Did you know that there are only two types of beer? That is one of the facts that I learned on my visit to the Samuel Adams brewery, which is located in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. While I have been to several whiskey distilleries (more here), Samuel Adams was actually my first brewery tour. Visits are free and include a guided tour, a souvenir glass, and a short sampling session of a few beers on tap.
When I arrived on the campus, my first impression was that the brewery seemed to be somewhat small given that the Samuel Adams name is a staple at bars and liquor stores across New England. On the tour, I learned that although the Boston brewery is the Samuel Adams homebase and research center, there are larger breweries located in Pennsylvania and Ohio to help handle production.
Our tour group was large, around thirty people, including families with children, a young couple with a baby, college kids, middle aged couples, and myself. I think I was the only one to come solo.
Our first stop on the tour was the ingredients room. This is where I learned that there are two ‘types’ of beer—lagers and ales. All other beer ‘types’ like stouts, are just different styles of one of the two true beer types. Also, in the ingredients room, I learned that Samuel Adams beer is brewed with four main ingredients—hops, barley, yeast, and (my favorite) water. Limiting the main ingredients allows Samuel Adams beer to adhere to the German purity law “Reinheitsgebot.” This law prohibits alcoholic beverages made with many ingredients to be sold under the designation of “beer.”
In the next room, we learned about how the four ingredients are magically turned into beer. First, malt is combined with hot water and turned into mash, which is a hot oatmeal like substance. Then, the mash is strained to remove solid spent grain, which is subsequently recycled and sent off to be used as animal feed. Next, the liquid batch is turned into a sugary substance known as ‘wort.’ The wort is whirled around a vat and boiled for 60-90 mins while hops are gradually added into the mix. This whirlpooling process filters out the remaining solids from the wort. After, the wort is cooled down in a machine called a ‘heat exchanger’ through a heat transfer method. Following is the fermentation process in which yeast is added to the batch and creates CO2 and alcohol. The fermentation process ends when the yeast goes dormant and is filtered out. At this point we are left with what is known as “green beer,” which is not actually green but called this because the beer is not yet “ripe.” To ripen the green beer it must go through the final phase of the process known as “conditioning.” This basically means that the beer is aged and imparted with aromas—typically hops (which has a woody, citrusy flavor), but the aroma could be anything including coffee beans, honey, or even cherries.
Did you catch all of that? I took notes on my phone during the tour and felt rude because I’m sure I looked uninterested and unappreciative.
We ended the tour with everyone’s favorite part—the beer tasting. We did not just ‘taste’ the beers like a bunch of classless joes. No, we went through a five-step “appraisal” process like the sophisticated Samuels that we were.
Step one—sight. We held up our beer, a Boston lager, to the light and noted clear gold, amber, yellow, and burnt sienna hues.
Step two—smell. We inhaled the hops, which you will remember has a citrus, woody aroma.
Step three—feel. We took a small drag of our sample and swished the liquid around in our mouths before swallowing to coat our palates. This process is called chewing the beer. At this point one can determine whether the beer is ‘light bodied’ (more watery), ‘heavy bodied’ (a strong lingering taste), or ‘medium bodied.’ While the Boston lager is designed to have a medium finish, this is actually subjective and based on the the quality of the consumer’s palate, which can be influenced by smoking among other things.
Step four—flavor. We tasted the beer two more times—once a slow slurp and swallow, and the second time a quick swig. Apparently, the taste was supposed to hit us differently each time, however, my unrefined palate detected no difference.
Step five—overall appraisal. We took a sip and shared our thoughts.
We sampled two other beers after the lager—the Sam ‘76, which is more citrusy and the Coffee Pale Ale (not in production during the time of this writing).
I learned a lot and had a good time on this trip. The tour guide and bartender were friendly and well-informed. The factory was quirky and old-timey looking. My favorite little touch was the clock in the tasting room, which was set permanently to 5pm. This trip was a nice change of pace for me and was well worth my, believe it or not, 3-hour round trip commute (more here). The next time you find yourself at a bar, check to see if they have the Samuel Adams on tap.