For the average beer drinker, a commercial brewery is a mystery. It’s the place glimpsed in glittery commercials where, through magic and science, the world’s favorite fermented beverage is produced. For the homebrewer, however, the brewery is a place of reverence where people actually are paid to make beer for a living. It’s also where brewing knowledge can be gathered and applied at home. The easiest way to do that is with a brewery tour.
Most commercial and craft brewers are happy to share from their experience, offering tidbits of wisdom, philosophy and insight that can shed light on the brewing process. However, before marching down to the local brewery and expecting to have a look around, soak in this pre-tour knowledge as dispensed by brewers and guides at several breweries. These tips will not only make any brewery tour more interesting and exciting, but could also make a difference in that next homebrew attempt.
While it would be nice to head down to the local craft brewer’s taproom, strike up some good-natured brewing debate with your friends, and then decide to seek the answers through an impromptu quickie tour, the odds of that happening are slim. Some breweries are able to give tours at random intervals if enough people happen to have an interest, but most operate on a set schedule with regular tours. The best place to get this information is on the brewery’s website, or by calling ahead of your visit. This way you will find out tour length along with possible tour options (different brewery aspects, lengths, etc.) and any specific instructions (special closures) considered vital. Larger breweries are often also set up to book tours online, although making a phone call will give you a better chance of getting a tour with a brewer (we’ll talk more about getting a brewer guide later).
Know Before You Go
If you haven’t already, after booking your tour familiarize yourself with the brewery’s products, history, philosophy, current workings, etc. Start with a beer while reading up online. Hopefully, this will spark some ideas as brewers and guides appreciate a well-informed tour group and are apt to open up a little more when asked targeted questions.
If possible, try to determine whom — brewer or guide — will give that tour. If your plan is to plumb the depths of knowledge, a brewer would be the best person to give the tour. Many larger breweries have trained guides. These people are knowledgeable, and some may have actually brewed before, but can they answer your questions about adjusting pH balance and hop utilization ratios adequately? Call or email ahead and ask who is giving your tour. Don’t be afraid to request that a brewer give the tour.
“I’ve been on plenty of tours myself, but obviously I don’t ask the same kinds of questions a tour guide is prepared to answer,” says Chandler, Arizona’s SanTan Brewing Head Brewer Gabe Wilson. “A guide is taught to handle the (general) public, but when you start to get into more in-depth questions, they usually don’t have the answer for that. It’s better when a brewer gives the tour.”
Who Are You?
There are two types of brewery tours. The first is where the guide leads a group around explaining the brewery’s basic history and operation. It’s all interesting, but it’s what the brewery thinks you should hear. The second is an engaged tour where a homebrewer jumps in with both feet and fires off a salvo of questions that serve to increase everyone’s brewing understanding — and make a tour more fun.
So, if your guide doesn’t ask, be sure to mention that you’re a homebrewer. You won’t be the first or last, but that simple pronouncement can alter the direction of the tour. More detail could be spent on explaining recipe development, mashing systems or barrel aging instead of just running over the basics.
“When I give a tour, one of the first things I try to do is gain the knowledge and experience level of the group,” Wilson says. “When you get homebrewers you can kind of gloss over the basic details and go for something a little more in-depth.”
Ask and Ask Some More
The brewers and guides interviewed for this story relish engaged tourists. Such tours are more fun and create a sense of familiarity and ownership with the brewery. Brewers and guides love to share snippets of the brewery’s history, philosophy, philanthropy and company direction, as well as the technical aspects of beer formulation, lagering techniques, yeast strain properties, hop selection and, well . . . it’s all fair game.
“Most of all, don’t be afraid to ask questions,” New Belgium Brewing tour guide Sarah Van Vlerah recommends. “In an hour and a half tour you can only talk about so many things. I try to talk about the brewing process in the simplest ways, but (a homebrewer should) definitely start asking more specific questions. That’s the way for the homebrewer to get the best experience.”
While asking about grain storage, raw material supplies and wastewater management is somewhat “unexciting,” Wilson says, technical questions, especially if a brewer is leading the tour, are more than welcome.
