Megan Parker-Gray Serves Up A Beer For Every Bite
Photos by Kristin Teig
There are so many expressions of the hop plant,” Megan Parker-Gray says to me, like an art historian talking about Van Gogh’s brush strokes. We’re talking about beer, but the fact that Parker-Gray actually does have a degree in art history shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spoken to her about beer at Fort Point’s year-old Row 34, where she directs the beer program. Terms like “fruit-forward,” “earthy funk,” and “softer hop” weave in and out of our conversation—these are terms that could come off as pretentious if uttered by any number of other people. But Parker-Gray’s contagious enthusiasm, down-to-earth and hospitable demeanor, and deep knowledge of beer and beer pairings have led to a successful, innovative, and fully unpretentious beer program that only keeps getting more attention.
Parker-Gray grew up in the Boston Area, but her move into the city to attend Suffolk University marked the beginning of her experience in the restaurant industry. She worked front of house jobs throughout college, and “really fell in love with the culture of working in restaurants,” she says, adding, “I tend to be a person that really enjoys interaction on a pretty constant basis and likes…every day to be different.” The juxtaposition of a post-graduation day job in the photography archive at Polaroid and a night job at a restaurant made Parker-Gray realize that she was “interested in restaurants as a career,” and led her to interview at the Brookline neighborhood favorite, Lineage. The attention to detail and hospitality at Lineage clicked with Parker-Gray, and she forged a relationship with Jeremy Sewall, the chef /owner who also oversees the kitchen at Eastern Standard and serves as chef/partner at Island Creek Oyster Bar and, most recently, Row 34.
Gradually rising to be an assistant manager at Lineage, Parker-Gray started paying more attention to craft beer, something that sparked her interest earlier while working at the Tavern in the Square in Central Square—she would try a different beer every night for her after work “shift drink.” Her passion for craft beer grew, and was fueled by trips to craft beer bars locally and trips abroad, where she would seek out local beers and interesting breweries. Eventually, when the concept of Row 34 was just taking shape, Chef Sewall sat down with Parker-Gray to ask if she might be interested in getting involved with the new project. This led to a conversation with Garrett Harker, the hospitality and bar guru behind Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar, who expressed the beer-centric nature of the new restaurant’s bar program: no cocktails, just craft beer and wine. “They were looking for somebody to write the beer list and be the beer director at this restaurant,” she says, “and I was lucky enough to have asked if I could do it and was told yes. [I] was given the gift of having a platform to get to showcase what I care about.”
In preparation for Row 34’s opening, Parker-Gray spent a few months working at Eastern Standard and paid a visit to Island Creek’s oyster farm in Duxbury. “Watching those guys cull oysters…” she says, “it’s such an amazing thing to see.” Before long it was time to compile the beer list, which is a task Parker-Gray hadn’t done on her own before. One year later, with the help of a fabulous team, to whom the ever-modest Parker-Gray gives most of the credit, the extensive and unique beer list affirms the confidence that Sewall and Harker had in her from the outset. Such a daring beer list is a new thing for Boston, whose formerly conservative seafood landscape has also undergone major changes in recent years. It’s a beautiful thing to enter Row 34’s hyper-cool, high-ceilinged dining room and see happy diners sucking down fine oysters with matching beers—a food-and-drink-conscious demographic ready to dig deeper than the usual dry white wines associated with seafood.
Parker-Gray’s beer list spans a relatively wide geographical area and a huge spectrum of tastes and personalities. Beer could come from as nearby as 157 feet away at Trillium Brewing Co. or from as far afield as Piedmont, Italy; though having a craft brewery next door has offered opportunities for collaboration. Parker-Gray has been working with Trillium specifically on producing special cask ales, a style of ale more prevalent in the United Kingdom. This type of beer has what the beer director describes as “a creamier mouthfeel” and tends to be served “a little warmer, temperature-wise.” To produce them, Parker-Gray gets Trillium to fill up one of her two ferkins—a type of vessel she describes as being like a “short, stubby keg”—with one of their ales. They then continue the fermentation process and add distinct flavorings—they could “dry hop,” for example, which entails essentially steeping fresh hops to better draw out their aroma, or go another route. “We did a cask of their Pot and Kettle [Porter] with cold brew coffee,” she says, “which was so good.”
