Hoppy Boston is a site dedicated to craft beer with a focus on New England breweries, Boston area beer bars, and home-brewing. It is a Boston based blog for all things craft beer, including reviews of beers and beer bars.
Although the craft beer marketplace is getting very crowded and competitive, I think there are a number of opportunities for smart breweries to stand out by doing things that are a little different. One underutilized style is hop-forward but well balanced and easy drinking session beers. There are obviously some great examples of these, but too many “session IPAs” taste like hop-water or dumbed-down versions of the same brewery’s full strength IPA. As the ABVs of hoppy beers continue to creep up, it feels like most “single” IPAs are around 7% ABV now, there is clear demand for lower ABV beers that can be enjoyed in quantity without putting you under the table. While many breweries have addressed this with pale lagers, I think every brewery should develop a well-crafted, lower alcohol hoppy beer as part of their regular rotation. In they can distribute these beers at a lower price point compared to their “full-strength” beers, all the better. A great recent example of this idea is Slate, the new pale ale from Idle Hands. Slate is designed to be a flavorful beer for everyday enjoyment and is now a core beer in the Idle Hands lineup, available across the state on draft and in 16 oz cans with a suggested retail price that is well below what most hoppy beers are selling for.
Idle Hands Slate pours hazy light yellow with a full white head. The aroma features a solid burst of fruity and citrusy hops. As advertised, this is a light bodied and crushable all occasions beer. The hops lead the flavor, notes of orange, lemon, guava and cut grass along with a little bitter bite. This is balanced by a pale malt backbone, hints of cereal and crackers. Slate is nearly a session beer at 5.3% ABV and finishes crisp with some lingering hop flavor. Overall this is a flavorful and easy drinking beer, every brewery should make a beer like this. While I might prefer a beer like Six Seam on overall flavor, this is the kind of beer I want for a BBQ or another situation where I’m drinking a few beers, and I am sure I will be drinking plenty of Slate this summer. Hoppy Boston score: 4.25/5.
As the New England-style IPA gains more popularity and market share a certain segment of craft beer geeks spend more and more time and energy trying to tear down the substyle. One common criticism is that the beers are all essentially the same, similar malt bills, yeast strains, and a subset of popular hop varieties. While this argument is fundamentally flawed, notice that the same people aren’t criticizing pilsner because most versions are brewed with pilsner malt, noble hops, and clean lager yeast, it is nice when some breweries step outside the box and try to do something a little different with their NEIPAs. A good example of this is Koi Bird, a new IPA from Stony Creek Brewing in Branford, CT. While the Citra hops and grapefruit juice used in Koi Bird are very NEIPA, the grain bill featuring red and jasmine rice and the fermentation with sake yeast are pretty unique. Stony Creek Koi Bird is available now on draft and in 16 oz cans, thank you to the people at Stony Creek for sending me a sample to try.
Stony Creek Koi Bird pours hazy light yellow with a small white head. The aroma features a solid burst of fruity hops. The flavor is also hop forward, notes of melon, orange, and pineapple along with a little bitter bite. The grapefruit flavor also comes through, it melds nicely with the flavors from the hops. The pale and rice malts round out the flavor, hints of rice crackers and bread crust. Koi Bird is light bodied and drinks easy, not overkill at 6.0% ABV. The finish is very crisp and clean, almost lager-like, with some lingering hop flavor. This is an interesting beer, the yeast and malt bill provide an interesting twist on the prototypical NEIPA profile. Hoppy Boston score: 4.25/5.
This year has seen a number of new breweries open across the state, some with fully equipped taprooms and others as contract brands, making and packaging their beer at other breweries and relying on distribution. My life is completely crazy right now so my brewery visits have been limited, and many of the new taproom-only breweries are still on my “need to visit soon” list (that list has gotten very long over the last couple years). The advantage for the breweries using the contract model is that the beer is usually easier to find, so I’ve been able to try a few new releases. One beer from a new contract brewery that I recently tracked down is Things We Don’t Say, a New England style DIPA from Wandering Soul Brewing. If you haven’t read Wandering Soul’s backstory you really should, just have a few tissues ready. Wandering Soul Things We Don’t Say is brewed with Ella, Simcoe and Cascade hops and is available on a rotating basis on draft and in 16 oz cans.
