10 Massachusetts Craft Brewing Pioneers

The Bay State has been at the forefront of the East Coast craft brewing movement since its beginning in the early 1980s. Since then, countless influential brewers have contributed to both the national scene and the amazing beer culture we enjoy here in Massachusetts. Below are brief biographies of ten of them who we believe have been true pioneers. If you think we’ve egregiously left a deserving Massachusetts brewer off the list, let us know in the “submit a comment” section below. We’re always open to feedback.

Tim Morse – Commonwealth Brewing / John Harvard’s / Beer Works

Morse earned his chops for nearly a decade at West Coast pioneer Anchor Brewery during the first wave of the craft beer renaissance. He came East in the mid 1980s to join Hope Brewing, a short-lived Rhode Island contract brewer, before landing at the Bay State’s first brewpub, Commonwealth Brewing. There, along with talented brewers like Dan Kramer (Element), Phil Leinart (Ommegang) and John Mallet (Bell’s), he helped them establish a national reputation. When John Harvard’s Brewery opened in Cambridge in 1992 he jumped ship, helping them get established and then expand to 14 locations during their peak in the late 1990s. HIs efforts were recognized at the 2000 Great American Beer Festival when he was named Large Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year. By 2010, with three decades of experience at the kettle, he was tapped by Beerworks, the state’s other successful brewpub chain, to be director of its brewing operations, a job that included managing some 160 recipes and initiating their bottling and canning efforts.

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Jim Koch and his Sam Adams brand were pioneers in the early craft beer movement.

Jim Koch – Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams)

While Koch may not fit most people’s description of a brewer (he’s more of a businessman), his place as a pioneer in the craft beer movement is undeniable. Fewer than 50 breweries were operating in the U.S. in 1984 when he launched his plans for a beer company based on a modern interpretation of his great great grandfather’s lager recipe. Within a year, Boston Lager was being contract brewed (at the Pittsburg Brewing Co.) and served in a couple dozen establishments. The rest, as they say, is history: Sam Adams brewed more than 2 million barrels last year, is sold in all 50 states, and is largely credited for the craft beer revolution that now boasts more U.S. breweries than at any other time in history (more than 5,000 at last count). He opened the Jamaica Plain pilot brewery in 1987, has hosted an annual Long Shot homebrew competition since 1996, and still refuses to release any beer unless he likes it.

Steve Slesar – Beer Works

Like many successful Bay State brewers, Slesar began his career at the legendary Commonwealth Brewing Company. After a stint at Harpoon and then a return to Commonwealth, he and his brother Joe opened Boston Beer Works in 1992. While head brewer there, he developed recipes for beers like the Boston Red and many others that are still served at Beer Works locations to this day. One of the East Coast’s early brewing innovators, he was among the first in New England to brew both Blueberry and Pumpkin* beers. In addition to developing innovative beers, he also mentored a number of innovative brewers, including Jack Hendler of Framingham’s Jack’s Abby, Scott Houghton (Salem Beer Works and Battle Road), and John Kimmich, founder of Vermont’s Alchemist Brewery, whose Heady Topper is widely regarded as one of the premiere IPAs in the world. Before leaving the business in 2007, Beer Works had expanded to three locations (they now have six).

Dann Paquette – Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project

Whistle blower, self-proclaimed gypsy brewer, creator of some of the state’s most iconic brews – you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that’s had more of an impact on the Bay State craft beer scene then Paquette. He started in the early 1990s with brief stints at Ipswich, Pilgrim Brewery, Mill City Brewing (both defunct) and John Harvard’s before making a name for himself at the Northeast Brewing Company where his sours, Belgian-influenced, and barrel-aged beers were ahead of their time (literally, the brewpub closed in 2002 just five years after opening). He then served tours of duty at The Tap, where he created their popular Leatherlips IPA, and Concord Brewery, originating the first Rapscallion line of beers while there. In 2008 he started the Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, renting out space at different breweries where he produced a number of inspired beers that Norm Miller, the Beer Nut, described as “not good, not great, but amazing.” Unfortunately in late 2015, when the “pay-to-play” bribery scandal broke as a result of his complaints on social media, he abruptly pulled the plug on the Pretty Things project.

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Todd Mott’s IPA, brewed while he was at Harpoon, was the first taste many East Coast drinkers had of the now wildly popular style.

Tod Mott – Commonwealth Brewing and Harpoon

Most craft beer veterans are probably familiar with Mott for brewing his celebrated Kate the Great Russian Imperial Stout (rated the best beer in the world by Beer Advocate) while at Portsmouth Brewery, but he actually started his notable career in Boston. New Englanders should rejoice, because it was in summer of 1993 that he introduced East Coast beer drinkers to the Harpoon IPA. In addition to becoming the brewery’s all-time best-seller, it also sparked interest in the hoppy beers that are wildly popular today. Soon after, he moved to the Commonwealth Brewing Company, one of the most respected brewpubs in the country at the time, and then to Back Bay Brewing, where he brewed the original version of his award-winning beer, calling it the “Boston Strangler Stout.” After brief spells at The Tap and the now-defunct Quincy Ships Brewery, he spent more than a decade in Portsmouth before finally starting his own brewery, Tributary, in Kittery, Maine.

