Great beer in new places is always something to look forward to. But much of the fun of Beer Traveling is discovering something new. A brewery tour is a pleasant way to do both. It’s a thirst-quenching way to spend an hour or two while learning about the brewery’s history. You get a close-up look at the wonders of manufacturing, and sometimes a lesson in politics or economics as well.
Behind every brewery is an interesting story and there’s always someone willing to tell it. So the next time you’re on the road, consider adding brewery tours to your “to do” list when you visit a city.
One of our most memorable brewery tours was at the Young’s Ram Brewery in London. At the time of our visit, it was the oldest brewery in England that continually brewed at the same site. Sadly, Young’s has since closed its doors, although its beer is still being brewed elsewhere by contract. One of the most striking things about Young’s was how the brewery was tucked in among houses and stores. It was a working part of the neighborhood.
Before embarking on our tour, the guide issued everyone a white lab coat and hat. Cleanliness? Safety? Maryanne reasoned that we were just harder to lose sight of that way. But hey, we’re cynical.
Part of the tour was a museum filled with old brewing vessels. One was used from 1869 until 1983, and from 1885 until 1997. They were powered by steam, with the water heated by coal. The false bottom from the mash tun had been preserved in the floor. The museum was destroyed by German bombs during World War II, but was restored afterward. Fermentation vessels dating back to 1882 were still in use, too—a living history lesson.
On one side of the brewery were vintage delivery vehicles and stables. Those stables, in constant use since 1897, was one of the few working Victorian stables still in London. Every day, black Shire horses drew delivery wagons to pubs within a three-mile radius of the brewery.
After the tour, we spent our tour beer tokens in the on-site pub and talked with the locals who had stopped in for a late lunch of traditional pub grub. One of the staff told us an interesting fact: almost all of the Americans who took the tour were homebrewers.
Touring the Dutch Giant
Spontaneous isn’t exactly our middle name, but our visit to the Heineken Experience a few years back certainly was impromptu. When a canceled flight made a long layover in Amsterdam longer still, we had to take action. So we stowed our carry-on luggage in a locker and hopped the train into town.
The “Experience,” at the site of the old brewery, educates visitors about Heineken while entertaining them, and at the end, deposits them in what we call the “pro shop,” an area filled with souvenirs to take home. You can get a little beer along the way, of course. Visitors are cleverly encouraged to keep moving along the self-guided tour by the promise of beer samples at three tasting stations.
You enter by passing the lab of Doctor Elion, a student of Louis Pasteur, who in late 19th century developed the Heineken yeast strain. You can watch him labor over a microscope. The poor fellow looked miserable. No wonder: he didn’t even have a glass of beer handy.
The old brewhouse itself is beautiful. Copper brewing tanks stand out against the white tiled walls. The vessels were cut open and fitted with video monitors describing the brewing process. Outside the window, you could see the old Heineken family mansion across the canal; it’s now used as corporate headquarters. Look out the other side, and there are the stables of Shires that still walk the streets of Amsterdam every day pulling an old delivery wagon.
Several entertainment stations available enhance the experience, including a bottling line animation, a place to send video postcards, and even a movie theater where you’re made to feel like you’re in the driver’s seat of a horse-drawn delivery wagon as it makes the rounds.
Generations at Utica
Back over on our side of the big pond, Utica, NY, is the home of the Saranac Brewery and a complex where beer has been brewed since 1853. In 1888, F.X. Matt, who began his career at the famous Duke of Baden Brewery in the Black Forest of Germany before emigrating, took over an existing brewery and reorganized it as The West End Brewing Co. and later the Matt Brewing Co.
Nowadays, the third and fourth generations of Matts brew beer to their grandfather’s standards at one of America’s few remaining regional breweries. The company survived Prohibition by switching to a line of soft drinks, known for many years as Utica Club. (Later the name “Utica” was given to Matt’s most affordably priced beer.) Customers can still buy root beer, orange cream, and other Saranac soft drinks.
The current seven-story brewhouse, built after World War II, is home to two huge copper brew kettles that are original equipment. Visitors can also admire the Matt family’s antique collection, which includes a million-dollar grandfather clock and a desk that once belonged to P.T. Barnum. There’s a display of bottles used by the Matt brewery over the years, going back to clear glass bottles from the 19th century. Ever wonder what a Prohibition-era speakeasy was like? The Saranac folks will show you one.
The tour ends with a short motorized trolley ride to the 1888 Tavern. It’s decorated in Victorian fashion, complete with a player piano. After we enjoyed a couple of beers on the house, our guides ushered us back into the 21st century.
The Original Cult Beer
As college students, we had roommates whose friends and family shipped them cases of Coors to the Midwest. Or should we say smuggled them. Back in those days you couldn’t buy it east of the Mississippi. In fact, there were rumors that President Gerald Ford brought cases back to Washington on board Air Force One.
At any rate, we had to visit the Coors Brewery in Golden when we were in Colorado for the Great American Beer Festival. The brewery is, after all, the world’s largest on a single site. Along with that distinction comes quite a tour and public-relations operation. Visitors begin by parking in downtown Golden and taking a special shuttle bus to the plant.
The public lobby is filled with memorabilia, including posters of old labels and marketing campaigns that sold them, as well as several displays sure to bring a smile to any face. Our favorite display was dedicated to the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” In it, a modern-day moonshiner played by Burt Reynolds is hired by a big shot politician to haul a truckload of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta back in the days when it couldn’t be transported legally to Georgia.
On the tour, you get a good feel for the enormous size of the complex. Let’s just say it’s a tad larger than your average family-run business. The facility is so modern you almost forget that Coors started brewing here in 1873. With all the automation, we wondered if the staff could disappear for days without the plant skipping a beat—except maybe for the tours—or losing a drop of beer.
Will you come away with all the secrets of that “Mile High Taste”? Of course not, but you’ll find out why they use mountain water, how they cold-filter the beer, and everything you’ll ever want to know about transporting it. And of course, you get the chance to sample a few with your fellow beer travelers. That’s always the best part.
And now, as the Bandit would say, “Ten-four.”