Harpoon Octoberfest, a “New” Tradition for an Old (Bean)town

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As far as Boston traditions go, something that’s *just* twenty-three years old seems downright young when compared to many in our storied history. Don’t let that little fact deter you from enjoying all that is the Harpoon Brewery Octoberfest. Created in 1989 by brewery founders Rich Doyle and Dan Kenary, the Octoberfest was the first of the five festivals the Brewery hosts each year. It’s a two-day event that focuses on the beer that took this microbrewery nationwide.

This past Saturday, I made my way down to 306 Northern Ave to join in with the crowds celebrating Harpoon beer. With this being my 8th Harpoon Fest, I knew what to expect – there is always a good sized crowd, so I turned up a little early. Octoberfest is by far the largest of the Harpoon Festivals, expecting to draw between 13,000-14,000 people over the two day event. Surprisingly, though, despite the large numbers, the event has stayed very local. Most attendees I spoke with have come to multiple festivals, and only one group said this was their first time attending. Prior to Harpoon starting Octoberfest in ’89, the idea of a microbrewery in Boston throwing a party like this was, well, nonexistent.

Liz Melby, Harpoon’s director of communications, says that Harpoon was just looking to fill the void. “Rich and Dan experienced the beer community in Boston and felt the festival aspect was missing. They wanted it to be focal point of the community,” she explains. “And beer is just a fun product!”

Not only is beer a fun product, but Harpoon festivals endeavor to make beer an experience. Despite the imminent threat of rain, throngs of people stood in line and mingled at the all day event which featured three stages of live entertainment, including one exceptional German band pouring its heart and soul into a stirring rendition of “Edelweiss”. Varieties of beer on tap included UFO White, Harpoon IPA, Octoberfest, Rye I.P.A, and Harpoon Cider. I was lucky enough to sample the Rye I.P.A for the first time (new in 2011, now a year-round brew) and really enjoyed the spiciness and hoppy flavor.

My experience at Harpoon Festivals has also been seen from a different side – I’ve played dueling pianos at four different events in the past two years. The crowds at these events are genuinely some of the most receptive I’ve seen, and I’ve played many, many festivals over my years working as a professional musician. Rarely have I seen such a well run event from both sides. Their crews are always helpful, staff are friendly, and people seem happy to be doing something as simple as pouring a beer. No one could blame staff for getting annoyed or tired of dealing with that many festival-goers consuming alcohol at a rapid pace – and yet, they don’t. From an operational standpoint, trust this guy who’s seen his fair share – these people know how to staff and run a smooth event.  Maybe that’s why they’ve been able to push these events into year twenty-three, with no end in sight.

Aside from encouraging good times with beer, Harpoon is making good on their want to be part of the community. Liz informs me that through their “Harpoon Helps” program, the brewery will donate over $500,000 this year to local charities. “It’s important for us to be good neighbors,” she says, “we’re part of a greater community here in Boston.” Harpoon Helps events across New England have included sorting food at the Greater Boston Food Bank, an American Red Cross blood drive, and volunteering to raise money for ALS research.

Liz also mentions that sometime early next year the brewery will be unveiling a new visitor center and beer hall, all part of the experience for microbrewery enthusiasts. Although they had their small beginnings in 1986, this company has become a mainstay beer in the US – it’s available virtually all over the country. Despite their enormous success and popularity, attending Harpoon Festivals still feel like a distinctly Boston event, a true local happening.

And after 23 years, maybe we can call it tradition.