Hopster's Brew & Boards: Part 1

Photos by Kristin Tieg

It’s a Sunday afternoon in November, and it’s Sara Marx’s birthday. She and her fiancé Rinaldo Dorman are manning one of the 10 copper-plated kettles at Hopster’s Brew and Boards in Newton, a community brewery that opened its doors in September of 2013. In their kettle, boiling away, are the makings for an Almond Breakfast Stout, which they plan to christen “Fat Kid Heaven.” Rinaldo tried his hand at home brewing once before (“It didn’t turn out right,” he admits), but this is Sara’s first time at a kettle. At Hopster’s, they’re working under the supervision of a brewer, who helps them read the recipe and assemble the roasted barley, almond extract, and other ingredients in the recipe; then, in an improvisatory choice, Sara and Rinaldo go off-book to add some oats. Everything will end up together in the kettle (in beer-speak, it’s sometimes called the copper) to brew.

“The whole vision of Hopster’s is really to learn awareness of where we are, and where stuff comes from,” says owner Lee Cooper, a native of Liverpool, England, who conceptualized the brewery after he was laid off from his job in financial services in 2012. “Very few people know what goes into beer.” His hope is that people will enjoy their brewing experience, but also take away knowledge about beer and the local brewing culture. The original vision, Cooper says, was for an English-style pub, emulating the style of his homeland. “But when I first came to the United States, I was so surprised with the beer culture and craft happening here in New England,” says Cooper. “Beer is part of the climate here. The most memorable, extreme beers were coming out. I was like, oh my gosh, the U.S. is at the forefront of creating really sophisticated, special beer. I want to be a part of that.”

Apparently, so did plenty of others. Last summer, Cooper launched a Kickstarter campaign, asking for startup contributions in exchange for trinkets like Hopster’s bottle openers and Belgian tulip glasses; for large amounts, donors could reserve a kettle free of charge, or even throw a party. “Community is important to us, the community around the pub,” says Cooper. “It was a litmus test of interest.” And the interest was there: donations totaled over $40,000, surpassing their $35,000 goal.

When it opened, Hopster’s joined Massachusetts’s brew-on-site locations Barleycorn’s (in Natick) and Deja Brew (in Shrewsbury), and across the New Hampshire line in Nashua, IncrediBREW. Places like these allow customers—everyone from expert brewers to first-timers—to rent a kettle and get the do-it-yourself experience. Enthusiasm for community brewing can stem from a desire to demystify the entire process, or, as Cooper calls it, “lifting the veil” of craft beer culture. What really happens inside a brewery? Sure, there are books to read and tours to take, but a hands-on experience can be revealing.

Beer starts with just four main ingredients: water, barley, yeast, and hops. Even before the barley gets to Hopster’s ingredients room, it goes through a process called malting, which prepares the grain to release its sugars so that it can contribute to the color, body, and mouthfeel of a finished beer. Cooper describes beer as an ice cream sundae, where the ice cream foundation is the barley’s “base malt,” which comprises between 80 and 100 percent of the grain in any given beer recipe.

The malted barley is soaked in hot water to create a wort, a sugar-filled liquid that goes into the kettle, becoming the liquid base of the beer. To this, brewers add hops, which are in the mix for their aroma and for a bitterness that balances the sweetness of the malt, and yeast, which will ferment the sugar in the wort to create alcohol and carbon dioxide.

So if all beer has the same main ingredients, how are there so many varieties? Well, if base malt is the sundae’s ice cream foundation, consider the toppings to be flavor add-ins, like specialized malts or spices. Citrus and coffee are common choices, like the lemon peel in a light summer ale, or the familiar flavors of a coffee porter. Flavors can come from a special malt, like dark malt used in a chocolate stout, or a different type of grain, such as the sorghum used in some gluten-free beers.

The temperature at which grain is roasted can make a difference, too—highly roasted grains add a dark color and robust flavor. A brewer can send any beer in countless directions. At Hopster’s, packets of spices and add-ins, like dried elderberries, wormwood, and grapefruit peels, hang on the wall. “Coriander goes in our Belgian white beers,” Cooper says, pointing to a small pouch. A row of specialty malts hang in self-serve bins, with names like “Munich Malt,” “Special B,” and “Cherry Wood Smoked,” the last of which smells intensely of wood fire, with a taste reminiscent of a smoked cheddar. Refrigerators are home to packets of yeast, as well as varieties of hops: Liberty, Amarillo, Glacier, Citron, and others. “If you like IPAs, you’ve probably had some of these,” Cooper remarks of the Citron hops, which smell fruity, bitter, and herbal. In one fridge is a white muslin bag with a tag that reads, “Mystery Hops: use at your own risk!”

