How to Build the Perfect Brewery That Everyone Will Love
Let me start off by saying sorry for that misleading title. This isn't going to about building the perfect brewery that everyone will love. That is completely impossible, and you knew that before you clicked it. However, here are some facts about what make people love taprooms. If you are an aspiring brewery owner, these are the dials you will turn to tune into the people that will want to drink your beer, and lucky for you, these dials don't cause the expenses meter to flip out. If you are a beer drinker, then these are the qualities, subconscious and otherwise, that you might not even know you are on the lookout for when you drink.
One of the reasons I like going to breweries is that even though they all do the same thing- that is brew and serve beer, each of them is completely different. They're like restaurants - a huge multi-dimensional spectrum of styles, vibes, and history. When you are trying to pick which restaurant you want to go to for date night, it's not so hard. You pick what kind of food you are in the mood for then go from there, deciding if you want to try a new place or hit up an old fav'. You pick a price range and that decides for you, more or less, the classiness of the place. It isn't always straight forward but at least there is a process and you know more or less what you are getting into even if you are trying a new place. Breweries aren't quite like that. You can't really split breweries into fancy and casual or sushi, Italian, and American. However, after visiting enough breweries, patterns begin to emerge. After visiting over 100 breweries I am starting to feel like my opinion on this might be useful to you, so here are the tools you need if you want to decide if you're going to like a brewery before you set foot to pedal (and obviously I assume you are biking there because that is the best way).
First let's start with the basics you already know. "Brewery" can refer to a lot of stuff. It can refer to the massive buildings that Budweiser, Redhook, Fremont, and 10 Barrel all brew, package and distribute their beer from. It can mean the fine dining brewpub that serves artisanal food alongside house made microbrews or even could refer to chain restaurant style abominations like Gordan Beirsch and BJs Brewhouse. But it usually refers to the holy grail of beer drinking sites, where brewer and entrepreneur are the same, their mettle tested in the fires of competition, and their talent and labor is laid bare to be judged by the thirsty. God's chosen form of beer consumption: The Taproom. While I love all types of breweries, this isn't about going on a tour of the Budweiser facility. Nor is it about brewpubs. All brewpubs basically live somewhere on the spectrum of "glorified restaurant" to "tasting room with food." So even though that is a gross simplification, I'll save what I think about brewpubs for a later post. Today is the day of The Taproom.
Taprooms are the places where marathon drinking takes places. You can try beer after beer in an attempt to work your way through the brewery's entire array of craft styles. You order your drink at a bar where, depending on where you are, you might have a good chance of seeing the founder pouring drinks. People mosey up to the bar, get their beer, then find a spot on the patio or at the corn hole court to kill time until their beer is done and they can start over again. Every taproom is an experience by itself but also adds to the tapestry of the craft beer world. You're bored now; let's get on with it. Here are the traits that I think distinguish taprooms from each other.
Ok Guy, good work, start off with the weird one. You obviously put that in quotes for some reason, so you aren't literally talking about a smell. You got me, what's "The Smell?" ...Actually, I do mean the literal smell of the taproom. Kind of. It's that, pardon this actual French, je ne sais quoi; some taprooms have The Smell of a brewery. There are lots of components that make up The Smell and the more you have, the more Smell you have. You can tell they are actively worked in, as if the reason they didn't open until four today was because the person who is going to be serving your beer was just in the back sweating over it. The air is a bit humid and the smell of beer is strong. The Smell comes from when you take your seat after grabbing your beer and could literally reach out and touch a fermenter, or peer over a velvet rope and watch a brewer go at it. Taprooms like Floating Bridge have The Smell. You walk in past the fermenters to get to the bar, and you feel like if you wanted to you could slip past that little chain and poke around. They'd probably let you if you just asked. You can smell the fresh beer in the air and it flavors everything you do and drink. Breweries like Hellbent have less of The Smell. Their brewery is active, but it's behind a glass window. They know maybe you want to see the place but not smell it. It's well ventilated and completely separated. If you try hard, you can probably see some people working back there, but it would be super weird if you walked through the "employees only" door to get there. Holy Mountain has some of The Smell, too. Though their brewery is completely hidden from sight, I swear they are pumping newly steamed beer air from the top of their kettle into the taproom. Tasting rooms separate from the actual facilities can be completely devoid of The Smell. If you walked into a taproom and had no idea it was a brewery until you get to the bar and find they only have beer from one place, then they have gotten rid of their Smell. Brewpubs excel at getting rid of The Smell, because it interferes with the experience of eating and makes the experience more niche to lovers of The Smell.