Wandering Soul Things We Don’t Say pours murky orange with a small white head. The aroma features a solid burst of fruity and floral hops. The flavor is also very hop forward, notes of mango, tangerine, passion fruit and cut grass along with a very mild bitter bite. A solid malt backbone contributes some balance along with hints of whole grain bread and cereal. Things We Don’t Say is full-bodied but drinks very smooth for a beer with 8.1% ABV. The finish is crisp and leaves a coating of hop flavor on the tongue that keeps you coming back for more. This is a very good DIPA and a very strong start for a new brewery, I look forward to seeing what else they have in store in the future! Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5.
After focusing a lot of my winter writing (and drinking) on bold, boozy, and malty dark beers I switched gears this spring, as I usually do once the weather starts to warm. I drank a whole hodgepodge of styles over the last three months, hop-bombs, Belgians, lagers, I even wrote up the first English style old ale in Hoppy Boston’s history. After all of that, here are the four best beers I reviewed over the last three months, as always all four beers have been added to the My Favorite Beers tab on the front page of Hoppy Boston. One other commonality between the beers featured this quarter, all were purchased at bottle shops, no line waiting required. Grab these 4 when you get a chance and always feel free to pass along recommendations if there are any beers that you think I need to try! Links on the title of each beer lead to the full review.
Allagash River Trip: Allagash added a few new canned offerings to the lineup this Spring and completely knocked this one out of the park. A perfect pairing of the expressive Allagash house yeast strain with fruity new world hops in a light and easy drinking beer. This has become a staple in my beer fridge already.
Greater Good Pulp Daddy: The tournament-busting flagship DIPA from Greater Good has all of the hop flavor and aroma you crave with the added bonus that you can find it somewhat-regularly out in distribution. A must-try beer for any local IPA fan.
Honest Weight They Reminisce Over You: You don’t see very many old ales aged in rye whiskey barrels, I know I’ve never had one before, but this beer is just delicious. Layers of rich malt, warming booze, and complexity from the aging process.
Cambridge Brewing Co. The Hopheads Guide To The Galaxy: Cambridge Brewing finally jumped into the NEIPA field this spring and they hit the initial offerings out of the park. This Galaxy focused hop-bomb can easily hold it’s own with a few other very highly renowned local beers that feature this particular hop.
The most read, discussed and debated post on Hoppy Boston this month was my Thoughts on Beer Ratings and Beer Reviews. One minor clarification, since a few people have misunderstood. I don’t have a problem with people using Untappd to keep track of their beer preferences, I have an issue with people who use the aggregate scores as gospel for the quality of a beer and with the people who trash any beer that isn’t a whale.
The biggest story this month is clearly the merger of Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head. Beervana has an excellent piece on the merger. This merger makes a ton of sense to me. Boston Beer has seen it’s beer volume (in the form of the Sam Adams brand) shrink, especially compared to its cider, tea, and seltzer brands, so it adds a highly recognizable beer label to the portfolio. Dogfish Head has to see the crunch put on regional breweries who are struggling to compete with the crafty beers owned by big beer on one end and the small local breweries on the other. Now the owners get a large sum of cash and the ability to pool resources with the biggest craft brand in the country. It will be interesting to see how the new Boston Beer Company handles its two big beer brands going forward.
The Hoppy Tourist makes an attempt to quantify the effect of hype on Untappd scores. One of the most interesting parts is the change over time, it looks like hype breweries are getting more score inflation now than they were just a couple years ago.
Wormtown Brewery made a couple of big announcements. They are now going to contract brew beer for the Battle Road brand and they are opening a new taproom at Patriot Place at the site of the former Battle Road Hop Up. It will be interesting to see how this partnership works for both brands.
Jim Vorel has a plea to breweries, asking them to offer half-pours as an option. I strongly agree with this, it allows you to try a few different beers without getting drunk, but you get a more complete impression of each beer than you would get from a flight.
Carla Jean Lauter has a profile of Lone Pine Brewing, who recently opened their new brewery in Gorham, ME. I’ve enjoyed many of the Lone Pine beers I’ve tried and it’s nice to see a variety of their offerings regularly available in Massachusetts.
