Doyle's Cafe Serves Up Brews And History

The way Bill Burke tells the story goes something like this:

It's 1984, and a young businessman shows up at Doyle's Cafe, the landmark pub on Washington Street in Jamaica Plain that Bill, 52, runs with his older brothers, Ed and Jerry. The fella's trying to sell a new beer. He's having a tough day; in fact he's so angry that his face is busting out red, because the posh Ritz-Carlton told him his beer "wasn't up to their standards."

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Burke laughs about it today: "We thought he was out of his mind, too. We were all Bud drinkers at the time. We said, 'What's this stuff?' But we put it on, anyway. In 10 minutes, everyone loved it."

The beer was Samuel Adams Boston Lager. The young businessman was Jim Koch, founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Co. The rest, as they say, is history. It seems history has a way of finding a home at Doyle's Cafe, a perpetually popular pub smack dab in the center of the city that looks like it witnessed its share of bare-knuckled brawls back in the days of "Boston Strongboy" John L. Sullivan. Antique-looking, oversized beer signs cover the facade. The floor planks inside are faded and worn by the better part of a century's worth of tipplers who have made their way to the long wooden bar. (The bar itself was moved to Doyle's from an even older pub early in the 20th century.) Pictures of Boston politicians - mostly Irish - adorn the walls.

Even Hollywood has been smitten by its charm. The pub has appeared in movies like "The Brink's Job" and "Celtic Pride," and out-of-towners today recognize Doyle's as the local watering hole for the characters of the Fox TV series "Boston Public."

Boston's Irish-American community has adopted the pub, too. Come Saturday, if past St. Patrick's Days are any indication, cops will direct traffic out front while bagpipe bands inside entertain the mayor, a veritable Who's Who of other local politicians, and a wall-to-wall crowd of singing, swaying Guinness drinkers.

Thanks to the youngest Burke's guidance, Doyle's has also grown into a classic American beer bar, with 26 carefully chosen draft beers, three hand-pulled cask ales, and a large selection of bottles. Burke orders the beer, takes the deliveries, cleans the lines, taps the kegs and otherwise does everything he can do to ensure the beer is in the best condition possible. (Among the beers you won't find at Doyle's are Anheuser-Busch products, which Burke now refuses to sell. This doesn't sit well with the Teamsters who deliver A-B beers; they protested outside Doyle's last St. Patrick's Day.)

But Doyle's is more than just a great beer bar. It's something of a museum of Boston brewing history, and Billy is its curator. He takes great pride in his role.

 Sign over door

Sign over door

"Burkes have been serving beer in Jamaica Plain since 1918," Billy says, first at the now-defunct Rossmore Tavern, which his grandparents owned, and at Doyle's, which Ed Burke bought from the Doyle family in 1969.

He makes his way down the cellar, where the pub is connected to the city's brewing legacy at, quite literally, its most elemental level. Stony Brook, which begins in Dedham and ends in the Fenway, runs right under the foundation of the pub. It was along Stony Brook that Irish and German immigrants built dozens of breweries in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury in the 19th century. The hollow, brick shells of many of these breweries can be seen today throughout the two neighborhoods, some with their names, such as Franklin Brewing Co. and American Brewing Co., still etched in granite and visible from the street.

The old Haffenraffer Brewery, a few blocks up Washington Street, sits along the brook, too. Today it's the home of the Boston Beer Co., and Doyle's is often the first place in America where you'll find new or experimental Samuel Adams beers.

After the most treacherous downpours, the brook bubbles up into the basement. A water line, two feet above the foundation, can be seen at various points along the cellar. The water fills a square hole cut out of the concrete where booze was hidden during Prohibition, and threatens an impressive collection of beer and brewery memorabilia.

The collection includes 12-year-old bottles of Chimay Grand Reserve and Thomas Hardy's Ale (beers "that get better with age," Burke says), and original bottles of Samuel Adams beers, with generic labels marked "sample." There's also a large collection of ads for nearly every beer and brewery that ever made Boston its home. Among them: Pickwick Ale ("ale that is ale"); J.J. Pfaff's "lager beer"; and the original Boston Beer Co., which touted itself as "America's oldest brewery" (it was established in 1828) and reminded folks that "Good Food Tastes Better with BB Stock Ale."

Beer cannot make its way up to the bar by itself, and the cellar houses a time capsule of beer-serving technology. An old electric beer pump sits next to the contemporary canisters of gas - carbon-dioxide and-or nitrogen - used to push beer today.

In another crowded section of the basement is a thin, five-foot tall brass, iron and wood handle with two brass cylinders at the bottom. Years ago, it would have been placed next to the bar, and the bartender would push it back and forth, creating air pressure to draw beer up out of the kegs in the cellar to the taps upstairs. It worked much like the manual keg pumps found at frat parties today.

There are more stories back upstairs. One of the centerpieces of the main barroom is a mural of Paul Revere's ride. The moon over Revere's shoulder does more than just illuminate the colonial countryside: it hides a bullet hole put there by one of the Burke brothers.

The brass railing in the center of the barroom is a late addition to the pub. It was placed there by the producers of "The Brink's Job." They wanted it back after filming was complete but were hoodwinked out of it by the Burke brothers.

Behind the bar is a small framed picture - something of a memorial, actually, of a gentleman to whom Bill Burke feels a special bit of gratitude. His name was George Dauberschmidt, and for years he worked for the breweries of Boston, installing and caring for draft lines.

"Back then breweries sent out someone to clean the lines, and everyone in the beer business knew George," Burke says. But, he adds, Dauberschmidt had a bit of a personality quirk. "He wouldn't show anybody how to do his work because he was afraid someone would take his job. But as I got older he took a shine to me, I guess, and taught me the trade."

And taught him well, as the thirsty crowds and national acclaim attest each and every day - but especially on St. Patrick's Day, when Burke expects to sell nearly 25 kegs of Guinness alone.

"We never had any idea we'd be this busy," Burke says. "But we always wanted to sell the best beer in town."

Written by Kerry J. Byrne. Photographs by Charlie Rosenberg, Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives. January 2003.

Reprinted with permission from the March 11, 2001 Boston Herald. Copyright © Herald Media, Inc.