The dark beady eyes of freshly-caught lobsters stare at you as you walk into Boston’s Row 34. Two men in aprons, tight black hats and black gloves shuck shellfish behind an ice-filled cooler, pulling the sea creatures apart and placing them on a plate, tray or platter for waiters to deliver to awaiting eaters. The bar surrounds the shucking station. From this coveted vantage point, guests can observe the coordinated dance of chefs and bartenders. Above is the beer menu—a black felt board with white letters displaying the restaurant’s stellar offerings: Jester King, Trillium, Blackberry Farm, Lost Abbey and Cascade.
The raw bar and the beer list at Row 34 are two factors that draw a consistent crowd of foodies and beer aficionados. They’re here to sip saison and slurp Duxbury oysters, but the truly special offerings are tucked away underneath a set of stairs and behind boxes of wine. This is Row 34’s “cellar. ” And it was only recently opened to the public.
The cellar is actually a bookshelf that beer director Suzanne Hays has been stocking with rare, vintage and special release beers from across the globe that she gets through various distributors. She’s hoarded the bottles with the hope of someday sharing them in a way that honored the beer, while also giving the growing beer community a chance to try something new. That day came in November, when Hays started the “Bookshelf Beer” program, which lets customers try some of the rare and unique beer selected from her growing cellar. One Sunday every month, Row 34 offers one of these beers by the glass and announces the selection via social media. The program is not ticketed, nor is it secret. It’s open to anyone on a first-come first-served basis.
“What I really wanted to focus on when I first got this job [two years ago] was the cellar program and how are we going to do it so that it's creative but also inclusive of everyone,” Hays says. “There are some bars that will have a secret list or a VIP list. It's great to have back-stock, or some random things here or there to give someone a special touch, but I wanted to make it special for everyone. Anyone can come in and enjoy something from the cellar list.”
The problem, according to Hays, is the availability of the beers. By offering them to everyone all the time, she runs the risk of running out quickly. Beer geeks and industry insiders would swarm in and steal the march. Hays wants the program to not only cater to the people in the know, but also to newer beer drinkers. The “Bookshelf Beer” program makes rare beer accessible to anyone who walks into the restaurant. For Hays, the program is an extension of Row 34’s mission.
Since it opened four years ago, Row 34 has earned praise for its approach to local food, namely seafood, that connects New England’s fishing past to contemporary dining. Many of the fish served today at Row 34 would not have appeared on the menu at an uppercrust restaurant 20 years ago. Bluefish, for example, was considered a throwaway fish—returned to the ocean during the search for Atlantic cod, haddock or sea bass. Today, at Row 34, bluefish is elegant and refined as a smoked bluefish pâté or pan seared with seasonal ingredients.
Like bluefish or oysters, farmhouse and wild ales can be uncharted territory. It takes a leap of faith and someone to take you on the journey to understand why they’re special. The first oyster I ever ate slid into my mouth like a cold slug—slimy, slick and somehow also sticky. The gray shell, with it’s slate-like flaked appearance, the bits of sea-bottom that looked like wet mold stuck to it and then the lifeless, gelatinous and gray “food” stared at me. I couldn’t take it and spit it out after a few bites. I wasn’t ready for it then. I needed an introduction to the oyster. I needed to embrace something foreign and that takes time and trust. Something similar happened for me when I tried my first sip of Chimay and my first Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.
That is what Book Shelf Beer program at Row 34 wants to promote. It’s a chance for the outsiders to join the community and a chance for everyone experience something special. Beers, like the ones Hays has procured, can be hard to find because the biggest of fans don’t want everyone in on their secret, and because often times there’s a limited quantity of it share in the first place. So far, the program has featured a few exclusive bottles brewed by Tommie Sjef in the Netherlands, some of retired brewery Pretty Things' barleywine Our Finest Regards and tapped a keg of Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus. Soon it will feature bottles by Crooked Stave, 3 Fonteinen and Prairie Ales.
The restaurant’s ethos is not only to serve but also to educate. Beer, like oysters and wine, has its own language and nuance. It takes time and experience to understand. It also sometimes takes someone like Hays holding your hand and showing you the way. For Hays and the Bookshelf program, the future is open. Because it’s still in its infancy, there are no restrictions or steadfast rules. She hopes to someday curate vertical tastings of beers and bring in more Belgian beers. One things is for sure, each beer, like every oyster, will be special. They will introduce beer nerds and novices alike to something old and something new.