In the past year or so, Kendall Square has become home to a number of new dining spots: Mamaleh's Delicatessen, the Smoke Shop, the Automatic — the list goes on. With all the new faces popping up on the block, it’s easy to forget about those that have been around for ages. None flaunts the tenure that Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC) does. The brewpub has stood steady and resilient for almost three decades, a humble pioneer to all of the libations surrounding it.
When CBC opened its doors in 1989, the landscape of beer in Boston was much different. Sam Adams reigned supreme, as did mass-produced light lagers. Craft beer existed — Harpoon had just put down roots in the Seaport — but it hadn’t permeated the masses yet. So when CBC began pouring Belgian-style beers, sours, and full-flavored ales, it was a revelation to most drinkers.
“The average consumer only expected that beer came from gargantuan factories cranking out industrial beer,” says CBC brewmaster Will Meyers. “[So] having to explain different beer styles that people had never heard of, explaining why we served our beers in different glassware, explaining different flavor profiles: That educational aspect was a large part of the first couple of decades of the craft beer world.”
Of course, not everyone was on board at first, and not every beer produced in CBC’s early years struck a chord with locals. Meyers, who joined CBC in 1993, recalls one of the first festivals he worked with the brewery, where about half of drinkers “had their minds blown,” and the other half were “offended that we had just given them this awful sour concoction.”
That resistance didn't stifle the team’s innovation then, and it doesn't now. These days, the brewery’s tap list includes a gin barrel-aged ale with cucumber called Hendrix, a beer made using bagels from Mamaleh’s, and a barrel-aged sour red ale named Vive Bruxelles, made in celebration of the brewery’s 28th anniversary. Nowadays, Meyers says, many people come in looking especially for those sour and off-kilter brews.
But not everything is unconventional. One of CBC’s claims to fame is its Triple Threat Belgian tripel, which is credited as the first Belgian-style beer produced in the United States; it can often be found at the taproom. And no matter what’s occupying the menu’s “unique” column at a given time, there are always mainstays, like the Charles River porter and house lager. The brewery also taps a weekly cask offering that rarely lasts more than a day or two.
“When we opened, we had four faucets, and they weren’t always full,” Meyers says. “To now have an average of 14 or 15 beers on tap, it’s a pretty considerable change. We’re able to exercise more creative freedom than ever.”
The brewery’s menu also seems to have defied any drift toward big-city prices: No beers breach $7 for a full pour, and most to-go purchases stick around $10 a bottle. Many of those brews also boast awards dating back to the late ‘90s. Given that price point and selection, coupled with the eclectic nature of the Kendall area, the crowds flocking to the taproom seem to elude any easy stereotype.
“You can sit next to a house painter on one side and a rocket scientist on the other,” Meyers says.
As the area’s oldest brewpub, CBC has always paid special attention to its food as well. Under the direction of executive chef David Drew, the menu has revolved around the locality and sustainability of New England cuisine, even in the early days. Today, it includes anything from the spot’s signature Buffalo chicken tenders to hearty burgers topped with amber ale-tinged onions to ice cream floats made with the brewery’s porter.
As proud as CBC is of its beginnings, plenty has changed in 28 years: The brewpub's basement is now home to a massive barrel room, which has been resting beers for around 18 years now. A new outdoor area was recently established for customers who want to drink their dinner, and due to demand, CBC has since moved some brewing and canning operations to Mystic Brewery and Wachusett Brewing Company, respectively.
“What’s changed more remarkably is the fact that craft beer is such a part of the mainstream,” Meyers says. “More people, in the best possible way, are taking the reality of full-flavored craft beers for granted. It’s something everybody just expects these days; it’s no longer a surprise, and we no longer have to spend the first 10 years of our existence just trying to educate our consumers.”
Funny enough, given the brewery’s evolution since opening, the team still brews on a 10-barrel system like they always have. Meyers and his crew see their brewhouse size as a source of inspiration, rather than hinderance, that has kept each beer small-batch and largely bereft of any automated assistance. That's just how they like it.
There are sure to be dissenters — those who view the brewery as too old-fashioned for using that approach or for not being up-to-par with some of the area’s young guns. But there’s a lot of history on tap at CBC, and it's never tasted better. It can be enjoyed through the longstanding recipes on the menu, the new ideas fresh off the fermenters, or in the ethos of the many brewers and chefs it's inspired to strike out on their own.
Despite it all, Meyers and company are remaining humble about what’s next. They don’t have a master plan for edging out the competition, or some hush-hush brewing method that will win over a new generation of drinker. They’re taking inspiration as it comes, as Meyers put it, and letting creativity do its thing.
"We won’t stop being creative or innovative, moving forward, because that’s the way we like to work,” Meyers says.
This story is part of Beer & Mortar, a series in which Eater Boston contributor Alex Wilking explores the brewery scene in Boston and beyond. Stay tuned for new installments twice a month.