Liquids: Boston Beers

A highly capricious poll I conducted recently on the meaning of Oktoberfest yielded the following answers from contemporaries: a “theme” party with people dressed like the von Trapp family; a reddish-colored beer that packs a nice kick; a debauched festival held each fall in Munich and brimming with oompah bands and busty St. Pauli Girls slinging overflowing tankards of beer. While each of these answers is only partially correct, the key ingredients are there: Oktoberfest is a party (lederhosen notwithstanding) celebrated in Munich in late September/early October, at which a fabulous amber-golden beer with a great kick is poured in large quantities.

The fact that we Bostonians know anything at all about this festival (and now celebrate it here) bolsters the notion that New Englanders sincerely embrace foreign culture—as long as there’s a party involved. And what a party it is.

Through the end of the month, bars and restaurants around town will be featuring authentic Oktoberfest (also known as Märzen) beers from Germany, as well as those brewed by the Boston area’s best breweries and brewpubs. Have you tried one yet? If it’s been a while since you sampled a Boston brew, now is a great time to get reacquainted.

And you should, because Boston and beer go way back to Colonial times. Legend has it that the Virginia-bound Mayflower had to make an emergency stop at Plymouth in 1620 because the Pilgrims on board had run out of provisions including beer, which in those days was far safer to drink than unpurified water. In fact, everyone drank beer back then, not only because it was “safe” but also for its sustenance. Ask any beer geek and he’ll tell you beer is bread, since it starts out with the same ingredients: water, grain, and yeast. Whether you enjoy your bread as a solid or a liquid is up to you. I prefer to spend my precious carbs on liquids—especially good ol’ hometown brews.

Boston has always been home to great brews. It was, in fact, home to as many as 27 breweries in the 1890s, though Prohibition killed them all, leaving us for decades with watery beer from the big brewers. Today, thanks to Jimmy Carter, the Boston area is home again to, at a minimum, six breweries, all making interesting craft beers.

Yes, Jimmy Carter. You see, until the Carter administration, home brewing was illegal. In 1978, Carter signed a bill allowing individuals to brew up to 100 gallons of beer apiece each year for personal enjoyment (!) and up to 200 gallons in a household of two or more people aged 18 and older. Thus was born the craft beer movement. But it wasn’t easy.

In 1984, Jim Koch, a sixth-generation brewer and now chairman of Boston Beer Company, took a chance and started his own brewery, launching Sam Adams Boston Lager, which opened the door to better beer in Boston. “In 1984, nobody had ever heard of a microbrewery,” says Koch, “and great American beer was an oxymoron.”

Now we all know better, of course, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that craft brewing hit a fever pitch. By 1996, nearly 20 brewers were making craft beer here, according to Todd Alstrom, cofounder of To keep tabs on all that beer, he and his brother started their website in 1996 to share local tasting notes. Today, gets 100 new visitors a week, and about 2 million page views per month. (As for Koch, he’s been having a rough fall, what with that sex-in-the-church promotion and all.)

Which means, of course, that there’s a lot of chatter going on around town about who’s making what for Oktoberfest. Here’s a list of local brewers.

Boston Beer Company: Makes 14 beers, including what is now the largest-selling Oktoberfest beer in the world. 30 Germania St., Boston, 617-522-9080.

Buzzards Bay Brewing: Makes six beers, including Olde Buzzard Lager. 98 Horseneck Rd., Westport, 508-636-2288.

Cisco Brewers: Makes nine beers, including an Oktoberfest brew made with Belgian rock candy. 5 Bartlett Farm Rd., Nantucket, 508-325-5929.

Concord Brewers: Makes eight beers, including a new artisanal line called Rapscallion. 152 Commonwealth Ave., Concord, 978-371-9929.

Harpoon Brewery/Mass. Bay Brewing Company: Makes 12 beers, including this month’s Oktoberfest brew. 306 Northern Ave., Boston, 617-574-9551.

Wachusett Brewing Company: Makes eight beers, including its own Octoberfest Ale. 175 State Rd. E., Westminster, 978-874-0784.