Boston: Drinking at Sam’s house

Our first steps in Boston were wet ones, which was fitting, because my girlfriend checked the weather the night before.

We had a free day and a desire to do something new, and we had never made the two-hour drive up from Connecticut. We decided we would wake up early, grab a coffee on the road, and go see Boston for a few hours. At the request of others, we’d tour the Sam Adams Brewery and find a good spot for lunch. I checked my iPhone.

“You know, it looks like nothing but rain for the next few days,” I said. “Tomorrow may not be the best day for this drive.” I knew those words wouldn’t pierce her enthusiasm for the trip, as her smile and energetic tone told me her mind was made up. We were going. To appease me, she checked the weather online.

Sam Adams, Boston

“Nope, rain shouldn’t be hitting Boston until 5 p.m. tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”

As the clouds of mist and water kicked up from behind the truck in front of us early the next morning – limiting my vision on 84-E to about 30 feet – I shot her an incredulous look.

We were long out of bed and blitzing through the downpour towards Boston, so there was no use for negativity or bitterness or resentment or burning rage or any other emotion someone could conjure up when they know they’ve been so sweetly manipulated. I decided to smile and maintain my oblivious and unfailing hope. “I hope it’s not raining in Boston,” I said. This one line would be my payback, the dull thorn I’d prick her with all … damn … day.

About 15 minutes outside of downtown, we pulled into Johnny’s Luncheonette, a diner in Newton, Mass. It’s an accomplished place, earning a bunch of awards from different publications as the “best breakfast in Boston.” On the front window were a pair of letters – K and Z – and if they were your initials, your meal was on the house. The letters change daily. We would be paying today.

As we ate, I peered over my girlfriend’s left shoulder and out the big glass window in front. At least the torrential rain made a neat pattern when it splashed off the pavement. We hopped into the convenience store next to the diner to purchase cheap umbrellas, hoping they’d offer a little cover should we find ourselves trying to fend of a barrage of droplets later on. We made a dash for the car. “I hope it’s not raining in Boston,” I said.

***

It cost me $22 to park underneath the TD Garden for the afternoon, but the convenience of being at the North End station on a bad weather day made it worth it. Quality and convenient shelter is the ultimate impulse buy, even more than the greasy late-night joint on the walk home from a bar. On this day, I would have paid $50 to park at the Garden.

We purchased tickets and waited for the Orange Line. It would take us past the downtown crossing, past the Back Bay, past Chinatown, and eventually drop us off at Ruggles. We’d climb onto a shuttle from there and go a few more stops, hopping off at Stony Brook, a couple minutes walk from Sam Adams.

People rushed in and off the trains, many of them exiting at downtown. I stared at the map of the train line above the person sitting across from me, mostly to avoid eye contact and an awkward situation that was inescapable for potentially three more train stops.

We were excited now. Even on a wet and sleepy day, as clouds hung low and the tops of downtown buildings stretched out of sight into the grey and dreary overhang, the city had an energy. My girlfriend bounced her knees as she awaited our stop. “I hope it’s not raining at Sam Adams,” I said.

***

Whatever I expected, this was not it. I expected a glamorous building with a big, bright sign saying, “WELCOME TO SAM ADAMS, HOME OF BOSTON LAGER.” Maybe the sign would have a golden ribbon painted across the top. Maybe there’d be a statue of Sam somewhere.

I imagined this place would have the feel of a city landmark, that it would be surrounded by space, allowing the brewery to stand high and stand alone. I imagined the buildings would be impossible to miss from a populated interstate. I imagined it would be the kind of place you could look at any time of the day and know, precisely, what was happening inside. This was not that.

The brewery was hidden, tucked into the back of a residential block. The old brick buildings looked more like a storage yard for battered Fords and clusters of spare parts waiting to be reassembled and rejuvenated. There was a sign, but it lacked the grandeur I anticipated. It had a portrait of Sam holding a mug, and it pointed left for tours and right for parking. It looked weathered; the bolts hinging it to the brick were rusted.

We joined the line inside, waiting for our ages to be vetted and our hands to be stamped. Inside, banners hung from the ceiling and glass cases showed off pieces of Sam history. One case had a wood sign on the top that read “Boston’s Brewing History,” and it displayed all of the bottled beer the brand had produced, including accompanying medals won for the brew. If Sam taught a summer school course titled “American History for the American Drinker,” this case would be the curriculum.

A few minutes later our tour began, and John directs us. He looks late 20s, has a beard, and is wearing a Red Sox cap backwards and titled up on his forehead, allowing strands of brown hair to peek out of the front. John took us into a room with three barrels holding the multi-grains that are used to make Boston Lager. The majority of the grains used are different kinds of malted barley, and we talked about the main ones – Caramel 60, pale malt and chocolate malt.

John explained the delicacies of each grain and their purpose, how they give color and body and flavor to the beer, and he also debunked small beer myths as we went. “Many people mistake color for thickness in a beer,” John says. “But it has nothing to do with it. Color doesn’t indicate thickness. The amount of grain in a beer is what gives it thickness.” He passed around cups of the grains so we could taste them.

John preaching beer wisdom.

Next was an experiment with hops. John told us how hops create the bitterness you taste on the back of your palate, and they also add to the beer’s aroma. A cup of hops – an official definition: slightly sticky, green, leafy things – was passed around, and we were instructed to crush them in our hands. I dumped a small batch into my palms, and then started sliding them in opposite directions, like a ball of dough being massaged into an elongated string. Crushing the hops releases the dust and flavor, and my palms instantly reeked of an intense pine. The disintegrated leafs left a tackiness on my skin.