I am a big fan of dark lagers, I love the combination of roasted malt flavor in a clean lager body. Unfortunately, relatively few brewers take on dark lager styles, most of the craft lager beers are light styles like pilsner and Helles lager or cross-over “IPLs” that are loaded with hops. From what I’ve read and the discussions I’ve had with brewers most dark lager styles are niche, there is a subset of beer drinkers that love them but they don’t sell well overall. Fortunately, we have a number of lager-centric breweries in New England, and each brewery makes some interesting dark lagers. One lager-heavy brewery that has recently become regularly available in Massachusetts is Schilling Brewing Company out of Littleton, NH. Schilling makes a variety of dark lager styles including Modernism, a Czech style dark lager available on a rotating basis on draft and in 16 oz. cans.
Schilling Modernism pours cola brown with a small tan head. The aroma features some roasted malt. The flavor is malt forward, notes of caramel, chocolate, and brown sugar. There is a touch of late hops for balance, earthy and grassy. Modernism is light and easy drinking, sessionable at 4.8% ABV. The finish is crisp and clean, with just a touch of lingering malt flavor. This is a very tasty dark lager, plenty of flavor but super drinkable. I’m glad Schilling is making regular drops in the Boston area, and I will definitely drink more Modernism, especially in the spring and fall. Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5.
Small Change Brewing, a small contract brewery based out of Somerville, is celebrating one year in operation this month. In a nearly saturated beer market, it is tough for any new brewery to make a big impression, especially a contract firm who can’t rely on the draw of a taproom, but Small Change has managed to generate significant positive buzz this year. This is especially impressive when you realize that the first three beers they released (and the only three they brewed for the majority of the year) were a pale ale, an English style dark mild and a porter. All of the beers are well crafted and consistent, and beer geeks have taken notice. I was excited to finally try The Future Is Unwritten, there aren’t many local breweries making English dark milds, the lower alcohol version of traditional English brown ales. Small Change The Future Is Unwritten is available on a rotating basis on draft and in 16 oz cans.
Small Change The Future Is Unwritten pours cola brown with a massive tan head. The aroma is mild, just a touch of malt. The flavor is malt forward, notes of caramel, brown sugar, chocolate, and roasted nuts. This is balanced by a bit of earthy and floral hops. The Future Is Unwritten is light and easy drinking, at 3.1% ABV it is a session beer by any definition. The finish is clean with just a little lingering malt flavor. This is a tasty version of a style ignored by many American brewers, a great beer for cool evenings after warm days in the spring or fall (today being an exception). I look forward to seeing what Small Change has in store for year number two!
My brewery visits are relatively limited right now, between the demanding job, house stuff and two young kids I don’t often have a free hour to kill sitting down at a brewery. Most of my visits are very brief, I happen to be in a specific area for something else and I am able to run into a brewery and grab some beers to go. I was listening to an episode of the Brew Roots podcast about Bone Up Brewing Company in Everett last month and realized that I had been by the brewery but never written an article or beer review. I knew I had a trip to the area in the works so I was able to quickly sneak into the brewery and grab a few crowlers to take home and sample. While I am very anti-growler and avoid them if I can I am always on board for a crowler, big cans of beer are great. Included in the beers I grabbed were On On, a grisette dry-hopped with Galena hops and Unholy Alliance, a pale ale brewed for the wedding of two friends of the brewery. Outside of a few staples, most beers brewed by Bone Up are single batches or occasional brews, so grab these before they are gone.
Bone Up On On pours hazy deep yellow with a solid white head. The aroma is mostly the Belgian style yeast, fruity and funky. The yeast also leads the flavor, notes of peppercorn, pear, and bubblegum. There is also some hop flavor, hints of cut grass, lemon, and melon. Some light malts round out the flavor with hints of whole grain bread and cereal. On On is light bodied and refreshing, nearly a session beer at 5.1% ABV. The finish is crisp and dry with some lingering yeasty esters. This is a flavorful and easy drinking grisette, perfect for the warm days ahead. Hoppy Boston score: 4.25/5.
Bone Up Unholy Alliance pours hazy light orange with a massive white head. The aroma features a bit of floral and fruity hops. The flavor is balanced with the hops leading slightly, notes of mango, berry, and passion fruit along with a soft but noticeable bitterness. The hop flavors are complemented by some hints of bread crust and crackers from the malts. Unholy Alliance is light and easy drinking, not too boozy at 5.4% ABV. The finish is crisp with some lingering hop flavors. I can see why this beer was brewed for a wedding, it would be a crowd pleaser and not too heavy. Hoppy Boston score: 4.0/5.
