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Pure Biss: Something New!

Eitan Kensky, January 22, 2014 -   

In Boston you’re judged on what you know. Dinner parties double as doctoral qualifying exams; Red Sox obsession and fan one-upmanship are so intense that you can almost casually cite xFIP and wRC+ without being punched in the face; an extensive taxonomy of mollusks is a New England birthright.

Yet knowledge of Craft Beer is in a kind of holding pattern. The local beers are just good enough that restaurants and bars can easily find high quality product without having to hunt greatness. Beer lists tend to look the same. Everybody serves Slumbrew Porter Square Porter, Pretty Things Jack D’Or, Jack’s Abby Hopponius Union, Notch Session, and Harpoon IPA. We all still drink Sam Adams Oktoberfest. Sometimes there’s a second beer from one of those breweries. Anyone who wants more is free to go to Lord Hobo or the Publick House or the like.

Boston -- note: by “Boston” I mean anything within a 15-minute walk of a T stop (which oddly excludes large swathes of Boston) -- Boston is caught in the awkward part of the uncanny valley between Craft Beer mecca and Company Town. We’re fortunate to have the breweries I just mentioned, plus other brewers, like Night Shift, about which it is worth writing home. Beer drinkers here are serious, serious people, who know what they like, how different beers are brewed and fermented, and which blogger to punch in the face for challenging their beer ken. But it’s precisely because beer drinkers are so smart that watching the lists stay static is as depressing as the words “directed by Lars Von Trier.”

There’s a fancypants term for the state when new ideas no longer enter the system: epistemic closure. That’s more or less what’s happened to beer lists in this area. Lagunitas is now on more taps because cultural imperialism is alive and well. Otherwise draft lists look the same as they did six months ago. Until boutique Vermont breweries scale up and invade, nothing seems likely to break our collective rut.

But when you’re young-ish, in a relationship, and spend your non-Netflix evenings out trying the same bars and restaurants as the other non-Netflix-watching young-ish couples, you notice the little changes. Other than adding Lagunitas, there are three ways that places are responding to Craft Beer epistemic closure, not all of them good: giving up on the beer list, de-emphasizing American beers, and having their own custom beers brewed.

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Kendall Square is a light industrial zone on the northwest bank of the Charles River where manufacturing and refining have been completely replaced by High Tech. Once there were factories. Then came office parks, faceless government-funded research labs, and a lone development with bars, restaurants, and a movie theater. Now there are mixed use blocks, a legit cool cafe/gallery, not 1-not 2- but 3! branches of a local bakery chain, health clubs, strollers, and a skyline dotted with cranes. Progress!

The old Kendall is gone, but enough of the middle-aged Kendall remains to go on a pub crawl through the different eras of drinking history. Tommy Doyle’s satisfies your required daily allowance of Irish Bar. Cambridge Brewing Company is an authentic 80s and 90s brewpub (best beer: the Banryu Ichi at 3.66 BAR). There are two beer-centric bars, Lord Hobo (very good--though locals still complain about the hype it got 4 years ago) and Meadhall, a place I’ve never liked, but which deserves special recognition for being located in the heart of the Akamai-MicroSoft-Google corridor and not having a working website.

Kendall is the neighborhood where I first noticed bars and restaurants giving up on the craft beer list.

Belly Wine Bar is the type of place where everybody has designer glasses and travels by uber. The lighting is a warm glow. Eyes wander and linger around the room. There’s a moment where I question most of my professional choices.

Belly does food and wine really, really well and shrugs its way through beer. There’s no printed menu; instead the server struggles to remember whatever they happen to be serving, which seems to be chosen at whim. It feels strange to criticize a wine bar for its beer selection, so allow me to pose the critique this way: don’t serve beer. No beer list is better than a haphazard beer list. We can all drink wine for the night or enjoy the food and company. [Counterintuitive protip: Do not order the ‘Smores when it is cold out.]  But Belly’s beer list is a logical, awful result of epistemic closure. The people who run Belly know that it’s not worth replicating what’s out there but also don’t see the need to learn more and try something new.

