Beer in Boston, A Brief History

by: BeerAdvocate on 07-18-2001
Beer's role in American history is a long and passionate one. Beer first arrived on American soil with the settling of the first English colonists. In fact, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 1620 and established the first English colony in Massachusetts because of beer. The ship that was hired by the Pilgrims was quickly running out of beer. If the ship's crew didn't drop of its passengers at Plymouth, it would have been a dry and sober voyage home. In the words of a diarist aboard the Mayflower, "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beere." (Many historians, and the like, are skeptical of this claim, however it has become a tolerated theory of late. Probably, because it's true but left out of the history books for political reasons.)

Then came the Puritans. Despite their historically being tight-assed overzealous freaks, we residents of the Commonwealth owe them a hell of a lot of beer kudos. During the early to mid 1600's they kept close tabs on tavern scene. In 1634, they licensed the first publick house (where ale was made and served on the premise -- the only real place to get local beer at the time). In 1637, Mr. Robert Sedgewick was made Captain for Charlestown and given license to brew beer for the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay (the first issued license to brew in America). And in 1651, the Puritans specified exactly what quantity of "good barley mault" must go into the brewing of beer to ensure that taverns were serving good beer, else the local populace might spend their money on wine.

Before and after the Revolutionary War (1700's) much of the beer in Boston was still being produced out of public houses or being homebrewed. The "alewife" made her debut in America by homebrewing all of the obtainable beer during this period -- throughout the history of brewing, women have always played a crucial role in beer.

In the 1800's, Boston was known as one of the premiere meccas of beer in America, boasting scores of breweries and crafted beers throughout the booming industrial age -- even more so with the advent of commercially produced ice (aiding in lagering beer) and the steam engine (aiding in nearly every aspect of running a brewery). 22 breweries were built between 1870 and 1890. By 1890 Boston was home to 27 breweries!

There were certainly more, however the following time line illustrates known brewery opening & closing dates1 -- from the very first to present day -- and facts of importance within the Greater Boston Area. We hope that this will give you some idea of the rich brewing history that is in your neighborhood, right under your feet and at your lips every time you take a sip of beer without thought.

1796 - 1814 West Boston Brewery
The first brewery in the Boston Area, run by Andrew Dunlop.

1821 - 1918 Bunker Hill / Van Nostrand's Brewery (Charlestown)

1828 - 1957 Boston Beer Co. (Boston)
No relation to the Boston Beer Co. that produces Samuel Adams, however it held the record for the oldest operating brewery in America.

1850 - 1918 Burkhardt Brewing Co. (Roxbury)
Brewers of Red Sox Beer and Pennant Ale for the Red Sox 1912 championship series.

185? - 1903 Frank Jones Brewing Co. (originally Bay State Brewery) (Boston)

1852 - Prohibition passed in Massachusetts (repealed in 1868)

1857 - 1918 H&J Plaff Brewing Co. (Roxbury / Jamaica Plains)
Today, home to the Roxbury Community College.

1867 - 1918 Reuter & Co. / Highland Springs Brewery (Roxbury)

1869 - Prohibition returns. (repealed in 1875)

1886 - 1918 Alley Brewing Co. (Roxbury / Jamaica Plains)
Now home to Hampden Automotive.

1870 - 1918 A.J. Houghton Co. / Vienna Brewery (Roxbury)
One of the first breweries to use artificial refrigeration.

1870 - 1964 Haffenreffer & Co. / Boylston Brewery (Jamaica Plains)
One of the largest brewing empires to date, brewing the famous Haffenreffer and Pickwick beers. Haffenreffer is now brewed by Narragansett Brewing Co., Indiana.

1884 - 1902 Robinson Brewing Co. / Rockland Brewery (Jamaica Plains)

1891 - 1934 American Brewing Co. (Roxbury)

1893 - 1911 Union Brewing Co. (Roxbury)

1896 - 1899 Roxbury Brewing Co. (Roxbury)

1897 - 1906 Puritan Brewing Co. (Charlestown)

1898 - 190? Franklin Brewing Co. (Jamaica Plains)
Now home to Larkin Movers.

