My wife doesn’t even have to ask any more. Once we pull onto Merrimac Street in Newburyport, Massachusetts, finding ourselves just a few blocks from her mom’s townhouse, we turn into a nearby parking lot. Betsy is probably eager to see her mom and her mom is probably eager to see her daughter and granddaughter and, hell, maybe even me. But we still need to make this one stop.
While I jog into Leary’s Fine Wine & Spirits, my wife and baby, Ellie, stay in the car. It’s an effective strategy that Betsy knows will guarantee I won’t linger too long. But I don’t need much beer, just enough to get me through the weekend.
There’s that old joke about the guy whose doctor tells him he has a month to live. So he decides to move in with his mother-in-law – living with her for a whole month will seem like forever. I don’t feel that way though; I actually really like my mother-in-law and enjoy spending time with her. No, what I truly fear in life is having to suffer for a few days without any good beer while visiting her.
Isn’t that every beer geek’s biggest fear? Having to travel some place – not of his or her own choosing –that doesn’t have anything decent to drink. Luckily, craft beer has become so pervasive as we move deeper in the 21st century, that even the sleepiest towns now usually has a few good options. In fact, charting how the beer scene has improved in a random place like, say, Newburyport offers a good microcosm for how rapidly craft beer has grown and spread throughout the entire country.
Back in 2010 it was truly a struggle, and often I traveled with my own beer in tow, like some damn hobo.”
Newburyport is a nice seaport town north of Boston. It certainly wouldn’t be the first place you’d think of for a beer-cation. The population is a mere 17,000 or so, and most of those folks are are well over the age of 40, raising families or having already raised them. You’d expect these people to spend their weekends at high school sporting events, big box stores, and the occasional parade, not hip brewpubs. And visitors to town are more likely attracted by the welcoming B&Bs or the lovely beaches of nearby Plum Island – not any sort of rare bottle release.
That’s all the more reason to examine the area’s beer scene.
I first started visiting Newburyport in the summer of 2010 with my then-girlfriend Betsy. Back then there was nothing. Not a single brewery. Very few quality tap lists. There was Leary’s, yes, but even its selection wasn’t all too robust just yet (not like today when I can score a bomber of Funky Buddha Maple Bacon Coffee Porter or cans of Wormtown Be Hoppy there).
Back in 2010 it was truly a struggle, and often I traveled with my own beer in tow, like some damn hobo. I can’t imagine what my mother-in-law thought about the new drunk her daughter had just started dating, more concerned about having a Samsonite full of fresh beer than clean socks.
Today, though, just a half-decade later, Newburyport and the surrounding areas offers a vibrant beer scene. No, it’s no “beer mecca” akin to San Diego or Waterbury, Vermont, and I doubt it will ever be. But the rise of craft beer in towns like Newburyport spells the rise of craft beer as an unstoppable force amongst the whole world.
I start my days in Newburyport like I start my days in every city on planet earth – by drinking coffee all by myself. Newburyport has three pretty good coffee shops, all within walking distance of my mother-in-law’s home, but I’m partial to Atomic Coffee.
I’ll grab an Americano, sitting at one of the tables to try and write this very piece on my laptop, read a book, or, more likely, dick around on Twitter. The coffee shop has a small bar and, were I to still be drinking coffee here at noon, I could seamlessly transition my liquid intake from Ethiopian Sidamo to American ale. Atomic doesn’t just have good beer for a coffee shop; it has good beer, period. Eight taps that include plenty of local options like Jack’s Abby Mass Rising, and a bottle list that has featured a collaboration stout Atomic did with Clown Shoes Beer.
This time I opt for a coffee-infused Founders Breakfast Stout. I won’t totally be lying when I return back to my mother-in-law’s and receive some questioning from my wife.
“You were gone for awhile?”
“Well I had two cups of a coffee. (And a pint of coffee too.)”
Now I’m fortified for the rest of the day. Most afternoons we’ll all head out to putz around, do some window shopping on State Street, or drive to a shopping mall with stores not available to us in New York City. I’m shameless and I can turn anything into a bar crawl, and I’m not afraid to bring anyone and everyone along with me. Whether wife, mother-in-law, or ten-month-old baby. Downtown Newburyport these days has quite a few good craft beer options spaced between clothing stores and accessories boutiques, but you’d never think it at first glance.
When the Wicked Weed is too funky for my mother-in-law, we just rotate the beers in a circle like they’re on an invisible lazy susan.”
The Grog is a real local favorite for dining, but it’s an unexpected craft beer secret too. From the outside it looks like a standard tavern, a place you’d expect to serve, well, grog. Ice-cold macro beers and well spirits and soda-gunned mixers: Some grog to glug as you focus more closely on tasty bowls of clam chowder and baskets of fried oysters.
But, I’ve been stunned by the some of the beers I’ve found on tap there over the past several years. Barrel-aged sours from Allagash and Grimm IPAs I sometimes can’t even find in Brooklyn, and even the rarest of Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout variants. You can always be assured something good is on tap because The Grog isn’t the kind of place young geeks monitor closely on social media or BeerMenus, just waiting for an intriguing offering they can tap out the second it goes on. I’m not even sure there are enough geeks within the vicinity to do such a thing, which is always one underrated aspect of searching for good beer in un-hyped places.
