Good Beer Hunting

The Third Place

The Third Place — John and Bill at Notch Brewing Co. in Salem, MA

It all started with a tweet from Notch Brewing Co.’s co-founder and brewer, Chris Lohring.

“Every Friday at 1PM, two 70 year old gents come in for two liters each. They sit across from each other, leave their cell phones at home, and talk to each other for three straight hours. Every Friday, like clockwork.”

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Today, I opt to join the “gents” for their weekly ritual. John, 75, is wearing a blue polo while Bill, 70, sports a well-loved Salem Beer Works t-shirt. We shake hands, exchange names, and I excitedly jump in:

“So, you all ready to get started?”

Without making eye contact, Bill softly responds, “What are we doing?”

We each grab a Pale Lager, find a table near the door, and ease into some small talk. When I ask how long we have together, John shares their rule of thumb: “It used to be three beers or 3pm. Now it’s two or 2pm.”

Bill confesses that he’s never been “interviewed” before and John can’t help but remind Bill of the time he crashed his MG. With a shy smile, Bill replies, “When a cop talks to you, it’s not really an interview.”

It’s all an early indicator of our time together—the stories, the flashbacks, the jokes. They interrupt each other without hesitation, finish each other’s sentences, and converse with the kind of cadence that takes decades to develop.

Bill and John have been friends since 1965, when both attended Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and secured lodging in the same rooming house. “They didn’t have many dorms,” John says, “so by the time I got accepted and applied and all that shit, they said, ‘Well, there’s a rooming house over on Beacon Street run by some doctor—he takes students.’”

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Without access to a dorm, the two would sneak into the Boston University cafeteria for food and into the dorms to use the television rooms. Both were in the National Guard, climbed mountains in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, took numerous hiking and fishing trips together, and lived through each other’s marriages, divorces, children, and grandchildren.

Their knowledge of the beer industry and its trajectory is greater than most, as they’ve lived through the trends and cycles of the last five decades. “In the ‘70s, it was crap beer,” John says. “I used to go into Boston at Jacob Wirth’s. It was just about the only place you could get a dark beer. Then there was the first round of craft brewing—Sam Adams and Harpoon. That boom. And then it kind of flattened out. I think we’re on the third wave.”

The sheer number of breweries today is astonishing to them.

“Are there a million breweries in Maine?!” John asks at one point.

“Every time you hear about a brewpub opening up,” Bill says, “it’s always a couple of guys who are homebrewers.”

“Yeah, a couple of lawyers,” John quickly adds, chuckling at his own joke.

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When I ask how they came to choose Notch as their weekly gathering place, Bill denies responsibility. John explains: “I did. We used to go across the street to Beerworks. I was watching them do this,” he says, waving his hand around in the air. “I like old industrial spaces.”

Despite moving their Friday routine to Notch less than a year ago, Bill and John have been fans of brewer Chris Lohring since the ‘90s, back when he worked at Atlantic Coast Brewing in Charlestown, MA. “I used to love the beer there, too,” John explains. “I don’t know how many people know about that.” Similarly to Notch, Atlantic Coast brewed traditional beers, with a particular focus on English-style ales. Both fondly remember the now-defunct brewery’s flagship, Tremont Ale.

“It was a good beer,” Bill concludes.

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Their preference for light, session-style beers aligns well with Notch’s portfolio. Through their visits, Bill and John have become friendly with Liz, Notch’s Taproom General Manager. Even her best efforts to convince them to try Notch’s Pale Ales have been rebuffed—she says they always stay true to Lagers.

Despite craft beer’s fast-growing “third wave,” there’s an undercurrent of disappointment for Bill and John that it hasn’t translated to more breweries offering a greater variety of classic styles. “I don’t know what happened—IPA,” John says, rolling his eyes and unfolding his arms. Lowering his voice, he does his best impression of an IPA brewer. "You know, you gotta have hops—put more hops in it!”

“Hops are taking over the world,” Bill quietly adds.

During their careers, both men came into contact with the burgeoning beer industry. John worked for the American Can Company. “They were the ones that designed all the machinery for can design,” he explains.

When I ask Bill about his working life, he responds evasively. “What year? I worked in banks. Then offshore lobster boats for 10 years or so. Then restaurants for 10 years or so. Then I did painting until I retired.” John doesn’t let him slide by, though, and shares that Bill once worked as a bartender at Hampshire House in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Bill worked upstairs, but the downstairs bar inspired the popular television show, Cheers.

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As if he had forgotten, Bill fesses up, “Oh, yeah, I met all those people—Ted Danson and Shelley Long. It was a real neighborhood bar—it wasn’t a tourist spot then. Now it is. That’s what made me leave. It was pouring rain one night and I had about four customers upstairs. I looked out the window and there was a line down the street to get in downstairs.”

John just starts to laugh. Neither of them can understand why anyone would wait in line for a beer.

Maybe that’s why they’re drawn to Notch’s approachable taproom. Although, to be fair, even the concept of drinking beer in a taproom setting instead of a bar is new to these guys.

“You know what I find interesting about this place? Two things,” Bill says, looking around and forming his thought. “This,” Bill says, pointing to a family in the corner. “Families. Families pour in here. And I don’t know if they’re local or if—there’s some term for it—‘beercations.’ Oh, and another thing: I’m used to walking into bars and finding yourself a space at the bar. People line up here. Yeah, totally foreign to me.”

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I look down at my glass and can see the bottom. John’s and Bill’s are empty, too. Our time together is winding down, and we’re all unsure of how to wrap it up. John puts both hands on the table to stand up.

“OK. Nice meeting you. Can I give you a hug? I’ll give a hug.”

The two exchange some words about seeing each other at John’s house later, and then, with a wave, they leave. It’s just after 2pm.

Words + Photos
by Kristen Foster