Nothing made Pete Harkins grumpier than the sight of his empty suitcase. Let me explain. In his 20s, Harkins, who was working in the automotive industry, would take annual trips to Europe, visiting pubs and breweries, and loading up his suitcase with Old World beers that he couldn’t find stateside. About a month after his return, everything he brought home would be gone.
“My friend told me that I’m always off, always the angriest about a month after I returned,” Harkins laughs. “He said I should try to start making my own. So, we found a place where we could go do that. That was his Christmas gift to me that year.”
After many trial batches on what Harkins called “the most rudimentary brewing system,” something finally clicked.
“You try stuff and all of a sudden you make one good one,” he says. “And then you’re like, ‘Okay, I made a beer that I would drink all of right now.’ Then you think, ‘Let’s figure out how to do this even better.’”
In March of 2020, Harkins left the automotive world behind in an attempt to keep his suitcase always full, figuratively speaking. He started Backbeat Brewing Company and opened the doors on Park Street in Beverly, directly across from the train station. It was open for all of four days before the world closed due to COVID-19. The brewery survived through the shutdown by offering to-go BBQ boxes cooked by a friend alongside growlers of beer.
Prepandemic, approximately 3,000 people boarded their trains every morning at the Beverly Depot station to various spots around Greater Boston. Harkins envisioned commuters grabbing to-go cups of hand-roasted coffee before shuttling into the train and then stopping in for a quick beer or two after their day concluded.
“I still get some of them on both ends,” Harkins says. “It’s definitely a thing, but not as much as I’d hoped. Ridership is probably still at a third of what it used to be.”
Still, Harkins, who has been brewing beer since the 1990s and roasting his own coffee since the early 2000s, manages to keep Backbeat Brewing Company packed with people. In the morning, it sells coffee and breakfast sandwiches. At night, it operates as a brewery. The space is a convivial, family-friendly spot that hosts trivia nights. Live music constantly pulses out of the place, including bimonthly big band concerts.
“This is a good environment for kids to sit and play on big tables,” he says. “We have games, and Saturdays and Sundays are loaded up with live music. Jazz draws in—and I’m amazed at this—a younger crowd that’s hip to that [kind of music]. I guess everything comes back around.”
The phrase “coming back around” could also apply to the styles of beer Backbeat serves. The lineup is modernized with a dose of trendy styles of hop-forward beers like the New England IPA, but the heartbeat of Harkins’s lineup comes in the British ales. And while the brewery doesn’t necessarily have the cozy feel of a U.K. pub, it’s still the vibe Harkins is trying to set.
“I want this to be a center of where people hang out,” he says. “I try to make beers that are infinitely drinkable, where people can have a couple of them, enjoy their night, and not have to Uber home.”
Indeed, the bulk of the beers at Backbeat reside within the 3.5 to 5.5 percent ABV range. Three to five beers, mostly English styles, will be available on cask. Cask beers, unlike regular beers from kegs, aren’t forced carbonated, but carbonate naturally within a smaller vessel. The liquid is extracted via a hydraulic hand pump. This is the way beer was traditionally served in the U.K.
“There’s a reason I have a heavy focus on cask beer,” Harkins says. “That’s where I started. That was the first thing I loved: cask beer. So, it was a non-negotiable thing for me. This is going to be front and center of what I do. It’s its own niche, and it’s fun.”
The stars of the menu at Backbeat are Friar Tuck, a pub ale; Rock On, an Irish stout; and Ernie Jr., a bock.
Backbeat Brewing Co., 31A Park St., Beverly, backbeatbrewing.com