A Brief History of Beer in Boston

By Amy Scheuerman

Beer came to America with the first British colonists. Ever wondered why the Pilgrims chose to land in such an inhospitable spot as Plymouth Rock? In a word: beer. These early colonists were hoping to be transported further south and set up shop near the previously established Virginia colonies. However, ale supplies were running low on the ship and the sailors feared that unless the Pilgrims were put ashore at once, there would be insufficient beer for the voyage home.

What exactly is beer? It’s one of the oldest beverages in the world. Said to have first been brewed in Ancient Egypt, where the laborers who built the pyramids were paid in bread and beer, beer was drunk in Europe as early as the 1200s. Although the earliest brews were probably made by a simple fermentation of whichever grain happened to be on hand, today beer is made from malted grains, hops, yeast, and water. The grain is usually barley or wheat, but some American breweries use corn or rice to lower costs and make a lighter tasting beer. Fruit, herbs, and spices may also be used for special styles.

In early America, the Pilgrims considered the beverage a necessary component of every day life. The first “publick house”—a building in which ale was brewed and served—was licensed in Massachusetts in 1634 and in 1637 the first brewery in the colony was opened. Even that most notorious of Puritans, Increase Mather, a minister involved with the government of the colony, the administration of Harvard College, and the Salem witch trials, described alcohol as “a good creature of God.”

In 1789 Massachusetts enacted a law encouraging the manufacture and consumption of beer. Apparently it had the desired affect because by the 1800s Boston was renowned as one of the premiere beer-brewing cities in America. Despite the enactment of two separate prohibition laws, one prohibiting the sale of alcohol from 1852-1868 and the other from 1869-1875, by the end of the century there were almost 30 breweries in the city.

However, the good times were not meant to last. In 1901 ten Boston breweries merged to create the Massachusetts Breweries Company. Perhaps this newly formed behemoth was too much for the small breweries to compete with. Or perhaps improvements in pasteurization and transportation made it easier for Pabst, Miller, and Busch —known as the Beer Barons of the Midwest— to take over the Boston market. What is sure is that in the 1900s Boston’s breweries began to close, one by one.

In the 1960s the local beer situation in Boston was dire. Haffenreffer, which had opened in 1870, brewed its last beer in 1964. After its close, Boston was left without a brewery for the first time in over 300 years.

Today Boston’s local beers have made a comeback. Home brewing was made legal in 1978, and several Harvard University students became experts. Two of them, Dan Kenary and Rick Doyle, founded the Mass Bay Brewing Company in Boston in 1986, thus beginning the return of beer brewing to Boston. Although Boston may never return to the glory days of brewing it experienced in the 1800s, the city now boasts six active breweries. Two of these, Mass Bay Brewing Company (which produces Harpoon) and Boston Beer Works (which produces Sam Adams) bottle and distribute beer across the country.

For more information about beer, check out these informative sites and books:

Beer Advocate – Nifty facts about beer as well as a source for local beer events.
Real Beer – News and events in the beer world.
Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer by Maureen Ogle – A history of the four largest breweries in America.
Beer & Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking by Steven Hales – The thinking man’s book about beer.

Or, if you think you’re already an expert, take the quiz!

1) There are many different varieties of beer, but all of them fall into two categories: ales and lagers.  The difference between these is that…

a) Ales are light and lagers are dark
b) Ales are brewed with wheat and lagers are brewed with barley
c) Ales are top fermented and lagers are bottom fermented
d) Ales are brewed with hops and lagers are not

The German Law of Beer Purity, adopted in 1516, states that only certain ingredients can be included in beer.  How many ingredients are specified?

a) 2, only water and barley
b) 3, only water, barley, and hops
c) 4, only water, barley, hops, and yeast
d) 5, only water, barley, hops, yeast, and malt

3)  People make a lot of claims about the effects of beer on health.  Which of the following is true?

a) When drunk in moderate quantities, beer can improve heart health.
b) Drinking beer can damage the liver and even cause death.
c) The tannins in dark beers such as Guinness can reduce the risk of cancer.
d) All of the above are correct.

4)  While the flavor of beer is affected by many factors, its color mostly comes from only one thing…

a) The amount of time the barley was roasted.
b) The length of time that the beer was aged.
c) The amount of hops in the beer.
d) The breed of barley used in the beer.

5)  Of the six remaining breweries in Boston, the majority are considered micro-breweries.  What is the definition of a micro-brewery?

a) A brewery that produces fewer than fifteen thousand barrels of beer each year.
b) A brewery that makes fewer than $500,000 a year in profits.
c) A brewery that does not bottle its beer, but only provides kegs.
d) A brewery that uses less than 8,000 square feet for its brewing operation.

6)  Today three breweries control 92% of the US beer market.  The largest of these is:

a) Budweiser Brewery
b) Anheuser-Bush
c) Pabst Brewery
d) Miller Brewery

7)  Throughout the years, many battles have been fought to make the purchase of beer illegal, Prohibition being the most famous.  Which political party was created because they felt they could win more votes if they promised to keep beer legal?
a) The Whigs
b) The Democrats
c) The Republicans
d) The Tories

8)  Some people believe that any beer with 12% or more alcohol by volume is not beer at all, but barley-wine.  However, there is no official cutoff for the amount of alcohol a beer may contain.  Currently the highest percentage of alcohol by volume in a beer is:
a) 14%
b) 15%
c) 16%
d) 17%

To check your answers click here.

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