As American beer brewing emerges from the very long shadow of prohibition, more and more so-called “craft brew” is appearing daily in American barrooms and liquor stores. It’s hard not to notice them – beers accompanied by wild artwork, handmade tap handles and descriptors like “India Pale Ale”, “Dubbel” and “Russian Imperial Stout”. It’s also hard not to be intrigued watching the brews poured into glasses in shades of deep gold, amber and black. Every day there are more choices, more brands, and more surprises waiting to be experienced. The market is expanding, opening up to accommodate this stampede of beers. Most importantly, the people are coming to know and enjoy the myriad of flavors and aromas that can be achieved through the art of craft brewing.

 

This so-called “craft brew revolution” has launched a thousand breweries, each of them striving to be the best. Standing in the way of their leap into the national cooler are the forces of competition, a long-cultivated light pilsner mainstream, and the near-monopolistic dominance of the big boys in distribution and advertising. Many breweries see these obstacles not as limitations however, but as opportunities. They see a chance to take an interest in their surroundings – to form strong bonds with their local communities. Through tours, tastings, festivals, tap takeovers, local sponsorship and philanthropy; many small breweries have become important, beloved members of the cities, towns and neighborhoods in which they reside.

 

 

Boston’s Harpoon Brewery a business that has realized that, like politics, all beer is local. Harpoon Brewery is the brainchild of Rich Doyle and Dan Kenary. The pair were friends in college, and traveled to Europe afterward. They discovered a beer culture buoyed by strong brewing traditions like those of the Bavarians and the Trappists. This was in stark contrast to a US beer culture still stunted and traumatized by the unfortunate saga of prohibition. Doyle and Kenary returned and decided something needed to be done. They incorporated Harpoon Brewery in 1986, hired brewer Russ Heissner, and introduced Harpoon Ale in 1987. Harpoon was famously granted Massachusetts brewing permit #001, as it was the first facility to brew and bottle beer commercially in Boston after a drought of about 25 years.

 

 

28 years later, Harpoon is a major fixture in Boston, known both for its selection of quality beers and its neighborly presence in its city of origin. Harpoon has expanded significantly since its founding, purchasing a second brewing facility in Windsor, Vermont, and a warehouse in Woburn, MA. Harpoon currently sells about 200,000 bbls (US beer barrels, a unit of measurement equal to 31 gallons) of beer a year, which is enough for more than 66 million twelve-ounce servings. The beer is distributed in kegs, bottles and cans to 26 states. Despite Harpoon’s significant growth, Doyle and Kenary – still both with Harpoon – have made it a major point to keep the brewery grounded and approachable. This principle is exemplified by the Boston brewery’s beer hall.

 

 

Opened in February 2013, the beer hall is situated at the front of the brewery; behind a long window offering picturesque views of both the brewery’s South Boston dock environs, and the city skyline above the harbor. The seating is communal, as is the atmosphere. Long trestle tables of lacquered New England wood proudly bear their grains, knots and natural contours under iron rings of light suspended from the rafters. The entire space is a concerted effort to minimize distraction and impersonal behavior – a goal to which the absence of televisions, jukeboxes, arcade games and vending machines attests. In the beer hall the people matter – as well as the Harpoon beer – of which there are some twenty varieties on tap, including a number that are served exclusively at the brewery. As a complement to the beer, Harpoon serves golden-brown pretzels that are made with, and boiled in, Harpoon IPA. The pretzels can be had with a variety of delectable dipping sauces, including bacon ranch, IPA & cheese and red pepper aioli, along with some rotating seasonal selections.

 

 

Charlie Storey – the senior vice president of marketing for Harpoon Brewery – was kind enough to show Stonewash Magazine another big way that Harpoon stays transparent: their brewery tours and tastings. For $5, visitors can take a walk through the brewery and see every step of the process, from mash to bottling. A catwalk system was installed in early 2013, enabling tours to be led while the brewery is in full swing (“It’s just pots and pans,” said Storey, on tours of non-operational breweries). Harpoon has given over 114,000 tours to date, and along with the tour, guests are invited to sample a number of fresh beers on tap, putting a delicious cap on the whole process.

 

 

 

 

 

The former shipbuilding facility that houses Harpoon is separated into several zones. There are keg cleaning-and-filling machines, bottling lines, a cannery section and more. The main attraction however is the brewhouse, where a distinctive barley aroma permeates the air. It is here – in this maze of piping, heat exchangers, centrifugal pumps, steam lines, top-mounted agitators, pressure indicators and stainless steel vessels – where the magic happens. In a nutshell, brewing proceeds more or less as follows:

 

 

 

Grains (mostly malted barley, but sometimes oats, wheat and rye) are milled and “mashed” in hot water at a certain temperature for one to two hours – which converts their starches to sugars. The “wort”, or sugar-water solution that results, is then boiled for one to two hours, with hops added during the boil to provide bitterness, flavor and aroma. The wort is then cooled and yeast is added. The wort is stored in a cool place while the yeast ferment the sugars, converting them into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and making the concoction into the actual beer. After several weeks the beer is carbonated, filtered (optional) and bottled.

