The Lush Life 2: The Sunset Grill
May 20, 2004
I received a few interesting emails after my last column: Part 1 of The Lush Life. I usually receive some questions and comments after my article is posted, but this time I got more than usual. I thought I would answer a few of your questions before continuing our journey through Boston.
There were quite a few emails noting our attire… yes, my shirt does say, “got milf” and Barry is wearing a tribute to the classic Frank Zappa song “Titties & Beer.” This has been a contest of sorts between the two of us for over 20 years now to see who can come up with the most radical t-shirt. We both own shirts that are so offensive we wouldn’t wear them in public so those two were pretty tame by our standards.
The most common question I received was: “Where is the Sunset Grill in Boston?” The Sunset Grill is in Allston, Boston’s coolest neighborhood. Allston, MA. (a.k.a. Allston Brighton, L.A. (lower Allston) or Harvard Ave.) is ground zero for Boston’s college students. Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and MIT are all either within walking distance or a short bus or subway ride from Allston’s Harvard Avenue.
Allston’s streets are lined with music stores, comic book stores, and stores selling items bordering on the bizarre. It is also home to the best bars and clubs in Boston, ranging from great dive bars like the Silhouette, that looks like it hasn’t had a décor change since the 60’s, to trendy Jazz bars like The Wonderbar. Allston has it all, but one of the true gems of this area is The Sunset Grill.
The Sunset has been an anchor of this Allston area for years. As trends change and bars and clubs have come and gone, one thing is constant; 112 beers will be on tap at the corner of Harvard and Brighton Ave. My first Boston apartment was down the street from The Sunset Grill so this was a homecoming of sorts for me. My roommates and I have spent hours watching Sox and Patriots games on The Sunset’s TV on many a fall afternoon while enjoying the best beers the world has to offer.
The wall behind the bar has the bottles of the beer the Sunset has to offer. To most people this looks like a beer bottle collection, but no, it is a visual representation of what they have to offer. If you are unfamiliar with the brands and labels before you, and most people are, Sunset has a multi-page beer menu that breaks beers down by style; listing the brewer and country of origin.
So we are sitting in a bar with 380 beers in the bottle and 112 on tap. It is a little bit overwhelming. We are not overwhelmed by the selection, we just feel cheated by today’s busy schedule. So many beers, so little time. Even though there is a plethora of beers on the menu we have yet to sample, The Sunset presented both of us with a unique opportunity… to try our favorite beers on draught.
I am now sitting with a draft Chimay Red in front of me, served in a tulip glass, the perfect vestal for a perfect beer. Barry, after a long deliberation, makes a bold decision… he is going to have yet another IPA. This time around he opts for Dogfish Head’s 90 minute IPA on draft. Even though I have my Chimay, I am a bit jealous. I want the Dogfish Head also. Actually, I want pretty much every beer in the place with the exception of the Coors Light.
You’re reading this saying to yourself, “Did he say Coors Light?” Yes, the Sunset Grill also has a compliment of American Lagers, and they sell a lot of them. When you get a crowd of people going out for a good time at Sunset, you will get that one guy that won’t try anything new and insists on having his fizzy yellow water. Getting a Coors Lights at the Sunset Grill is like going to Morton’s Steak House and just eating the vegetables. There are so many great European and Non-Classic American Lagers and Pilsners on the menu, you can easily find some close to Coors Light are the same price if not cheaper. The downside of that would be that annoying beer taste, but alas, some people are totally clueless when it comes to beer.
As we sipped on our drafts, Marc Kadish, President of Sunset Grill, started going into the history of the bar for us. Sunset never opened with the vision of having 112 beers on tap, the beer selection grew from public demand and the emergence of great microbrews in America.
The first beer on tap at Sunset was Harpoon Ale over 20 years ago. At that time Sunset didn’t even have a tap system. The guys at Harpoon Brewing helped the Sunset crew set up their first tap system with a picnic cooler. Very soon after that, fueled partly but the popularity of Harpoon’s offerings among other great beers that surfaced in the 80’s, Sunset got a great deal on a 6-tap keg system.
Marc was laughing as he looked back noting they thought with 6 beers on tap they were all set. Tap lines at Sunset grew like Kudzu, hosting the best beers in the world, making Sunset the number one destination for Boston’s beer elite. If you talk to almost any brewer in the Boston area, if not the entire northeast, and ask them where they got their introduction to beer, most of them will tell you The Sunset. Being nestled in this college town, people from all over the world have made the leap from the world of fuzzy yellow to the world of Pale Ales, Stouts and Belgium Ales sitting on these very bar stools.
