Trust Your Judgment

Massachusetts has 110 breweries, give or take, and non-New Englanders have probably heard of maybe ten of them. Two in particular, Tree House and Trillium, blot out the sun among the geeks; of the top-rated beers in Massachusetts on BeerAdvocate, you have to go the thirty-sixth beer (!) to find one not made by these two. It’s not as if there aren’t other notable breweries here. You may have heard of a little join called Sam Adams. Harpoon has also managed to sell a few beers in the area. Clown Shoes, which lately has been getting nearly as much attention for what’s in their bottles as on the outside, are another. Notch, Cambridge, Mystic—we could do this for awhile. None of them are considered to have single beer that rivals the twenty best Tree House beers by the beer raters of BeerAdvocate. On Untappd they call it America's third-best brewery.

You will absolutely not find the Eagle Brook Saloon (Norfolk, MA) among the lauded breweries. My guess is that few people outside the greater Wrentham/Norfolk metropolitan region* have ever heard of it. It’s been there decades, but the Dog’s Breath Bitter, which dates back to the 1990s, has two reviews on BeerAdvocate.

Down the road in Norton, MA is Bog Iron Brewing, a five-year old brewery that does a wicked good dunkelweizen, a great “imperial” Berliner weisse, a funky-cheesy brett-aged saison, and a large range of hoppy treats that would fit in nicely with a line-up from Trillium and Tree House. It’s doing slightly better on BeerAdvocate, but not much.

I am back in the land of our founding fathers visiting family. Sally is from Maine, but three of her brothers live in the Boston area, and we’re currently staying with one who lives in Wrentham. The first time we visited, back in 1996, he took us to his local—that same Eagle Brook. I don’t recall being impressed with the beer then, but on our visit Friday night, I was. Back to the Dog’s Breath Bitter. It’s a bit hoppier than you’d find in London, and a tad stronger, but is otherwise a very nice example of the style. It’s got wonderful biscuity malts and zesty, earthy hops. It’s the kind of beer you could drink all afternoon while watching a Red Sox game—which is precisely its intended use. (We drank it one evening watching … a Red Sox game.) Of course, it is the last beer over which a geek would delight.

The cozy taproom at Bog Iron.

Beyond the excellent beer (other offerings were fine to great, including the pilsner), the Eagle Brook is a wonderful pub. When the owners built it in 1981, they designed it to evoke an earlier era. It’s called “western,” a term lost on me—but it seems classically New England to me. I could easily imagine it being 250 years old. There are great beams and wood paneling, and a second floor peeks down through wooden apertures to the main floor, something like the feel of an Elizabethan theater. They have a full menu, plus guest taps, which encourages lounging and slow, languid visits.

I really wanted to try some Tree House beers to see if they’re all that (in BeerAdvocate’s list of best MA beers, they hold the top 12 places), but the brewery is over an hour west and they resolutely do not sell beer off-premise. You make a pilgrimage or you don’t drink Tree House. My understanding is that there’s no fish and chips there, no comfy pub, no place to relax and watch the Red Sox—but you will find a line of people waiting to buy beer and, if the picture on the website is current, some crackers to tide you over.

I am prepared to believe that Tree House is one of the best breweries in the United States. Despite their collective myopia, the beer that beer geeks track down does tend to be excellent—even if they overlook a lot of similarly-good beer in the process. But that’s just the thing: there is a lot of very good beer out there, unreviewed, waiting to be enjoyed. You’d think that the proliferation of breweries in the country would cause the kudos to be spread among a larger and larger group of breweries, but the opposite seems to be happening. With more choices, people seem look more for “the best” and focus all their attention on a few breweries. Tastes change, and I wouldn’t expect an old brewpub that hews to traditional styles to capture the attention of beer trend—seekers. In probably no world does the Eagle Brook get second and third looks from connoisseurs (though locals fill it up on weekend evenings).

But what about breweries like Bog Iron? They’re making beers in the vaunted new style, and doing them well. Middle Child, their double IPA, is as good as anything in the New England style I’ve ever tried and a truly exceptional beer. Despite its giant size (9.5%), the hop character is not fuzzed out; the flavors and aromas are clearly articulated and bright, and there are so many of them that if you chose a fruit at random and searched for flavor notes in the beer, you’d probably find them. I find it very hard to believe that if a Tree House label were on this beer, it wouldn’t be in that top ten list. But for Bog Iron, currently finding itself well outside the spotlight, it gets an 89 on BeerAdvocate and a 3.9 on Untappd. The groupthink that benefits Trillium and Tree House does Bog Iron no favors.

There’s not a lot one could say to beer geeks to dissuade them from this practice—nor convince them that Tree House isn't the greatest brewery in the world. But for the rest of the beer drinking public, there is a message here. Don't buy the hype. In an increasingly confused marketplace with thousands of breweries and tens of thousands of beers, groupthink has identified certain winners. They're almost certainly good, but there are so many more out there that are also good--and possibly even better, or at least more suited to your preferences. Ratings sites may help you narrow your search when you're trying to choose among many breweries, but ignore them after that. Go into a place, see what it looks like in meat space, what it feels like. Try the beer yourself and see if you like it.

Groupthink develops because too few of the raters trust their own judgment and are willing to join the crowd, singing hosannas to already-lauded beer. Go out on a limb and try the Dog's Breath. Sure, it's a twenty-year-old beer with two ratings, but you never know; you might actually like it. And then who cares what jdog23 from Memphis thinks.

*Not a thing.