 

 

To watch several of these stages proceeding at once is fascinating, especially on Harpoon’s large, modern equipment. Sight glasses and ports allow tour-takers to literally look into tanks containing 120 bbls (3720 gallons) of hot mash. There is also a 10 bbl brewhouse, where Harpoon brewers do research and development. “They love all the experimentation that goes on,” said Storey. However, it’s not all fun and games, as the two-vessel brewhouse, unlike the main system, must be cleaned by hand.

 

 

Nestled back behind the brewhouse is the tasting room – a hallowed space where the tour-takers have the opportunity to try up to 12 of Harpoon’s brews. The tasting room is an important symbol of Harpoon’s outlook, and has been instrumental in “Welcoming beer lovers here and getting them to know the brewery and sharing what we do with our customers,” according to Storey. Displayed behind the bar are 22 oz bottles of beer from Harpoon’s 100 Barrel Series – a line of single-edition releases that allow brewers, and sometimes even homebrew contest winners, to express themselves outside of the established product lines. Fan and brewery favorites have been repeated in the series, and a few deserving brews, like Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA, have been incorporated into the seasonal or year-round lineups.

 

 

Harpoon also has its own laboratory, well equipped and staffed by dedicated chemists. Here, the brewery’s proprietary yeast is cultivated and nurtured to health. Quality control is also done in the lab, the chemists using a combination of scientific and subjective methods to ensure consistency across the vast volume of beer that is sent out of the door every year. The pride of the lab is the gas chromatograph, which allows the chemists to determine a given batch of beer’s composition down to the parts per million.

 

 

After the tour, Stonewash Magazine spoke with Charlie Storey about Harpoon Brewery and his perspectives on the company’s place in the revolution. Storey was friends with Rich Doyle and Dan Kenary in college, and joined Harpoon as a sales manager in 1996. Storey became senior VP of Marketing over a decade ago, and he has had a hand in Harpoon’s strategy for quite some time. Storey seemed at ease with his brand, and was clearly not concerned with saturating the social media, making splashes through advertising, or engaging in expansionism. “We think we’ve expanded geographically as far as makes sense. To get further afield we’d need another brewery to the west,” he said, noting that Harpoon is striving to grow within the territories where it is already present. Storey did not have anything but respectful words for Sam Adams – Harpoon’s biggest and most famous competitor. On the sale of Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch – an event that rankled, worried and saddened many in the craft beer community of Chicago and beyond – Storey merely expressed that transparency is important. “If you don’t know that background and buy Goose Island, there’s no indication that it’s an AB product. For me that’s a little bit of deception by omission.”

 

 

Mostly, Storey focused on the ways in which Harpoon has built, and continues to build reputation and character in the community. In addition to the new beer hall and catwalk tours, there are longer traditions. These include the many events and festivals – including the long-running Harpoon Octoberfest – that the brewery puts on locally and nationwide. There is also Harpoon Helps – Harpoon’s charitable organization, which has been doing well in the area since 2003. In August, Harpoon Brewery cemented its independence by transferring ownership not to a multi-national beverage corporation, but to its employees. It is clear that in its 28 years, Harpoon Brewery has worked hard to become a local luminary with a very familiar face. “Love Beer. Love Life. Harpoon.” Is the brewery’s slogan, and it has come mean enjoying not just the beverage, but also the entire experience surrounding it. The people that one is with, the spirit of the environment one is in, a sense of community, the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the beer in the glass was made ethically and with care – these are the things that Harpoon believes make a positive drinking experience.

 

 

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Storey said. “Just because we have high-quality equipment, high-powered testing technology, doesn’t mean our beer’s better. Because, what determines if a beer’s good or not is if people like drinking it… There’s no brewery in Massachusetts that’s got the ability to welcome people the way we do – with our festivals, with this beer hall, with our tours. So people can really come and get to know us and interact, feel like they’ve seen behind the scenes, they really know who we are.” This familiarity and level of comfort is designed to create a real relationship with the community – one that goes beyond the usual producer-consumer equation. It is a guiding principle for beer production, and business strategy – that seems to working quite well. “That original founding idea behind Harpoon, to make great beer and share it with the local community,” Storey said. “That is… Yeah, that definitely informs all of the things that we do.”

 

Written By: David Sano

 

www.harpoonbrewery.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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