Marc told me about one icon of the beer world that shall remain nameless who frequented the bar while a student at Boston University in the 80’s. When he first found Sunset Grill he would sit at the bar, sipping Budweiser, and eventually started to sample some of The Grill’s other offerings. Today he is considered one of the greatest brewers in the world.
I was getting ready to sample one of that brewer’s most famous beers on tap when a light shined from behind on the tap next to it. I heard the voices of angels and felt a calm take over my body. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I thought this could not be true… I had found the Holy Grail! I am at the end of today’s beer journey, at this point I knew Barry would have to drag me out of the Sunset at last call kicking and screaming. For the first time in my life I had found Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine on tap!
I stuttered and stammered as I asked “Can I have a Bigfoot?” The bartender replied, “Would you like a 5 oz, 10 oz, or a pint?” Choices, I had choices! There are so many times I have ordered a high end beer to have it delivered in the wrong vessel or served in a ridiculous 22 oz glass.
A 22 oz glass of beer is not a bad thing, but if you are sampling multiple beers you are not going to get through many of them. At the Sunset they have any beer you want, anyway you want it, which brings me to The Sunset’s biggest complaint. As I have said before, good beers are much more expensive to produce. That cost is passed down to bar owners like Marc and ultimately to us, the consumers. Marc does everything he can to keep his prices reasonable, and does a great job at it. But what makes this difficult for Marc, and other bar owners that purchase $200 kegs of beer, is when some bonehead orders a 16 oz. glass of something they never had before takes one sip and complains about the beer.
Would you order a $40 lobster in a restaurant if you never had lobster before? Then after taking one bite call over the waiter and saying “I don’t like this could you get me something else?” When the afore mentioned waiter asked what was wrong with your meal could you honestly say “I never had lobster before, I thought I would try but I don’t like it. Could you bring me a Filet Minion, I want to see if I like that better?” I think we both know you would not see the steak and you would be stuck with the bill for the lobster.
If you don’t know what you are ordering, ask for a 5 oz. sample glass. Most good beer bars have sampler glasses and if not most bartenders will be happy to let you try a mouthful of beer before you dive into a pint. If you like it you can order more. If the beer is so offending to your taste buds you cant finish it, Oh wel,l you tried something new. The only reason why you should return a beer is if the beer is bad, not because you didn’t like it. I have never had a bad beer at Sunset in the 10 plus years I have been frequenting the establishment.
I know what Bigfoot tastes like, at least out of the bottle, so I dove head first into a 16 oz. draft. Barry was ready for beer number two so he asked Marc what he suggested and Marc steered him away from IPA for the first time today. Marc was pushing the Boont Amber Ale. Boont is a new offering at Sunset and Marc strongly suggested it. This is the first time I have seen Boont Amber Ale. I am a huge fan of their Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout but this is the first time I have seen the Amber Ale. Then again, when it comes to beer firsts The Sunset is the place to go.
The Sunset is going to be one of the first bars in the world to house Randall The Enamel Animal. Randall, a Dogfish head invention, is a three-foot-long cylinder-filter packed with a half pound of whole-leaf hops that is connected to the line leaving a keg of Dogfish beer. I can’t wait to try this concoction out.
Looking at my watch, I had noticed we were way behind schedule. We finished our drafts and thanked Marc and his staff for their hospitality and resumed our journey across Boston. Barry and I have done the Boston pub crawl so many times I can’t remember the exact number. When doing a pub crawl, sometimes your next destination isn’t right next door or even right down the block. During these longer crossings we usually “brown bag” it to our next destination.
Brown bagging is the art of stealthily consuming an alcoholic beverage, usually beer, in full view of the public. This is usually done by keeping the brown paper bag the beer is purchased in wrapped around the beer. In most cases you will not get bothered on a summer day by Boston’s Finest even though drinking in public in Boston is illegal. If the boys in blue do pinch you with an open container, 99.9% of the time you will be simply told to dump the beer and move on, unless you are being a complete pinhead or underage. I am in no way suggesting or condoning public drinking. If someone were to do it, the key is don’t get caught.