Ned LaFortune – Wachusett Brewing Company

One of Wachusett’s original co-founders, he along with two WPI classmates started home brewing right out of college. After building a pilot system, they incorporated in 1993 and then opened the first brewery in Central Mass. in his hometown of Westminster a year later. While a number of competing startup breweries fell by the wayside during the craft beer bubble of the late 1990s, his decision to self distribute and grow methodically was the key to their surviving. Surviving turned to thriving when the brewery secured lucrative accounts, first at the Mount Wachusett ski resort and then at Fenway Park with their Green Monsta IPA.Their 37,000 barrels worth of production in 2015 was third among Bay State brewers, behind only Sam Adams and Harpoon. LaFortune’s engineering background has played a key role in some of his biggest decisions, like installing a state-of-the-art canning line and creating a quality assurance lab, trends that have since become common practice among the nation’s most successful craft breweries,

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Actually a cream ale, Gary Bogoff’s Steel Rail was a gateway beer for many of today’s craft beer drinkers.

Gary Bogoff – Berkshire Brewing Company

The Bay State’s longest tenured brewer (1994 to present), Bogoff has been brewing no-frills, flavorful beers while preaching his brewery’s motto “it’s all about the beer, but beer is nothing without people” for more than two decades. His influential Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale, which “looks like what a premium lager drinker is used to, but tastes a whole lot better” has been a bridge for countless Bud-Miller-Coors drinkers into the world of craft beer. In addition to its classic taste, it hasn’t hurt that BBC’s Steel Rail and Coffeehouse Porter have been available on draft for more than a decade at bars and restaurants around the state, all the more impressive considering Bogoff insisted on self distributing (which has since become a trend) his brews from the get go. Bogoff and Berkshire have also been trailblazers in their commitment to environmentally sustainable practices: cutting down on waste, using recycled materials in packaging, and developing a first of its kind Rewash & Reuse program for bottles and growlers.

Chris Lohring – Tremont and Notch

After an apprenticeship at Kennebunkport Brewing in Maine, Lohring and a partner opened Atlantic Coast Brewing in Charlestown in 1994. His first beer, Tremont Ale, was immediately popular, earning New England’s “best new beer” title from the Yankee Brew News and inspiring the alternative name Tremont Brewery. But by 2001 the brewery had closed and the label had been sold to Shipyard Brewing, a casualty of what beer historians remember as the craft beer bust. A decade later in 2010 Lohring launched his second venture, Notch Brewing, the first American beer maker to exclusively brew low ABV or session beers (4.5% or less). And in another contrarian move, he bypassed the traditional brick and mortar brewery in favor of producing his beer as an independent contract brewer while developing the brand through social media (he has 18,000 followers on Twitter). Lohring recently rewarded his loyal followers with more no-gimmick, no-pretense beer when he opened a new brewery and German-style beer garden in downtown Salem.

Rob Martin – Mercury Brewing Co. (Ipswich Ale Brewery)

Martin worked for Ipswich Ale Brewery, the first in Northeast Massachusetts, from 1995 to 1999, eventually serving as its brewmaster before buying it from the founders. Unable to purchase the rights to their flagship brand, Ipswich Ale, he changed the brewery’s name to Mercury Brewing Co. and contract brewed it for them until 2003, when he bought it outright. By then, Martin and Mercury had become one of the region’s premier regional and contract brewers, with 40 percent of their production coming from iconic Bay State bands such as Cisco, Offshore Ale, and Clown Shoes. Among the first to focus attention on the drink local movement, his 5-Mile line of brews, made with at least one ingredient grown within 5 miles of the brewery, debuted in 2011. Also longtime president of the Mass. Brewer’s Guild, Martin has been the driving force behind legislation efforts to help free the state’s small craft brewers from unfair distribution laws.

Will Meyers – Cambridge Brewing Company

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The experience and reputation of CBC brewmaster Will Meyers extend well beyond Massachusetts.

Phil “Brewdaddy” Bannatyne (CBC’s owner and original brewer), hired Meyers to be an assistant in 1993. An obsessive home brewer before arriving at CBC, he teamed up with Darryl Goss, whose Tripel Threatt had won gold at the Great American Beer Festival the prior year and was the first commercially produced Belgian beer in the U.S.. Together, they experimented with beer styles few other breweries were even aware of at the time, pushing the envelope with Rye, Saison, and Rauchbier recipes. When Meyers became head brewer in 1996 he continued his innovative ways, launching one of the first barrel aging programs in the country in the brewery’s cellar. It has since become world-renowned, produced numerous award-winners, and expanded substantially in a collaboration with nearby Mystic Brewery. Innovator (he was also among the first in the U.S. to brew sour beers), mentor (Ben Howe of Enlightenment / Idle Hands, and Wormtown’s Ben Roesch apprenticed at CBC), and collaborator, Meyers remains one of the most admired and respected brewers on the East Coast.

* Note: Cambridge Brewing Co. lays claim to introducing the first pumpkin ale to New England, back in 1990. Beer Works started brewing one shortly after they opened their Fenway location in 1992.

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