The Greater Boston area is good at some things. Voting for the less hateful candidate, for instance, is a particular civic strength of ours. We’re also good at cheering for sports and celebritizing discount furniture salesmen. We’re less successful, however, when it comes to certain equally important matters, such as maintaining our public transportation system, or promoting a healthy beer culture.
We’ve got some pretty good beer here, but it’s not always easy to reach. Most of “Boston’s” best brewers operate well outside the city limits, which is great in a way, because the good people of Salem, Canton and Framingham deserve Notch, Trillium and Jack’s Abby, respectively. And I’m happy that Bog Iron makes nice beer out in Norton, as do Wormtown in Worcester and Riverwalk in Newburyport. The listicle could go on.
But although there are plenty of good to great breweries in Massachusetts, I’m always stumped when someone from out of town says, “Hey, Will, I’ve got one free afternoon in Boston, which breweries should I visit?” Because putting together a local taproom crawl is tricky. Night Shift, Idle Hands and Mystic are fairly close to Boston proper, but they’re nowhere near the path most tourists would likely beat. You could take public transit to Harpoon, Aeronaut, Slumbrew, Cambridge Brewing Company and brand-new Lamplighter all in the same day, but there’d be plenty of walking, waiting and transferring involved.
Boston’s got some good beer, but we don’t make it easy to enjoy, which leads to a disconnect between drinker and brewer that inhibits the sort of thriving craft beer scenes found in other cities. Chicago, for instance, is America’s Greatest Beer City (That I Have Visited Recently), because it doesn’t make you jump through too many hoops to quench your thirst in a tasteful manner. And Chicago bars seem much more committed to promoting their own than do Boston bars, so it’s easy enough to try beers from other precincts of northern Illinois.
I tried dozens of Chicago-area beers over the course of 48 hours last weekend, and these were my favorites.
Buckledown Belts and Suspenders; 7.0% ABV IPA
There’s good reason to suspect this finely tuned citrus- and pine-forward India pale ale is the pride of Lyons, Illinois. It’s got a nice touch of tropical fruit, too, but not at the expense of the bitterness that makes IPA special in the first place.
Half Acre Double Daisy Cutter; 8.5% Double IPA
The Half Acre taproom wasn’t on my original itinerary, because I get to enjoy its beer every couple months when I’m in New York, and I got off the plane in Chicago gunning for novelty. But it was within comfortable strolling distance of a couple of smaller outfits I was planning to visit (are you listening, “Boston” breweries?!), and my beer life will be forever richer for having stopped in. I knew Half Acre was good — I’d enjoyed regulation Daisy Cutter pale ale, Navaja imperial IPA and Pony pilsner in the past — but I had no idea the extent of it. Double Daisy is a quarterly release, and I lucked into a batch that was barely a week old. It’s pretty much the perfect IPA, with bold grapefruit, orange, lemon zest, pineapple and mango flavors atop pine and barley.
Off Color Dinosmores; 10.5% Imperial Stout
If you’re a sucker for weird stouts with funny names, this is your new favorite beer. Brewed with graham flour, marshmallow, vanilla, molasses and cocoa nibs, Dinosmores would seem to risk running stickily off the rails, but it’s a balanced and serious Russian imperial stout that I will happily drink every time the opportunity arises.
Two Brothers Revelry; 9.5% Imperial Red Ale
This beer was certainly helped by the context in which it was enjoyed —brunch at the very finest restaurant on the planet: Bohemian House. Schnitzel!— but I’m quite sure it’s excellent on its own merits. This friendly monster reminds me of Tröegs Nugget Nectar, which is the second-highest praise that can be bestowed upon an imperial red (narrowly trailing “Hey, this is Nugget Nectar!”). It tastes like dry caramel, pine sap and bright red berries, and I love it.
Whiner Le Tub; 6.6% Wild Saison
Totally ordered this one based on the label, and I was richly rewarded for that sound reasoning. It’s a partially barrel-aged, lactobacillus-spiked saison displaying black pepper and tart lemon flavors along with just the lightest touch of earthy funk.
Half Acre GoneAway; 7% IPA
This is balanced to the tropical and grapefruit side of the modern IPA flavor spectrum, with a big hit of orange zest and lighter pine resin and oyster cracker late.
Begyle Free Bird; 5.6% American Pale Ale
Begyle calls itself a “community supported brewery” and sells growler shares in the manner of a bougie farmers club. I like it! The taproom was a bit of a riot when my wife and I stopped in Saturday afternoon, and I got the impression that that’s status quo. They have skeeball and other, lesser games. I think I even saw some sassy mf’ers playing Old Maid? Anyhow, good beer, too. Free Bird is a textbook modern APA, with pronounced lemon and floral notes from the Falconer’s Flight hops.
Dovetail Rauchweizen; 3.8% Smoked Wheat Beer
Dovetail is a bright and charming taproom specializing in older European styles, such as this outstanding smoked wheat ale. I find smoked beers to be hit or miss, and my gluttony rarely permits me to dip beneath the 4 percent ABV line, but this smoky, meaty, wheaty delight was a true joy to drink.
Off Color ProCATStination; 8.5% Wild Saison
This feral beauty is a collaboration between Off Color, legendary Chicago beer bar the Northdown and St. Louis craft beer royalty Perennial Artisan Ales and Side Project. A base beer made from Off Color’s house yeast and Perennial’s Funky Wit is aged in red wine barrels and then blended with Side Project’s Foedre Beer. The result is complex and wonderful and it brings to mind gin-soaked peaches and grilled lemons.
Half Acre Orin; 13.7% Bourbon Barrel–Aged Strong Brown Ale
Oh, boy. This brute could very well end up being my Beer of the Year. It tastes like vanilla-hazelnut rum cake served alongside burnt toast topped with dark-cherry jam and a shot of high-class whiskey.