Once a magnet for those looking for a free beer, brewery tours have gotten much more sophisticated in recent years.
Along with that gratis beer, breweries the world over are offering everything from in-depth tours to lessons in beer-making. Some have even built restaurants or brewpubs where visitors can lunch on a Kobe burger and wash it down with a German-style ale. Add it all up, and you have more than just a free beer; you have a perfect Saturday afternoon.
This is typical at Rogue Ales, a craft brewery in Newport, Ore., that produces a line of cheekily named beers including Dead Guy Ale, Monk Madness and Brutal Bitter. The company’s small empire consists also of an adjacent restaurant, distillery and a small apartment-style hotel aptly named Bed & Beer.
In a market dominated by industrial brewers like Coors, Anheuser-Busch and InBev, the idea of beer tourism may seem laughable. After all, unlike the seductive charm of wineries, concrete and steel brewery compounds don’t exactly evoke thoughts of Dionysian indulgence.
But craft beer makers, who brew traditionally and produce less than 2 million barrels a year, are attracting a growing audience. In 2007, sales of craft beer in the U.S. increased 12% while domestic and imported beer grew 1.4%, according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based trade organization.
There are 1,450 and 3,000 breweries in the U.S. and Europe, respectively, and most of them are craft brewers or brewpubs happy to open their doors to the public to share their love of beer.
“They’re making the freshest beer that has traveled the least amount,” says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association. They are also catering to a new customer. “The American palate has gotten to want diversity in flavor,” she says. “We couldn’t have expected that from the marketplace [a few decades] ago.”
To find some of the best brewery tours in the U.S. and abroad, we consulted a panel of industry experts: Herz; Brian Sudano, managing director for the Beverage Marketing Corporation; and Jan Lichota, legal adviser and beer aficionado for Brewers of Europe.
In total, we’ve selected 18 breweries across the world for a variety of not-exactly-scientific factors: the overall quality of the beer, the originality of the tour or brewery and their legacies. The growth of the market, and the creativity it has inspired, made it tough to choose.
Herz credits the evolution of the American beer drinker’s palate to the advent of home brewing in 1978. It was this year that President Jimmy Carter legalized the practice on a small scale.
“Any brewer you talk to today,” says Herz, “a majority would say they got their start home brewing in their kitchen.”
Such is the case with one of the co-founders of the Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the late 1970s, Steve Hindy, then a correspondent for the Associated Press, began brewing beer in his bathtub while on assignment in Islamic countries where alcoholic beverages were outlawed. In 1987, he founded Brooklyn Brewery, which is now open to the public on Friday and Saturday for free tours.
The tour of the former iron-works building turned matzo ball factory turned brewery is a brief 30 minutes. At the end, visitors can sample one of eight $4 pints while noshing on local takeout from a nearby Vietnamese sandwich shop or a pizzeria. The on-tap beer is definitely the highlight of the tour, but a close second is trendspotting in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is ground zero for hipsters donning the latest in ironic dress.
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Like the Brooklyn Brewery, each craft brewery on our list has its own distinctive style. Magic Hat in South Burlington, Vt., calls its beers “elixirs” and visitors tour the “artifactory”; the Frederick Md.-based Flying Dog brewery treats lucky visitors to free barbecue when the staff feels like grilling; and Stone Brewing in San Diego caters to outdoors types and gourmands with a boulder garden and dishes like almond-crusted tilapia and barbecue duck tacos.
While American craft breweries are defining the trend in celebrating great beer, many European breweries long ago set the standard.
“The beer culture in Europe is unbelievable,” says Brian Sudano, managing director for the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a consulting and research firm. Sudano recommends Dusseldorf, Germany for its concentration of brewpubs, but says there are countless international spots for quality beer experiences.
Though Guinness has been a large-scale brewer for nearly a century, its facilities in Dublin are a destination for beer lovers around the world. The granddaddy of breweries stopped receiving visitors in 1972 when it was closed to the public for health and safety reasons. Instead, visitors tour Guinness’ storehouse, a seven-story building dedicated to different aspects of the beer-making and tasting.
In Switzerland, Jan Lichota of the trade association Brewers of Europe suggests Monsteiner Bier. High in the Swiss Alps, this brewery offers no fewer than nine unique beer-tasting opportunities, including a train ride and Nordic walking. These excursions end with a tour of the brewery, a tasting, or both.
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Chimay, a monastery of Trappist monks that has been brewing since 1850, is an excellent choice in Belgium. Though visitors can’t tour the brewery, they are allowed to walk through the abbey gardens and church. Afterward, they can head to L’Auberge de Poteaupre, an old school turned restaurant-brasserie where Chimay beers are on tap.
Your choices are not limited to Europe, either. The Kiuchi brewery in Ibaraki, Japan, caters to budding beer-makers with a personal lesson in devising a recipe, measuring malts, mashing and other techniques. The final product takes three weeks to ferment and can be shipped to any address within the country. While there, you can try the brewery’s White Ale, Red Rice Ale or Sweet Stout.
Look for more of these opportunities as craft brewers find bigger audiences.
“It’s starting to happen in all parts of the world because people are sick of the same choices,” says Sudano. “As you travel around the world, you’ll find different pockets where beer is becoming a boutique industry.”