1906 - 1940 Commercial Brewing Co. (formerly Puritan) (Charlestown)
The last brewery to operate in Charlestown until Tremont Brewery's opening in 1994.

1920 - Prohibition strikes America, again. (repealed in 1933)

1933 - 1953 Croft Brewing Co. (Roxbury)
Ex-Rueter & Alley / Highland Spring Brewery brewmaster, Walter J. Croft, re-opens brewery. Produces Narragansett until 1976.

1964 - Haffenreffer brews the last beer in Boston. After 300 years of brewing history, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found itself without an operating brewery.

1978 - Homebrewing made federally legal in the United States.

1982 - The brewpub is born. Breweries are now allowed to serve food.

1984 - ???? Boston Beer Co. / Samuel Adams (Jamaica Plains)
Jim Koch, a sixth-generation brewer, reintroduces beer to Boston with Samuel Adams Lager via a contract brewer. In February 1985, sales totaled only 25 cases. In June, Sam Adams Boston Lager was selected "The Best Beer in America" at the Great American Beer Festival (the country's largest beer festival). In 1998 the old Haffenreffer brewery in JP is purchased and turned into their R&D facility and beer museum.

Today, Jim is worth something crazy ... like 300 million dollars.

1986 - 2002 Commonwealth Fish & Beer Co. (formerly The Commonwealth Brewing Co.) (Boston)
Boston's first brewpub, established in 1986, and proving grounds for many a green brewer. Head brewer Jeff Charnick is truly a master of English-style and cask ales.

Sadly, CF&BC are currently owned by Joe Quattrocchi (a.k.a The Brewpub Disemboweler), the man responsible for closing Back Bay Brewing Company, changing Commonwealth's name and closing down Commonwealth Brewing Co. in NYC. If he has his way, America will lose one of its earliest brewpubs and a great contribution to the brewing industry.

Current head brewer: Jeff Charnick

1986 - ???? Mass Bay Brewing Co. / Harpoon Brewery (Boston)
The Harpoon Brewery was founded by three Harvard classmates. The Brewery started with founders Rich Doyle and two of his friends and one employee (a brewer); today there are over 50 employees. Harpoon Ale was the first commercially brewed and bottled beer in Boston since the last in 1964. In 1998, Harpoon purchased the rights to brew the Pickwick brand.

1989 - ???? Cambridge Brewing Co. (Cambridge)
Founded in 1989, the Cambridge Brewing Company is one of the original brewpubs in the country (the Boston area's second). Will Meyers takes over as head brewer in 1997, and continues to brew incredible beers with impeccable attention to style authenticity while also applying his own twist.

Current head brewer: Will Meyers

1992 - ???? Boston Beer Works / Fenway (Boston)
Slesar brothers Joe and Steve create a brewing machine. One year later, Boston Beer Works is one of the largest producing brewpubs in America. Its outstanding brewing crew usually produces well over a dozen beers to select from, all of which are pretty kick-ass potent and delicious.

Current head brewer: Jodi Andrews

1992 - ???? John Harvard's Brew House (Cambridge)
Brewmaster Tim Morse and co-owner Grenville Byford open up shop in Harvard Square. There are now 11 John Harvard's Brew Houses across the East Coast.

Current head brewer: Geoff Bisschop

1993 - 2001 Tremont Brewery (South Boston)
Opened in 1994, brewing only their Tremont Ale on draft and Best Bitter on cask producing only 500bbls for local accounts. Now they are busting at the seems an up over 2000's 7100bbls for the year. News of their brewery closing in the near future and maxing out capacity has sent rumours throughout the industry. However, rest assured that we will continue to see much more from Tremont, although it will be contract brewed for the time being. Plans for a new brewing facility and brewpub have been mentioned, and are anticipated by their fans.

Head brewer was: Chris Lohring

The Charlestown brewery was closed in 2001, at which point they became a beer marketing company with all beer coming out of Utica, NY by Matt's. They eventually sold the brand to Shipyard.

1994 - ???? Rock Bottom (Boston) -- previously Brew Moon
The first in this brewpub chain. In 2000, they filed Chapter 11 and the multi-million dollar Rock Bottom Breweries purchased their New England breweries. Rock Bottom keeps the Brew Moon brand and its brewers.

