Brewery tours condense the two most essential—but opposing—aspects of the collegiate experience into one hour: learning and drinking. It’s a simple tradeoff. Endure a lecture on yeast strains and hops growing, and then down three free beers and stumble into the night. Or morning. Tours run from 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday.
The tour is brisk, our guide chipper. We taste roasted barley, and are subjected to a series of very low-stakes pop quizzes. (“What does water do to beer?” “That’s right, folks, it makes it a liquid!”) The guide passes around cupfuls of hops and instructs us to sift it through our fingers, which leaves my hands feeling (and smelling) like the floor of the Sigma Chi basement.
We pass a row of Instragramable copper barrels, which hold something called “wort,” a sort of sugar water produced when grain and water are mashed together. Wort is then boiled with hops, and yeast is added, to convert sugars to alcohol and CO2. Well, that’s the gist, anyway. Beer brewing is, I gather, part art, part science, and you certainly won’t learn how to master it from a half-hour free tour.
Still, our guide provides us with a few takeaway facts we can smugly insert into conversations later in the weekend. For instance, did you know that there are only two types of beer? There are ales and lagers, and they are differentiated by the yeast used in their fermentation. IPAs, stouts, pilseners—those are all just styles.
At last—the main event. We crowd around long tables for the tasting, in a room that is aggressively brightly lit, perhaps as a reminder that this is not, in fact, a bar. The brewery doesn’t have a full liquor license, so we are limited to three small drinks.
The first beer on the day’s agenda is Boston Lager, the staple beer of the Sam Adams roster, brewed year-round and bestselling. Our tour guide runs through a skeletal version of the rubric savvier tasters use to assess beer quality: color, smell, and taste. This is the point at which we are encouraged to shout our qualitative analyses out at the room. “What do you taste?” our guide asks, with the blithe smile of a Gen Ed TF. A few people murmur answers. “Caramel.” “Copper?” “Hops!”
Next we try Sam Adams’s most popular seasonal beer, OctoberFest. It’s darker in color than the Boston Lager, and it sparkles a little more in the mouth, although maybe that’s just the taste of novelty. Third is an experimental beer that has not yet hit shelves: honey lemon ginger sweet pale ale.
My tablemate, a visitor from southern Maine, expresses concern over the clunkiness of the name. Our guide reassures: the marketing geniuses will whip up something catchier, if this concoction ever makes it beyond the brick walls of the brewery. It may not. Despite the luster of its ingredient list (40 lbs of orange blossom honey, 2 lbs of lemon zest, 2 lbs of ginger), the test beer sits heavy on the tongue. It’s a little too medicinal, like a Ricola cough drop left to fester at the bottom of your backpack for a semester.
Our benevolent guide gives us a moment to linger under the fluorescent lights before we are shepherded into a gift shop that doesn’t sell any beer. It does, however, offer belogoed ski jackets and feathered Alpine hats, promoting OctoberFest. If we want to spend cold hard cash and make merry, we’ll have to trek 10 minutes down the road to Doyle’s Cafe. Doyle’s, we’re told, was the first establishment to carry Sam Adams brews, way back in 1984. There, we can indulge to our hearts’ content, and even get a free branded pint glass for our trouble.
Samuel Adams Brewery is located at 30 Germania Street in Boston, a short walk from Stony Brook Station on the Orange Line. Free tours are given all days but Sundays.
They run Mondays through Thursdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors must be 21 or older to partake in the brew tasting, but root beer is offered as a consolation prize for the underaged.