Across the street and a little up the way is The Port Tavern, which seems like more of a craft beer hot spot from the outside. Traveling with your mother-in-law in her hometown has its privileges. A former, much-beloved high school guidance counselor, every time we leave the house it’s likely we’ll run into someone whose life she changed when they were younger. Such is the case on our last visit to The Port Tavern, as we roll in on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon. The bar is packed with people watching sports, eating pulled pork nachos, pounding beers – and we have a massive stroller with us that’s just gonna get in everyone’s way.
Lugging along a bar baby is rarely an issue in my yuppie, family-friendly neighborhood in Brooklyn, but it’s often looked at a little more askance in other, more respectable communities. Still, the GM of The Port Tavern immediately recognizes my mother-in-law and has no problem hooking us up with a seat by the windows, with plenty of space for a stroller. We strategically order our beers to make sure all three adults are happy – opting for a Epic Big Bad Baptista, a Wicked Weed saison, and a local IPA. When the Wicked Weed is too funky for my mother-in-law, we just rotate the beers in a circle like they’re on an invisible lazy susan. It’s a nice mid-day respite.
Right from the get-go, Newburyport Brewing Company offered a slick tasting room and a very nice design aesthetic.”
The Paddle Inn is the newest kid on State Street and it’s immediately become perhaps the best bar in town. The decor is straight surf city U.S.A., funny during a happy hour that sees snow falling outside. While Beach Blanket Bingo plays on the lone TV and a Jan and Dean vinyl spins on the record player, we nosh on coconut beef skewers and an elevated take on Crab Rangoon.
The Paddle Inn’s beverage program is focused on tiki and I’m no stranger to the exotic lure of orgeat and velvet falernum. The beer offerings are quite good too, though, and a group of fortysomethings at the bar are banging down cans of Stone Delicious IPA. Taking a break from beer I opt for the “Drunken Monkey,” a three rum cocktail that is as good as anything you’d get in Boston or New York.
Of course, man can’t live on tiki alone, and there’s two breweries in town these days. I remember how excited I was when they both opened back in 2012.
Newburyport Brewing Company burst into awareness a little quicker than Riverwalk Brewing Co. Right from the get-go, NBC offered a slick tasting room and a very nice design aesthetic. Their canned beers were simple – a Belgian white, a pale ale, an IPA – but well-executed and always named after something only locals would know about. I even served some of their Green Head IPA at my 2014 wedding on the Newburyport waterfront.
Since then, NBC has also become well-known outside of town. Their cans of beer are now served on certain Delta flights, and they’re expanding production to a larger brewing facility in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Riverwalk may be actually making the better beers these days. Their Storm Door Porter winter seasonal, made with Madagascar vanilla and cinnamon, is delightful; and it doesn’t hurt that my wife went to highschool with brewer/owner Steve Sanderson.
The nice thing about Newburyport, like most New England towns these days, is you’re a short drive to something truly world-class in the beer world. “Short drive” is how you define it, but if we wanted to – and we’ve done this many times before – we could be in Portland, Maine in about an hour and hit up, say, Allagash, Bissell Bros., and Novare Res before heading home. In the past we’ve visited Jack’s Abby in Framingham, the Armsby Abbey in Worcester, even Tree House Brewing in nearby Monson. Closer to my mother-in-law, though, is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just over the border.
Smuttynose and Portsmouth Brewery are there, but on this trip we check out WHYM, a new-ish bar I’d noticed had just made Draft Magazine’s recent top 100 beer bars list. Owner Alex Aviles left the corporate world and learned how to open a craft beer bar with a quick apprenticeship at the famed Ebenezer’s Pub in Lovell, Maine. (That reminds me I’ve never visited Ebenezer’s before and I should probably correct that on my next trip to the MIL’s.)
Some friends from nearby meet us at WHYM, and while our respective children make a mess of the joint, grandma watches, the moms gab, and us dads order bottles of Deciduous sours off the reserve list. I’m particularly impressed by Nelson Sylph, a dry-hopped, mix-fermentation farmhouse ale.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time to sample everything I want to try. It’s nearing 6 PM, and we got a baby to get to bed. My bar crawling weekend is officially done, but luckily, I still have some of my initial Leary’s purchases in the fridge. I can still end my Saturday night sipping something good.
I hope you don’t just take this story as a meandering tale about a bar crawling crew ranging in ages from 10 months to, well, I probably shouldn’t say. Instead, I hope you take this as a motivational missive to quit assuming the places that aren’t hyped are lackluster. This is a plea to start trying the breweries that aren’t well-regarded, or even regarded at all, by the folks on geeky beer forums. You may discover something you really like.
This is also a request to go to those off-the-beaten path bars in the towns of your family and friends, and introduce them to whatever craft beer is available. Sure, the Ashevilles and Grand Rapids of the beer world are as great as people say, but it’s the rising tide of these smaller towns that continues raising all beer ships. So whether it’s Kittery, Maine or Rochester, New York, Tucson, Arizona or yes, Newburyport, Massachusetts, these are the locales that are truly turning craft beer into a ubiquitous force in this country. Whether you’re drinking in those cities with your mother-in-law or not.
Of course, I always do recommend drinking with your mother-in-law. Because if yours is like mine, she’ll usually pick up your hefty bar tab, then drive your buzzed ass home. Thanks, mom!