What You and Breweries Get Out of Tours

firestone-walker-logoCruise California’s Highway 101, and in Paso Robles, you’ll drive right by Firestone Walker Brewing Company, winner of the 2015 Great American Beer Festival’s “Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Company Brewer of the Year.” If you’re a craft beer fan, you’ve probably already planned to stop.

From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, brewery visits are in vogue. In fact, on Trip Advisor’s list of 135 things to do in Portland, Maine, Allagash Brewery ranks #1. Tours can vary a lot, especially in this age of destination breweries, like Sierra Nevada, that attract thousands of enthusiasts.

Entrance to Lagunitas Beer Garden

Entrance to Lagunitas’ Beer Garden

Some breweries charge for tours, others don’t. Some offer both complimentary and paying tours. Some require reservations, others don’t. Tours might last 15 minutes or 90 plus. You could be in a group of 5 or of 20. They may offer different tours such as brewery, sustainability or barrel-aging facilities. In addition to the brewery at Anheuser Busch in St. Louis, you can visit the company museum and the Clydesdales. Breweries may or may not be generous with free samples. Some allow children and open-toed shoes, others don’t want either. Even if you’re not a beer drinker, a brewery tour can be a fun, and educational, experience.

Because I’d be driving through Paso Robles a couple of weeks ago, I checked Firestone Walker’s website. One heads-up: if you want to get inside their brewery, it’s best to pay $3.00 and reserve a ticket in advance. Tours are popular, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get tix the day of.

 Even on a Wednesday, our tour filled up. We gathered in the Visitors Center, essentially a small bar with a large swag selection. Chase Kennedy, our personable tour leader, handed each of us protective eyewear, ear buds and a transmitter since it was going to be noisy inside the brewery. She made sure we were all wearing close-toed and flat-heeled shoes.

Tour leader Chase Kennedy

Tour leader Chase Kennedy

We climbed a flight of stairs to view the pilot lab and sensory tasting room before moving on to the brewhouse for a quick taste of wort (unfermented beer) and then back downstairs. Inside the brewery, we were corralled behind a railing where we could take in the fermenters towering above us and a serious bottling line that made it clear why Firestone Walker ranked 13th in in U.S. craft brewery sales by volume in 2015.

As brewery tours go, this one was on the cursory side, but that’s often enough for vacationers. Firestone Walker does offer hour-long tours on weekends for $15.00, snifter glass and 4 tasting samples included. Meanwhile, the regular tour concluded back at the bar with one sample.

One, if not the main, draw for beer geeks to visit new breweries is the unique, fresh brews not available elsewhere. Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson is among the most respected brewers in the U.S., making a stop at his brewery extra special. Since I was alone and had to get back on the highway afterwards, I arrived early and carefully chose my paid samples before touring.

Krieky Bones sample and menu

Krieky Bones sample and menu

I started with Crimson Peak Ale, a 5% ABV “light-bodied ale infused with hibiscus” and followed with a Cherry Stout. Brynildson is famous for his innovative barrel-aging techniques, and the Cherry Stout was a great opportunity to taste his work. It had started out as an imperial brown ale, was aged two years in oak barrels that previously held whiskey, then it was blended with milk stout, cherry liquor flavors and other ingredients to produce an incredibly rich, complex and smooth beer. My third and last sample was the nicely tart Krieky Bones, a wild ale fermented with sour cherries and aged two years in an oak foeder, a 2200-gallon barrel. (See more description.) Krieky Bones’ 5.5% ABV puts it on par with a Miller or Bud in terms of alcohol, but at $3.25 for a few ounces, it’s far pricier. As for taste, it’s light years beyond a macro beer.

What I didn’t try was Wookey Jack, my favorite Firestone Walker brew, or Luponic Distortion, the PR darling of the day, with promotional tees, hats, glasses and more for sale and advertising. Called a “rotating hops series” the hops profile in this new beer will change every 90 days, with a strong nod to the latest experimental hops. (Hops are another area of Brynildson’s expertise.) In other words, every 3 months, the brew will taste a little different.

Guy McCutchan at Bottles N' Bins

Guy McCutchan at Bottles N’ Bins

Unlike the beers I sampled, Luponic Distortion is intended for wide distribution. So, I did exactly what Firestone Walker wants brewery visitors to do. Back at home, I stopped by Bottles N’ Bins, which carries a strong selection of craft beers. Employee Guy McCutchan quickly led me to both bottles and cans as I asked how it was selling. “Really well. In fact, we sold out last week.” He went on to say he’s not a big fan of hoppy beers, but he did like it. Unlike Guy, I am a hophead, and honestly, one 6-pack later, I wasn’t wild about Luponic Distortion, although I couldn’t pin down the unfamiliar hop flavor I didn’t particularly care for.

The best breweries, no matter what their size, will always have to sell really good to outstanding beer, but great marketing—from tours to tap handles—matters, too. Firestone Walker gets this, and I’m proof. I’ll plan my next trip through Paso Robles so I can hit the longer weekend tour. And I’ve squirreled away a bottle of the first Luponic Distortion to compare to the next 6-pack in a few months.

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