There’s change afoot in the beer industry. Suddenly everyone, from the guy sitting next to you at Tavern on the Square to the college kid buying a six-pack at Blanchard’s, is choosing a craft brew. What makes a craft brew? According to the Brewers Association, it comes from a brewery that produces less than 6 million barrels a year, is independently owned, and produces at least 50 percent malt beers. Basically, it’s your Harpoons and Sam Adams rather than your Budweisers and Coors.
In 2011, the last year with stats, 250 craft breweries popped up even though beer sales decreased 1.3 percent. That’s across the nation, but Boston has an embarrassment of riches. The Massachusetts Brewers Guild has 45 members, with upwards of 10 in Greater Boston. So get out your finest pint glass and prepare for an exploration of hops — it’s time to meet the best craft breweries in Boston.
Obligatory note: I’m excluding the “big four” (Sam Adams, Harpoon, Ipswich, and Cape Ann Brewing Co.) from this craft brew extravaganza. Why? Because they’re widely available, and you probably already know about them.
Vital Stats: Cambridge Brewing Company’s 1989 start date makes it the oldest brewery on this list — and one of the oldest in the Boston area. It’s also the only brewery on this list with its own restaurant, so make sure to stop by its Kendall Square home to pair a Jerk Chicken Sandwich with your beer. As for the beer, CBC lets creativity reign, mixing experimental seasonal brews with longstanding house favorites.
Brew to Try: Sample the Blunderbuss Barleywine — Barleywines are the strongest style of ale and are often compared to sipping liqueurs like brandy or congac. The Blunderbuss, with its amber color and caramel notes, lives up to the description.
Vital Stats: This Framingham-based brewery opened in 2011 is a family affair — it is run by three brothers, Jack, Eric and Sam Hendler (how Jack managed to get his name on the bottle is anyone’s guess). The brewery grows a good portion of its hops on the family farm in Vermont, meaning you won’t find a beer that tastes quite the same anywhere else.
Brew to Try: The Smoke & Dagger is a beer for those with a dark side. The black porter has notes of coffee and chocolate — perfect for anyone tired of drinking an endless parade of Guinness.
Vital Stats: Slumbrew, also known as the Somerville Brewing Company, opened in 2011. For now, the brewery produces its beers out of the Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich, but Slumbrew fans rejoice — founders Caitlin Jewell and Jeff Leiter are looking to open a brewery and taproom in Somerville.
Brew to Try: Never heard of a dampfbeir? Well, it might be time to give the style a whirl. The Rising Sun ale is equal parts caramel malt and subtle spice, for a medium bodied brew that’s rich with flavor.
Vital Stats: Mystic Brewing, which opened in 2011, calls Chelsea home. The brewery aims to restore traditional, pre-Industrial brewing practices and favors European styles like the saison — and, lucky for locals, it just opened a brewery taproom where you can try brews not yet in stores.
Brew to Try: These days, it seems you can’t turn a corner without falling over a full-bodied, amply hopped double IPA (this one’s the best, though you’ll have to drive to Vermont to get it). If you’re looking for an IPA innovation, Mystic’s low alcohol Half IPA (currently only on tap at the brewery) is just the inspiration you need. There are hops, sure, but they don’t so much burst on your tongue as linger.
Vital Stats: The heart and soul of Pretty Things is in Somerville, though their host brewery, Buzzard’s Bay, is in Westport. From the colorful illustrations on their bottles to the creative contents within, the minds behind Pretty Things don’t take themselves too seriously. They even have a historical beer project that resurrects brew recipes lost over time. But, despite the levity, Pretty Things takes beer very seriously — and you’ll be able to tell with each sip.
Beer to Try: American Darling, a pale filtered lager, is a crisp and refreshing antidote to the summer heat (remember summer heat? Don’t worry, it will be here soon enough). More complex than a Heineken or a Beck’s, American Darling contains no corn or rice — but it’s just as good at washing the day away.
Vital Stats: This tiny brewery, which opened in 2011, specializes in experimental beers that don’t shy away from nontraditional ingredients. Because Night Shift is so small, it can be difficult to find their beers in stores. However, their Everett brewery has a taproom that allows you to sample different brews and walk away with a few for later.
Beer to Try: Viva Habanera is the perfect beer for those who find themselves adding hot sauce to everything on their plate. The base for this brew is a rye ale, but habanero peppers added after fermentation give the finished product a peppery aroma and not-so-subtle kick.
Vital Stats: While you’re visiting the taproom at Night Shift, wander next door to Idle Hands — the two are neighbors, a delicious convenience considering both can be difficult to find in stores. Idle Hands is the smallest brewery in Massachusetts, and the philosophy behind their small batch, Belgian-inspired beers is simple: don’t gussy things up too much and let the ingredients speak for themselves.
Beer to Try: Belgium meets Kentucky in the Bourbon Barrel Triplication, a light malt beer aged in a Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrel. It’s the beer for lovers of whiskey and bourbon — you’ll taste dark and boozy notes in every sip.