It is no secret that Massachusetts has a lot of interesting places to visit, from the laid-back seaside towns of Provincetown and Rockport to bustling metropolitan areas such as Boston and Cambridge to the historic communities of Concord and Plymouth, the quirky Pioneer Valley cities and towns of Northampton and Amherst, and the charming mountain communities of the Berkshires including Great Barrington and Williamstown.
But what about that sprawling region in the middle of the state that runs all the way from the far western suburbs of Boston to the eastern edge of the Pioneer Valley? It’s indeed an area that is often overlooked, but some of the most interesting parts of the state can be found there—and if you’re a beer lover, you certainly have many options from which to choose, including a couple of breweries in the northern part of the region that can also be used as a base to visit a number of gorgeous hill towns and all they have to offer.
It doesn’t take long to get into some really remote areas of the state if you take Route 2 west from Route 128 in Lexington, and less than 45 minutes from that intersection, you’ll arrive in the tiny town of Westminster, which is home to Wachusett Brewing Co., which is one of the best-known beermakers in the state.
Now some might assume that the brewery is somewhere on the grounds of Mount Wachusett (especially since the popular Wachusett Mountain Ski Area resides there), but it’s actually several miles east of the mountain near the Fitchburg line.
Wachusett’s beers can be found in countless stores, restaurants and bars in the Boston area and elsewhere (and their Blueberry Ale is known to many), but going to the actual brewery is an unforgettable experience, particularly because of the Wachusett Brew Yard which sits on the premises.
The Brew Yard — also known as the Brew Woods — is a huge space that includes a few different sections, with an outdoor area to the left situated under towering pine trees and having lots of picnic tables spaced far apart, while another section to the right has more outdoor seating along with an indoor area that includes a bar. On a warm weekend afternoon, there are few better places in the entire state to enjoy food and beer outside, and since the Brew Yard also features local singers and bands, you might get to hear some live music while kicking back with a bite to eat and a brew. (The food here is excellent, by the way, with the loaded fries with pulled pork and the buffalo chicken pizza, being a couple of top options.)
A beautiful 30-minute ride west from Wachusett Brew Yard via Routes 31 and 62 (or via back roads if you have a good navigation system) will take you to the hilltop town of Barre, where you will find another brewery with a somewhat similar vibe, though perhaps with a touch more of a rural feel to it. Stone Cow Brewery is generally less known than Wachusett Brewery unless you live in the immediate area, which may not be a bad thing because there’s a good chance that fewer people might be here, and the scenery is simply spectacular there, in part because the brewery sits smack dab in the middle of a working farm that dates all the way back to the 1930s.
The setup for the brewery includes options for everyone, including a covered outdoor pavilion which is a perfect place to catch a mountain breeze, a rustic barn that has tons of charm and indoor seating that is spaced very far apart, and some outdoor seating including along the back of the barn where you’ll catch some of those aforementioned views of the fields and hills in the distance. Beers at Stone Cow include a terrific milk stout, an IPA that is more citrusy than bitter (in keeping with New England-style IPAs), and a refreshing farmhouse ale that is almost too easy to drink, while on the food end of things, BBQ is the name of the game here, with the pulled pork, burgers hot dogs, beer-brined chicken, and smoked pork ribs being a few possibilities depending on the specials of the day.
Driving an hour from the Greater Boston area to kick back with food and drink at a couple of breweries may be plenty enough for some people, but you can also use the breweries as a jumping off point for exploration of the hill towns of North-Central Massachusetts. A number of communities around here are on either side of 1,000 feet in elevation (including Westminster and Barre), which makes for great scenery, cool, crisp air, and—in the fall—some really nice foliage, and simply driving through some of these towns can be a fun experience in of itself. Some particularly beautiful town centers include Princeton, a hillside hamlet that you can pass through on your way from Wachusett Brewery to Stone Cow; Petersham, a tiny hilltop village that looks like something right out of a New England calendar; Royalston, a deeply-wooded town on the New Hampshire border with lots of options for recreational activities; and Sterling, an agricultural community that is known in part for its apple orchards and farmstands.
If you’re more into getting the blood flowing than simply sightseeing, there are a ton of possibilities for outdoor activities near both breweries, with one of the center points of the region being the previously-mentioned Mount Wachusett in Princeton. The closest 2,000-footer to Boston, this distinct-looking mountain is known in part for its summit views (where you can actually see the Boston skyline on a clear day) with the top of the peak being accessed by road, chairlift, or by foot via a number of hiking trails.
Mount Watatic to the north in Ashburnham and Ashby is also a good option for hiking and you can also see Boston from its summit, and there’s no road to the top so it has more of an unspoiled feel to it. The Tully Lake area in Royalston has lots of recreational opportunities, including canoeing and kayaking on both the lake and the Tully River, hiking on a number of trails near and on the lake, and for something easier to do just off the road, Doane’s Falls, which includes a series of cascades along Lawrence Brook which eventually makes its way down to the lake. Apple picking was mentioned earlier, and there are plenty of places to do that in the late summer and early fall, including such faves as Red Apple Farm in Phillipston and Meadowbrook Orchards in Sterling.
Chances are, if you visit one (or both) of the breweries mentioned here, you probably won’t be all that hungry after feasting on some of the food at those spots, but if you still have room, restaurant choices abound in the hill towns of North-Central Massachusetts.
The obvious choice for many in this area may be The Old Mill, an iconic family-friendly restaurant in Westminster that includes a duck pond, a waterfall, a bubbling brook, and not one, but two covered bridges, while food includes some classic New England fare such as corn fritters and roast duck. Another old-fashioned roadside restaurant can be found in Petersham, with Quabbin Woods being a place for stick-to-your-ribs dishes like turkey dinner, chicken sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs, and American chop suey.
A longtime favorite among locals and travelers alike is the King Phillip Restaurant in Phillipston, a casual steak and seafood place just off Route 2 that also features some Italian-American dishes as well. By the way, if you do find yourself at Mount Wachusett, Obrien’s Grill is located right at the base lodge of the ski area, and it is open on weekends, offering sandwiches and beer while also having outdoor dining with views of the mountain above.
For an area so close to Boston, the hill towns of North-Central Massachusetts tend to get overlooked, perhaps because the region is often seen as a place to simply pass through on the way to such areas as the Pioneer Valley, the Berkshires, or Vermont. It is certainly worthy of a fun day trip, though, be it for the breweries, mystery rides, or outdoor activities, and it is much easier to do than other parts of the state if you’re short on time, making it an area that is more conducive to leisurely travel since it won’t take all that long to return home if you live in or around Boston.