When Harpoon Brewery opened in 1987 on the South Boston Waterfront, aesthetics were an afterthought. The loading docks of a working brewery matched those of neighboring businesses. Getting folks to come to the neighborhood at all — to a beer factory in particular — was not a goal.
Now, the country’s eighth-largest craft brewer wants you to pull up a stool and stay awhile. Harpoon recently underwent a $3.5 million renovation to better accommodate visitors who have flocked to the brewery.
A new European-style beer hall will cap a revamped visitors center, scheduled to open on Feb. 1. The Harpoon facility is the latest addition to the revitalized waterfront’s growing roster of attractions, just blocks away from the Bank of America Pavilion and a host of new restaurants.
A pour of beer will sell for $5.75 at the Harpoon hall. Patrons will be able to choose from 20 tap offerings, including pilot batches. They can also take beer home in “growlers,” 64-ounce glass jugs filled by a state-of-the-art filling machine from Austria that allows the beer to keep for weeks.
Harpoon’s beer hall will sell hand-rolled pretzels on site, but no other food offerings.
“We’re very careful, because we don’t want people to think we’re opening a competing restaurant,” said Dan Kenary, a Harpoon cofounder.
The new Harpoon visitors center is something cofounder Rich Doyle never thought he’d see on his little slab of Northern Avenue.
“This is so far-fetched from where we were I couldn’t even relate to it [in 1987],” said Doyle. “We had 87,000 people visit the brewery last year. I had no clue about that when we started. You have to grow into that.”
The scope of Harpoon’s growth has been substantial. In 2012, 193,000 barrels were brewed onsite and at the company’s second brewery in Windsor, Vt. Next to those original loading docks, shiny new tanks in the parking lot have more than tripled the brewery’s production from 60,000 barrels just a few years ago.
Despite the growth, Harpoon remains a much smaller competitor to the city’s best-known craft brewer, the Boston Beer Co. The company that makes Sam Adams and other brews shipped 778,000 barrels in just three months over last summer.
As it happens, Boston Beer’s headquarters is located only blocks away from the Harpoon brewery and its new center. Visitors to Boston Beer Co.’s Jamaica Plain brewery can sample beer in small groups, but there is no dedicated bar.
Doyle and Kenary drew inspiration for the new Harpoon facility from beer halls they visited on trips to Germany over the last two decades. They wanted to build a room where patrons could sip good beer and easily start up conversations.
Large windows draw natural light onto long, communal tables made from fallen Vermont butternut trees. A bar in the center of the room divides the space, which offers views of the bones of the brewery on one side and of Boston Harbor on the other.
The 6,000-square-foot facility will be pouring beer for a maximum of 300 people, pending approval by the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. A catwalk will form the new tour route and allow visitors to quickly transition from beer hall to factory and back to beer hall.
“The process of brewing beer and enjoying beer are brought together beautifully,” said Charlie Storey, Harpoon’s project manager for the visitor center. Studio Luz was hired to design the space, which replaces a tasting room on the other side of the building that wasn’t designed to host the crowds that tour the brewery now.
Doyle said opening something onsite has been a goal for 10 years or more. The company had even considered building a beer hall down the street, before the site of the new center became available three years ago.
Harpoon also has a new $2.5 million canning line on the way, a nod to the rapidly acceptable notion that quality beer not only can, but should, break free of the bottle. Oskar Blues, an award-winning Colorado brewery, has been brewing all its beer in cans since 2002. Harpoon canned its summer beer last year but did so off-site, trucking the beer to Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, N.Y. The company would like to can other beers and expand its canned offerings into tailgating season.
“You can stack twice as many cans in a cooler,” said Kenary.
The beer itself has also changed at Harpoon. Harpoon’s flagship IPA was once revolutionary but now falls in the middle of the bitterness spectrum in an increasingly extreme beer market. Harpoon IPA is still Doyle’s favorite beer, but he and Kenary have put their names on “Rich and Dan’s Rye IPA,” owing to the increasing popularity of the style. The beer is drier, spicier, and more bitter than the flagship brew. Harpoon’s “100 Barrel Series” turns out small batches of recipes selected by individual brewers and brewed only one time.
That variety has both complicated the day-to-day operations of Harpoon and kept the brewery on trend with the explosion of the craft industry. There are currently 44 breweries in Massachusetts, with about 20 more in planning stages, according to Kristen Sykes, executive director of the Massachusetts Brewer’s Guild.
“This has become one of the best places in the world to drink local beer, and Harpoon has played a leading role in that,” said Sykes.