Current head brewer: Gerry O'Connell

1995 - 2000 Back Bay Brewing Co. (Boston)
Closed and turned into yet another Back Bay chi-chi breeding ground. Their respected head brewer, Tod Mott, is out on the streets and their brewery disemboweled.

1996 - ???? launched
Two homebrewing brothers decide to share their passion and knowledge of beer and to spread the goodness of beer to the masses, especially beer in Boston.

1996 - 1997 Fort Hill Brewing Co. (Boston)
This short lived brewpub was also one of the smallest. They produced some pretty decent beers, but closed down shortly after the Big Dig moved into their front yard. We're not positive but we speculate their demise as a direct result of the construction and the horrible attitude within Fort Hill's management staff.

1996 - ???? Rock Bottom (Cambridge) -- previously Brew Moon
The third in the Brew Moon chain of brewpubs opens in Harvard Square. Incredible brews get crafted under its atrium-like building, most notably their cranberry and/or blueberry lambics, cask ales and award winning Munich Gold.

Current head brewer: Scott Hutchinson

1996 - ???? Watch City Brewing Co. (Waltham)
Steady and successful, WCBC just celebrated their fifth year of brewing a slew of different beer styles, and many experimental surprises. Definitely check out this brewpub.

Current head brewer: Aaron Mateychuk

1996 - 2002 North East Brewing Co. (Allston)
NEBC opens and shortly after head brewer Dann Paquette brings classic ales and just some of the best damn beer you'll ever have to the area. He's a master of the Belgian-style and makes an incredible Oak Cask-Conditioned Whiskey Porter (aged in Jack Daniels barrels). True craftsmanship at work.

Head brewer was: Dann Paquette (now in England)

2001 - ???? Boston Beer Works / North Station (Boston)
Possibly the largest brewpub (in people capacity at least) this side of the Mississippi opens its doors with two floors of beer fun.

2001 - 2002 Quincy Ships (Quincy)
Tod Mott, former head brewer of Back Bay Brewing Co. finds a new home. Brewing is now in full-force and we encourage everyone to pay Quincy Ships a visit.

Current head brewer: Tod Mott

Support Local Beer!
We speculate that it was in the past, but the current Greater Boston Area brewing community is a friendly and tight-knit one. Nearly all the brewers in the area have worked for one brewery or another and to this day most of the breweries continue to give guidance and aid as needed to each other. Hence the term "brewing community."

Unfortunately the support within Boston's brewing community is hardly reflected by the majority of its consumers. Even though beer has been described by many as the top beverage in Boston, most people haven't a clue as to Boston's vast brewing history, nor can they name the areas breweries and brewpubs, let alone pay a visit to them. They take local beer for granted and never think twice about what they drink -- quick to fall for trendy adverts by mass-produced beer companies and mega-importers, setting aside local beer for mediocre beer with false appeal. All of this beer ignorance could very well drive our local breweries and brewpubs out of business and allow the bigger breweries to rule the shelves and kill the flavour of beer in Boston.

How can you help? It a tough market out there, but you can start by supporting local beer. Show your interest by visiting any one of the breweries or brewpubs in the area. Many breweries and brewpubs offer tours and tastings, or are more than happy to talk to you. These occasions can be extremely informative and fun. Buy local beer. Most brewpubs also offer growlers to go, so you can take a big jug of fresh local beer home. Sure local beer might be a $1-$2 more, but if you break it down that 25-35+/- cents extra a beer will make all the difference, from the taste and character of the beer to expanding your overall beer knowledge and giving critical support to the local brewing community. Speak up! Tell your local brewery and brewpub how much you love their beer and what a great service they are doing.

Notable mentions and sources:
1Huge thanks to Chris Lohring of Tremont for their "The Lost Brewery Tour" guide, where the older brewery names and dates were obtained from. Without Tremont's help this article would not have happened in time.

Thanks also goes out to the rest of the Greater Boston Area brewing scene for their continued support and contributions. We, the BeerAdvocates, owe you everything ...

Please note that all facts are as accurate as we could get them before our deadline. Corrections and any other beer history information can be emailed to us.
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