Those of us more experienced in the art of “brown bagging’ will usually opt for a fast food cup. Most of your fast food places will give you a cup straw and lid for free if you ask nicely. Making it the perfect covert beer flagon. Brown bagging is a no brainer for you mixed cocktail people. Simply pour your nip in your soda can and off you go. We were now ready to trek to Cambridge.
We jumped on the 64 bus from Allston to Cambridge for the bargain basement price of $1 and with our beer in tow. Our next destinations are Cambridge Brewing Company and NERAX, the New England Real Beer Exhibition.
I am sorry we stuck to our old favorites this week with the exception of the Boont Amber Ale. We couldn’t walk away from the opportunity to try our favorites on tap. I promise you a host of new beers next week when we get to Cambridge Brewing Company and NERAX. But for now, here are our picks for this week.
Beer picks on tap at the Sunset Grill are:
Chimay Red: Chimay Red is from one of the only 6 Trappist monasteries worldwide. It pours a perfect dark amber brown with a generous tan head. The aroma could take me pages to describe it is one of the most complex beers on the market. The first aroma I notice is fruit, raisins, and dates. Caramel and nutty tones start to raise from the glass inviting me to take my first sip. The carbonation is definitely present and as it subsides on the palate, you will find a medium-bodied great beer. Chimay finishes dry with a pleasant yeasty-spicy finale.
Commercial Description: An authentic Trappist beer that is it is brewed within a Trappist monastery, under the control and responsibility of the monastic community. Topped with a creamy head, it gives off a light, fruity apricot aroma produced by the fermentation. The taste perceived in the mouth is a balance confirming the fruity nuances noticed in the fragrance
Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA 90 minute’s color is a bronzy-orangey color with a very thin, white head. The aroma is of course all about the hops. There are so many different hop aromas raising from the glass it is almost impossible to document them all. Fruity, floral, earthy, herbal… it is all there. The palate is perfect! I was expecting a beer this big to be a bit syrupy, but Dogfish head surprises me once again. The palate is clean and crisp with a bit of malt coating my tongue. Then here it comes again, more hops this time lending themselves to a slightly bitter finish. If I were to make a Top 10 beers in the world list, Dogfish 90 minute IPA would definitely be on it. Truly one of the best beers I ever had.
Commercial Description: An Imperial I.P.A. brewed to be savored from a snifter. A big beer with a great malt backbone that stands up to the extreme hopping rate.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine vin. 2004 This is a very unique Barley Wine. It has Sierra Nevada’s signature hop combination of Chinook, Centennial, and Cascade hops. If you like any of Sierra Nevada’s other products I guarantee you will love this beer. Being released in March once per year for a couple of months makes this a hard beer to find. The cascade hops lend their signature piney, citrus aroma while the centennial lend very earthy tones. The citrus flavors balance the sweetness of the barley wine perfectly and the 9.6% ABV is very well hidden in this brew so it doesn’t give you an overwhelming alcohol taste. This is a great first barley wine for anyone who would like to explore this style of beer.
Commercial Description: Bigfoot Ale is an award-winning example of the traditional barleywine ale style. It boasts a dense, fruity bouquet; an extremely rich, intense palate; and a deep, reddish-brown color. This ale is superbly balanced between an almost overpowering maltiness and a wonderfully bittersweet hoppiness.
My number one pick when at Sunset Grill…
Boont Amber Ale – Everything I have tried from Boont so far has been spectacular. This one was no exception. It poured a nice amber color with a decent frothy off-white head. The nose is all about malt and fruit with touches of caramel. The carbonation is ever-present but not over bearing in any way. It gives this beer a great round mouth feel with more fruit tones coming out as you swallow the beer. The finish of this beer is dry and hoppy rounding out a fantastic Amber Ale.
Commercial Description: Boont Amber Ale just won the Silver Medal at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival , in the American-Style Amber/Red Ale category, has several other medals, as well, and was named the “best beer brewed in Northern California,” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Boont Amber Ale is a medium bodied pale ale with a beautiful copper color, a robust head, and the rich flavor of caramel malt. This very smooth and exceptionally drinkable beer is excellent with steaks, chicken, pasta, and other flavorful meals. As with all of our products, Boont Amber Ale is never sterile filtered nor heat pasteurized, and should be stored in refrigeration. However, to fully enjoy its rich and complex flavor, it should be served between 40° and 45°F