THOUGHT PIECE the carling team
What Makes A Great Brewery Tour?
A few months ago we looked at how opening a taproom helps to spread brand enthusiasm around your local community. Tap rooms are quite a new thing in the British Isles but the brewery tour has been around for a long time. Remember Gabriel Sedlmayr from the Spaten Brewery in Munich allegedly going around Bass in Burton in 1833 reputedly with a hollowed out walking stick with which to take surreptitious yeast samples! With or without a mobility aid, a tour will enhance your taproom offering and even if you have not got one, a well thought out and well organised visit to the production plant helps to spread the right message amongst existing and potential customers.
One point early on concerns health and safety. These days various industry standards aim to keep the process and operators separate and that goes for visitors as well. Safety shoes, hi-vis jackets, ear plugs in bottling halls and sometimes eye protectors are essential bits of equipment so it is best to check with the local inspectors before starting public tours. If there are no fork lift trucks running about, hot bits are cordoned off and ladies do not wear stilettos you should be OK. While you are at it, best check your liquor license too as you will no doubt be providing samples.
There are many types of tour. A coach load from a local pub may well emulate the old Double Diamond advert and shout “we are only here for the beer” so a perfunctory scoot around a few stainless steel vessels will suffice as the bar beckons. The cost may be borne by the pub or else someone’s marketing budget. Once you have to pay for something yourself, the question of value for money comes more to the fore. Most breweries will now make a small charge to cover the cost of the guide and the samples you are going to consume. But it remains an easy way to get the consumer closer to a brewery’s brand, process and beer.
How can you make sure your tour will be memorable and help your image and hopefully bolster later sales? Your blogger has to admit that although he has visited dozens of breweries, he has always had the Head Brewer as a guide to answer all those pesky questions about extracts, malt specs, times, temperatures and pipe diameters which are of little interest to the non-technical visitor. I did go round a notable brewery in the Midlands with a party and had to explain to the Head Brewer later that the tour guide was telling some whoppers which may have had the visitors in awe and wonderment or else fits of laughter but she should really should have stuck to the script! The occasional mystery visitor can be useful. So the success of a tour starts with the guide.
That guide should not be an operator who wants to earn a few bob after hours, they should be carefully chosen to be out going, engaging, with a loud voice and sometimes able to be strict with wanderers and valve twiddlers. Fifty years ago Bass in Burton on Trent was advertising for a ‘smart and intelligent young lady…to arrange, organise and conduct brewery visits.’ In Reading, Courage wanted a ‘mature lady’ to act as a brewery guide, her desirable attributes being ‘a neat appearance, ability to speak in public and be a good mixer. US digital media outfit Vinepair which commentates on drinks culture asked ten notable US craft brewers what made a memorable tour and they all detailed the importance of the guide who should be knowledgeable, friendly, enthusiastic, energetic, passionate, engaging, insightful and fun. You could add approachable and easy-going.
The tour guide should be in the brewery enough to know how you might do things a little differently compared to everyone else and sets your brewery apart from the others. The tour process should be well rehearsed and polished. Throughout all this, the guide must keep guests safe at all times. Hook Norton has chairs on each landing for the more infirm.
A good tour can vary in length, going anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. While the party assembles, can you show a film to set the scene? A successful tour starts out with excitement, from both the guests and the tour guide. Can you assume that everyone walking through the door already knows about the brewing process and what all that fancy equipment actually does? Spend time on introductions. This helps to gauge the interest of the group, separate the interested from the enthusiasts. Learning everyone’s name is a great skill but otherwise you can give them sticky badges. Try to tell the story of the brewery, even a fairly newly found micro brewery will have a history perhaps from home brewing in a garage and the traumas that can lead to. Mention the old breweries in the town which may have closed.
So what can you show them? A schematic of the process and materials samples to chew are essential. You must find a way to keep visitors fingers out of the samples and make sure they are replenished between tours and not allowed to go stale or look unloved. Yet sniffing hop pellets and looking at stainless steel fermenters can get dull after a while.