“Don’t be afraid to come with technical questions,” Wilson encourages, noting he’d rather talk about liquid-to-grist ratios and mash temperatures than removal of spent grains. “Obviously there are different levels of homebrewers (with) interests in different things, but the worst I can say is, ‘I can’t answer that.’ I won’t kick you off the tour for asking a (difficult) question. But you’ll get more knowledge out of (asking).”
“You’re going to be picking the brains of a brewer and brewers inherently like those challenging discussions,” Ryan Arnold, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Communications Manager concurs. “Be curious, ask specific questions. Maybe you’re having trouble with your homebrew set up. Maybe the brewery can help troubleshoot that.”
Beer History and Development
Sometimes the best part of a tour is learning the secrets of how a beer came into existence. Ever wondered how that crazy imperial IPA with bitter orange and coriander was created? Or which lactose works best in a milk stout and why? A tour is the time to find out. Brewers love to talk about beer development — why they used certain grains, hops, yeast, spices, etc., and how ingredient amounts are formulated. It’s a great way to gain insight to recipe formulation and scale, something that will come into play as your homebrewing skills evolve.
As homebrewers, most beers are created at a 5-gallon (19-L) level. Commercial brewers typically brew in 50-barrel batches or more. At that level, it’s not feasible to chance it and expect that a new brew creation comes out perfectly. Instead, most breweries feature smaller pilot systems ranging from homebrew-style 5-gallon (19-L) carboys to Brew Magic systems to 5-barrel setups that benefit from the full brewery treatment. In asking about recipe development, find out if the tour includes a look at the brewery’s the pilot system (if they have one). If not, request it.
Be sure to inquire about new brews in development. That question typically brings a wry look and smile from the guide — especially if it’s the brewer. It’s as if you’re being let in on a special secret.
“There’s always an opportunity for people to get excited about something we’re working on,” Wilson says. “It’s always great to be able to share something with someone who’s also excited about making beer.”
Fun Disaster Stories
Every brewer has a disaster story. Mine is placing a just-filled carboy on a supposedly turned off hot electric burner. The breaking carboy sent five-gallons of beer flooding across the kitchen and into the living room — where it ruined the carpet. These things happen at commercial breweries too, but usually on a much larger scale. Plenty of beer has been poured down the drain, either on purpose or on accident. If you share your humorous brewing woes, perhaps your tour guides will share theirs. Again, if you don’t ask, they won’t tell.
“I’ve heard plenty of stories,” Wilson says with a laugh. “Yes, we have some too.”
Wake Up and Smell the Hops
Every brewer knows the joy of opening a fresh package of hops and inhaling that exquisite earthy aroma. At that moment, nothing is better. Now imaging the overwhelming rush of entering a room with hundreds of pounds of whole cone hops! One of the best parts of a brewery tour is the rush of walking into the hop storage room.
Hops are an integral brew component and new varieties appear every year. The hop room is perfect for asking about specific hops, but also the methods a brewer uses in determining the right hops. Asking about the hops in a particular beer made at that brewery should generate a good response. Ask to smell and feel a particular hop variety. Ask for specific alpha acids, characteristics and uses. If you’re lucky, you may get a handful to take home, but don’t ask outright or everyone will want some too, and breweries are not in the business of giving away their raw products. However, if it’s offered, consider it a bonus.
Bring Up Yeast
Yeast does two jobs: it ferments the beer turning sugars into alcohol, and in many cases, adds a flavor profile. Brewers can talk at length about yeast — it’s sort of their geeky side. A great place to start is in the culture room. Many tours skip over this interesting backroom. Visitors probably won’t get to go inside, but ask to see it. Often it looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie. If the brewery has a house yeast strain (and many do), ask how it’s propagated, or what are the best methods to reclaim yeast from home carboys. Some breweries will share fresh, active yeast with homebrewers too, so it’s worth asking. Save this question for the tasting room at the end. Have a sterile container on hand and a cooler waiting in the car for safe transport home just in case.
Ask a Brewer
It’s important to remember that breweries are operational businesses and the people walking about are actually on the job. If your tour isn’t being guided by a brewer and one is walking by, check with your guide before blurting out that deep burning question.
“I prefer to ask them,” Van Vlerah says about approaching a brewer on the job. “Everyone loves to talk about what they do. They are passionate about what they do, but I wouldn’t want a guest on my tour to stop a co-worker. Sometimes they’re really busy and it’s easier for them to tell me if they can’t talk.”
