It’s an idea that seems so obvious, I’m surprised it hadn’t already been done. And I do wonder why, after almost 30 years of brewing beer in Boston, offering daily tours of the brewery, and hosting brewfests every few months, it took Harpoon this long to build a bar in their visitors’ center so you could stop in and enjoy a few pints. Whatever the reason, the new Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall is well worth the wait.
Part of a multimillion-dollar expansion of Harpoon’s Seaport District brewing facility, the enormous Beer Hall is equal parts modern and traditional. Since the doors hadn't yet opened to the public when I was there, the place feels new and looks pristine; but exposed brick walls, a gorgeous floor made from reclaimed wood, and long, communal benches made from butternut trees in Vermont create an atmosphere of comfort and familiarity.
The result is a cross between an industrial warehouse and a German beer hall. Circular metal chandeliers hanging from the black, exposed ceiling look stern and functional but cast an intimate glow on the soft hue of the wooden floor. The windows on the inner wall overlook the brewery’s kegging area, offering drinkers a glimpse of their suds in the late stages of production, while floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall provide a spectacular view of the city.
Best of all, the Beer Hall seems like it was deliberately designed by someone who was familiar with the pitfalls of crowded bars and determined to avoid them. The space isn’t merely huge – it’s thoughtfully laid out. In addition to the long tables in the center of the room, there’s another set of tables with chairs instead of benches, a handful of pub tables if you’re standing, and shelves for your beer placed conveniently along the walls and on support posts. Could they have crammed even more tables in there? Sure. But they opted to leave plenty of room to maneuver, so if you’re cautiously shuttling three beers to your table, you won’t have to worry about stray elbows jostling your precious cargo.
And then there’s the bar.
Pardon the limitations of my camera, but I’d need a wide-angle lens to capture even half of the mammoth bar, which looks to be slightly shorter than an airplane. I lost count of the number of chairs, but there’s no shortage of them; and the opposite side of the bar offers ample standing room. There are also multiple banks of beer taps, which minimizes waiting and lessens crowds gravitating to a single bartender. If you still need your personal space, there’s a second, smaller bar on the far end of the room.
Melissa and I, enjoying the benefits of our membership in the free “Friend of Harpoon” club, scored tickets to one of the Beer Hall’s pre-opening sessions this past week. The staff’s enthusiasm was both unmistakable and contagious. Bartenders, servers, and managers alike appeared happy to be working there, excited to finally have guests, and eager to talk about everything from the beer to the new addition to their brewery. It was a pleasure to share in the good vibes.
There are about 15 to 20 beers on tap, all Harpoon of course (as if you’d come here and order a Coors Light). If you’re a Harpoon lover, seeing this many varieties of their beer in one place is like a wet dream come true. Approaching the bar and seeing so many options I’d never tried, along with so many familiar classics, I found myself momentarily overwhelmed and settled on a Celtic Red.
This has long been one of my favorite Harpoon offerings. It was traditionally a “spring seasonal” beer, but its release date seems to drifting further and further back into the winter months. In a way, that’s too bad; I always viewed its appearance in bars and liquor stores as a harbinger of spring. On the other hand, I’d be happy to drink this medium-bodied, amber-hued brew all year round.
Mel went with the Coffee Porter, which the bartender noted was in short supply and rapidly dwindling. I’ve never been a big fan of coffee beers, which is ironic, given how much I drink of each beverage. But the coffee flavor was a little milder than what I’ve experienced with other brands, and Mel raved about it.
Next up for me was the Leviathan Imperial IPA. With 10% ABV, it’s best to only have five or six of these bad boys in a session (I’m kidding! Three or four, tops.) I was expecting an overload of hops and the sharp, alcoholic sting that you often get with high ABV beers. I was pleasantly surprised; the hops were certainly prominent, but well balanced by a smooth malty essence, and it didn’t taste overly alcoholic.
