Each year, the Super Bowl brings hours of sporting entertainment to thousands of football fans in two American cities lucky enough to have their teams advance to the nation's championship. These die-hard fans, and many more who have picked sides by rivalry or gambling, raptly absorb days of pregame television coverage, pour hours into playoff fantasy competitions, and effuse on countless online fora in advance of the climactic gridiron duel.
Meanwhile, millions of other people celebrate an excuse to eat and drink for four hours.
Joking aside, food's not the only reason I love Super Bowl parties (I do like gambling), but if I'm going to park on a couch all night and watch two teams I was raised to hate, the beer selection had better be up to the task. So in the spirit of sport, we've pitted the Super Bowl cities in a brawl of the brews to see who would come out on top if the best beer town took home the trophy. (If you missed it, read our third-place matchup between Baltimore and San Francisco).
Boston (Or, The Area Outside Foxborough)
Sharp readers will notice that headline reads "Boston," while the New England Patriots in fact play in Foxborough, Massachusetts, some 30 miles outside the city. In the interest of actually having something to write about, though, we'll be focusing on Boston.*
Any discussion about brews in Boston has to start with Boston Beer Company, a.k.a. makers of Samuel Adams. I don't need to introduce Boston Lager, which they've been making since 1985, but it's a beer easily taken for granted. If you're reading a nerdy story like this, it's probably been a while since you had a plain old Boston Lager. But revisit it, and you'll find a well-balanced beer, with round caramel flavor and a dry finish nudged along by scant hops. It's a beer you can take home to Mom.
Meanwhile, Sam Adams churns out an amazing variety of other recipes, with a pretty good success rate. There are some sorry transgressions, such as their Cranberry Lambic (not a real lambic) and Summer Ale (tastes like soap). But you'll forgive these sins when you consider their ongoing support of nearly forgotten styles such as schwarzbier. Their Black Lager is a toasty dedication to the style, and one of the few that's widely available in the U.S.
Yeah, Sam Adams also makes a much-hyped beer called Utopias with an abv around 27% and a price tag that's ten times that number. But I'm more excited when they break out the Noble hops, a subdued, grassy group of varieties from continental Europe. Look for that signature twang in their Noble Pils, Imperial Pilsner, and a new addition this year, an unfiltered, dry-hopped lager called Alpine Spring.
Harpoon Brewery opened in Boston just a year after Sam Adams did, and over the years they've also grown into a recognizable national brand with flagships like their eponymous IPA and UFO Hefeweizen. These two are fine starting points, but advanced drinkers (as in "experienced," not "late-night") might keep an eye on the limited-edition 100 Barrel Series, which has yielded highlights like the deep, mineral-y Island Creek Oyster Stout and a vibrant harvest ale made with Czech hops called Dočesná. Out now is a black IPA, something we saw plenty of earlier this week in our consolation match.
Then there's the sprightly upstart brewery Pretty Things, the husband-and-wife duo of Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Paquette, who make good beers in, well, pretty packages. Their flagship is the lemony saison, Jack D'Or—and when a brewery stakes its reputation on a saison, that's usually a good sign. But this beer aside, Pretty Things is at its best when tackling the English traditions, as with the snifter-worthy barleywine Our Finest Regards. It shines where most American barleywines falter, easing off the hops and putting sweet, leather-and-fruitcake malts at the forefront.
Brew York City
Brooklyn housed nearly 50 breweries before Prohibition. That number's far lower today, but the borough is still New York's brewing stronghold, and is most prominently home to Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg. Their flagship lager is a malty affair, a Vienna-style amber in the vein of Samuel Adams, though a touch sweeter. And like Sam Adams, they have a couple (older) missteps forgiven by the nice new big-bottle and draft-only recipes. One sip of Brooklyn's Sorachi Ace saison packs enough zesty lemon and shiso flavor to banish the thought of any Brooklyn options you didn't like.
One more similarity to Sam Adams? Both have collaborated with prestigious German brewers, Sam partnering with Weihenstephan on the Champagne-style wheat Infinium and Brooklyn with Schneider on the sadly defunct Hopfen-Weisse, a glorious one-time weissbock that married fruity American hopping with the banana-clove notes of a traditional hefeweizen.
A newer kid on the block is Sixpoint Craft Ales, from the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was founded in 2005. Their flagship beers, including the Sweet Action cream ale, Sehr Crisp Pilsner, Bengali Tiger IPA, and Righteous Rye, all favor a sticky-bud wad of hops, enough to push their pilsner and cream ale into weird, dank new territory.
While that flavor profile seems to be winning over the East Coast—in 2011 the brewery added a canning line, expanded distribution along the coast, and doubled their production—their more rarified draft-only experiments are the ones to watch out for. Their smoked beer Signal (get it?) is an exercise in restraint, a light and fast IPA that only hints at the hops and smoked malt therein.
Then there's Coney Island Craft Lagers, a project of San Francisco's Schmaltz Brewing Company that in fact has precious little to do with New York. But they do have a tiny one-gallon brewery on the Coney strip, and they donate to the nonprofit that maintains the neighborhood, so it's worth a mention. Their extreme approach to lagers can yield some pretty aggressive stuff, but start with their plain old Coney Island Lager, a bready, toffee brew that, well, kind of tastes the way the label looks.
It pains me that we couldn't include Long Island, because it'd finally be my excuse to visit Barrier Brewing, the tiny project of Sixpoint alumni Evan Kramer and Craig Frymark, who just cannot seem to make a bad beer. Then you've got bigger names like Southampton and Blue Point, and a bevy of smaller shops—for a complete guide, ask a local (hope you like Comic Sans).
The Final Whistle
We have a tough decision on our hands. Of the two cities, the moment seems to be New York's, where a new wave of brewers are innovating on small-batch systems. To be sure, both New York and Boston have a number of small breweries we couldn't cover here. And a comparison of the big-name boys, Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Brewery, reveals a remarkably similar approach to a reliable basic beers with an eye on collaboration and invention.
But this is the Super Bowl—the trophy has to go to the maker of the best easy-going beer, the victor of a Vienna-lager throwdown. Brooklyn Lager vs. Boston Lager: can't you picture them helmet-to-helmet on your TV like some amped-up Bud Bowl? Between these two, the one I want alongside my nachos and guac has to be roastier, hoppier, livelier of the two: Samuel Adams. Congratulations, Boston, you've won the Serious Eats 2012 Super Bowl Beer Showdown. Check your mailbox soon for your, um, special commemorative bottle opener!
*Nerd note: Nearly all of these breweries have some sort of asterisk in the "location" category. Brooklyn and Coney Island's bottled beers are mostly brewed upstate, Sixpoint brews in Pennsylvania, and Samuel Adams contract brews in a few locations around the country. Harpoon has a production brewery in Vermont, and Pretty Things rents space from other breweries nearby. But hey, football teams leave town for training camp, right?
Disclosure: All beers but Pretty Things were provided as samples for review.
About the author: After serving for three years as the Washington City Paper's dedicated beer columnist, today Orr Shtuhl writes and drinks in indiscriminate order. You can follow him on Twitter at @beerspotter.