If residents of the East Coast are colored in one cliché by non-residents, it’s their abruptness. But that seeming rudeness is actually more nuanced, a culture affectation laden with beautiful sarcasm and a need for efficiency. Taken literally, it can be off-putting. Taken in context (as most long-time citizens of the region will testify), it’s the best damn approach to communicating. And Boston may be the best example. What can be initially off-putting quickly translates into a conversational bear hug that’s loud and loquacious, gregarious and in-your-face, delivered with sarcasm and humor that rides on a deep river of sincerity, often accompanied by a wide smile and friendly slap on the back. Want evidence? Spend one hour chatting with Red Socks fans in the standing-room-only section of Fenway Park. Even Yankees fans might find a touch of camaraderie.
It’s also an apt description for Boston’s beverage scene—one many locals describe simply as “a bar town.” And the city delivers that in spades, from legions of Irish bars that speak to the city’s immigrant heritage to dock workers grabbing a few after clocking out to local bars that offer a shot and a can of beer without a touch of hipster irony, served with a hearty dose of that in-your-face playful shit-talking. No-nonsense bars have populated practically every corner of Boston for decades—which is perhaps why the city also houses some of the first true pioneers in the American craft beer scene as well as high-end cocktail establishments, upstart micro-breweries with cult followers, and more than a few killer spots to toss back a few while enjoying the cityscape—at least when the city isn’t covered in feet of snow.
Here’s a primer for diving into the best drinking that the city has to offer.
This brewery’s signature beer—the Sam Adams Lager—was first made by the Boston Beer Company in 1984, a veritable lifetime ago in the contemporary craft beer scene. And for the longest time, that Vienna lager stood as the only option for beer-drinkers yearning to drink an American beer with actual flavor. Since then, Sam Adams Brewery, which was established in Boston in 1988, has garnished less press than the many cult microbreweries throughout the country. Don’t let that dissuade a visit, especially to taste some of the brewery’s experimental beers coming out of their “test kitchen.” Their “Utopia” line—all brewed in-house and released in very limited quantities—include new- and old-world styles like an American Kreik, the Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Cru, and a triple bock. You can get growlers filled with a handful of stand-by beers along with access to bottles of other specialty beers, including barrel-aged ales and stuff like their Raspberry Lemon Gose—beers, in other words, that should joyfully invert your expectations of Sam Adams. Tours are free, save for a requested $2 donation that benefits local charities. You can also arrange for a special “mash-in” tour that starts at 9:30 AM that beats the crowds and includes exclusive tastings and a souvenir glass; reserve online at the brewery’s website.
Since opening in 1986 with a 20-barrel facility, Harpoon has successfully ridden the rising tide of the craft beer scene, expanding from its humble beginnings to occupy most of a building once used to build Navy Destroyers. Their IPA is ubiquitous throughout the city—including Fenway Park, thank the beer gods—while the UFO line of unfiltered wheat beers have proven so popular, they’ve practically become their own brand. Harpoon also remain doggedly dedicated to the tenants of craft. They went employee-owned in 2014, and have tempered their own brewery expansion to avoid competing with all the Boston bars that have bought their products for decades—which is why they only serve hot pretzels in their German-style Beer Hall. There you’ll find all their annual releases on tap, along with their Pilot Batches, brewery-only experiments like a Belgian strong or the Bandita IPA, made with pineapples and habanero peppers that drinks with more of an earthy funk and less spice than the ingredients might imply. Harpoon isn’t known for wild experimentation—at least not yet—but this is a good way to put your finger on the pulse of what may come next. Tours cost $5, last about an hour, and includes a whole mess of tastings.
Trying the coveted beers from Trillium as a tourist in Boston can present some challenges. The brewery offers a full list of their beers on draft (as well as a handful of 750ML bottles for on-site consumption) in their new 16,000-square-foot facility in Canton, but their original home in downtown’s Fort Point neighborhood only offers a handful beers by the growler or six-pack—no tasters, no pints. Visit during the warmer months (typically from May through October), and you’re in luck. Their new beer garden sits on a pocket of the city’s new Greenway Conservancy, with a handful of beers on draft along with wines from Westport River, a MA winery. But even if you visit in the dark of winter, the beer is worth finding. They specialize in New England IPAs—think hazy, hoppy goodness—as well as double IPAs like the Citra Cutting Tiles and Mettle, along with more experimental offerings like their Miles Away Sour Wheat, an ale aged on passion fruit and guava crafted in partnership with Wakefield Brewing out of Miami.
Beyond Central Boston
Compared to other cities, the footprint of Boston itself is pretty modest, but expand into its neighboring locales and the area just keeps getting bigger. Venture out—or keep your eyes peeled—for other Boston-area breweries like Cambridge Brewing Company, Tree House, Nightshift, and Jack’s Abby, which makes only lagers and could trigger a new trend with their delicious Imperial Pale Lager.
Named after Charles Bukowski—literary genius, crazed madman, and arguably the first man to own the label “barfly,” it’s the best kind of beer bar: one with a serious list of beer on draught and by bottle, but without a hint of pretention. Expect about 15 beers on tap—regional, U.S., and international—as well as bottle specials and a big book of other beers for sale, along with wine, cocktails, and “American” cuisine. They have outposts in Cambridge as well as in downtown.
Located in the downtown Fort Point neighborhood, this cocktail bar was founded by famed chef Barbara Lynch and offers one of the most competitive and inspired cocktail programs in the city. And though you can always order a classic, it’s better to tell the bartender what you like, and let the magic unfold. They also offer a shortlist of wines and a small selection of seasonal craft beers. The modest food menu feels prepared with the same care, edited down to a few tempting options like a duck frankfurter or a small plate of grilled halloumi with nectarines and basil.
The Envoy Hotel Lookout Rooftop
As the lines that wrap around the side entrance to the Envoy Hotel should tell you, the roof deck at this boutique hotel is a popular spot. Endure the wait, and you’ll see why. The expansive outdoor bar offers some of the best views of Boston’s skyline, as well as a birds-eye view of the Barking Crab restaurant and river directly below. The cocktail list is respectable—try the Whiskey Daisy, made from Knob Creek bourbon and rye with Orgeat, lemon, simple syrup, bitters, and mint. Beer-drinkers should focus on MA-breweries on well-curated list, like the Thunder Funk IPA from Bent Water Brewery out of Lynn, Mass. The restaurant/bar scene off the hotel lobby is equally raucous, especially on weekends. Ignore the bar crowds and snag a table; Chef Tatiana Pairot Rosana is making some of the city’s best contemporary-American food (mmmmm, bacon jam). Want roof access without the lines? Hotel guests get instant access. Or walk a bit to Legal Sea Food’s waterfront property, another Boston institution, with a legit list of MA beers and a solid wine list.
Craft Beer Cellar at Fenway Park
There are other outposts of this Boston staple—both in the city and throughout the country, but visit this one. Not only does the selection include an array of small-batch American craft beers in bottles and on draft, each curated by a staff of all-certified cicerones, but you’re also close to famed Fenway Park, a required pilgrimage for any baseball fan.
Charles Street Liquor
Craft beer, an extensive selection of wine, and loads of rare spirits typify the offerings in this, one of Boston’s best liquor stores. Their booze collection earned top marks from Wine Enthusiast (especially their selection of single malt scotch) while their beer specialist strives to assure that their more than 1,000 brews in stock represent the best of the region—including loads of New England-brewed limited and special releases—along with a cache of imports. Visit Fridays for the free tasting events, or tempt the depths of your bank account by ordering off their inventory via the Drizly app, which includes delivery to most of central Boston.
Brix Wine Shop
With two locations in Boston (the Financial District and in the South End) and one in Nantucket, Brix focuses on fostering an atmosphere that makes you want to linger, not just grab a bottle and go. As expected, the staff has tasted every bottle on their shelves, and offer sage guidance in selecting the most surprising wines. Each outpost hosts scheduled tasting events, along with special Brix by Night events, which typically includes a winemaker, a chef, and a whole mess of rare wines for a sit-down tasting.