Mel’s next choice was the Harpoon Dark, formerly known as the Munich Dark. Our server, Nick, told us that this particular variety doesn’t sell well – in fact, it loses money. But brewers tend to be awfully fond of it, so Harpoon keeps cranking it out.
I have to say, I was impressed to hear that. It makes me feel like if you’re a successful company and remain true to your vision, then sometimes passion for a product can trump the coldness of the bottom line. It feels like the triumph of principle over profit.
That same attitude would seem to explain the Beer Hall’s lack of a food menu. As staff members Aaron and Zack told me, Harpoon doesn’t want their Beer Hall to compete with nearby bars and restaurants, many of which serve Harpoon beer. “We want it to be the kind of place where you can have a couple of beers and a snack, then head out to dinner,” said Aaron. Fair enough.
The snack he referred to is the Beer Hall’s freshly baked soft pretzel. Now, believe it or not, I don’t care for pretzels (this tends to shock people; I get it). But this is no ordinary pretzel – it doesn’t even look like one, if you’re envisioning the typical twisted shape and dark brown dough.
Made from spent grain from the brewery and battered with Harpoon’s flagship IPA, it was the biggest, softest, most flavorful pretzel I’ve ever had. Warm out of the oven, it came with a grainy mustard and a thick peanut sauce that was so good I could eat it with a spoon.
Feeling renewed by the sustaining benefits that only a pretzel can provide, I moved onto Harpoon’s cider, which is always a treat to find on draft. My opinion of hard cider in general was pretty lukewarm until I tried Harpoon’s a few years back. Its fresh, natural flavor was a welcome change from the artificial sweetness I associated with other brands. (Is Cider Jack still around? God that stuff was disgusting.) Even Mel, no cider fan, enjoys Harpoon’s version. Our server, Nick, explained that their cider is made with apples grown in Harvard, Massachusetts, and contains no preservatives. Just apples and yeast, yielding a light, drinkable cider that’s not overly sweet.
As the tasting session began drawing to a close, I hit the bar for one last round, again flummoxed by the options. Should I get the Rye IPA that everyone’s been raving about? But how could I not order the Czernobog, an imperial stout named after the Russian word for God of Darkness? Ultimately I left the decision to one of the bartenders, Jessica, who poured me a Black IPA. Instantly rendered intriguing by virtue of its being made with a malt called “Midnight Wheat,” the Black IPA also stands as proof that you can’t always judge a beer by its color. Despite its visual similarity to a stout or porter, it had the hop notes of an IPA and a surprising fruity aroma.
It was a great recommendation by Jessica, and I never tire of helpful bartenders who know their beer and want to make sure you enjoy what you’re drinking. As another staff member told me, “the training here was great; they really encouraged us to try the beers and get to know them.”
No wonder everyone seems to like working here.
Harpoon is a bona fide Boston institution. And one of the things I’ve always loved about this brewery – aside from the beer – is that despite its growth over the years, it’s maintained the character of a small, personal operation. Maybe that’s because I remember when Harpoon only made an IPA, and I got to watch as they expanded to seasonal varieties, complex specialty brews, even a cider. This wasn’t some multinational beer conglomerate opening a bottling plant in Boston one day, flooding the market with its product, and ramming marketing slogans down our throats. Harpoon started small, started here, and stayed local, even though their beers are now sold all over the country.
The Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall is just the latest step in that evolution. And while the space is grand, it remains humble of nature. It also remains a visitors’ center – there’s a gift shop to the left of the bar if you’re in the market for some Harpoon memorabilia, not to mention growlers and six packs of beer.
As part of the Friend of Harpoon promotion, our first two beers were on the house. After that, I think I paid $5.75; pretty standard. That awesome pretzel was also complimentary with our tickets, so I don’t know how much it will set you back. And while I really respect Harpoon’s desire to not compete with their neighbors by serving food, I hope that philosophy changes someday. With all these great beers on draft, it seems like the perfect opportunity for food/beer pairings. But food or no, I can’t think of a better place to enjoy my favorite Boston beer.
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