20 Years with a Harpoon in Hand

boston_exteriorMany brewers say that once you get the itch to brew, you’ll never be able to remove it. For Sean Cornelius, the head brewer at Harpoon Brewery in Boston, Mass., that saying couldn’t be truer.

In the early 90s, Cornelius, armed with an accountant degree, moved with his wife to New Orleans for her to attend law school. It was then that they realized there was a lack of craft beer in The Big Easy. “I was working at a CPA firm down in New Orleans and there wasn’t much available for craft beer — even imports were hard to come by,” he explained. “My wife and I, and a couple of friends, started homebrewing. We did that for a couple of years.”

Sean Cornelius, Head Brewer at Harpoon Brewery

After being in New Orleans for three years, it was time for Cornelius and his wife to move back up to Boston. After their return, Cornelius, his wife, and a few friends, went to Harpoon for its Octoberfest. “It was the first time I ever tried anything aside from the ale,” he explained. “It was at that moment that I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant, but I wanted to get into brewing.”

However, once they returned and Cornelius had interviewed at several accounting firms, the realization that he wanted to become a brewer was overwhelming. At the time, aside from Harpoon, there weren’t a lot of brewpub opportunities available.

“I applied to all of them,” said Cornelius. “Rich [Doyle], one of the owners here, was the only that called me to come in. Turns out he was looking to interview for an assistant controller position, but I didn’t know that when I came in. I just kept on telling him how much I hated accounting and wanted to be a brewer. Because I was a homebrewer he could see that I knew what I was talking about. He suggested that I talk to the head brewer and maybe I could intern.”

Cornelius began interning with Harpoon a couple days a week for about three months learning the ins and outs of brewing at Harpoon. After those three months, his hard work had finally paid off, a position opened up and he was hired full time. “This month has been 20 years that I’ve been here,” he said.

Over the last 20 years Cornelius has seen Harpoon grow from between 50,000-70,000 barrels, to more than 190,000 barrels today. Although known for its India pale ale, Harpoon has grown to include a great variety of seasonal and year-round beers.

Cornelius recalled the first time he ever tasted a Harpoon beer, the pale ale. “When I was in college I was working at a liquor store and they started selling Sam Adams, and they started carrying Harpoon shortly after that,” he said. “It was kind of a working class neighborhood, it wasn’t really like a liquor store today with a hundred different beers available. The first time the owner bought Harpoon Ale, and it was delivered, I tried it and it was awesome. He was getting about two cases every other week and I was basically buying both of them every time they came in, and my friends and I drank it all.”

Today the India Pale Ale is Cornelius’ go-to beer. “People give me a hard time about it too, they say that I don’t drink anything else, but I do,” he said. “My standard is the IPA, I just love it. I think it’s a really well-balanced beer, it’s not too hoppy and not too malty. A lot of IPAs, seems like everyone is just trying out hop the other guy — between aroma and bitterness, and I just can’t stand those over the top bitter beers that aren’t really well balanced. Our IPA wouldn’t be considered a really cutting-edge IPA, or over the top IPA. It’s well balanced and its 5.9 percent alcohol, so it’s not too strong, so it’s very drinkable.”

InteriorCornelius recalls, in the early days after he had come aboard at Harpoon, how the brew shifts differed from today. Aside from the brewing automation being more by hand, causing each member to have to spend time shoveling out the grain by hand, Cornelius recalled when Harpoon began brewing the IPA year-round and how much different the experience was: “It’s not something we do anymore, but the first time we brewed the IPA as a year-round beer — we brewed it in the summer and I started working here in October [1993], and I had heard how great this beer was — we finally started brewing it in April. The first day we went to rack it, it was 6:30-7:00 in the morning, three of us on the floor, we had to do a little taste test, but we did it with a couple of pitchers. Went outside at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, sat in the sun and drank a few pitchers of IPA before we got started. We don’t do that anymore,” he laughed.

Over the years Cornelius has seen Harpoon grow from about 15 employees, to just under 200 hundred, with another location in Windsor, Vt. Additionally, what Cornelius believes has made his life at Harpoon so unique has been the brewery’s openness to try new ideas. “If a person comes up with a new unique idea that we think is a great product, that everyone falls in love with, that beer will come out and have their name on the label,” he said. “That’s kind of an exciting opportunity for a lot of people. Myself, I’ve had a few 100 Barrel Series beers.”

Many times the 100 Barrel Series beers are a result of company trips. For each employee, as they reach milestones of 5, 10 or 20 years, they are taken on a trip to great beer destinations. Typically the destinations are places in Europe, and result in new an innovative ideas returning to the states. Considering Cornelius has just crossed his 20th year at the brewery, he looks forward to enjoying a trip this year and returning with a multitude of new innovative 100 Barrel Series beers.


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