Beer Bloggers’ Conference: Harpoon Brewing

Harpoon Brewery, Boston

Harpoon Brewery, Boston

After speed-dating ten beers, we were approached by some of the brewers asking if we wanted to sample some other beers that hadn’t been on the “official” speed-dating list. We were not churlish enough to say no. The line for the single washroom grew perilously long.

Eventually we made our way back to the Bus of Beer for the drive through rush hour traffic to our dinner destination, Harpoon Brewery.

Follow the yellow brick road!

Follow the yellow brick road!

Harpoon Brewery is big. By “big”, I mean, “wow, this place is huge”. Unlike Boston Beer Co., which started in Boston but quickly farmed out production and packaging of most of their beers to large breweries in other cities, Harpoon started brewing in Boston and gradually ramped up production until they were going full-tilt, 24/7. In 2000, having reached production capacity in Boston, Harpoon purchased the defunct Catamount Brewery in Windsor, Vermont, and put it to good use as well. Despite the new capacity, by 2002, they once again hit their production ceiling, and demand for Harpoon beer was still increasing. More about the solution in a bit.

pretzels

Pretzels in a hot, grainy beer mustard.

There were speeches and a tour on the agenda, so to tide us over until dinner, we were greeted at the door with pretzels in a hot beer mustard accompanied by yes, a glass of beer.

The starting point of our tour was the warehouse, which is quite impressive — aisle upon aisle of product that, apparently, gets moved out on a daily basis.

Rich Doyle

Brewery founder Rich Doyle greets us enthusiastically.

We were greeted by one of the original founders of Harpoon, Rich Doyle, who proceeded to describe some of the history of Harpoon and where it was headed. I was standing near the back of the crowd, and since Rich was unamplified, I had a hard time making out much of what he was saying. Luckily Elaine was near the front and filled me in later.

With that, Rich invited us to take the Harpoon tour, and we were led on a path through the warehouse, packaging area, fermenter valley, upstairs to the brewhouse and from there to the bar, where supper (and beer) awaited. It wasn’t so much a tour as a walk, since there were no formal stops to look at equipment and listen to some background on it.

As Elaine has already pointed out, the blogger attendees fell into three main groups: the people who were there to drink beer, the people who liked to ask questions and take pictures, and the people with a foot in both camps — happy to look at the equipment for a few minutes before finding out where the beer was. I am in the second group — the guys taking photos and asking questions, so Elaine and I rapidly fell to the back of the pack.

Fermentor Valley. Note the fellow attendee on the catwalk, way ahead of the crowd.

Fermentor Valley. The dude on the catwalk is way ahead of the crowd in case Harpoon runs out of beer before he gets to the bar.

The packaging area was an impressively clean and well-organized collection of canning, kegging and bottling lines. None of the lines was operating, but when all of them are going at the same time, it must look like something out of that old Looney Toons cartoon, I Gopher You: two polite chipmunks visit a canning factory to recover their “stolen” vegetables and are confronted with endless lines of automated equipment.

From there we walked into the Valley of Fermentation, an impressive collection of small pilot-sized fermentors and large 150-hL tanks. (By this time, as my photo shows, the first group of attendees — the “I’m here for the beer” people — had already scampered ahead to the second-floor bar.)

Harpoon brewhouse

Harpoon 150-hL brewhouse. (Conical tops are brewhouse vesseles, rounded tops are fermentors.)

The climb to the second floor revealed the shiny brewhouse. Back in 2002, when Harpoon ran out of brewing capacity — despite the additional output of their second brewery in Vermont — they decided to replace their old brewhouse in Boston with a massive 150-hL four-vessel system, built by Huppmann of Germany and shipped fully assembled. The lauter tun, fully 5 metres (16 feet) in diameter, apparently barely made it through the brewery doors. The new system doubled their brewing capacity, allowing Harpoon to pass the 100,000-barrel (115,000 hL) in annual production in 2006. By 2012, according to the Brewers’ Association, they were the 9th largest craft brewer in the U.S.

Elaine, peering through manway window of ___, provides scale of its size.

Elaine peering through the manway window of one of the brewhouse vessels.

In terms of batch size, I believe this is the largest craft brewhouse I have visited. (Vancouver Island Brewing, at 125-hL, had been the largest to this point, if memory serves.)

After chatting with one of the brewing assistants about operations, Elaine and I were the last to step into the bar for dinner.

Oh my! The wall of noise made us wince.

Harpoon Brewery dining area.

Harpoon Brewery dining area. The bar is just to the right.

The bar at Harpoon is a long double-sided affair, with dining tables on one side, and room for standing at the bar on the other side. Harpoon had reserved the dining tables on the one side of the bar for us, but had left the other side open for other visitors. The other side of the bar was packed. And they were facing us. Enthusiastic visitors. Loud enthusiastic visitors. Between the noise made by visitors and noise made by beer bloggers — who had already started dinner and were several beers ahead of me — Elaine and I couldn’t hear each other. This would have been a handy time to know American Sign Language.

That excessive cacaphony was a shame, because it took away from the excellent meal Harpoon laid on for us. First up were three cheeses from Vermont Farmstead — a cheddar, a soft Brie, and a blend of an aged hard cheese and a gorgonzola, paired with Harpoon Dark, Harpoon Black IPA and Dan’s Rye IPA respectively. They were all good pairings, and I was hard-pressed to decide which was my favourite.

(Cultural note: Again, water was nowhere in sight. However, we did get some when we asked.)

The staff then brought out food to be shared: barbecued chicken with an ancho chili sauce, grilled corn on the cob, potato salad with an IPA dressing, an Italian vinaigrette salad, and grilled flatbread (i.e. pizza). At this point we were supposed to try five more samples of Harpoon beer to match to each of these foods, but after a dozen different beers at the speed-dating event, a welcome glass of beer when we arrived here, and another three beers with the cheese course — and here I hang my head in shame —  I was beered out.

The food was excellent, though.

At the end of the meal, there was a long (and noisy) pause in the action. Elaine and I wandered down to the parking lot before we suffered permanent hearing loss.

Back on the Bus of Beer, we returned to the Park Plaza so we could trundle off to bed.

Hahaha, just kidding. Bedtime. Right.

It turned out that sleep was still hours away, since it was time for the “Beer Social” back in the conference room. Sponsors poured rare and wonderful beers from across the States. Attendees chatted, tasted, imaged, blogged, tweeted, pinned, and posted.  A large screen TV projected a never-ending roll of #BBC13 tweets from attendees.

I tasted several excellent beers, including the latest “Chateau Rogue” offering — made only with ingredients grown on Rogue’s Oregon property — as well as Sierra Nevada’s “Ovila”, the latest in a series of collaborations with the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux meant to raise funds for the monastery’s new chapterhouse. (That at least, is the gist of what I remember. My notes by this point in the day are a series of single words accompanied by a lot of exclamation marks and some mysterious doodles: “Cistercian! Ovila!! S. Nevada! ZOMG!!! Trappist!”, etc. )

Eventually Elaine and I drifted off to bed, but I understand that the tastings went on well past midnight. When the Beer Social finally shut down, attendees apparently gathered in each others’ hotel rooms to swap interesting beers they had brought with them until the rosy fingers of dawn lit the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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