Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout’s resident beer expert answers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Plenty of people have asked me about which breweries host the best brewery tours. Not to dodge the question—there are more than 7,346 breweries operating in America, obviously I haven’t visited all of them—but I’d instead turn it back on the asker. What can you do to get the most out of a brewery tour?
Some tours are, admittedly, better than others. The good ones are actually fun, not just a long mosey through a stainless-steel library. A portion of the success of a brewery tour, though, is in the hands of the people on the tour. If you spend the tour attempting to show off how much you know about decoction mashing, alpha-acid contents of various hop strains, and biotransformation, you’re not going to learn much, and everyone else will get sore from rolling their eyes.
Instead, approach brewery tours as learning experiences, not an opportunity to flex. Keep an open mind, ask the right questions, don’t get wasted, and you’re 95% of your way there. Here are suggested questions from myself and brewery staff to get you started.
A brewery representative will try to sum up what their brewery is about at the beginning of the tour. You’ll probably hear words like innovation, quality, flavor, creativity, etc. Those are much of the same buzzwords you’d hear from an entirely different brewery down the street. To get at the heart of what this brewery is really about, says Moh Saade, head brewer at Miami’s The Tank Brewing, ask what quality beer means to the people giving the tour. The brewery’s answer—whether it’s consistently delicious lagers, or boundary-pushing hop experiments, or new frontiers in barrel-aging—will actually tell you about the brewery’s philosophy and priorities.
Some of my favorite questions submitted to this Ask Kate About Beer column are the ones that seem, on-face, basic—like what makes an ale different from a lager? Or which shape of beer glass is best? Basic questions often aren’t so basic at all.
So I thoroughly agree with Shana Solarte, who leads tours at Dovetail Brewery in Chicago: “The best questions are often the most basic knowledge beer questions. Anything that starts with “this is probably a dumb question, but…” is never dumb and the question is never above anybody’s head… We do a malt tasting and hop rub/smelling and someone will ask something like, ‘Why’d we taste the malt but not the hops?’”
Believe it or not, brewers don’t spend most of their day sniffing hops or staring at their beer against the light. If you want to know what it’s like to work at a brewery, ask a brewer or other brewery employee what they actually do all day. You could be surprised to hear the jack-of-all-trades roles most small brewery workers play. They might help out on the brewery’s canning line, or make sales calls, or do educational events at restaurants and bars.
“If there was a single question I wish people would ask more of, it’s the one that dispels the romanticism of brewing,” says Joe Ploof, founder/brewer at Hanging Hills Brewery in Hartford, Connecticut. “I don’t think people fully understand how hard and/or repetitively boring making beer is, because many people’s only point of reference is a Sam Adams commercial… It’s not just a bunch of bearded men in overalls standing around a fermenter drinking pints waiting for the beer to brew and package itself.”
Be warned: If you do ask this question, you’re going to hear more about squeegeeing than you thought possible.
You may not know a ton about the actual science of brewing. That’s fine! (It’s actually not a requirement for enjoying beer, believe it or not.) If you start to feel like a brewery tour is barreling forward Speed-style into total brew-nerdery, reset the course with a question that’s more interesting to you. Maybe that’s about the unique label art, or the brewery’s building, or the reclaimed materials in the taproom, or the solar panels on the roof.
“The questions I really love is when someone asks, ‘Who does your artwork?’” says Ben Ustick, who does media relations and leads brewery tours at Chicago’s Off Color Brewing. “I think it’s amazing that so many people feel drawn to Off Color’s label and package illustration and design.”
If you think your question is too random or non-beer-related, Ustick is here to allay those fears. “I wish people would ask me to see pictures of my cats more. That rarely happens and I feel like looking at cat pictures for 20 minutes seems like a perfect way to end a brewery tour.”
I’ve been asking this question since I was old enough to speak, and while it probably drove my parents up a wall, it’s something brewery tour guides love to hear. I’ve been on tours when a guide, who’s given the tour 100 times before, accidentally glosses over the reasoning behind certain brewery equipment or practices.
“This is our brand-new centrifuge,” they’ll say, gesturing grandly. “It cost as much as a house.” Cool for sure, but why does a brewery need a centrifuge? Or a dissolved-oxygen meter? Or why did the brewery switch from growlers to crowlers? I’ve learned the most on brewery tours from asking this single three-letter word. Try it.