Sunday, February 28th, 2010
BY 8:30 a.m., Glen Nile was elbow-deep in a bucket of Cascade hops, pulling apart the dry pods and releasing the lupulin, a resinous substance that plays a crucial role in the creation of beer. Meanwhile, Errol Chase, who goes by “Butch,” was pouring pints of oatmeal stout.
“When it is something you enjoy doing, it can hardly be considered work,” said Mr. Nile, 40, of Cumberland, R.I. “Plus, to work on a system like this is a real treat.”
Mr. Chase is a brewer. Mr. Nile is not. We were at the rustic Woodstock Inn Station and Brewery along with 20 others for an educational weekend of brewing. For some it was a chance to learn about the craft or to get advice on home brewing from the professionals. For others it was a gastronomical delight: two days of eating and drinking in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
As the American craft beer movement grows, so does the desire of drinkers to learn even more and to pry into the process. Breweries like Woodstock, it seems, are happy to oblige, offering experiences that go well beyond popping the top on a bottle of suds.
“People embrace it. They get into the tanks and clean them and everything,” Mr. Chase, Woodstock Inn’s head brewer, told me with a big grin. “It is like Tom Sawyer and painting the fence.”
If we were being taken advantage of, it sure didn’t bother us.
On a Saturday morning in November I found myself in the brew house watching John Andre Courchesne, a mail carrier from Rehoboth, Mass., heft a 55-pound bag of grain into a gristmill. It was the first step in what would be an hours’ long process of brewing a batch of Loon Golden Ale, which, after fermentation, would be ready to drink in a few weeks.
“It can seem a little strange to roll up your sleeves and get to work on vacation,” Mr. Courchesne said. “Something like this is a one-of-a-kind experience.”
Brewery tours are not new, of course. Back in the late 1800s Anheuser-Busch recognized that consumers were interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the process and created a theme park-like attraction at their flagship brewery, still popular in St. Louis.
According to Jeff Pitts, general manager of the brewery, roughly 350,000 people toured the 142-acre complex last year, learning the history of Budweiser and its sister beers, seeing decades’ worth of advertising and company trivia, and ending with a sample.
Until recently, most tours followed that model: a view of the brewing system, a quick history of the place, a sample or two of whatever is on tap and a T-shirt at the gift counter. But today, it’s not just the small craft breweries taking a more hands-on approach.
Jim Koch, president of the Boston Beer Company, which produces the Samuel Adams line of beers, has for years been making an annual trip to Germany to select and harvest hops (you may have spotted one of those excursions in a Samuel Adams commercial). It occurred to him a few years ago that others would be interested in joining him on his trips — visiting the fields and centuries-old breweries, learning about beer in the place that perfected it.
So last summer, Boston Beer partnered with Abercrombie and Kent to create a weeklong excursion to Bavaria’s beer country. The itinerary included visits to various biergartens; the centuries-old Stanglmair Farm and Hops Field, just north of Munich; and the Weihenstephan Brewery, which dates back to the year 1040.
Mr. Koch said that there were no immediate plans to do another such trip, which cost about $3,000 a person, but that his company would focus its efforts closer to home, through a partnership with the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. In addition to a stay at the hotel, participants will get a private tour of the company’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood brewery, where one of the brewers — not the usual tour guide — will show off the facilities and lead a tasting in the barrel room, a space usually closed to the public. Samuel Adams merchandise and a beer dinner with a brewery expert are included.
“Just like baby boomers adopted wine, their kids are adopting beer, and the parallels are extraordinary and enormous,” Mr. Koch said. “People want a better experience with their beer.” Even Anheuser-Bush realized that visitors wanted more. Two years ago it began offering a $25 Beermaster tour that includes a visit to the floor of the bottling line, a beer sample directly from the tanks, and other experiences not included on the free tour, according to Mr. Pitts.
But the craft breweries still offer the most intimate experiences. The Woodstock Inn began offering weekend packages within a year after opening its brewery in 1995, both to capitalize on the growing popularity of craft beer and to drum up business during the off season, said the owner, Scott Rice.
Mr. Rice estimated that about 1,500 visitors had attended Woodstock’s brewery weekends. Guests can take part in every step of the brewing process — including the messy work of removing hundreds of pounds of processed grain from the “mash tun,” where grain and water are mixed. The early morning brewing leads into a hearty Saturday lunch (featuring bread made from the spent grain); later, there’s a five-course dinner and souvenirs. (Breakfast is included in the cost of the room.)
Other breweries across the country offer similar packages with varying specifics. For example, Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, a Delaware-based brewery, has partnered with a local inn where visitors are welcomed with amenities like beer soap and a library of brewing books. A tour of the brewery is also included.
In the Pacific Northwest, Rogue Ales, one of the more celebrated American craft breweries, has a six-bedroom house on its 42-acre hops farm in Independence, Ore. Brett Joyce, president of the brewery, said that staying there gives visitors a chance to better experience one of beer’s main ingredients. “We even have a wedding scheduled there next summer,” he added.
As the weekend at Woodstock Inn Station and Brewery came to a close, I settled in at the bar next to a tired-looking but happy Tim Larkin of Portsmouth, R.I., who had spent the weekend at the brewery with his wife, Ginny. “I wasn’t expecting to work up a sweat, but shoveling spent grain will do that,” he said.
“It felt good. I’ll do this again,” he added, before taking a satisfied sip from his pint glass.
IF YOU GO
Woodstock Inn Station and Brewery (135 Main Street North, Woodstock, N.H.; 800-321-3985; woodstockinnnh.com). Brewery Weekends are offered in April and May; $118 per person, not including lodging. The weekend package includes a Friday reception, meals on Saturday and the chance to brew with professionals.
Samuel Adams/Copley Plaza package (138 St. James Avenue, Boston; 800-441-1414; fairmont.com/copleyplaza). The brewery experience package is offered January to May and September to December, subject to availability. Doubles start at $429.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales has a weekend package through the Inn at Canal Square (122 Market Street, Lewes, Del.; 888-644-1911; www.theinnatcanalsquare.com) that includes a brewery tour and a $50 dinner certificate for the Dogfish Head brewpub. Packages start at $480, double occupancy, depending on the season.
Rogue Ales (Chatoe Rogue Micro Hopyard, 3590 Wigrich Road, Independence, Ore.; 503-347-8288; www.rogue.com). Double rooms at the house on this hops farm start at $90 per night.
Anheuser-Busch St. Louis Budweiser Brewery Tours (12th and Lynch Streets, St. Louis, Mo.; 314-577-2626; www.budweisertours.com). General tours are free. Beermaster tours are $25 for those 21 and older and $10 for ages 13 to 20.