The Pink Boots Society is a non-profit organization that helps further the careers of women in the beer industry through education, providing scholarships to help women advance their careers in beer. These scholarships make a difference, a recent article on craftbeer.com profiles some of the women who have been positively impacted by Pink Boots scholarships. Craft beer as an industry has come under fire for being predominantly white and male, and not always a friendly place for women and people of color, and having more representation from these groups in important positions at breweries is a great step towards addressing these issues. Every spring a wide range of breweries collaborate with the Pink Boots Society to brew beers, designed and brewed by their female employees, and a portion of the proceeds go into the scholarship fund. Exhibit A brewed a Pink Boots beer again this year, naming this year’s version Belle (I forgot that I reviewed Exhibit A’s Pink Boots beer last year too, I promise to spread the love next spring). Exhibit A Belle is a pale ale brewed with lemongrass, lemon verbena, and hibiscus, it is available now on draft and in 16 oz cans.
Exhibit A Belle pours clear light orange with a solid white head. The aroma is a mixture of floral and fruity hops. The flavor is pretty balanced but the hops lead with notes of orange, cut grass, and papaya along with a mild but noticeable bitter bite. The lemongrass, lemon verbena, and hibiscus add some subtle herbal and citrus notes. Some mild malts round out the flavor, touches of bread crust and cereal. Belle is light and easy drinking, not overly boozy at 6.0% ABV. The finish is crisp with some lingering hop and adjunct flavors. Overall this is an interesting and tasty pale ale benefiting a great cause. Grab some Pink Boots beers while you have the chance! Hoppy Boston score: 4.25/5.
Over the years I’ve dabbled a bit in homebrewing. Right after college my roommate and I bought a starter kit and tried to make a few batches of beer, the results varied from decent to so bad that a group of guys in their early 20’s dumped it out. My buddy went to medical school, I went to graduate school and we gave away the equipment, neither of us had the time to keep up the hobby. When I finished my PhD my girlfriend (who is now my wife) got me a new homebrew kit and I started up the hobby again with much better results, but over the last few years I’ve completely stopped brewing. There are a number of reasons for this, I have two young kids now so my free time is non-existent and I’ve cut way back on my drinking, so 2 cases of homebrew would take forever to finish (especially if I am also drinking beers to review on Hoppy Boston). Probably the biggest reason I’ve stopped homebrewing is that my palate has refined over the last 5+ years of carefully critiquing beers, and I’ve realized that the majority of the beers I brewed were mediocre to good, but nothing took the next step to very good or great, so it was hard to justify drinking it over a stellar commercial beer.
I think the biggest thing I learned from my years of homebrewing is that it’s tough to make a great beer and that the brewers who do it on a consistent basis are very talented. This is why the current state of keyboard warrior crowd-sourced beer reviews is infuriating to me. I’m not talking about the average beer geek who keeps a general scale in their head and uses it to keep track of which beers they loved and which missed the mark. That is totally fine. I mean the people who use crowd-sourced apps to trash any beers that didn’t require an online trade or a wait in line as “shelfies” or “drain pours” or “meh”. It is this behavior that skews the ratings on crowd-sourced site in favor of a couple styles and a handful of breweries to such an extent that the ratings themselves are nearly useless. Unfortunately, a substantial subset of craft beer drinkers, especially people who are new to craft beer, take these ratings extremely seriously. Ask any bottle shop employee for stories about dealing with customers who are shopping with their Untappd app open and be prepared to shake your head in disgust.
Here is a secret that will shock many of the people who wait in line for hours every weekend to buy whalez: the vast majority of the craft beer that readily is available in a quality bottle shop is good to great. Breweries that reach the point where they can distribute usually know what they are doing, and often make much more consistent beer compared to some smaller places that are constantly shuffling recipes. Obviously, there are exceptions and freshness is extremely important with many styles. There are also breweries that don’t know what they are doing and make some pretty bad beer, but they are in the minority. So if you are constantly trashing beers on Untappd either you have terrible luck picking beers, you shop at stores that are selling old beer and you don’t check the dates, or you have no idea what you are talking about. I’m guessing the majority of the Untappd accounts that are loaded with reviews under 3 stars are the last option on the list.