The Smell correlates with a lot of other desirable or undesirable brewery traits. Brand new taprooms might have more of The Smell, while older and more mature ones might not. Kickstarter taprooms usually have The Smell in force because they aren't going to waste money on hoity-toity things like ventilating the air. The Smell has a weak inverse correlation with fanciness. The fancier a place is, that is the attention to details, artwork, and expensive-ness, and the less likely it is to have The Smell, though they aren't mutually exclusive. A brewery can have fancy artisan made $100 welded flight carriers and still have The Smell if they do it right. You might be thinking, "Ok, I get it, The Smell sounds horrible get it out of here" and that is probably because, to you, The Smell and the sterility of a brewery are also somewhat inversely correlated. You might like your taproom to feel cleaner*, more refined, and separated from the process of brewing. That's ok too. Not everyone likes The Smell. Personally, I love it and require it.
History is the brewery's origin story; the story of the journey from before you walked in just now. The Kickstarter brewery that roped together crown sourced funds. The heavily invested in, capital scrounging taproom. The ex-Microsoft software money boys. Ten townsfolk who banded together to rent a storage space to brew out of. Or *shudder* a corporate brewpub opening another location. The history of a taproom matters. The taprooms I love the most are the ones I can feel connected to. Figurehead has the names of their Kickstarter backers on the wall and their owners still work their day jobs as they bootstrap their new taproom. Saint Arnolds is the oldest craft brewery in Texas, and they are sure to tell you that. Even though that only means that every place older than them got too large to be considered a craft brewery anymore, they are sure to tell you that, too. Torched Hop in Atlanta has every bit of polish possible to the point where you have to assume they are a corporate spinoff, but on the wall by the shuffle board are the photos of the owners renovating the place. They even framed the first blue print they ever drew- blue pen on a piece of notebook paper, notes scrawled in the margins about which walls they were going to have to knock down. McMenamin's has a dozen locations around the PNW, but each one is built inside a repurposed historic building which plays into the vibe of the location.
That's not to say that everyone wants history. It distracts from drinking. You may have noticed that most other bars, brewpubs, and restaurants don't really bother you with their history, instead focusing on getting you what you went there for. The Dock doesn’t try to bother me with the origin story of my plate of nachos and pitcher of Bud Light. To me, history equates to personality, but some history might convey shabbiness and cheapness. The beer should be able to stand up on its own without the story of blood and sweat, some say. Personally, I think if you are charging $14 dollars for a tulip of beer, I'd better get to hear its entire life story first. Hair of the Dog in Portland is a good example of that - their beers are expensive, even in the taproom, but they each have a tale from the origin of their name to the competitions they've won. Some breweries have rich histories and others don't. The ones that do have to decide whether they display it proudly on their walls, menus, and websites or whether it isn't worth sharing. It's not a great feeling when someone walks up to the bar next to you at your favorite brewery and is handed their personal beer stein from its designated hook and you are left wishing you'd seen the fundraiser back when they needed it. Lagunitas has a great history that Tony McGee writes all about in his book. It's a compelling story of struggle, fundraising, and overcoming legal red tape, but he doesn't mention the fact that Heineken now owns the whole thing.
Jesus. That was an earful. Hard stop.
There are three more traits that I think are really important, but I got carried away, and now my fingers are getting sore. It looks like I'll have to split this into a two parter. Next time on Bieber Tells You Things You Already Know About Taprooms: Intimacy, Corn hole, and Beer. Then I'll wrap it all up and tell you why it all matters. Thanks for reading. If you like what you read so far please comment and like below. Or even better, share it with your friends. Think I'm on the wrong track? Tell me about it.