I’m back from a nice vacation down in Texas. One of the things I did was stop by the Spoetzl Brewery and visit the place where they make Shiner beer. A recent change this year is that you can now find Shiner on the shelves of many local liquor stores in Rhode Island. It’s sort of like the Sam Adams of Texas; indeed, the Gambrinus Company which produces it is America’s fourth largest craft brewery; behind mainstays like the Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams), Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium (makers of Fat Tire). While Gambrinus’ production is not as high as Boston Beer’s (pretty much no one in the craft scene matches them), it’s still far above the next tier of craft breweries.
Also interesting is the brewery tour. If you go visit the Boston Beer Company for their brewery tour, you get a free tour with beer at the end. You start in the gift shop, the guides walk you through a very brief discussion of how beer is made, give you some malt to chew on and some hops to smell, show you some brewing equipment, and then you got to the tasting room and drink beer and then you exit through the gift shop.
Shiner’s free tour is similar. You start in the gift shop, get some tokens to exchange for beer, drink your beer, go on the tour, they show you the brewing equipment, they show you the bottling line, and then you exit by the gift shop again (in case you still have tokens for beer). It’s not incredibly different; there was even an eerie moment in the Shiner tour where the guide made a joke about how their depleted mash goes to local farms to feed “very happy cows” — the tour guides on the Sam Adams tour make a similar joke.
Contrast this with the experiences I’ve had at Foolproof and the Bucket Brewery in Pawtucket. Yes, the tours are paid, but it’s well worth it. You go into those breweries and the guides aren’t merely some college students or retirees. They are the people who actually make the beer. If you want a general idea of how beer is made, Boston Beer Company and the Spoetzl Brewery are fine. If you really want to learn about a craft brewery, and brewing, a small craft brewery is the place to go. You will learn a far greater deal about the machinery, about the process, about marketing the beer, etc., then you will learn at the large craft breweries. You also might end up drinking more beer.
And you can’t try to wave this aside by suggesting the crowds are smaller. Yes, Bucket’s tour group was a handful of people when I went, but they’re not bottling or canning yet. The crowd at Foolproof when I went was comparable in size to that at the Boston Beer Company or the Spoetzl Brewery. And the tour was still incredibly informative and well worth the money. It’s the quality of the tour guide and the quality of the tour; as the brewer walks you through each vat, they can tell you what it does, and they can speak to the peculiarities of their specific setup of machinery.
They also speak far more passionately. The larger breweries the tour guides can come off occasionally like they’re actors spouting lines (though in Sam Adams’ case, it may be because they’ve been drinking). At Bucket and Foolproof, the guide would toss out a sentence like “yeah, so I was in there cleaning it the other day…” and then proceed to tell you the importance of cleaning your vats. That may sound boring, but when you’ve got someone who is living it talking to you, it is not.
Basically, my feeling about brewery tours is that you pay for what you get. Pay a bit more, and you get access to the people who are really excited to be craft brewers. Go for the free ones, and you get employees who may be happy employees, but they lack the passion of experience that makes a brewery tour a really fascinating and informative experience.