Cambridge Brewing Company

From the Source by | May 2014 | Issue #88

Photo by Taylor Seidler

Phil Bannatyne had a problem. It was April 1st, 1989, a day he’d planned to spend welcoming the first guests to his new brewpub, the Cambridge Brewing Company. Unfortunately, his stainless vessels hadn’t arrived on time. In the end, they wound up being four weeks late. Which meant that after spending the better part of two years preparing for a grand opening, he now had two choices: inform everyone who arrived that (seriously) there was no beer, or try to dodge the increasingly impatient phone calls from his landlord for the next month.

He decided to serve lunch. And for some reason, against the odds, customers waited until May for their first taste of Cambridge Amber, Charles River Porter and Regatta Golden. “The Cambridge market was more food-centric than I had planned,” Bannatyne remembers, “and the kitchen was an important piece of the puzzle.”

Inspired by the successes of Bay Area breweries Buffalo Bill’s and Triple Rock, Bannatyne, a New Englander by birth, moved back to the East Coast in the late 1980s with the intention of getting into the beer business. The space he could afford turned out to be in a historic mill in Kendall Square, a stone’s throw from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Built in 1890, it had previously been part of the Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Company’s 15-acre manufacturing plant. He had some experience running a small business, had taken some brewing classes at UC Davis, and figured that opening within walking distance of a major university all but guaranteed a steady stream of thirsty customers.

“But these kids didn’t necessarily drink that much,” he says with some bemusement, “they studied.”

Fortunately for Bannatyne, curiosity slowly got the best of his neighbors, and the Cambridge Brewing Company began to gain a reputation as the place for beer in Greater Boston, particularly after Darryl Goss joined the company as head brewer in 1990. Goss would stay with the business for six years, earning the most praise for his Triple Threat, a gold medal winner at the 1992 Great American Beer Festival and the first commercially produced Belgian-style ale in the United States. By that point, the little brewpub had also added a Pale Ale, an IPA, a Hefeweizen with German yeast, as well as Great Pumpkin Ale, the first modern example of its kind in New England, to its lineup.

And then, in 1993, an eager 24-year-old employee of a nearby homebrew shop turned up looking for work.

Innovation, and a New Motivation
“Prior to that, I’d been a pretty obsessive homebrewer,” explains Will Meyers, CBC’s brewmaster. “I spent my days off driving to places like Harpoon and [now-defunct] Catamount volunteering and begging for a job.”

Remarkably, his strategy paid off, and Bannatyne hired Meyers as assistant brewer, a low-paying position that involved lots of cleaning and sanitizing. He learned fast though, and together with Goss began brewing a wide range of styles that few, if any other American breweries would try to do for years. From Ryes and Rauchbiers to Saisons and even a Sahti, the two pushed the envelope, working off of what they’d tasted and heard about, since “there was virtually no printed information available on how to brew these beers,” says Meyers.

“We got to play around with lots of different yeast strains,” he continues. “It was pretty extraordinary. Lots of restrictions didn’t apply to us. In 1994, we attempted to brew our interpretation of a Finnish Sahti,” with rye and juniper berries. “That ended up being a tough sell.”

But people continued to come back for more, and Meyers continued to hone his craft, so when Goss moved on to another brewpub in southern New Hampshire, Meyers stepped into the role of head brewer. Since then, he has charted an inventive course, picking up numerous accolades en route. He’s cultivated a world-class barrel program in the cramped confines beneath the 150-seat dining area, branched out into sours, wild fermentation and blending well before many other breweries around the country, and collaborated with sake brewer Todd Bellomy to create a beer-sake hybrid called Banryu Ichi.

“Day by day, I’m focusing on quality and working more closely than ever with farmers,” Meyers says. “There’s always room for improvement.”

In the early aughts, Bannatyne began sourcing more ingredients from local purveyors. From much of the produce and protein on the menu to some of the malt, hops and adjuncts in the beer, CBC has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to supporting regional agriculture. “Quality improves with a whole lot of hard work, and in turn, that attracts customers who appreciate that quality and employees who identify with it,” Bannatyne explains.

Megan Parisi was one such addition, a former clarinetist who started out washing kegs and filling growlers before working her way up to become lead brewer in 2006. “One of my favorite memories is more like a favorite ritual experience,” she says. “We would gather a small group of friends to pick fresh heather flowers with which to brew our award-winning Heather Ale on the following day. The ritual of flower picking was followed by lobster rolls and a trip to the beach, weather permitting. This was always the favorite work day of the entire year.”

Investing in People
Beyond their dedication to producing better food and drink, Meyers and Bannatyne have also fostered the growth of their employees, mentoring younger brewers who have gone on to find their own success in the industry. Ben Howe founded Enlightenment Ales and is now head brewer at Idle Hands Craft Ales in Everett, Mass.; Brad Smisloff’s career took him to the Napa Valley Brewing Company in Calistoga, Calif.; Parisi spent time with Bluejacket Brewery in DC before ending up at Wormtown Brewery with Ben Roesch, another CBC alum; and Kevin O’Leary plans to launch his brewery, Ardent Craft Ales, later this year in Virginia. For the better part of two decades, Meyers has offered challenges, encouragement and words of wisdom. And in some cases, he’s gone even further to help.

Roesch only stayed about a year as a member of the team, then bounced around a few other Massachusetts breweries for a while, eventually ending up back in his native Worcester, where he launched Wormtown in 2010. When he realized he needed a second pump for his new brewery but couldn’t afford the last-minute expense, he went to his former boss for advice.

“I called Will the next day, and he said they actually had an old vorlauf pump in the basement. He told me we’d work it out later,” Roesch recalls. “To tell you the truth, I probably still owe him for it.”

But for Meyers, who’s received acclaim for experimental releases such as Arquebus, a “summer” Barleywine designed to present and taste like a sweet dessert wine, better beer has always been about better people. “I’m proud of the numerous awards we’ve received, but that’s not our driving force,” he says. “It means something to be a part of CBC. The brew staff? They’re all great people who have really contributed a lot.”

“All of this takes work and heart,” adds Bannatyne, “and sometimes I see myself as a cheerleader, keeping everybody on point. But I never once thought the brewpub thing was a fad.”

10-barrel brewhouse
– 6 10-bbl fermentors
– 3 15-bbl fermentors
– 3 10-bbl bright tanks
– 4 15-bbl bright tanks
– 1 8-bbl bright tank
– 1 500-liter sake tank

What’s On Tap
Arquebus: Barleywine brewed with local honey and Viognier grapes, and aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels. 14% ABV
Benevolence: Strong Ale meets Sour Red with eight malts, aged hops and a secondary fermentation in bourbon barrels. 10% ABV
Cerise Cassée: American Sour Ale solera aged with sour cherries, blended with batches up to nine years old. 9% ABV
Flower Child: American IPA dry hopped with six West Coast varieties. 6.5% ABV
Heather Ale: Gruit brewed with sweet gale, yarrow, lavender and heather. 5% ABV
Triple Threat: Classic Belgian-style Triple, and the first Belgian-style beer brewed in the US. 10% ABV
YouEnjoyMyStout: Big, bold, oak-aged Russian Imperial Stout. 10.5% ABV 

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