In 1986, Harpoon Brewery became the first company to obtain a permit to manufacture and sell alcohol within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in more than 25 years. By 2013, Harpoon was the twelfth largest craft brewery and the nineteenth largest overall brewery in the United States. In addition to a number of quality beers – including its well-known Harpoon India Pale Ale, but also its seasonal beers, Boston-only varieties, and an award-winning Harpoon Dark – the brand is also known to host festivals and charity-themed events.
To learn more about Harpoon Brewery, I spoke with Al Marzi, the company’s Chief Brewing Office. Having spent over 25 years with Harpoon, Marzi started as a delivery deliver in 1991, steadily working his way up the company ladder. Marzi has tried his hand at every aspect of the company – from brewing to sales – and is quick to advocate for each of the brewery’s suds. He also opened up about what is ahead for the Boston-based brewery.
The Daily Meal: What got you interested in the craft beer industry?
Al Marzi: When I started at Harpoon in 1991, the craft industry was still in its infancy; it wasn’t really much of an industry yet. I was drawn to the beer, the entrepreneurship, the hand-crafted approach to each aspect of the job from brewing to marketing to sales. It was vibrant, challenging, exciting, and new. I was also drawn to the people that I worked with who were probably interested in it for the same reasons. I had no idea at the time I was getting in on the ground floor of something that would grow so large.
Do you remember the first time you ever had a craft beer?
It would have been Harpoon Ale in late 1990. I had a friend who was working at Harpoon, and he brought some home. It was delicious!
You started at Harpoon as a delivery driver. What jobs did you have between driver and master brewer?
I’ve had a few title changes over the years – at one time it was brewer/singer – but particularly in the early years, we all wore a lot of hats. So, whether my title was assistant brewer or SVP, we all did whatever was needed to get the beer brewed. Over the years, I have basically done all the jobs in production: brew, filter, rack, bottle, lab, maintenance, engineering, HR, even some sales, which is not my strong suit. Thankfully, now we have really talented people in each of those positions who truly specialize and master each of those jobs.
What sort of training was needed for you to become a brewer?
When I started 26 years ago, I had some limited experience home brewing, but not much more. I was lucky enough to learn some practical brewing knowledge from the great head brewers who came before me at Harpoon as well as attend the Siebel Institute of Brewing in Chicago to gain more of a scientific background in the craft. Reading as many books as possible about brewing was also a large part of my education. However, there really is no substitute for practical knowledge and that can only be learned on the job.
Even as recently as 10 years ago, I remember it being uncommon to find a major brand like Corona at a lot of bars. What or when do you feel was the turnaround point for craft beers becoming mainstream?
Craft beer accounted for 12 percent of overall US volume in 2016 versus just 6 percent in 2011. So there has been massive growth in the past five years, but I think it has been a slow build for much longer than that. Breweries that have been around for a long time laid the groundwork for the explosion that has taken place – over 5,000 breweries today! Introducing people to more flavorful beers through tastings, beer dinners, and festivals helped educate people to what craft had to offer.
Once people got a taste for these types of beers, it was difficult to go back to what they may have consumed in the past. Once chain restaurants and stadiums started to carry craft beers, allowing even more people to be exposed to them, it became inevitable that growth would follow. Twelve percent is still pretty small in the grand scheme of things, so it will be interesting to see how much larger craft can continue to grow.
Do you have a favorite of the Harpoon beers?
That is a little like picking your favorite child -- and I would never choose one of my daughters over the other! We make so many great beers that it really just depends what type of a mood I am in at the time. I probably drink more IPA than anything because it’s so refreshing in any occasion. But when I am at work, our Harpoon Dark on draft is my go-to beer. When a new seasonal comes out, I am usually all over that.
Which Harpoon offering has the highest alcohol content?
Last year we made a specialty beer called Interrobang – an imperial coffee stout – that had an ABV of 18 percent. As a regular year-round beer, our Leviathan Imperial IPA has an ABV of 10 percent.
Is there a popular hangout for you and coworkers near your brewery?
While I wouldn’t want to single out any particular bar in the area – there are so many great supporters of our brand – there is a place employees hang out over a beer, and that is Café 306. That’s our lunch room/tasting room. After work, employees can get together and chat over a beer before they head home. It is a great way for employee-owners from all areas of the company to get to know each other, and what better way than over a beer?
In your opinion, why is Boston such a great town for beer?
Boston is great for beer because it is not only vibrant and innovative, but also respectful of tradition. Younger consumers are looking for the next new thing and are willing to experiment with new flavors and styles. That helps push us to keep innovating on our pilot system and not grow stale. However, Boston is steeped in history and tradition and Bostonians expect excellence and consistency not only from our sports teams, but also our beer! I think that’s why Harpoon IPA is a go-to standard for so many craft beer drinkers, young and not so young – like me – alike.
What's coming up for your brand? Any seasonal specials?
We’ve always got something new coming up, whether it’s a seasonal or limited-batch beer. Our next 100 Barrel Series beer – which is a series of one-off beers – is called Nana’s Nightcap, which is an oatmeal cookie inspired porter. It’ll be great for the cooler fall nights. We’re also introducing UFO Cranbeery, which is a Hefeweizen infused with cranberries. The winter will see the return of our Winter Warmer, which is a beer we’ve been brewing for 29 years. It’s one of our most beloved beers, even after all those years, which is pretty amazing considering how many beers are on the shelf these days.
Are any of your beers gluten-free or GMO-free? Or are there any plans to go that direction if not?
Our cider is naturally gluten-free, and we have occasionally made a “gluten-reduced” beer on our pilot system that was received quite well in the beer hall. There is a bit of difficulty in explaining the difference between gluten-free and gluten-reduced, and some of that confusion has prevented us from moving forward with production of this beer on a larger scale at the moment. We are, however, brewing another batch for the beer hall next month. Here is how we describe it on our website: “This beer is fermented from grains containing gluten and crafted to remove gluten. While independent testing using the best method we know of – the Competitive R5 ELISA method – has shown that the gluten content is below the FDA threshold of 20 ppm, this product may contain gluten. We have made available detailed information regarding the testing and results.”
When not busy with Harpoon, how do you like to spend your free time?
I love spending time with my wife and two daughters. We just came back from a vacation in Maine where we kayaked, fished, read, played guitar, swam, and of course drank plenty of Harpoon – but just my wife and I as my daughters aren’t 21 yet.
Finally, Al, any last words for the kids?
I would encourage anyone and everyone to make the effort to visit our breweries in Boston and/or Vermont. You can take a tour, meet the wonderful people who make our beer, relax over lunch at our Vermont brewery or try our fantastic pretzels in Boston while you watch the beer being packaged.
Of course the best part of your visit will be tasting all of our delicious beer, especially our IPA! It has the perfect balance of crisp, floral and hoppy flavors and a smooth finish – not a bitter hop bomb. Creating a harmonious IPA with subtle yet complex flavors is a challenging feat for a Chief Brewing Officer, but we’re excited that our IPA has incredible staying power. It will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary next year!