Beer Behind the Curtain: Why visit a brewery?

Every time you step into a liquor store or sit down at a bar you are forced to make a choice – which beer do you want to drink? Do you want to drink at all if nothing strikes your fancy? After style, one of my main considerations in deciding my selection is where the beer itself is made. In general, I prefer to buy local beer when possible (though without sacrificing taste) because I enjoy supporting breweries from the area in which I’m currently drinking said beer. Because I’m a New Jersey native and obviously a current Swarthmore resident, this means that I generally buy from PA (because other than Flying Fish NJ beer is lacking). However, when I’m traveling my policy is the same; whether in Portland, ME or D.C., I make it a point to buy something that reflects the local flavors, styles and tastes.

Though this is purely my opinion, I do believe there are some objective benefits to buying local. In much the same ethos as the locavore food movement or the “farm to table” paradigm, your purchase is directly benefiting your local economy, encouraging entrepreneurship and family-owned, community-oriented business practices. Moreover, there is the intangible element of pride that comes from supporting the things that make your town or city special. Brandishing your Troegs bottle proudly is no different than wearing your Phillies hat around, except public drinking is very much illegal and generally frowned-upon (damn Puritans).

Though this is harder if your brand is Budweiser or Heinekin, for most people it is very possible to meet face-to-face the people directly responsible for making the beer you drink. Given the number of breweries in the country (around 2000), most people live within driving distance of at least one brewery, regardless of size.

Swatties who are interested in doing so have little excuse, because we are minutes away from a brewpub (Iron Hill, which has been lauded in earlier columns), and a 20-minute train ride from 2 major regional breweries, Yards and Philadelphia Brewing Company, without counting the numerous brewpubs in the city limits (Nodding Head, Dark Horse and The Farmer’s Cabinet, among others) and in on the Main Line. In less than an hour by car you can reach Victory or Troegs and Dogfish Head a little over 2 hours. Basically, if you have the desire to visit a brewery, you can. The question is, should you?

Most breweries offer regular guided, or often unguided, tours — usually on weekends and sometimes by appointment — along with free samples and and the opportunity to buy beer at the gift shop. While a brewery visits are often an excellent way to spend an afternoon, especially if you or your companions have never been on one before, not all tours are created equal. It might come as a bit of a shock (or not at all, but I’m not picky) given my enthusiasm for craft beer, but just because people make beer doesn’t mean they have to be good hosts. Sometimes they can even be assholes.

My advice then for visiting breweries is fairly simple. Number one, if you have never seen the inside of a brewery, period, then plan a day trip and do it. While people might not want to see where some of their food comes from (sausage comes to mind, as does Mountain Dew) being able to visualize the raw materials, the machinery and the process that goes into making the finished product you buy is both illuminating and empowering. You are able to see first-hand the people whose labor goes into your enjoyment, and the aesthetics of a brewhouse, while maybe unpleasant to some, are very powerful. The sweetness of the malt, the musky dankness of hops, the spice of yeast and the heat of brew kettles can make what otherwise might seem like a dry, packaged food product, come alive. Which is especially important to beer, because, well, it is alive.

However, if you are trying to decide whether to take the time to make a second or third pass – say, for example, you are visiting Seattle and want to check out some local breweries – it is more difficult to justify the investment with simple aesthetics. What is a time-strapped beer enthusiast to do?

First of all, though most breweries in this country are about as old as I am, there are some that are worth visiting for historical purposes alone. For example, Yuengling – the most Pennsylvanian thing in PA – also has the honor of being the country’s oldest, continually operated brewery. Though most of their production now takes place in Florida of all places, the original Pottsville, PA location is still up, running and available for tours. I had the pleasure of visiting Yuengling two summers ago, and while the normal spiel about how beer is made was nothing new, I was also able to see old-school brass brew kettles (and weird WPA-era murals) along with pre-prohibition underground tunnels, originally used for cooling and storage. Moreover, I was able to meet Dick Yuengling, the current owner and direct descendant of the original founder. Basically, because of the unique historical importance of the brewery, the tour went from pedestrian to awesome. Unlimited samples at the end doesn’t hurt either.

Which brings me to my second point: what food and drink a brewery decides to serve can be a make or break a visit. For example, Dogfish Head has two main locations in coastal DE, with the main production facility in Milton and the original brewpub and distillery in Rehoboth Beach. For a company that claims to be the epitome of craft beer’s “quirky” side – their giftshop is stocked with Patagonia collaboration apparel – they have one of the most soul crushingly corporate tours I have ever experienced. Not only do you have to make scheduled appointments for tours, the 45 minute process consists mainly of a long-haired, sandal wearing guide reminding eager listeners how “off-centered” their beer is. While it was nice to see some standouts – for example, the massive 10,000 wooden fermenter tank made from Palo Santo wood from Paraguay – seeing stainless steel cylinders and bottling lines gets old. And when your tour concludes with a limited number of shark-shaped drink voucher “tokens,” you can’t help but feel like you’ve just finished your first ride at Disney world. Dogfish Head offered nothing special in their gift shop beer wise, offered nothing substantive to sample, and generally felt about as stingy as the Big Guys they are fighting against. The brewpub on the other hand offers location-specific beers and the chance to try DFH liquors (rum, gin and vodka) — too bad the “Visitor Center” isn’t there.

Unfortunately, given the space that my column is allowed, I feel like I have left my diligent readers at a bit of a cliff. The rant that this could have been would take a newspaper twice as large, but I’ll leave you all with a few finals words: if you’ve never been on a tour, go, especially if its your local brewery that’s at question. Otherwise, do you research online and see if the trip is worth it because more times than not, it isn’t. My next column will not be a Tours, Part 2, but instead will focus on some interesting non-beer elements of the beer world — packaging, labels and general brewery culture. Cheers and happy drinking.

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