You don’t need me to tell you that the craft alcohol industry is on the rise. An interactive and consumer-friendly trade, brewing is the latest trend in innovation that everyone wants to be involved with. “Drinking Buddies” made the environment story fodder, social networks like Untappd encourage users to seek and share different drinks; here in Massachusetts we’ve even got our own craft beer scandal going on!
What’s more, breweries are embedding themselves in the social identity of their neighborhoods by opening taprooms and tasting rooms where patrons can drink locally, while making contact with the people behind the process. Brewery tours can be loaded with obscure information, and the majority of the population is still familiarizing themselves with ingredients and processes. Taprooms and tasting rooms, on the other hand, provide the same opportunities to interact with the company and participate in hand-to-hand commerce but as a lower commitment, social option. As they grow in popularity, new possibilities for community engagement, entertainment and customer outreach are being explored at local breweries.
Here’s a look at four of the Greater Boston Area’s more noteworthy taprooms and tasting rooms.
|The Upstart: Aeronaut Brewery – Union Square, Somerville|
Offering: Upwards of 10 taps, variety of styles.
Food: Rotating cast of food trucks parked outside.
Just outside Union Square, Aeronaut is building a revolution out of their massive warehouse. The high ceilinged room with taps and a bar forming an “L” in front of the brewing equipment opens out into a brick wall parking lot that acts as an outdoor congregation spot. Their attempts to engage their customers have led to movie screenings, partnerships with food trucks, and co-hosted events with Honk! fest, Brooklyn Boulders and more.
Aeronaut’s is the highly interactive community presence that is raising the bar for how brewers collaborate with customers. They tweet back, listen to suggestions, and wholeheartedly invest themselves in the experiences of their drinkers. The beer is only available at the brewery, giving truth to the nickname “the innovation hub,” which they share with a string of like-minded businesses on their property. Being the center of activity is the Aeronaut way, and their central focus on providing entertainment along with local business and culture keeps the experience fresh and exciting.
|The Mainstay: Harpoon Brewery – Seaport, Boston|
Offering: Standards (Harpoon IPA, their UFO series) plus seasonals and brewery-only projects.
Food: Soft pretzels with dipping sauces galore.
The Harpoon Beer Hall is under two years old, but the brand is ubiquitous around Boston and the taproom reflects that. Little information and lots of merchandising give the location a confident aura. History and background are better learned on the tour, considering that bartenders in the Hall rush to wait on large crowds. The long tables that fill the room are designed with large groups of guests and open conversation in mind. In the Hall, the beers are expected to speak for themselves, and the value of a visit is not necessarily in exploration. Case in point: it’s the only spot where my request for the bartender’s personal favorite was met with a blank stare. We eventually settled on the Irish Stout, but I couldn’t help get the impression that a discussion about how and why we liked the different beers wasn’t top priority.
Instead, the tasty pretzels and the panorama view of the Boston Seaport are a few of the main selling points of Harpoon’s Beer Hall. Regardless of its branded, relatively hands-off persona, it has greatly increased the potential for a meaningful experience at the brewery. Their website claims that it’s the “perfect place to enjoy beer with friends,” illustrating their dedication to providing a new, in-house drinking establishment for customers. I wouldn’t call it the “perfect” place, but it certainly provides a great option if your goal is to drink some Harpoon.
|The Workhorse: Night Shift Brewing – Everett|
Offering: At least 10 different beers with capacity for 24 — new styles weekly
Food: Bags of potato chips, plus nearby delivery options are advertised and encouraged
Night Shift have the element of geography working against them, but the difficulty of getting to Everett aside, they’ve taken leaps forward in the customer experience realm. When I posted a picture from the brewery on Instagram a friend commented, “Does this mean they moved out of the creepy garage space?” Sure enough, Night Shift expanded to a massive new facility this May, and they are quick to cite the desire to provide a better in-brewery experience as a factor in the move. The big new taproom has a back-porch feel, complete with light fixtures made of old bike wheels and picnic tables. The overall vibe is more relaxed than the high-octane buzz of Aeronaut or the intense branding at Harpoon.
“We’re trying to create a really close connection between the taproom and the brewery, and our consumers,” explained co-founder Michael Oxton, referring to the desire to foster a highly interactive environment. Brand loyalty and the value of the Night Shift experience are easy sells thanks to amicable bartenders, open views into the brewing floor and a cornhole court. The taps have new beers pouring weekly, and their year-long Barrel Society acts like a CSA to deal contributors with special oak-aged styles. With a weekly 5k fun run and intimate musical events, Night Shift also have a good grip on the kinds of events that make a taproom stand out above the neighborhood bar. While the brewery’s exile in the outer regions of the city makes being a regular tricky, the new taproom is a unique and connective experience that warrants numerous return trips.
|The Artisan: Bantam Cider – Union Square, Somerville|
Offering: A few standards with others rotating, seven in all.
Food: Free pretzel sticks in mason jars.
Craft cider is still building a buzz, but the refined class of the Bantam tasting room has all the hints of the potential of the industry. It’s hidden off the path in the sprawling outer range of Union Square, and inside there is a secretive energy. The room is selectively lit and the noise stays low and politely conversational. Standing among couples and small groups, I was led solo through a flight tasting of five ciders. As a primitive cider taster I was impressed by the way that discussing the flavor profiles and reading about the ingredients heightened my experience. The tasting room employee knowingly expressed that Bantam’s blends garner diverse reactions, saying, “In a group of five everyone will have a different flavor.”
I left knowing considerably more about how tastes expand in different ciders, and with a much stronger impression of the Bantam brand. The tasting room feels more like a destination spot than a casual stop-in. The product itself often provides a respite for adventurous or sweet-toothed beer drinkers, so it doesn’t seem unnatural that visiting has a different twist. A trip to Bantam’s tasting room is great for an initial exposure to the nuances of cider, and a refreshing aesthetic experience.