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Bottoms Up: The History of Beer in New England

boston-beer-company-old-imageWhen I saw the writing on the crate, I remember getting this rush of excitement. It was an old wooden crate on the floor of my mother-in-law’s cottage in New Hampshire, which was being used as a container for all sorts of miscellaneous newspapers and magazines that had been collected by myself and the family during our many summer visits to the cottage over the years. The sturdy but aged wooden crate was clearly an antique, but to me it had always just been a fixture of the cottage; something that was always there, but never actually warranted a closer look or any further inspection. It was just, to me, an old box with some old papers in it.

It’s funny how a little education can change your perspective.

This time, what DID catch my attention was the logo on the side of the box, which in black cursive read “Haffenreffer & Co. Boston, MA.” I was beside myself. Having been on the Samuel Adams Brewery tour, well, more times than I care to admit, I recognized that Haffenreffer was the defunct beer company whose old location in Jamaica Plain is the current home of the Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams and Angry Orchard). Haffenreffer closed in 1965, so I asked my mother-in-law how she acquired the crate. She told me that my wife’s great grandfather, an Irish Immigrant, worked at the then bustling brewery, and the family had kept one of the crates he used to “bring home the beer” as a souvenir.

New England actually has a very deep and interesting history with beer. In her book Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day, author/historian Lauren Clark delves into the history of beer brewing in New England. I was lucky enough to meet Lauren Clark and listen to her speak at the Weymouth Public Library five years ago (she has also given the same lecture on her book for the Morrill Memorial Library), and both her book and her lecture were fantastic. In Crafty Bastards, you might be surprised to learn that one of the reasons that the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts was because they ran out of beer on the ship! As she researches in her book, the Pilgrims brought beer on their voyage, which they drank in place of water. Beer has a low PH level (4-5) so it does not harbor pathogenic bacteria, and beer also supplied them with extra calories for their long journey to the New World. Another excellent read is Drinking Boston: A History of the City and its Spirits, by Stephanie Schorow. Though not an exclusively beer-based book, Schorow discusses the history of distilling and brewing in Boston. WBUR interviewed Schorow  (in Boston’s historic J.J. Foley’s Irish Pub, no less) in 2013 about her book, and it is well worth a listen!

For a more recent example of how New England beer has influenced America, and if you want to pick up some solid business tips, be sure to check out Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two, by Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch. Koch gives an intimate firsthand account of what it was like to start the now iconic brand. He chronicles his own family history with brewing, how he got inspired to start his own business, and the difficulties of running up against beer juggernauts like Anheuser-Busch and Miller/Coors. Today it seems like everywhere you look, there is a new craft brewery popping up, but when Koch was getting started, the craft beer craze had not yet taken off, so he was one of the first to really challenge the established beer companies of the time. His book is filled with great insights into how to run a business, and also gives a great history lesson on the founding of a local favorite. I recommend it to aspiring entrepreneurs and beer lovers alike.

Speaking of the craft beer craze, you might be ready to explore some of New England’s most recent upstarts and trailblazers, and there are a lot of them. Lucky for you, we at the Morrill Library can get you started on your journey! Your first stop, of course, should be Norwood’s own Castle Island Brewing Co. which has some fantastic brews and is well worth a visit. However, when you are ready to branch out further, be sure to get the book Beer Lover’s New England, by Norman Miller, which gives a comprehensive guide to some of the best breweries and bars in all of New England, and even gives some suggestions for pub crawls. Norman Miller also wrote Boston Beer: A History of Brewing in the Hub which you can get right now though our Hoopla app, and gives a good introduction into the history of breweries in Boston (Haffenreffer included).

You might not initially think to go to the library to learn more about beer, but beer is so much more than just a drink, isn’t it? Like that old wooden crate, something that seems commonplace can, in fact, have a long history and deep history, and you might not even realize it. I think part of the fun of drinking beer (other than the obvious) is learning about that history and how it shaped the craft beer revolution that we see today. So grab a pint and a good book from our library, and learn more about that history. Bottoms up, New England.

Brian DeFelice is the Information Technology Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for his article in the January 31, 2019 issue of the Norwood Transcript.


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