Food & dining

Beer isn’t the only draw at taprooms

Brewer Johnny Lespasio adds hops to a batch of beer at soon-to-open Castle Island Brewing in Norwood.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Brewer Johnny Lespasio adds hops to a batch of beer at soon-to-open Castle Island Brewing in Norwood.

It’s a cold night in February and the tiny taproom at one end of an unglamorous industrial building in Everett is at capacity. A line is forming in the hallway — one in, one out — for pours of Key Lime White Ale and Shut Up Kelly, a really solid porter. This is only Everett’s second-most popular taproom — a couple blocks away, Night Shift Brewing is thrumming.

“Is it worth it?” some dude asks as I walk out of Bone Up (38 Norman St., Everett) and past the growing line to get in.

I’ve waited in more beer lines than I care to recall, and that question always nags at me. But all over Greater Boston, the answer to that and every other question isn’t “yes” or “no.” It’s “BEER.”

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In characterless sections of Canton and Malden and Everett and Norwood and Framingham that look like the after-dark stamping grounds of serial killers, brewery taprooms have become wildly popular destinations.

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“Every time I walk in on a Saturday with my family, it is kind of jaw-dropping,” said J.C. Tetreault, who founded Trillium Brewing out of a Fort Point hole-in-the-wall with his wife, Esther, in 2013. About a year and a half ago, Trillium expanded to a massive facility near the end of an industrial park in Canton, adding substantial production space and a taproom. Now, walk in on a weekend and the cavernous concrete and steel structure is jammed with a diverse crowd, including more than a few dogs and babies.

Pouring bracingly fresh beer straight from the on-site brewery, largely or entirely eschewing food, taprooms are sprouting up all over the area, and more are on the way. What’s drawing so many fickle drinkers to these relatively remote locales? Beer, sure — that’s our answer for everything. But there’s something else that separates the good from the great.

“Beyond just the beer involved, there’s sort of a culture that’s growing and evolving very rapidly,” Tetreault said. And if you haven’t been to one of the many taprooms to open in the area in the last couple years, you might be surprised by what that culture looks like. Food trucks and restaurant pop-ups feed the assembled crowds. Yoga sessions start early on weekend mornings and runners turn out en masse for 5K races. Board game nights and skeeball tournaments enliven dreary weeknights.

“Taprooms are great brand-builders, and obviously they help the bottom line,” said Adam Romanow, owner of Castle Island Brewing (31 Astor Ave., Norwood), which will open its new taproom Friday at 11 a.m.

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Castle Island has been distributing some of its beers to stores and restaurants — you may have encountered Candlepin, a hoppy, low-alcohol session IPA and Keeper, its big brother, both worth trying. But until now, Castle Island has offered only small samples and beer to go out of its brewery, a couple blocks off Route 1 in Norwood, flanked by two auto body shops and a tile outlet. Romanow said he’s hopeful folks working in nearby offices will stop in, and special brewery-only releases and events will draw crowds from all over.

“It unlocks a certain emotional response,” Romanow said. “People are starting to see taprooms a little bit more as a community space. It’s not all about geeking out and chasing the latest greatest beer.”

But the great thing about these taprooms — all inside I-495, all relatively new — is that you can do both.

When Trillium Brewing (110 Shawmut Road, Canton) opened its taproom in late 2015, it wasn’t really even a taproom. You could sample beers before buying bottles or growlers (they later added a canning line) but it was a while before hanging out with a beer and a whole bunch of other people’s dogs and babies became a thing. Now, the place gets so jammed that overflow parking takes over the lots at Trillium’s new storage, cellaring, and office space building on a hill behind the brewery.

And while popups from the likes of Moody’s Delicatessen and Exodus Bagels are surely an attraction, the real draw is some of the finest beer in the world: The website RateBeer recently named Trillium the third-best brewery in the world. In addition to Trillium’s excellent core offerings, like Congress Street IPA and a slew of variants on Fort Point Pale Ale, each dry hopped with a different hop variety, there are often rarities to be had. Over the winter, I stopped in for an extra-strength version of Pot & Kettle porter that had been aged in a bourbon barrel — rich, roasted, and spiked just slightly with notes of vanilla from the barrel — and bracingly tart sour beers aged on a variety of different fruits.

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“It’s hard to expect anything that Trillium has experienced,” Tetreault said. “We didn’t really have a clear path to get there from where we started.” Now, Trillium has a new beer garden on the Rose Kennedy Greenway and plans for a big restaurant and brewery in Fort Point, where the whole thing began.

‘It unlocks a certain emotional response. People are starting to see taprooms a little bit more as a community space. It’s not all about geeking out and chasing the latest greatest beer.’