Just on the other side of the small plaza is State Park, the casual spin-off of the tiny Hungry Mother. State Park hasn’t quite figured out what it is. The place wants to look like a dive bar. Instead the aesthetics tell you that someone spent fantastic sums of money trying to replicate a dive. An ornamental pool table takes up space that could be used for tables. A jukebox proudly displays CDs. Everywhere there are cute figurines and miniatures.

The beer list is packed with bric-a-brac: Narragansett on tap! Cans of Hamm’s! But the real diabolical genius is the “Shot & A Beer” section of the menu. For $8.75, you get “Dad’s Hat Manhattan & A Rolling Rock.” It’s fun to order, but in the end you’re ultimately drinking an OK shot and a mediocre beer. Basically, State Park has devised a way to get you to order bad beer at high prices while also feeling good about it.

The best way to enjoy State Park is to stay away from the dive part. Ask to sit in one of the front sections. Order from the well curated, decidedly-non-divey list of imported beers, or have a can of Genny Cream because you can. Then eat bar food so good and so perfectly fried that the thought of it weeks later will leave you sad and empty.

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The most exciting -- if not the best -- local beer I’ve had recently is Pure Biss. Pure Biss is the first beer released by Smuttynose on the “Smuttlabs” label. The recipe was designed by Jamie Bissonnette, one of the best chefs in Boston. In Boston the beer is only sold at Bissonnette’s restaurants, Toro and Coppa. (It is also served in New Hampshire and at the new Toro-New York.) A bottle goes for $13.

Pure Biss calls itself an unconventional Witbier. It’s brewed with kaffir lime leaves, spruce tips, and grapefruit zest. It only measures 15 IBU, but there’s still a beautiful hoppy flavor. It’s incredibly floral, with citrus notes and a surprising sweetness. Pure Biss only scores a 3.57/5 stars on Untappd because the world is cruel. To be fair, it’s probably only a 3.75 star beer. But it tasted like summer.

Beat Hôtel in Harvard Square serves Pretty Things “Fluffy White Rabbit,” a single version of their Belgian Tripel, “Fluffy White Rabbits.” (I won’t try to describe what Beat Hôtel is like because adequately capturing its Meh-ness would require thousands of words and an extended analogy to Star Trek: Voyager.) BAR doesn’t love “Fluffy White Rabbits;” it only scores a 2.5 and Style+ has it at 102. The lower alcohol content in the single, however, delicately highlights notes that weren’t there before. Singles are table beers, brewed to keep you warm and convivial. That’s how I felt that night, that’s how I feel writing about it, and that’s what will make me go back again.

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The reason to celebrate these chef-produced beers is that tap lists are only as good as the people making the purchasing decisions. According to Style+, there are at least two Jack’s Abby beers as good as Hoponius Union. But until chefs, restaurateurs, and bar managers perceive the need to serve newer and different craft brews, they won’t be on tap or in bottles.

Some chefs get it. Tony Maws serves great American beers at both Craigie on Main and the Kirkland Tap & Trotter. And it will take a chef with the reputation of Tony Maws to convince breweries to downscale their portions. Maine Beer Co.’s Mean Old Tom is a very good stout (4.51 BAR) that overpowers whatever it’s served with. A short pour  -- or short can -- is the ideal way to drink it with food, and maybe even on its own.

Some bar managers do not get it. There are still people in the 21st century whose dream it is to open an Irish bar, like the ones they grew up with, and to serve Jameson and Guinness and Bud.

State Park deserves a lot of credit for thinking differently and junking the usual beer list. State Park deserves even more credit for running with its concept, no matter the limitations. Jamie Bissonnette and Smuttynose brewed something that was a lot of fun to drink and which almost made me forget it was winter. Both Pure Biss and State Park’s cabinet of curios show that the chefs get what a craft beer list at a restaurant is about. It’s not about serving better beer, or even about serving local beer. It’s about caring about what you serve your customers and how they experience food and drink together.

Photo of the Coppa menu and Pure Biss courtesy of  Tina Wong, @twanderingeater. See and read more about her trip to Coppa here.
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