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A Contrast of Brewery Tours

April 29, 2010
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A couple of weeks ago, I took the family down to Woodinville, WA to take a tour of the Red Hook brewery.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  We showed up for the 3:00 pm tour, but it was all sold out.  Rather than drive back home, we bought tickets for the 5:00 pm tour, and then set out to play at a park to kill time in between.  It was a good time, and we were joined by two other families.

The Red Hook tour is setup like this:  you pay $1.00 per person (that’s of drinking age), and then you are herded into a room upstairs where they serve you samples of Red Hook beers in a keepsake 5.5 oz. glass emblazoned with the Red Hook logo.  The tour guide begins talking, and I quickly realize that this tour really isn’t a tour in the traditional sense of the word.  We are basically “stuck” in this room, listening the the guide and looking through windows.  This room is situated between the fermentation room, filled with massive fermenters that supposedly hold 83,000 gallons of beer, and a room containing the mash tun, lauter tun, a couple of brew kettles and the whirlpool.  So much for a tour.

I was hoping, probably unreasonably so, to walk through the facility led by someone more intimately tied to the brewery’s operations, than someone capable of memorizing a script.  As a homebrewer myself, I had questions about their processes, ingredients, and past & future styles.  But this was not the case.

As we drank samples of Red Hook beer, we were given reasonably accurate information about what constitutes a craft brewery, with semi-inappropriate jokes about drunkenness and drinking games.  I am not naive enough to believe that people don’t drink craft beer to achieve drunkenness, but it seems to go against the prevailing culture of craft beer drinkers.  We don’t mind the buzz, but it’s about the beer, and not the buzz.

As for the beer itself, the five different offerings weren’t anything spectacular.  Up for sampling were Slim Chance, Rope Swing, Copperhook, ESB, and Long Hammer IPA.  All were quite sessionable.  None of them really jumped out at me to where I had to have more.  Rope Swing is intriguing in that it’s a pilsner, which is a lager rather than the ubiquitous ale in craft brewing.  Slim Chance seems to be an effort to hook light beer drinkers on craft beer.  It’s light, yet it was more flavorful than a light lager.  Their IPA is on the low end of the bitterness scale.  I think I recall the “tour guide” saying that it was 42 IBU.

I suppose that this type of tour is largely due to the size of the operation and its popularity.  Red Hook boasts a production of around 250,000 barrels per year.  Their distribution reaches all 50 states and Japan.  At some point, intimacy seems to be sacrificed for size.

Moving on…  About a year or so ago, a friend of mine arranged for a tour of the Scuttlebutt Brewery here in Everett, WA.  The owner, Phil Bannan, led us around the brew house and described the basic process for those uninitiated.  The group was about 20 people, with several homebrewers included.  Great questions were asked, with good answers in return.  We all had a few samples, right from the fermenter.  It was a good time.  During the tour, we learned that his passion for beer took root, and sprung into a home brewery years ago.  It eventually turned into a brewery on the Everett waterfront.  They’ve since outgrown the original brewpub, and have expanded their brewing operations.  The pub is still in operation, with expanded seating, and is a favorite place for my family and me.  The kids really enjoy their root beer, which is rather good.

I guess it boils down to what you prefer.  Me, I prefer a brewery tour in which I can talk with the brewer, or someone close to the brewing operations.  I like a tour where I can get on the brewery floor.  Scuttlebutt came through and delivered.  Whereas if hanging out a listening to a talk about a brewery and its beer for $1, Red Hook may be for you.  What do you want to see in a brewery tour?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2010 5:17 am

    First off, I love the blog look and name. Very nice! I have frequently wondered why a guy of your knowledge not only of beer but of “internet” was without a site.

    I’m with you. The tour sounded lame. My experience at Boulevard was like yours at Scuttlebutt. The problem with a “tour” like Redhook’s, is that it seems like the brewery considered it a necessary evil. You know, “Oh man…people want to look at our brewery again. sigh. Let’s appease/humor them and throw them in this room. Give them a glass. That’ll make them happy.”

    It might work for Joe Shmo tourist, but that’s it.

    Redhook is missing out on the opportunity to engage committed customers. After I was given an intimate tour of Boulevard and got to spend time drinking with the brewers, Boulevard went up a notch in my book and I’m always on the lookout for their beers.

  2. April 30, 2010 10:52 am

    +1 on what Nate said, and I hope you keep this going!

    I thought it was interesting the comment on the drinking games and drunkenness that don’t seem to be the point of craft beer. That’s my take too, and I bet a brewery that size gets as many people on the tour that are not craft-beer geeks than not. So, they probably dumb it down a bit, who knows.

    Still, Nate’s indicated that this year’s DLD event was much like a stereotypical drunken frat party (my interpretation) which surprised me. I guess I don’t get out enough! Maybe to most, that’s still what beer means.

  3. April 30, 2010 11:41 am

    Well this “tour” set something off in my mind. That, and the whole thing about taxing mass produced beer, but not craft beer here in Washington inspired the name. The stereotype that all craft beer drinkers are highfalutin’ progressives really sticks in my craw.

    Interestingly enough, the cutoff in this law between craft and mass-produced beers is 60k barrels per year. Red Hook is mass produced, according to the law, and at 250k barrels, I can’t say that I disagree. However, I would still call them a craft brewery, just as I would Sam Adams.

    Other tidbits from the tour… Anheuser-Busch owns 1/3 of Red Hook… it’s a deal they struck in order to get wider distribution. The guide also mentioned that the German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) is what distinguishes craft beer from light lager. I beg to differ, and I bet you do too. Think Trappist and Abbey style beers produced in Belgium and here at home. Think Wit. Think Lambic. Think Breakfast Stout.

    As I think about it, this is probably the every-man’s tour. One dollar gets you a cool glass, almost a couple pints of decent beer, and a story. They may do a special tour for folks like us, who have quite a bit more knowledge of beer than the average person.

    Thanks, guys, for the comments. I want to keep this up. I have a few more ideas churning in my head, that will eventually find their way on to these pages. I’ll eventually touch on the topics of economics, homebrewing, and more.

  4. Don permalink
    April 30, 2010 3:48 pm

    Good on ya Big Tex! And welcome to the blogosphere! We’ll put you up as a friend of B&WB. As for the tour, the only brewery I have ever toured is Victory in Downingtown, PA, just a couple of weeks ago. It was awesome, we got to meet Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet the co-founders of the brewery, and talked with them over beers for about an hour, then went on a tour of the whole place. Of course this was not the typical tour, as Jim and I are working on a little project, but nonetheless they could have handed us off to more junior staff, etc, but they didn’t. They care about their craft and their brewery, and wanted to put their best foot forward.

    It sounds like Red Hook really doesn’t care about the tour end of things, and the direct customer relations, which is a shame. It is an important part of the business. It is what made this brewery what it is, but they have forgotten that obviously. Frankly I think it is reflected in their beer too. When was the last time you had an offering from Red Hook that tasted inspired and well…crafty? Its been a while I suspect. I don’t even order their stuff any more, and I certainly don’t buy it when I’m in the store. I hope, Victory and Dogfish Head never get to the point where they have to give you virtual tours! What a shame.


    BTW nice job with the blog. I hope to contribute regularly.


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