One of the things that brought David and I closer together as friends was going to a local pub to try out different craft beers. It soon became a passion of ours and we both developed hobbies for beer tasting, brewing, and pint glass collecting. Once a week, several local pubs in DFW host a “pint night” where a particular brewery and beer is spotlighted that evening; not only is the beer spotlighted but patrons walk away with a free pint glass from that brewery. This eventually led to collecting pint glasses and soon our cabinets were full! The passion for craft beer even led us to planning brewery visits on vacations.
I don’t have to tell anyone how popular craft beer has become over the last five to ten years. There are a number of new breweries opening their doors each day. The thinking seems to be that if you have a passion and can make a decent homebrew, then you might as well open a brewery. The competition is fierce and the hours are long for these brewers, but for craft beer lovers, this is a great time.
During our journeys, we will be sharing with you different breweries we have visited. We will share our experience of the brewery, what we liked, what we did not like, and if it would be worth going back. In order to share with you our experience and story, we need to create a grading rubric to better describe how we felt about that brewery. In doing so, we give our opinion with the utmost humility, recognizing there will be some controversy on this subject. This is all subjective, as anything is with taste, so much like what we have done with the Tex-Mex and BBQ establishments, let me share with you the categories that are important to us and some of the reasoning behind it. We know not everyone will agree and there is even debate among the authors, but as fellow craft beer enthusiasts, this is our rationale:
Logistics: “What?! Beer is not first? Are you serious?” So hang in there and let me explain. We fully admit that the taste of the beer is very important, but if you are planning to take a trip and visit a brewery, you need to keep a few things in mind. Logistics is important because you may have to do a value analysis formula on this. Let me give you an example and we will work through this category. If you are going to visit a local brewery that is 10-20 minutes away, this may not be as important, because you have been there enough and you know when the best time is to go or if tickets are required. But, if you were planning to visit a brewery in another state or it may be the only time you get to visit it, you may want to see if it is worth going to. For example, we used to live in Chicago and one of the best breweries around is about an hour and a half away. Well, they have 5 tours throughout the day but it is on a first come, first serve basis. In order to get on the tour you may have to wait in line for three hours. So let’s say you do that. You wait for three hours, enjoy their food, then goof around until your time slot. Finally, the tour begins and it lasts all of ten minutes. The tour wasn’t informative, you didn’t really get to see anything, and you didn’t get a drink out of it. Was your time worth it? Honestly, no. This is why logistics are important, namely because if you are planning to go to a new place, you don’t want to waste your time. Essentially, it is important to consider timing, pre-ordering tickets (if needed), and the crowd.
Atmosphere: “Where. Is. The. Beer?!” Patience young Skywalker! Atmosphere and the clientele can make or break a brewery. Some of these things the brewery has no control over, including the type of customer; often the brewery is just happy to have the money and the customers in their doors. So maybe it is full of college kids who are used to drinking Bud Light and can go to a brewery and drink a lot for ten dollars. Or maybe it is full of beer nerds and they are all trying to show off their knowledge by continually interrupting the guide to talk about the fermentation process or all the flavor notes in a Irish Stout. Another important factor in the atmosphere is what is the brewery like? Does it smell like a brewery? Is it in a warehouse in the city, or a barn in the country? For the beer enthusiasts, it is important to see the manufacturing process. Does the tour or brewery provide a glimpse of how the beer is made (more on this in the tour section)? Lastly, if you are a visitor to this brewery, one of the biggest irritations is having to wait in a really long or unstructured line in order to get a beer. If I am there to taste a breweries product, I really don’t want to have to wait in line for 20-30 minutes trying to fight off others just to get a potentially bad beer.
Value: “What?! Now I am really getting mad that beer taste hasn’t been mentioned!” Hold on, we are almost there. If you are going to visit a brewery, you will want to know what you are getting for your money. One of the last things you may want to do is pay $20 to visit a brewery where there are no samples, and the “tour” is absolute garbage. For value, we want to know the costs and what is included. If I am planning on a trip and trying to decide between two breweries, I want to know if my visit to that brewery will be worth it. Will I be able to see the brewery? Will I get to leave with a pint glass? How much (if any) beer samples are included in the price?
Beer – Taste: “Well it is about time!” Undoubtedly one of the most important factors in a beer. There are many breweries that we have visited with limited knowledge and walked out in love with their beers. There are also a good many whose beer we will never try again. After visiting the facility, learning about them, and tasting the beer, we have also come away with a greater appreciation for that brewery. Some important factors for the taste is: (1) Simply put, is it good? Would you drink it again or are you looking for the nearest drain to pour it into? (2) Is it easy to drink? This doesn’t mean can you chug it in 30 seconds, but is it smooth? Is it bitter? Or sour? Does it have a bad aftertaste? Even though it may be a stout, do you find yourself looking forward to the next sip? Or are you trying to just get it over with? (3) Are there any special tasting notes? If it is a pumpkin ale, can you taste the pumpkin? and (4) Would you get it again at a pub or store?
Beer – Variety: Many breweries just have their normal selection on tap which is fine if you like the normal stuff. One of the best things about visiting a brewery is not only tasting their whole line of beers, but their special brews and seasonal offerings. We also love it when breweries offer beers made in unique ways, like brewing in an old world technique.
Tour: There are many breweries that simply fail at this. The beer is great but the tour is awful or non-existent, or vice versa. A good tour is going to be educational, engaging, fun, and have a knowledgeable tour guide (hopefully a brewmaster). Other factors include the length of the tour, seeing the manufacturing/canning/bottling process, and being able to drink on the tour. The beer may stink, but if it is engaging, fun and lighthearted, you could find yourself wanting to go back because it was such an enjoyable experience.
Other Noteworthy Items: These are items that put the brewery over the top. They are those things that cannot be graded but give bonus points for just being awesome. These are the things that stand out and set the brewery apart from the rest. Think of this like a BBQ joint that lets you see the pits or serves their food on butcher paper. Or a Tex-Mex restaurant that has a tortilla factory making fresh tortillas. Some examples would be the brewery giving the spent grains to local farms, or offering beer in bio-degradable cups that will turn to dust in 3 months. Other intangibles include offering good food or food venders; one of the worst things is going to a brewery and enjoying the beers but not having any food to munch on. Some breweries in the south offer more of a family atmosphere by allowing people to bring their pets and children. They have space for games like bocce ball or corn-hole. Also, breweries that offer gluten-free beer is a major plus. Or non-alcoholic options for the designated driver/minors is always a plus. A minority of breweries brew their own root beer and colas which is a great option for those that cannot drink. All this to say that not every brewery has the time, space, or capacity to do these things, but by offering them it sets them apart from the competition.
Here is our humble attempt at trying to provide different ideas and concepts to look for when visiting a brewery. Each experience will be unique. It may depend on the time you went and who served you. But in doing this rubric, we hope to provide you the reader with quality information to see if it is worth your time, energy and money to visit a brewery.