerville and ended the night surrounded by keg after keg of cask-conditioned ale. We hit a couple of other places but they barely warrant a mention. It hurts my head just rethinking the day. If you are wondering how Barry kept up with me on this beer soaked adventure the explanation is easy… Barry is a Jazz musician.
The average Jazz musician spills more beer on his tie in a night than Keith Richards can drink in a week. These are the guys that helped kill prohibition in the 20’s. The Jazz age actually helped cause an increase in alcohol consumption in America at a time when alcohol was illegal and definitely harder to come by.
Outside of being a Jazz musician he is my best friend so I didn’t have to pay him for his time and he picked up alternating rounds. And so begins the first leg of my adventure… pub-crawling with a Jazz musician.
As I told you, our first stop of the day was Harpoon Brewery on Boston’s waterfront…
Barry and I met up with Harpoon’s master brewer, Al Marzi, and their media goddess, Liz Melby, around noon. As we entered Harpoon, the first impression I got was that these guys are all about the beer. Not just the incredible products Harpoon produces, but beer in general. The front wall of Harpoon is lined with beer cans from all around the world, including some of their fiercest competitors. You have to have the utmost confidence in your product to have your competitors’ products on the wall in your very own showroom. I don’t think you will find a Miller can at the Bud factory.
Harpoon is a class organization, Al even went into depths about different local products he loves. He explained the “brotherhood of brewers” and named several friends of his working for other local brewers. As Al went into the history of Harpoon, I realized I had made a huge mistake in a previous column. In my “The Barley Wine Primer” in February, I took a cheap shot at Cambridge’s scholastic elite claiming students from MIT and Harvard know nothing about beer. This was not the first, nor the last time I had to eat my words.
The Harpoon Brewery was founded in 1986 by three Harvard classmates. The Brewery started with the three founders and one employee (a brewer); today there are 51 employees. Twenty years later the name Harpoon is almost synonymous with beer in Boston. The Harpoon Octoberfest and The Brewstock Festival have become two of the most popular beer events in the Northeast. These two-day events have hosted some of Boston’s best local music and gallons of great beer.
I was fascinated by Al’s history of the brewery and how their proprietary yeast strain gave their beer its unique signature flavor. Instantly, my concentration was totally shattered by one sentence from the house bartender, Skylar. “Would you like to sample any of our beers?” Ok, now it was go time!
I scanned the taps to see if there was anything unfamiliar and new. I caught a glimmer in Barry’s eye as he looked up at the Harpoon IPA tap handle. His favorite beer direct from the source! Harpoon IPA is the benchmark that most people judge other IPA’s by in the Northeast. It’s fresh signature flowery-hoppy flavor is perfect on a hot day like today.
Me? I opted for Harpoon’s new Altbier. Harpoon’s Alt is the 5th of their 100-barrel series, yet another cool thing Harpoon is doing. They want to encourage creativity within their brewers, so they each get a turn at brewing a 100 barrel batch of beer that is not on the Harpoon roster of styles. These guys have gotten pretty creative! The first four brews of the series were an oatmeal stout, a Belgian Wit, an Abbey, and my favorite style, a barleywine. The fifth in this beautiful beer line was now sitting in my hand, a German Alt.
An Altbier is a Northern German style, a slightly bitter, brown lager. There is a chocolaty malt flavor that balances the bitterness. The Harpoon interpretation of this style is perfect down to it’s slightly hoppy finish.
As I finished this perfect Alt, I looked over just in time to see Barry wiping the last of the IPA foam from his upper lip. Anticipating our next move, bartender-extraordinaire Skylar inquires as to our next selection. As Barry orders another IPA, Al suggests I should try Harpoon’s new summer beer.
I am not a big summer beer guy. Most summer offerings have lemon or some kind of citrus flavor in them. As I told Al my reservations about summer beers, he ensured me that there was no fruit or extract in the beer, it was simply a Kölsch style lager.
A Kölsch is very light golden ale with fruity hops. The unique thing about a Kölsch lager is that they ferment it at ale temperatures around 62-72º, but conditions cold, like a lager. This process really brings out the fruitiness of the hops. Once again Harpoon had nailed the style perfectly and produced a fantastic summer-session beer.
At this point Skylar is getting telepathic. Without saying a word Barry gives Skylar the nod “…another IPA?” I still can’t blame him for ordering another, they are great. I went for another of Harpoons signature beers myself… their Hefeweizen UFO. UFO Hefeweizen is an American style un-filtered wheat beer.
As I finished my UFO I noticed we had been at Harpoon for 2 hours shooting the breeze with Al, Skylar and Liz. I could have stayed at Harpoon all day but we were off to the Sunset Grill to meet with Mark Kadish. I’ll be talking about Mark and The Sunset Grill more in the upcoming weeks but right now it is time for beer picks. The 100 barrel series is best of breed, but I want to stick to the Harpoon beers readily available.
This weeks picks are:
Harpoon Summer Beer: The body of this summer beer is clear and golden, as you would expect from a summer offering. It pours with a generous white head. This beer has a very well rounded palette, it is crisp fresh and delivers a hoppy fruitiness. The finish is nice and clean with no after tastes, just a slightly hoppy flavor. This is probably the best summer offering on the market right now and a great transition beer for those of you that want to explore the world of better beers without diving head first into stouts or strong ales.
Commercial description: Harpoon Summer Beer is a light-bodied, golden ale that is brewed in the Kolsch style. It originated centuries ago in the German city of Cologne. Clean, clear, and crisp – it makes an ideal summer beer.
Harpoon Octoberfest: This beer has a great copper/amber color with a tiny head. The nose is malty with tones of caramel and spices. Octoberfest is ultra smooth on the palette with an initial malty flavor that blends perfectly into a hoppy finish. As the hops start to fade, and it does take time for them to vacate the palette, there is a slightly yeasty, spicy aftertaste. Let the glass warm a bit in your hand and more and more toffee and spice tones start to emerge from the aroma and begin coating your palate.
Commercial description: Of all Harpoon beers, Octoberfest takes the most time to brew, adding to its complexity and smoothness. A blend of six malts imparts a smooth, medium body, balancing a medium hop bitterness. This legendary beer is brewed for celebrations. Prosit!
Harpoon Munich Dark: This dark reddish amber beer had a generous tan head. The aroma is all about toffee and malts. There is a slight coffee aroma coming out also as it warms. The palette is very full and I notice as I take the first sip the generous head disappears slightly. The yeast can be distinctly found in the flavor of this beer along with a strong malt flavor. They hops are ever present in this beer more so than you would expect but they are not over bearing in any way and very pleasant.
Commercial description: Inspired by the centuries-old Bavarian beer, our Harpoon Munich Dark has a dark, balanced maltiness complimented with a moderate hop finish. We introduced this beer in 1998 and received first prize for Best Beer Overall of 1998 in BarleyCorn Magazine
If Barry were picking Harpoon IPA would be the top pick this week but it is my column and this week’s top pick is:
Harpoon Ale: This is the Boston original. The beer pours a deep amber color with a small white head. The aroma is slightly malty with traces of hops and fruit. The nose and palette of this beer are perfectly balanced the tones you get from the aroma are duplicated on the palette with one difference there is a slightly spicy flavor coming from the yeast. The finish of this beer is hoppy but not over the top, a perfect session beer.
Commercial description: The first in the Harpoon family of beers, our ale is a light amber in color, medium bodied, and well balanced. The slightly fruity aroma is from Harpoon’s special yeast.