Apart from collaborating with her neighbors down the street, Parker-Gray also has relationships with local breweries like Jack’s Abby in Framingham and Notch in Ipswich. To source out-of-state and international brews, she works with a variety of favored importers whose portfolios she is always combing for new finds. “I spend most of my mornings on the computer doing research, digging around in portfolios,” she says. “We’ve had over 300 beers [available] since we opened…the best way to learn is to taste.” One is likely to encounter plenty of new beers on the list, but Parker-Gray is more than happy to spend time working with diners to settle on the right choice for them. In fact, it’s one of her favorite parts of the job.
Minutes after our interview, six taster-sized glasses of beer are in front of me, representing a wide color and flavor palette. Parker-Gray has arranged them more or less from light to dark, with a couple of sour selections—her personal favorites—in the middle. The first beer I taste is Trillium’s Fort Point Pale Ale—highly drinkable with notes of citrus. I’m hardly done parsing the flavor of this beer when a platter of oysters arrives—two each of Island Creek’s special Row 34s, two regular Island Creek oysters, a Wellfleet, and a Pemaquid from Maine. I switch my attention to the sour beers, as directed by Parker-Gray, and sample one from Piedmont brewery LoverBeer called BeerBrugna, which is deep red in color and flavored with wild plums. The other, from Emilia-Romagna, is called Baciami Lipsia, which translates to “kiss my lips.” It’s lighter in color but no shorter on attitude and funk. A shot of one of Row 34’s bracingly fresh, trembling oysters followed by a mouthful of either sour beer is an epiphany—these vinegary, complex, delicious beers fully take the place of a mignonette and complement the oysters perfectly.
The oysters are followed by a tuna crudo with black garlic and avocado, which pairs well with a number of the beers—the sweetness of the black garlic is particularly resonant with the sour notes in a Belgian-style pale ale called Ryan & The Gosling from Colorado brewery Crooked Steve and Danish “gypsy brewer” Evil Twin. It also pairs well with the honey flavors percolating in a Belgian tripel appropriately named Triple from the brewery Val-Dieu. But the second major revelation comes in the form of the chocolaty-brown Long of Tooth Old Ale from Belgian breweries Surly and De Proef, consumed on Parker-Gray’s recommendation alongside a dish of lightly smoked warm scallop with grilled bread, crème fraîche, and pickled red onions. The effect, when the scallop is joined by all of its accoutrements and chased with the ale, is not unlike enjoying a bagel with smoked fish and cream cheese and a swig of black coffee. It makes so much sense.
Those who know Parker-Gray are sometimes surprised to learn that the beer-lover (and coffee-drinker) also enjoys wine. She jokes, “If I have a glass of wine on my day off, people will be like, "Oh my God, you drink wine?’” In tune with her preference for sour beers, Parker-Gray prefers “earthier, funkier, open-fermented wines.” She says, diplomatically, of the programs at Row 34, “For me, I don’t look at it like wine vs. beer, I just look at it as having a list [where] you can figure out which area you want to delve into [on a given night].”
Only one year into the Row 34 project, Parker-Gray is proud of what she’s accomplished so far, but eagerly looking towards the future. “I think you’re really starting to see the craft beer movement growing…from a restaurant standpoint, a retail standpoint, and a brewery standpoint,” she says. And while the energetic beer director is one of the most creative and articulate beverage professionals you’re likely to encounter, she concludes, “The amount that I’ve grown from this experience…is almost hard to put into words sometimes.”
383 Congress Street, Boston
Megan Parker-Gray's Beer and Seafood Pairings
I love bright, sour ales paired with oysters! The acidity and tartness of the beer compliments the briny flavors found in oysters (specifically Row 34’s). Who needs mignonette when you have a sour beer?!
Example: Coolship Resurgam from Allagash or Baciami Lipsia from Del Ducato
Fried Food (for example, Fish & Chips)
For fried fish, you need something that can stand up to bold flavors. A soft, citrus forward pale ale is my favorite choice.
Example: Fort Point Pale from Trillium
Smoked and Cured Seafood
A mug of Schwarzbier that is elegantly hopped with bright roasted flavors and a dry finish.
Example: Cascadian Schwarzbier from Jack's Abby or Mönchshof Schwarzbier from Kulmbacher
This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue.