Get a Taste of Ole England at John Harvard’s Brew House

Will sat at the worn oak bar, quill as usual glued to his hand, stained fingers from overuse, furiously writing. He only paused long enough to grab his pewter stein, gulping down the refreshing stout, then continued uninterrupted. John walked up behind him, seeing a master at work. He tapped him lightly on the shoulder, not at all taken aback by a startled jump from Will.

“I do say, my dear John, you gave me quite a start!”

John merely smiled and pulled up a barstool.

“Which concoction have you brewed this time?” John asked, beckoning the bartender for one of his own.

“I call this one the Knight’s Ale –robust, but with a hint of romance in the form of hops.”

They immediately began discussing beer-making, their favorite subject.

Will had been brewing for years, but John was an eager novice, furiously taking notes whenever they were together.

“Will, I have some big news—I’m leaving for the New World next week.”

A surprised silence followed by a vigorous handshake, was Will’s reply. “Well, mate, we’ll have to keep in touch—keep on brewing. I hear beer is in short supply there, but it’s so much easier to make than wine, it’s worth learning about!

“I’m definitely taking the recipes with me!” John replied eagerly.

And with that, the recipes for John Harvard’s Brewhouse were brought to Boston. According to folklore, these recipes from William Shakespeare and John Harvard were rediscovered again in Boston, providing the inspiration for John Harvard’s Brewhouse. Appropriately situated in the heart of Harvard Square, John Harvard’s atmosphere whispers the tales of the ages, the high pub tables and low-hanging lights reminding me of the ageless London pubs. Brewing of the beers on tap takes place behind glass dividers in copper casks. Darkly stained oak tables and bar add to the “renaissance” atmosphere, along with the backlit stained glass windows. Shakespeare, the king of satire, must have had his say, for at closer inspection, the personages in the windows are not religious figures, but Boston’s local heroes.

Opened since 1992, John Harvard’s capitalized on a trend of brewpubs happening in Boston and the rest of the country. With a seating capacity of 350, they can handle everything from parties of 10-50 to buses of tourists making a stop during leaf peeping season. Local celebs have also been seen discreetly sipping some of John Harvard’s specialty ales like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Jerry Springer, just to name a few.

Here are just a few of my favorite John Harvard brews:

  • Irish Red: This nitrogenated beer is slightly sweet, with some malt character. Color could be called ‘stained oak’, as it matches the color of the bar.

  • Bitter Cask: This conditioned British style uses less carbonation and a hand pump, tasting a little flat to the uneducated palate and served at room temperature.

  • IPA: India pale ales were such named because they kept the beer fresh for the long trip to India from Britain. Their version is hoppy and robust, with a dry finish.

John Harvard’s also offers “growlers” or six-packs of your favorite choices to take home, excluding the nitrogenated versions.

Since 1992, John Harvard’s has expanded to include 10 pubs along the eastern seaboard. Recently purchased by the Boston Culinary Group, John Harvard’s new management is helping to further its success even more. Who know? You may be able to order an Irish Red at the Fleet center one of these days!

Cambridge Brewery’s Food is as Good as the Beer

Another brewpub success is the Cambridge Brewery, actually one of the first brewpubs in the US. Phil Bannatyne, the owner, watched his friends open the Triple Rock in Berkeley, following suit in Boston in 1984. In heart of tekkie-ville, close to MIT, the Cambridge Brewery is located in a former woven hose factory. Bannatyne chose the location because of the young crowd and artsy area, an east coast Berkeley. 

Compared to John Harvard’s, the Cambridge Brewery is an opposite extreme in more ways than one. First of all, it’s much better lit, with skylights and plenty of sunlight streaming in. An industrial loft style with exposed brick and ventilation pipes contrast sharply with John Harvard’s traditional English pub atmosphere. Again there’s a stained glass theme, but instead of historical figures, half-drunk pints of beer are the well-chosen subject.

The crowd is much more of a beer connoisseur, having grown up with craft brews, and knowing about the various international styles of beer. For Cambridge Brewing, beer-making is akin to winemaking, and their brewmaster, Will Meyers, is quite the expert. He’s been working at the Cambridge Brewery for 11 years, and still constantly experiments to find unusual blends and creative combinations for the beer. They keep several “standards” on tap, but then have fun with the rest. Here are a few of my favorites

  • Tall Tale Pale Ale: A coppery color, fruity and full-bodied because of the hops, slightly bitter with more alcohol (5.9%).

  • Cambridge Amber: A rich amber red color, with more malt, less hops and a lightly roasted finish (4.7%).

  • Bitchin Bitter: Actually “bittersweet”, with dry dark caramel and a hint of butterscotch.       

  • Barley Wine: Aged like wine in oak, a dark caramel color with some carbonation left. Tastes like dried fruits, vanilla and toffee with a warming alcohol finish (12%)

According to Meyers, Cambridge Brewery’s strength is their sophisticated beers meeting eclectic tastes; along with great food—not your typical pub fare here—people come here as much for the food as for the beer. Chef Brian Roskow creates very unusual food using some of the flavors found in the beer. Once a quarter Chef Roskow prepares a prix fixe dinner for $45 with several courses of gourmet food paired with beer. Periodically, they even hold vertical barley wine tastings for the true conoisseur.

Boston Beerworks Has a Beer for Everyone

Originally open in 1992 in Fenway Park, Boston Beerworks has grown to 3 locations in Boston-Fenway, North Station and Salem. If you’re looking for a sports bar with a huge selection of craft brews, Boston Beerworks is just for you.

With 15 Beers on tap and one on cask, everything from the Hub Light to Back Bay IPA to Curley’s Irish Stout, even Guinness drinkers could be persuaded to make the switch. The size of the Canal Street location is impressive, with seating capacity for 575 and two levels, the second level with private function rooms and pool tables. On a Red Sox or Bruins night, the ambiance is nothing short of thrilling. The most modern of the three brewpubs, the large beer casks are not behind glass, and Herb Lindtveit, the Head Brewer, will be happy to give you an informal tour. I counted 9 televisions for Red Sox, Bruins or Celtic fans to catch every single play by play while sipping a Boston Garden Golden. Not to mention the fact the Canal Street location is down the street from the Fleet Center, they definitely cater to a sophisticated sports crowd. No Budweiser served here, that’s for sure.

Here are a few of my Boston Beerworks favorites:

  • Victory Red: Ruby-colored pre-prohibitionist style, this beer was brewed on October 24, 2004, the day of the Red Sock’s Victory over the Yankees.

  • Back Bay IPA: This copper/colored beer won the GABF Bronze Medal; fruity up front with a strong bitter finish.

  • Funky Monk-y—This free form Belgian ale, named after its “monk” style, is molasses colored but surprisingly creamy with hints of chocolate and licorice and 7 secret spices.

Their brews are so tasty, they’re bringing in British and Irish tourists, along with a few Canadians. Brew tours seem to be gaining in popularity these days, plus with Boston’s roots in England and its huge Irish immigrant population, there’s no wonder they’re packed most of the time. I’d have to say I preferred John Harvard’s old English atmosphere, along with its Bitter Cask as my preferred brew. The Cambridge Brewery caught my attention with its unusual take on gourmet food & beer tastings, along with the barley wine. The Boston Beerworks huge selection of ales, lagers and stouts, not to mention the witty local names—I’d definitely catch in a Red Sox game or two just for the spirited crowd. Yes, there’s definitely great craft beer in Boston.

John Harvards Brewhouse

Cambridge Brewing Company

Boston Beerworks