“I think anyone walking through the halls is fair game,” Arnold says. “If brewers are walking around (our guides) are going to say hello to them. Everyone knows everyone. Most of our team love to share what they do with people outside the brewery.”
Play it safe, however, and check with the tour leader first before you approach anyone not on the tour.
Be Mindful of Others
Your mom used to say that, right? Well, she was right. While it’s great to ask a lot of technical questions — and brewers love to get into this side of their craft — be mindful of others on the tour. If this is your homebrew club on tour, then the brewer is prepared and such questions are expected. If it’s a general tour with a mixture of homebrewers and regular curious beer lovers, select your questions carefully so others won’t be bored. It’s OK to ask the brewer if you can ask him or her more specific questions after the tour, but remember, he or she has beer to make and may only have a limited amount of free time.
Don’t Forget to Take Notes
If you want to learn from the pros, do as the pros do — write it all down. Professional brewers take copious notes, from pitching temperatures to flavor profiles at different aging points. It all goes into creating the best possible brew. Do the same with interesting tour facts. If you ask about a special lagering technique or hop usages, don’t try to remember — put it to paper.
Taking photos is generally acceptable, and a great way to remember the trip. It’s always best to ask first even though guides don’t typically take visitors into sensitive areas. It’s not exactly as if nuclear development is taking place either — though some brewers may act otherwise. This is often because they want to protect the proprietary nature of some of the things they do. For example, Sierra Nevada used to have their recipes hanging in the brewhouse. When they discovered that this information was stolen and used by a large brewer to create a copy of their pale ale, they discontinued the practice. Just be courteous and conscientious of where you’re shooting.
“We had a homebrew rally and I saw people taking pictures of the brew sheets. It’s kind of tacky,” Wilson said. “We’re happy to share information, but do you really think you can reproduce our beer by taking a picture of the brew sheet? Take pictures; have fun, but that kind of thing is annoying.”
Tasting Room Etiquette
Typically, a brewery tour ends in the tasting room. Nevertheless, before rushing up to the tap, there are some things to bear in mind. First, think about what you’re going to sample and how much (and who’s driving home). For example, New Belgium Brewing has 26 beers available in its tasting room. Where to begin? If there was a beer that stood out on the tour, maybe try that one first, but if the desire is to try several, consider asking the guide what’s the right order to sample for the greatest sensory input. Even though you are a brewer and have a level of beer knowledge, the guides and tasting room staff really know their beers, so don’t hesitate to ask for advice — especially if there are special, non-commercial brews on tap.
“I’d rather have people drink something they like than not enjoy our beers,” Wilson says.
Wilson also points out that talking about the beer that is in front of you is a great way to learn more about its characteristics. Most guides are very knowledgeable in this area, but it’s acceptable to ask them to join in and stoke the conversation. “If people are unsure about a beer we can pour a half a swig (for each) and sit there and talk about it,” Van Vlerah says.
If you’re just there just to drink, however, don’t expect an open tap. Excessive sampling is typically discouraged. Be mindful that potentially thousands of people weekly are sampling these beers — free. Breweries are businesses too, and while giving away beer is the brewers’ plight, in the end it can only affect the bottom line, and eventually the shelf price. So, if there’s something you really like, buy some to take home. Most breweries have stores in house, some even offer growlers, which is a great way to take home something not available elsewhere.
To Tip, or Not?
In many cases, the tasting room is rather bar- or pub-like, and it’s easy to forget you’re still in the brewery. Breweries aim to put tourists in a place of comfort and relaxation, which makes for a more enjoyable tasting situation and memorable tour. Yet, it’s important to note, this isn’t a bar or pub and your pourer is not a bartender but your tour guide or even the very person who made the beer you are enjoying. While it’s nice to offer the brewery staff a tip for a job well done, all the guides contacted for this article frowned on the practice.
Every brewery is different, and every tour follows different guidelines. Still, with some careful thought and planning, your tour can be more than just a stroll among giant tanks and clanking bottling lines. Think about what you, the homebrewer, want to learn and be ready to ask questions and soak up the answers. With a rewarding tour, that tasting room beer will taste that much better.