Destination Breweries

Staircase in Sierra Nevada's lobby

Staircase in Sierra Nevada’s lobby

Tonight, September 1, town councilors in Gorham, Maine will discuss rezoning a parcel of land so Sebago Brewing Company can build a destination brewery on it. (Thanks to Portland, Maine resident Carla Jean Lauter, aka The Beer Babe, for the Portland Press Herald link.) The story caught my attention because my husband and I are currently on a beer vacation. After visiting three destination breweries in four days, I have some thoughts for Sebago, or any other brewery, and the town councilors to consider as they plan with an eye to future growth.

The Lagunitas vibe

The Lagunitas vibe

We took regular-folks tours—no VIP or beer blogger special requests—at Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada and Deschutes, three of the largest craft breweries in the U.S. First and foremost, what’s your brewery’s vibe? What visitors see should jibe with your image. Lagunitas and founder Tony Magee are all about laid back, and the brewery and tours exemplify that image. Sierra Nevada and Ken Grossman stand for high quality. Their brewery and tours are first-rate. Deschutes and Gary Fish are into the Bend lifestyle—backpacking in the High Desert and fishing in the Deschutes River. The rugged vibe at Deschutes Brewery falls somewhere Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada.

Deschutes tasting room and shop

Deschutes tasting room and shop

Next, plan to accommodate large numbers of visitors. Tour Team Lead Rachel Becker, who supervises Sierra Nevada’s tour guides, told me that the brewery sees 40,000-50,000 visitors a year. Will you require tour reservations? Deschutes and Sierra Nevada do. Lagunitas doesn’t. At Deschutes and Sierra Nevada, visitors can walk in and sign up for the next tour, if there’s space. As a visitor, I vote for limiting group size. In addition to the standard brewery tour, at Sierra Nevada, we took the sustainability tour. Yes, we had to do some advance planning that involved checking websites and making a few emails and phone calls, but groups ranged from 6-16 at Sierra Nevada and Deschutes. At Lagunitas, our group was 35-40 and the guides used microphones. Consider that certain parts of a brewery are very noisy places. How effective is the mic method? In fairness to Lagunitas, I spoke with a couple of guys on the Sierra Nevada tour who, like us, had toured Lagunitas the previous day, and there were only 15 in their group.

Lagunitas tasting room

Lagunitas tasting room

Third, Sebago, consider your anticipated visitors and the length of your tour. Deschutes and Lagunitas offer 45-minute tours. The brewery and sustainability tours at Sierra Nevada are 90 minutes each. We would have loved to take the three-hour Geek Tour, but it wasn’t offered the only day we were there. For most of the people we saw on the tours, 45 minutes seemed about right. Every guide asked if there were homebrewers in the group. Besides us, there was only one other, and he was a chef studying to become a Certified Cicerone. He was also taking the Geek tour the next day. Most folks seemed impressed by seeing and feeling malted barley and dried hop cones, and their questions were fairly basic. On a related note, are tours limited to the 21+ crowd or will you allow younger people, say, 12 and over? We saw both ways. Also, I suggest not charging. None of the breweries we visited did, but others—ex. Sudwerk in Davis, California—do.

Lagunitas' beer garden

Lagunitas’ beer garden

Fourth, consider what visitors will see when they arrive. Yes, a shiny, beautiful brewery and pretty gardens are important, but so is signage directing people to parking and tours. Of the three breweries we visited, hands down, Sierra Nevada has done the best job on this. And hands down, in our experience, Lagunitas needs to work on this area. (Suggestions for Lagunitas: 1) add parking and 2) train any employee sent to stand at the entrance of full parking lot and turn away cars so that he instructs people where to park instead of saying “Wherever you can find a place,” and then walking away.)

Leslie at Russian River early on an uncrowded week night

Leslie at Russian River early on an uncrowded week night

Fifth, employees need to be aware that, at all times, they’re the face of your brewery. Except for the Lagunitas parking guy, every employee we came in contact with at all three breweries was friendly and well-trained. In addition to tour guides, this means the first point of contact people, bar, restaurant and swag store employees. Our trip included dinner at the outstanding Russian River, which I checked out on Yelp. Just after our visit, a customer review gave them one star for a long Saturday night line and poor service. Ouch.

Related to service, make your swag store BIG. Another recent Yelp reviewer gave Russian River four stars because the store was “the size of my walk-in closet!” Separating the tasting room and store is a good idea. Deschutes combines the two and, when we were there on Saturday afternoon, the area was packed. Some people were standing around small tables drinking. Others were checking out merchandise. The busy employees behind the bar couldn’t possibly keep an eye out for shoplifters.

Hot rot boxes at Sierra Nevada

Hot rot boxes at Sierra Nevada

Seventh, about that tasting area, kudos to Lagunitas for the most spacious and comfortable tasting room during a tour. Those easy chairs in a homey air-conditioned environment after the heat outdoors were a welcomed relief. Probably, though, the Sierra Nevada and Deschutes model of tastings while standing around tall tables makes more sense from the brewery’s stand point. Tour samples are free. If folks want to drink more and do it in comfort, they can walk over to the beautiful, huge restaurant and patio (Sierra Nevada) or the cool, huge beer garden with a stage for bands (Lagunitas) or drive to your restaurant downtown (Deschutes. I can’t say if Deschutes’ restaurant was huge, only that the Friday-night line was longer than we were willing to wait.)

Leslie with Deschutes' Jeff Johnson

Leslie with Deschutes’ Jeff Johnson

Eighth, the tours. After all, they’re the whole point of a destination brewery, right? How much and what are you going to show visitors? At Lagunitas, we started in the taproom and spent more time there than on any brewery tour we’ve ever done. The actual tour of the brewing area was pretty minimal, which was okay given the size of the group and the difficulty hearing the mic. As beer people, we loved having 90 minutes on the Sierra Nevada brewery tour. Actually seeing the reality of how green the company is—like those super quick composting “hot-rot” boxes—on the sustainability tour was impressive. All our guides knew their subject, but Jeff Johnson at Deschutes won us over with his deeper knowledge of brewing. We weren’t surprised in talking after the tour to learn that he has just been hired in the brewing department.

Finally, Gorham town councilors, get ready for the tourists. To borrow a quote from the baseball movie Field of Dreams, “Build it, they will come.”

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