In some respects, brewery tours have become like cooking courses in Thailand. At first, they were new and unique. Then, everyone and his cousin started offering one, and one tour/cooking course starts to look much like any other.
I sort of fell smack backasswards into my first brewery tour and well before they were trendy. It was at Carlsberg's brewery in Copenhagen. I didn't know much about Carlsberg at that point and had hardly sampled their beverages. I was living in Europe for a year abroad and traveling around Northern and Eastern Europe on a train pass for the summer before I had to return home for the next academic year. In Copenhagen, looking over a list of things to do, a visit to the Carlsberg brewery seemed like an inspired idea for someone recently turned twenty-one.
I don't remember a whole lot about the brewery tour except the brewery was very, very large. Groups were guided along for 20-30 minutes and shown the rough mechanics of beer production. The tour culminated with us gathering in a crowded room, sitting at various tables, where 10-12 bottles of various Carlsberg brews were placed for our tippling consumption.
I didn't entertain the thought of another brewery tour for almost a decade-and-a-half. I was visiting a friend, a college professor, at his university in Chico, California. Chico happens to be the headquarters of Sierra Nevada, one of the pioneers of craft brewing in the United States, in business for over thirty-five years. My friend insisted I had to do a Sierra Nevada tour. The brewery was much smaller than the Carlsberg Copenhagen behemoth I visited earlier, but the tour was framed much the same: a quick explanation how beer was made followed by a nonexistent sampling.
Two years later, I found myself on yet another brewery tour with a German friend. This one in Tasmania, just outside the state capital of Hobart, to visit the Cascade Brewery, Australia's oldest brewery. Again, the usual book knowledge of how beer is made was trotted out followed by a drinking session which more than made up for the zero bottles served at Sierra Nevada.
And just last summer, in Fukuoka (Japan), my wife and I went on our latest brewery tour. Of Asahi. We were lucky to secure spots on the last English tour for the last day we were in town. Asahi didn't even try to dress this up as a true educational offering. The tour was little more than 10 minutes. The true purpose of these tours is to lounge in the taproom where you can imbibe as much of three types of Asahi beer as you please as long as you get the hell off the premises within fifteen minutes.
So is it worth doing a brewery tour?
Learning about the brewing of beer from a brewery, just like going to the market to select ingredients for yet one more Thai cooking course, gets old … fast. You could go to Wikipedia and pick up the basics. If you're a home brewer and want to see what specific equipment a particular brewery is using or how they've setup their facility, like an auto enthusiast might wish to see another's garage, it could be worth it.
Most people salivate at the thought of a brewery tour because of the free booze, but not all brewery tours are free. My Carlsberg tour was free or sold at very little cost, with very little restriction on how much beer could be sipped or on the time limit in which to sip it, so this was a good value if drinking a lot for very little interests you. Do all-you-can-drink-with-generous-time-limit beer tours exist anymore?
Sierra Nevada, the brewery I respect the most of the four I've toured, charged back then. I can't say how much exactly, as I did the tour over a decade ago, but it must have been around $10 or $15, and we were given zilch in terms of tasting. Sierra Nevada's excuse was a lame one. Some of the people on the tour might be under 21. They've since revised their practices. They have free tours with no tastings and a three-hour beer geek tour for $25.
Cascade's tour was the best. I paid AUD 20 (then US$15) to participate, which included three tastings in microscopic tasting glasses. If value-for-beer were the intention, it would have been cheaper to buy a six pack of Cascade from a bottle shop. But the Cascade tap room was so crowded that the staff were lax about collecting vouchers. Plus other participants on the tour who didn't drink gave me and my friend additional vouchers. Essentially, it was an all-you-can-drink of quality brews, with plenty of varieties to choose from, some unavailable outside Tasmania, as we overlooked the brewery's beautiful grounds on a sunny day.And no one was rushing to kick us out. Both of us crawled our way out of there.
Asahi's free tour was educational for another reason. I appreciate Asahi as an industrial made beer, and it's my mainstream drink of choice if I'm selecting a beer at a Family Mart or a 7 11. I know the Japanese employ brewing shortcuts like foaming agents and fillers, but they cut the corners so beautifully that the final product still comes out tasty. The beer had such a fresh taste I'm unlikely to ever sample again from Asahi unless I do another tour. I left that brewery intoxicated as well. Drinking six small glasses of beer in fifteen minutes is not recommended if sobriety is desired.
I've done free tours, I've done paid ones. I've left on two feet, sober enough to do calculcus problems; I've left so intoxicated, I'd need a compass to tell me which way the floor was. Here's how I'd assess whether I'd do another one:
* Are the beers the brewery makes ones I actually like and respect? Will I be given a chance to try unusual beers unavailable in the stores or particular to this region? This reason alone is probably why most breweries don't offer tours. They don't make beers that are complex or unique enough that people would show up for a tour, even if the beer were offered free.
* Does the brewery have a reasonable beer tasting policy? Sierra Nevada's early 2000's policy was for born again Christians, just the sort of people who don't do brewery tours. I don't care if the tour is free or not. Sampling two shot glasses worth of beer for free is not my idea of value. I'd rather pay $20 and be given an experience. I thought Asahi's 15 minute speed drinking policy was a little unreasonable, but then again, the brewery is located in Japan. If Asahi allowed 60 minutes of unlimited drinking, locals would probably treat the joint as a free daily happy hour and Koreans in nearby South Korea would immigrate en masse to Fukuoka.
* Is the brewery located on beautiful scenic grounds? Cascade fit that bill. If I pay $20 to do a tour which includes three tastings, but I get to savor those beers overlooking waterfalls or gorges or gorgeous deserts, I can argue that I'd pay the same or more in a forgettable bar without getting to enjoy beautiful surrounds.
Don't show up on the tour expecting to learn anything greater than your alcohol tolerance.