There are many in the beer industry that might see Matthew Steinberg as one of the old guys. To be fair, he often sees himself that way: He doesn’t flaunt a full head of hair, his beard is graying, and he’s been embedded in his industry for over 20 years. His favorite beer styles — those lighter and more nuanced in flavor — are now rarely prized by the hordes of drinkers demanding IPA.
Yet as co-founder of Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company in Framingham, Steinberg has been the architect behind the area’s most sought-after sippers, such as the peachy bite of the Cat’s Meow IPA or the gusto of pine and mango flavor found in the Hair Raiser double IPA.
Similar to other nascent breweries, it’s easy to track down these IPAs in cans at most Boston-area bottle shops. In fact, that availability has boosted the brewery to the status is now holds. But stopping by the Exhibit ‘A’ taproom tells another story. One of diligence, constant reinvention, and simply making things work.
Because while the beers at Exhibit ‘A’ are big, the taproom is not. It’s a quaint space, illuminated by a large window overlooking the 20-barrel brewhouse. The soft hum of a can cooler beckons to the bar, where a handful of taps rest, and a few pieces of tubing lay nearby to fill growlers. By early afternoon, regulars are already bellied up at the bar with their third glass of Kölsch, but it’s far from rowdy. It’s calm, quiet, and relaxing: not the scene one would conjure when thinking of the hop horsepower in each can of IPA.
The brewery resides in the former Jack’s Abby space, which is about one-sixth the size of the lager-focused brewery’s current facility a mile away. Sensing a perfect opportunity to set down roots when the Jack’s Abby team moved, Steinberg swooped in and got to work. The veteran brewer had worked at Mayflower Brewing Co. in Plymouth, High Horse Tap House in Amherst, and Offshore Ale Company in Oak Bluffs. Now, it was time to debut his own venture.
“When Jack’s Abby moved here, they figured out how to make it work as they went,” Steinberg says. “They didn’t necessarily have a plan; it was just sort of cobbled together.”
Steinberg took after them, gutting a few extraneous offices to open up the space for more tables and drink rails. He also scraped the wood aesthetics left behind — “We’re in the suburbs: I didn’t need to pretend that we were in a barn” — and threw on a few coats of black and gray paint.
“When people come into our taproom, especially people that had been to the space when it was Jack’s Abby, they come in and barely recognize it,” Steinberg says. “We didn’t even change the position of the bar, and people still feel that it’s moved.”
After laying the foundation, Exhibit ‘A’ built a tap list heavy on hops, and the rest is history. Steinberg is still adding to that roster: He recently debuted First, a 7.2% ABV IPA brewed to commemorate the brewery’s first anniversary. Steinberg described the ruby red drink as rich, earthy, and hopped up on Simcoe and high-oil Cascade hops.
“You tell someone a beer has Cascade in it, and it’s a little less exciting for them, with all the sexy varieties out there,” Steinberg says. “But we know how great these hops are and use them because of that. It’s certainly not a time to discount the quality of some of these older varieties.”
Despite the hop craze, the sleeper hit at Exhibit ‘A’ has been the Goody Two Shoes Kölsch-style ale, a light and easy-drinking beer. It’s been a passion project for Steinberg since the brewery opened, he says, and drinkers have latched on: It’s consistently been the top-selling pour at the taproom.
The brewery also uses a few of its beers to highlight ever-changing recipes. One such is the Demo Tape series, which swaps out hops and styles every time to showcase new and exciting varietals. Another is Leitmotif, a rotating kettle sour series often blended with fruit. Like rotating beers at other breweries, these names gives the Exhibit ‘A’ team a chance to breeze through ideas while sticking close to a theme.
With its second year on the horizon, Exhibit ‘A’ plans to keep that creativity going, especially within Demo Tape. One beer in the series — Demo Tape 12, brewed with Mosaic hops — is even being spun into its own permanent beer. That potential-turned-permanence is something Steinberg really wants to support moving forward, and it’s a goal he’s extremely excited about.
“It lets us stretch our legs a bit and allows us to try new things that aren’t expected of us,” Steinberg says. “People have their expectations — ‘This is what they do, this is what their beers taste like’ — and we want to have some departure from that.”
That hope also runs parallel to simply broadening the brewery’s catalog. The barrel-aging program Steinberg launched last fall is finally starting to poke its head out with a few mixed-culture sours and whiskey-tinged barleywines. He also plans to add more hoppy offerings to his core roster. But despite all the exciting beers and ideas swarming his facility, Steinberg is being watchful about what he gives the go-ahead.
“We want to continue to brew more IPAs, but we don’t want to just cannibalize the style,” Steinberg says. “I don’t want to take a Cat’s Meow recipe and just throw other hops at it. I want to really commit to creating whole new, complex characteristics in a new IPA that shares very little with our other core beers.”
Drinkers won’t have to wait long for that. Exhibit ‘A’ has already increased its production by 40 percent since opening in the fall of 2016 and expects to trumpet another 40 more by 2018. With more brewing equipment and more beers coming, Steinberg has remained focused on the culmination of where he’s been, where he is, and what’s to come. And he couldn’t be more excited about the trajectory on which he and his crew are closing in.
“I have an amazing team of people here,” he says. “The team is really what helped us get through this first year. The pride behind the beer, the brand, and our space is driving us.”
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, featuring a mix of old classics and brand new additions.