A wide range of ingredients means a potentially unlimited variety of beer. Sara and Rinaldo picked their Almond Breakfast Stout from the Hopster’s recipe book, which lists instructions for 30 or so beers like Irish Red Ale, American Coconut Porter, and Wee Heavy Scottish Ale. There’s even a Sun Dried Tomato Pale Ale—featuring real tomatoes, the headnote says, “for a fruity, savory twang.” Hopster’s most popular recipe is a classic one: the HopMEAL Ridiculous IPA, full of hoppy flavors. The Belgian Winter White Ale is another popular choice. Head brewer Josh Bousquet is partial to the Triple Oaked IPA. “I try not to have one favorite beer, but I feel like if I don’t get something with a lot of hops in it, I’m not happy,” he says, with a hearty laugh.

Sara and Rinaldo, the amateur brewers, are on their feet, preparing to open their kettle. A cloud of white steam billows out. Rinaldo dons thick black gloves to grab a muslin bag filled with grain out of the kettle; a dark liquid pours out when he squeezes it. The liquid smells dark and sweet—like molasses, but with an edge. They pour two fingers into a glass and take a sip. Sara’s eyes rise to the ceiling as she nods, considers, and delivers a verdict: “It’s a little sweet, and a little bitter.” The supervising brewer is fiddling with knobs and tubes, preparing to transfer their beer through a cooling system and into the fermenter. Two packets of Safale yeast go into the mix.

Then: “We did it!” Sara hoots, giving Rinaldo an exuberant high five. Fat Kid Heaven will ferment over the space of two weeks, when the staff will transfer it to a keg to “condition” at 34 degrees. Later, the keg will be force-carbonated and hooked up to the bottling system, and a personalized label can be slapped onto each brown bottle.

And then? Taste is king. “Brewing beer at Hopster’s is about the experience, but two weeks later, it’s all about the beer,” says Bousquet. Each beer rates somewhere on the International Bitterness Unit (IBU) scale; the rating is a number between 1 and 100 that increases with the bitterness level of the hops. Beers are also rated on the Standard Reference Method (SRM) scale of 1 to 40, a measure of color that might rate, say, a pale ale at 3, but a dark-colored porter at 35.

Across the room, first-time brewer Rachael Lawrence is here to bottle and haul away three cases of her Coffee Cat Porter—her bottles have a picture of a black cat on the label. How did Lawrence enjoy her first brush with brewing? “I will keep this place in business through the winter,” she raves. “Every staff member has really been on top of their game, and knows their stuff. If I had a question about the hops, the yeast, the process, I’d get an instant answer.” The fact that she didn’t need to clean anything, or store her own brew while it fermented, was an added bonus—any homebrewer who’s spent hours sanitizing, or had a closet overrun with tanks and tubes, can relate. As for the Coffee Cat Porter? “We’ll be serving it at Thanksgiving,” she says, but adds a caveat: “If we don’t drink it all before that.”

At Hopster’s, brewing is only part of the equation. There’s a bar with locally-made spirits and bitters, as well as 20 taps of locally-made craft beers. Charcuterie, flatbreads, and even beer ice cream are on offer for a break while the kettle boils. When your concoction is ready to drink, you can bring a crowd of friends, grab a few hightop tables, and toast to your success over a sandwich. Some who walk through the door are beer aficionados; others take interest in locally-sourced products; still others will show up just to have a relaxed drink and nibble. But those interested in the hands-on experience, and all of its accompanying camaraderie, will take the most away from Hopster’s.

This is an adventure best had by grabbing a handful of barley, taking a deep whiff of hops, and feeling the heat of steam from the kettle. And so, for one snowy day in December, the Edible Boston staff became the Edible Beer Company, to brew eight different varieties of beer and experience the process from scratch.

Most Hopster’s brewers use an extract, a syrupy shortcut that serves as a condensed wort, which cuts their brewing time down from three or four hours to about two. The Edible Beer Company began by making their own wort—first grinding 120 pounds of barley into coarse meal called grist, and then soaking the grist in hot water in two large cauldrons called mash tuns. Hot water poured in, filling the air with a smell like toasted bread, or warm porridge. Mash tuns allow brewers to control the water’s temperature, keeping it at 155 degrees for about 90 minutes. Head brewer Josh Bousquet is hovering, stirring with a metal paddle, measuring with a precise thermometer, pouring hot water in through a hose. Once the wort is ready, it’s drained from the barley in a process called lautering.

Later, the wort will find its way into eight kettles, and they will boil, each containing a different combination of hops and other flavors—flavors that could range, as Cooper suggests, anywhere from cocoa nibs to pumpkin, limited only by the scope of the imagination. “You’ll be kind of like a kid in a candy store,” he says. Bousquet chimes in: “You’ve got endless options—crystal, candy sugars, or, if you want to kick up the gravity, add spices. No one would ever know they come from the same malt.”

For now, we’ll wait for the mystery brews to ferment. When they’re ready, we’ll crack open the bottles and taste what the Edible Beer Company has dreamed up.

We hope you’ll join us at the member-only Edible Beer Company party at Hopster’s on February 24 to give our new brews a try!

Hopster’s Brew and Boards 292 Centre Street, Newton 617.916.0752 hopsters.net

This story appeared in the Winter 2014 issue.