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The ale trail
In search of Boston’s lost breweries

BOSTON BREWERS are serving ’em up, and the Hub’s hip tipplers are knocking ’em back. Harpoon’s tried-and-true IPA is an august example of a beloved style; if you’re feeling a mite more adventurous, seek out the latest in its envelope-pushing 100 Barrel Series instead. The Boston Beer Company, the largest craft brewer in the country, may rely primarily on facilities outside New England, but founder Jim Koch still uses its Jamaica Plain headquarters as a sort of laboratory, toiling among the boilers on black lagers and 50-proof brews. Edison, the locally brewed "Independent Light Beer," has proven over the past four years that it can hold its own with the bigs. Brewpubs such as Boston Beer Works and Cambridge Brewing Company are flourishing, too, their taps flowing with beer styles that defy convention.

It’s easy to take for granted that, since it was launched 20 years ago, we’ve been living in an epicenter of the brewing revolution. But the real heyday of Boston’s brewing industry is much older, dating back to the 1880s and running at a brisk pace until 1920, when it was laid flat by Prohibition, making only a half-hearted comeback before being once again extinguished in the mid 1960s.

Their flavors are lost to history. But say their names aloud and you might just be able to conjure the crisp tang of their lagers, the burnished richness of their ales: Haffenreffer ... A.J. Houghton ... Burkhardt ... American Brewing Co. ... Eblana ... Croft ... H&J Pfaff. These are the fallen giants, the churning, clangorous, brick-built behemoths that helped fuel the powerful thirst of a hard-working and fast-changing city. These are the authors of Boston’s storied brewing history, one that was interrupted (twice) — and nearly lost for good.

These are the beers quaffed in Michael "Nuf Ced" McGreevey’s tavern after the Red Sox won their first World Series in 1903, and at Fenway Park when they won their last — for a while — in 1918. They were drunk in Beacon Hill townhouses and in Southie tenements, by Boston Brahmins and by the hard-working German and Irish immigrants who made them. By women agitating for suffrage. By doughboys who’d soon die in Flanders fields. They were downed with gusto on V-E Day and V-J Day, and sipped sadly on the cold day that JFK was killed.

The breweries don’t exist anymore, but the buildings that housed them — and their power plants and refrigeration houses, cooperages and stables — do. They’re hulking industrial monsters whose architecture is nonetheless marked by delicate ornamentation that defines the eras in which they were built. These days, many stand abandoned and decrepit. Many are used for storage. Some are being refurbished as tony residential lofts. And one — just one — is lucky enough to be brewing beer again.

Smaller reminders are scattered here and there, too. Musty, rusty artifacts of a bygone beer culture, zealously horded and traded by obsessed collectors. Posters whose flowery, antiquated phrases promise purity and quality and salubrity. Steel cans emblazoned with proud-standing Pilgrims and campy cartoon faces. Beer trays advertising bocks and malt wines and half-stock ales. They’re remnants from a different time, when beer was marketed not with bikini babes and Sunday sports, but with promises about flavor and friendship. It’s a time that’s extinct. But one that has also, in very real way, been reborn.

BOSTON’S BEER history is a long one. The longest, in fact. In 1620, beer — in the form of the Mayflower’s nearly depleted stocks — made its debut in the New World, just south of here in Plymouth. In 1639, Boston’s first brewpub opened for business and was soon flourishing. By the 1670s, there was an on-campus brewery at Harvard. In the 1700s, a maltster named Sam Adams helped foment revolution over foamy pewter pints in taverns like the Green Dragon.

In 1828, Boston Beer Company rolled out its first ales. By the time it closed in 1957, it was the oldest brewery in America. At the turn of the last century there were more than 30 neighborhood breweries in Boston — more per capita than in any other American city. (For a period of 100 years, there were reportedly more in Boston and New York than in the rest of the country combined.) Of course, the dark descent of Prohibition in 1920 was a disaster for the industry. Many breweries tried to keep afloat by changing gears, brewing nonalcoholic beer or soda pop or making ice cream. Some pulled it off, but most did not. After Prohibition was lifted, in 1933, the Hub was home to just a handful of breweries, Boston Beer, Haffenreffer, and Croft chief among them.

Then it got worse. These breweries offered primarily neighborhood distribution, with some extending to points further afield in eastern Massachusetts. But it wasn’t long before regional breweries, like Narragansett in Cranston, Rhode Island, and Knickerbocker and Schaefer from New York — not to mention ever-more-powerful nationals from St. Louis and Milwaukee, which had perfected refrigeration and distribution for the modern age — were encroaching on their turf. In 1964, when Haffenreffer’s Jamaica Plain operation closed and the brewery merged with Narragansett, that was it for brewing in Boston. (Until 20 years later, that is, when a Cincinnati transplant named Jim Koch decided to resurrect his great-great-grandfather’s lager recipe, name it after a Boston patriot, reclaim the Boston Beer Company name, and eventually set up shop in the old Haffenreffer bottling plant.)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In Boston’s sudsy glory days, from the 1880s until Prohibition’s body blow in 1920, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury were where it was at. At its prosperous peak, there were about 25 breweries in those neighborhoods alone. There were several reasons for this. First was the pristinely pure water burbling from the Stony Brook aquifer. "It wasn’t just the freshest source in Boston, but all of the Northeast," says Tigh Rickman, who oversees tours and tastings at the current Boston Beer Company in JP. "Back then, to make the beer, to clean your tanks, to run the steam jackets for the brew kettles, you needed water, and you needed a lot of it." Indeed, if you look at a map of where the breweries stood — which you can do in the Boston Beer Company lobby — you can almost trace the aquifer’s source by the buildings clustered around it.

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Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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