Adam Romanow, owner of Castle Island Brewing 

Up in Salem, Notch Brewing (283 Rear Derby St., Salem) does things a little differently. Though the brewery, which specializes in low-alcohol session beers in a variety of interesting styles, has been around for a while and distributes widely, its beautiful taproom on the water opened only a year ago. And unlike many taprooms, it is not simply the most presentable corner of a cavernous industrial facility; Notch brews its standard beers — you’ve probably seen Session Pils on tap — at Two Roads Brewing in Connecticut. The taproom offers smaller batches brewed on site, such as Roggenbier, a slightly spicy, fruity German rye beer that drinks like a slightly more complex Hefeweizen.

“We use the taproom almost as R&D,” said owner and head brewer Chris Lohring — that’s research and development — testing out new recipes and styles and tweaking them, deciding what to brew on a large scale in the future. For customers, that means an ever changing taplist of interesting, low-alcohol options (and really good German-style pretzels) to accompany games of skeeball or weekly 5K races. And the taproom gives the brewery — often the smallest margins of everyone in the three-tiered distribution chain — a chance to boost its bottom line by selling beer directly to its customers.

Another established brewer with a new taproom and a commitment to brewing a variety of interesting styles, Idle Hands (89 Commercial St., Malden) may have struck gold with Four Seam, a delicious, citrus-heavy take on a hazy New England IPA. But while juicy American ales are trendy, on-point Belgian-style beers are what put this place on the map (and are a lot harder to find fresh these days). Try Triplication, a 9.8 percent alcohol wrecking ball of a tripel, full of spice and ripe fruit.

On the South Shore, Barrel House Z (95 Woodrock Road, Weymouth) opened its doors a year ago. Former Harpoon head brewer Russ Heissner and his team are focusing on aging beers in a variety of spirits barrels — and the barrels are all over the taproom: the bar, the fence around the beer garden outside, the host’s stand, and a big mug on the bar are all made from old barrel staves. Down an inconspicuous street populated by car repair shops, the carefully designed space somehow doesn’t feel industrial. The green grass and armchairs outside (more staves) are a great spot to sip beers like Townie, a caramel bomb of an Irish strong ale aged in rum barrels for a month. Some current offerings could benefit from a little more time in barrels — something that’s coming in the months and years ahead.

It’s more a geographic oddity than anything else, but Dorchester Brewing Co. (1250 Massachusetts Ave., Dorchester) was the first small brewery — as in, not Sam Adams or Harpoon — to open a taproom in the city in years (it was recently joined by Turtle Swamp, in Jamaica Plain). Dorchester Brewing’s cool, muscular wood and glass and metal taproom and brewery double as a contract brewery, and the taproom includes offerings from other brewers plying their trades here. Dorchester Brewing’s own offerings were solid if unspectacular when I visited a few months ago — the stouts and porters were ahead of the hoppier stuff — but options from gypsy brewers like Evil Twin and Omnipollo are often available as well. On a recent visit, I found Shploing!!, a mango s’mores IPA (. . . what?) that restored my waning interest in mango beers.

Across the river, Lamplighter Brewing (284 Broadway, Cambridge) has started to attract the attention of enthusiasts beyond the neighborhood crowds who pack the brewery-by-night, coffeehouse-by-day. Most recently, beer geeks went wild for Rabbit Rabbit, an unfiltered double IPA that drinks like it’s made with a pound of peach puree (it’s not — somehow it’s all hops and grain and yeast and water). Don’t sleep on Lamplighter’s offbeat styles. Cuppa, an English pale ale, was brewed with coffee from Longfellows — Lamplighter’s daytime identity. Fair warning: The small space can get unreasonably crowded. After five minutes on a Friday night, you’ll see why so many breweries seem to be expanding constantly.

For some of the very best New England-style IPAs this side of Monson (where world renowned Tree House Brewing is set to open a much larger brewery — and add a real taproom — this summer) head for Framingham, where two new taprooms have joined established lager specialists Jack’s Abby.

Springdale Barrel Room (102 Clinton St., Framingham), a Jack’s Abby offshoot in a fun, game-filled upstairs space next door, began by focusing on barrel-aged beers like Kriek Mythology, a bourbon barrel-aged take on the Belgian cherry lambic. It turned out their hoppy ales, like Amirite?! and Good N’ You?, were every bit as exciting. And you can order pizzas from Jack’s Abby’s excellent restaurant.

On the other side of town, in the brewery Jack’s Abby outgrew, Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing (81 Morton St., Framingham) isn’t the most enjoyable taproom experience — the space feels small and claustrophobic — but the beer, like Goody Two Shoes, a crisp Kolsch-style ale, and The Cat’s Meow, a hoppy-but-barely-bitter IPA, more than make up for it. And you can’t find special releases such as Sunday Paper, a massive imperial coffee stout, anywhere else.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at Nestor.Ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.