Harpoon Boston Brewery Tour Notes

Harpoon, the venerable South Boston brewer of Harpoon IPA (one of the few earning a solid four out of five from the Punks) and UFO (which earns somewhat lower marks but we’ll get into that in our next article on yeast) got it’s start in a bathtub in my own current home town of Brighton in western Boston. Maybe that’s why I’ve had a soft spot for them all this time and was greatly disappointed some months ago when I found that they offered no tours, only tastings.
After the ACBF last Saturday, I attended a session at my beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap and met Kate, a newcomer to the Bay State, who was also a fan of the brewery. We decided to take a trip out to see them. It wasn’t until I checked the times that I found they had finally starting offering not just tastings, but also tours as of April. Perfect timing!

The following weekend, after an arduous journey down town, including three transfers, a threat of thunderstorms, and a bitter cold wind that we were not prepared for, we arrived…and were promptly turned away, as they had just sold out the last tour. Defeated, we walked away from the brewery trying to figure out what to do now, when to our delight the guy at the door (our new best friend) chased us across the parking lot to inform us that they had just decided to run an extra tour that afternoon. Score one for Harpoon!

This was the first brewery tour I had been on since I started actively brewing, which I must say is a very different experience. In the past, being unfamiliar with brewing terms and the brewing process, I had a difficult time keeping up with everything and didn’t really absorb anything because there was too much new information to handle all at once; now having been engrossed in the process for so long, the terms were familiar, which left me with enough spare brain cells to actually think critically and ask questions.

The tour started out simply, with a typical overview. Taste the grains, smell the hops pellets, try politely not to laugh while the casual beer drinkers in the group taste the hops or cringe when the aroma burns their nostrils. This is the grain mill, that is the mash tun, then we lauter, boil, … None of this was anything I hadn’t seen before on other tours, or done on my own a dozen times. Then we descended to the floor, where we could see the lower parts of the conditioning tanks, and they did something I’ve never seen a tour guide do. They started pouring samples of the green beer.

For those who don’t know, “green” doesn’t refer to the color of the beer, it’s just what they call beer that hasn’t finished conditioning yet. This means it is the freshest beer you will ever drink; it hasn’t been filtered, it hasn’t been carbonated. It contains yeast, larger proteins and polyphenols, and possibly even some sediment from the spent hops and grains (though that seemed to have settled out of this particular sample). The reaction to this was even more dramatic than to the hops, with most of the participants actively seeking a trash can or bucket to spit into. It was nothing new to me, as I always sample what’s left over after bottling, and drink the samples I use for hydrometer readings (more on hydrometers in a later article). Frankly, it’s one of the things I love most about brewing, and something that until now you really had to be a brewer to experience.

But a few among the group did seem to enjoy the green beer, despite not being homebrewers (for the record, Kate was one of them). To anyone who takes the tour and likes the green beer, I recommend seeking out cask beers, which in many places are available (if at all) only at the finest beer-oriented bars, but are well worth the effort of finding. The only difference between the green beer served on the Harpoon tour and a properly served cask beer is that the flavor has matured slightly, and that cask beer is served warmer, at cellar temperatures in the fifties rather than the low thirties at Harpoon. Cask beers are among my favorite, so look for at least one later article singing their praises and explaining to you why on earth you’d ever want to drink your beer cloudy, warm, and flat.

Having passed the high point of the tour for me, they continued on to talk about how the beer is filtered, then force carbonated, and either bottled or kegged. Harpoon has two breweries, one in Boston the other in Vermont, apparently Boston is the only site with an automated kegging machine, so the Vermont brewery only kegs beer if needed to supply the tastings. The tour guide also related a story of how the mix packs are produced…apparently it is a manual process of filling boxes with two bottles of each variety, and occasionally takes place in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Finally convinced that a career in brewing was not for me…we moved on to the warehouse, which was quite a site to behold, two long rows of palates stacked over 30 feet high with cases of beer. The brewery had just had an event, apparently, but when fully stocked, one can walk down the aisle and touch beer on either side of them; quite a sight to behold, I’m sure.

After about a half hour on the tour, we were brought back up to where we started for a half hour tasting, just like the old days before they started giving tours. It was here, staring at the wide selection of beer, made from a single yeast strain, that the brewer in me started to wonder how they do it…they even make lager beers (like their Octoberfest and Munich Dark) with an ale yeast! This is homebrewing 101, match your yeast to the style you are brewing, people…

In my next article I will explore how they did exactly that, the advantages and limitations that a single yeast strain creates for the brewer, and finally why that has doomed the UFO series to such low esteem among us Punks.

Practical note: tours are only offered on the weekend and cost 5 dollars, 3 of which goes toward your tasting glass (which you can keep) the rest of which goes to charity. During the week no tours are offered, but there are free tastings, but no free glass. The brewery store also has lots of merchandise, though some is near heinously overpriced (fifty dollar hoodie anyone?), and you can also buy beer, cider, or soft drinks, including the somewhat rare Leviathin and 100 Barrel Series, and growlers of anything (I believe) they have on tap.