The other issue with crowd-sourced reviews is that a few styles get completely over-rated compared to the rest. 38 of the top 50 beers on Beer Advocate are IPAs or imperial stouts. on Untappd it is 43 out of 50 in those two styles. That is completely insane, there are world-class beers being made in every potential style, but if the beer isn’t loaded with hops, booze or both a rather large segment of the crowd on these sites can’t appreciate it. Unfortunately, this drives sales and breweries that are just scraping by making traditional lagers or Belgian styles feel compelled to make hop bombs and barrel aged stouts to stay relevant. I think these crowd-sourced rating sites and the people who read them like gospel are a gigantic negative for craft beer, stifling true creativity and innovation.
Just a quick thank you to the folks that have been crushing our ‘Boots Not Suits’ pale ale… you make a brewer proud… here’s an examle of how to rate a non IPA on untapped… cheers! pic.twitter.com/MABjN76zHT
When I started Hoppy Boston I struggled on how I would do my beer reviews. I always wanted beer reviews to be a key part of the site, the scene was exploding and there were so many options available, I wanted Hoppy Boston to be a place readers could go for recommendations of beers they should try. I decided on a 5 point scale, I felt that it was important to have some kind of numbering system to distinguish between good, very good and great beers. Some days I wish I did a 10 or even 100 point scale, there could be a lot more nuance. Other days I wish I didn’t have a scale at all, I just wrote about the beers, but I don’t think that system would work very well, it is hard to really sell the difference between a very good and a world class beer without some sort of numerical scoring.
I get somewhat regular comments about the fact that most of my scores are high, essentially every beer I review is between 3.5 and 5 out of 5 stars, and most are 4.0 or better. When I started writing reviews I would review whatever beers I grabbed, and if I didn’t like them I would write that. In the first year, there were a few cases where I wrote things I regret now, the beers were clearly out of date or had a packaging issue and I was too inexperienced to realize this at the time. I haven’t deleted anything from Hoppy Boston, but I am tempted on occasion. On a side note, some of the writing was abysmal in the early days too, it took a while and some help from my wife (who was my editor for a while before the kids were born) to really hit my stride.
To be honest, I also hated writing negative reviews. I know some people take perverse pleasure trashing the hard work of others (just read the comments on any crowd-sourced website), but that isn’t me. To be completely honest, it is rarely warranted. Now I buy plenty of beers with the intention of writing reviews and I only write up beers that are my favorites in the batch or decent/good beers from a brewery I want to highlight a little more. Even the beers I don’t write up are rarely bad, some don’t fit my personal preferences for a style or are just unremarkable, occasionally some are just too weird or experimental, but the vast majority are pretty good or better.
I’ve heard criticism that any site that doesn’t publish negative reviews isn’t “being real” or isn’t helpful. I actually find positive reviews to be way more helpful when I choose which beers I want to try. If I walk into a good bottle shop there will be hundreds of beers I’ve never tried, even if I just limit myself to beers from New England breweries. I could staff Hoppy Boston with a team of reviewers each churning out multiple articles a week (which would be a huge feat for a blog that is a hobby and makes no revenue) and we wouldn’t scratch the surface of covering all of the beers available at any time in the region. With that in mind, which type of review is more helpful, one recommending a beer you should try or one trashing just one of the thousands of available beers.
I think that beer reviews and ratings can be very useful. Some beer writers look down of beer reviews, and while I agree that there are many other interesting parts of the industry to write about, I also like reading about individual beers. I think there can be a balance, where people have fun on crowd-sourced apps without taking the scores too seriously and people can read reviews on sites like Hoppy Boston are take them as fun recommendations while feeling free to disagree. I am sure there are beers I’ve scored high that some of you don’t particularly care for, and beers you love that I thought were just OK. That is fine, we all have different preferences. I just encourage everyone to go out, try some beers in a range of styles from different breweries and form your own opinions. You might discover that a beer with a mediocre Untappd score sitting on a bottle shop shelf is actually your new favorite!
With that in mind, what are your opinions on crowdsourced beer ratings? What about written beer reviews? What do you find helpful when you are trying to select new beers to try or breweries to visit?