Can you get up close to the actual equipment, not just seeing it on a video screen or from behind a glass window. Can you feel the heat of the brewhouse and savour the aromas of the mash. Open fermenters are much more satisfying than peering into a dimly lit inspection port on the top of a conical. Yet clambering up to the top of a conical just like the brewers have to (sometimes) makes the visit seem more exclusive! Do be careful if you try this in daylight at Miller in Milwaukee as the seagulls off nearby Lake Michigan are persistent and you have to carry a yellow umbrella to keep them at bay!
Try a mini mash into an insulated container, let the party smell it and then come back in half an hour to filter it, taste the wort and take its gravity. Can you sample direct from a tank; the Staropramen plant in Prague makes a big thing of passing a huge heavy leathern pot of ice cold lager around for tasting. If you have beer composting in old whisky casks, let the visitors pull the nails out of a barrel to draw a sample and remind them why it is essential to have a spare in hand as well. Grab a beer off the bottling line, you cannot get any fresher than that.
Breaking up a tour with some sampling at a suitable location is ideal. Try a glass of a single hop IPA along with a sample of the hop which the visitors can rub to bring out the same (hopefully) aroma. Put on something special that is not on sale in the taproom nearby.
The tour is also a chance to showcase the brewery’s commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Visitors should be able to see how the brewery is reducing its environmental impact through energy-efficient equipment, waste reduction, and other sustainability initiatives.
Equipment and materials must be part of the visit but what else do you have to show visitors? You can sample the brewing water from the well head at Budvar in Czechia and Paulaner in Munich. Paulaner also has little plots of barley in season and hops growing up the wall. Sierra Nevada in North Carolina have a tour in the woods to emphasise the breweries sustainability initiatives. Closer to home Elgoods in Wisbech have a four acre garden which is due to reopen in August after an extensive refurbishment.
Tour complete, you hopefully return to the hospitality area and you can sample some beers in flights of small glasses. Ensure that visitors taste at least one thing they have not tried before and see what they think! The room can be decked out with time lines of the brewery and if recently founded, some details of the history of brewing in the area. E bay should be scoured for suitable artifacts, coopers tools, copper utensils and the like. Models are also useful.
Food will depend on the price you charge and the kitchen facilities you have. Many tap rooms hire chuck wagons from mobile caterers. Indeed there are so many in Colorado’s Fort Collins that people tour around looking for the chuck they like as much as the beer!
There are of course different levels of tour; quick, standard and in-depth with a technical guide. Learn to taste like a pro with sensory training including discerning off- flavours. Beer and food pairings. How are different beer styles made? In depth immersion into the process will involve meeting the Head Brewer; you could even arrange for a party from work to do the actual brewing.
There should be a leaflet to take away summarising the tour and detailing where beers are on sale elsewhere. A souvenir of some sort, a badge or beer mat, even a bottle perhaps and then exit through the shop or back to the Tap Room where souvenirs and logoised clothing can be bought and perhaps a bottle shop with beers of the world as well as your own. Visitors can easily be tempted by a tall fridge full of minikegs.
Collecting feedback is a challenge. People will say they will email you but they rarely do. Interacting with them during the sampling is best and provide a visitors book for comments as well as a terminal where you can collect email addresses for future marketing initiatives is a bonus. A Tripadvor page will allow you to advertise that you do tours but you need to keep a close eye on the feedback so that negative observations do not start hares running to the detriment of what you are trying to achieve!
To the Americans, a Brewery Tour could mean a tour of breweries since there are over 9000 of them with heavy concentrations in urban areas. Some use mini buses, others bicycles or even a self propelled beer bike to get around. Fort Worth in Texas has a Tour de Fort Worth coinciding with the Tour de France but is a lot more leisurely as indeed the first French tour was back in 1903. Traverse City in Michigan organises a waterborne tour in kayaks. Outdoors loving Bend in Oregon is a city of some 100,000 people with 26 breweries making it the highest concentration of breweries in the land; there is a lengthy trail and on completion you can claim a Man (or Girl) vs Beer T shirt and a curious bendy beaker for your back pack! Happily such tours are beginning to catch on in Britain’s biggest cities too. But then the Scots have had the Speyside Distillery Trail or that on Islay for years haven’t they?
A tour shouldn’t be a burden for a brewery, but can be a boon to the bottom line and help create a deep and lasting experience with your brand, no matter how small or large the brewery. After all, word of mouth is one of the best forms of marketing.