After John explained how yeast was the last ingredient used – water breaks down the grains, and the yeast feeds off the released fermentable sugars, producing alcohol – we moved on to the part of the factory that housed the big brewing barrels. Big metal tanks holding an impossible amount of beer – if you drank a pint every day for 20 years, you still wouldn’t empty these tanks, John told us — surrounded us. John says Sam Adams makes about two million barrels of beer a year, and the majority of it comes from this factory in Boston, as it is primarily a kegging facility. They ship the kegs to restaurants and festivals. Bottled Sam comes from factories in Pennsylvania and Cincinnati.

John continued his educational speech about how exactly the beer was brewed, in what order the ingredients were entered, how often they were added to the mixture, and so on. We listened, I jotted a few notes. But John could read us. He was smart and had a surprising wit, the jagged edge of his subtle humor. He knew it was a Saturday and most people – OK, everybody – was here to drink. We were here to try some Sams, to sit and talk about the cold beers as they scurried down the back of our throats.

“OK, enough of this,” John said. “Who’s READY FOR SOME HAND-CRAFT, AWARD-WINNING, BOSTON BEER???” There were a few more words sprinkled in there, but I didn’t catch them all. I wondered why he was yelling. Maybe he could sense outside it was a day meant for sleeping not drinking, and he wanted to pump us up. Maybe he was like a coach, willing his players to perform. Maybe he had slugged back a few hand-craft, award-winning, Boston beers before our tour began.

Who knows? But he was ready to pour He was ready to drink.

***

“Hi, y’all mind if we join you,” my girlfriend asked.

“We’d love you to,” Andy said. We sat down in the two seats on the other side of the skinny wood table. Andy, a younger man with a round face and easy nature, reached out. We shook hands. He was accompanied by a petite blonde, Lauren, with hair cropped a few inches above her shoulders. They were up for the weekend from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Andy runs a bar called Tap 42. There was a craft beer festival at the convention center in Boston during the weekend, and Andy and his partner were there to taste and mingle, while Lauren took notes and passed out business cards.

“We went craft beer tasting yesterday, started at the Harpoon brewery at 1,” Andy said with a glowing joy. “We drank all day. It was awesome. My partner is still in bed.”

As we small-chatted, Mike, another dude who works at the factory, began filling pitchers of Boston Lager, the first beer we would be tasting. John passed around mini Sam Adams glasses. “Boston Beer Week 2012” was printed in white on the side. The glasses were ours to take home. “The Lager is first up,” John said as he moved around the room setting down frosty dark pitchers. “Sharing is caring.”

Mike filling pitchers in the tasting room.

We resisted the urge to chug, as John cautioned against it. He taught us the delicacies of not drinking beer, but tasting it. Let it wash over the front of your tongue like a tide rolling in, tasting the sweetness, and then note the bitterness as it pulls back and you drink. It’s a dance that the professionals do. I practiced this technique for two pulls, appreciating the simplicity of the act and the complexities of the beer that it drew out. And then I looked at my glass half-full and finished it.

Lighter pitchers with oranges and yellows mixed in began circling the room, and John explained the intricacies of the Summer Ale. “This is what my dad drinks when I come over to mow his grass,” he says. It’s a cold beer with a floral finish, something refreshing for the warmer days. It’s punctuated with heaps of lemon zest, added at the end of the brewing process to give the drink a light zing at the end. Summer Ales are best out of glass bottles that leave your fingertips chilled and moist by the poolside.

Finally, our pitchers were exchanged with fresh ones of Latitude 48 IPA, a dark wood-colored creation. “I call it Ratitude 48,” John quips. Andy takes the pitcher and fills the four small glasses at our table. We lift them to our noses and inhale. By now, the beer tasting education had put us in a trance. We were sniffing the fluid like it’s some erotic potion we’ve never come across before. I felt like one of Pavlov’s pups.

The “Ratitude” was the most bitter beer of the three we tasted. John said this IPA is a 60 IBU (International Bitterness Units), and it’s about as high as he would go for IPA. “Some are more bitter than this, but after 80 or 90 IBU, it’s just a pissing contest,” he says. “You’re just wasting your hops.”

We finished the IPA, and John went into his closing speech. Flyers for places to find local beer filtered around the room, and instructions on where to purchase more Sam Adams were dispensed. “If you need hotel beer, beer to drink by yourself tonight, we’re not here to judge, we’re here to help you,” John said. “But unfortunately I can’t serve you more beer here. It’s not my call. That’s just the man keeping you down.”

I shook hands with Andy, who told us of a couple bars downtown we should hit. Another time, we said. We were headed to lunch and then home. Lauren handed my girlfriend a business card. They told us to make our way to Fort Lauderdale and stop in on them at Tap 42.

My girlfriend purchased a Sam Adams t-shirt to commemorate the trip. I thought about buying a cheap pitcher and then realized I would have to install a tap in my apartment to really make the $8 purchase worth it. (*Googling “How to install taps at home.”*)

I was ready to make my “I hope it’s not raining at lunch” joke, but I waited until we walked outside. A deep grey still lingered over the brewery, but the rain had faded into a mist. I didn’t even need my umbrella.

You can reach me at tm4000@yahoo.com and find me on Twitter here.

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