As a beer writer, I find it extremely hard to deliver negative criticism. Partly, that’s because there is so much positivity in the craft beer world that it’s really easy to focus on the good stuff. There are times, however, when a little honesty is important, and needed.
In order to illustrate this point, let me share a little about our recent trip to New England. We visited six breweries – some old favorites, and some brand new to us.
We started out at the new Harpoon Beer Hall.
We’ve toured Harpoon many times, but since our last visit, they’ve had a massive expansion, including adding a canning line, increasing the size of the brewhouse, and building a massive, beautiful beer hall. The hotel we were staying at happened to be within walking distance, so we popped into the Beer Hall on a very busy Saturday afternoon to check it out.
The wait was sizable when we arrived. At first we thought it was just people waiting for the tour, but no, it was just folks trying to get in. The line moved quickly though, and before long we were joking with the salty Boston doormen and walking inside.
The vibe at the Hall was vibrant and the staff was pretty friendly, though you could tell they were a little harried from the extreme busy-ness. We ordered some beer right away – the cask conditioned offering, an unfiltered version of the Harpoon IPA, dry hopped with Centennial hops (it seemed a little ‘catty’ for me), and their 100 Barrel Series, a fantastic citra-hop bomb. I love visiting Harpoon because they always have special edition beers you can only find at the brewery.
The year old Trillium Brewing is a short walk from Harpoon, so we made it our mission to stop there next.
The ‘tasting room’ is really a small front room to the brewery where you can get 2 oz samples, or bottles/growlers to go. We received a lackluster greeting from the staff, though the place wasn’t all that busy, even after mentioning that it was our first time visiting. They offered us a sample of two of their beers, though their best seller, Fort Point Pale Ale was on tap too. The gentleman behind the bar said without skipping a beat, “we’re not giving samples of that, since it pretty much sells itself.”
Basically, this beer is so good, we won’t actually let you try it. Perhaps it was the manner in which it was said, or the cold welcome we received without hardly any information about the brewery, but this was not a good start.
We tried the two beers, Pot & Kettle Oatmeal Porter and their namesake beer, Trillium, a Belgian farmhouse ale. Both beers were ok, but definitely not great. The Porter lacked mouthfeel, and the Trillium tasted too young – highly phenolic and a little astringent. Perhaps the bottled version is better, but I was not impressed with either the service at the tasting room, nor the beer. For such a young brewery, I would expect vastly less hubris, and much better customer service.
While in Massachusetts, we wanted to try and track down the newest and only Trappist brewery in the United States, Spencer Brewing of St. Joseph’s Abbey. Lucky for us the hotel we stayed at actually had bottles of the beer, but at a whopping $12 per bottle. We were curious enough to order one, despite the price, and were pleasantly surprised by how tasty the beer was – a bright, citrusy, and dry farmhouse ale at 6% ABV. We tried the beer on draft as well and it seemed a little too young – slightly less balanced and a little harsh as compared to the bottled conditioned version. I’d highly recommend it in bottle though, it was extremely smooth and drinkable.
After the initial experience we decided we just had to visit the brewery. We scoured their website for information about touring, but found little. We decided to take a risk (it was just an hour away from where we were staying) and go.
When we arrived at the Abbey, we quickly realized that touring would not be an option. It turns out you can’t even buy the beer there. They did have their beautiful glassware for sale (only $3.99), so we snatched up a bunch for gifts and some to ship home. Since we were already there, we took a walk around the absolutely gorgeous grounds. It was beautiful, and absolutely worth the trip for the adventure, glassware, and stunning architectural details. We even found four packs of the beer at a liquor store nearby.
In my last post, I told you all about our amazing visit to Allagash, which was probably our favorite of the trip. Our second favorite brewery experience of the trip had to be Jack’s Abby in Framingham, MA.
Jack’s Abby is an award winning, all lager brewery making some of the best beer I’ve had in the past year. We sampled all 12 of the offerings they had at their cozy, friendly tap room, and enjoyed every single one. My personal favorites were the Coffee Smoke and Dagger – a roasty and deliciously complex dark lager, the Cascadian Schwartzbier – a lovely schwartzbier with a fantastic hop flavor and bitterness (akin to a Cascadian Dark Ale, aka ‘Black IPA,’) and the Hopstitution, a special edition extra pale lager with Calypso and Citra hops.
We asked if there was any chance we could see the brewery itself, and since it was a slow Wednesday afternoon, our beer-tender took us on an impromptu tour! This was before he even knew that I was a writer (I always make a point not to mention it, though sometimes my giant camera and questioning leads to questions), so major points for going that extra mile. We had a great time hanging at the brewery – the service was fantastic, the beers were excellent, and that extra five minutes he took to take us around and answer our questions made all the difference.
Rising Tide in Portland was the last brewery we visited on our epic trip back to the North East.
We received an extremely warm greeting as soon as we walked in the door and dove into a sampler of four Rising Tide beers – Spinnaker – a tasty hefeweizen, Ishmael – their American “copper ale,” their new saison – Printemps (my favorite of the bunch), and their IPA, Zephyr.
I thought all the beers we tried were pretty good, especially the Printemps which was replete with aromas of peach and hay with a nice dry finish. Yum.
We learned on the tour that the small brewery has expanded capacity greatly since it’s opening in 2010. One of their best selling beers is their session IPA, Maine Island Trail Ale, which started as a one-off until it became so popular that the brewery made batch after batch, and ultimately decided to put it in cans. Overall the experience was great, the staff at the brewery was extremely friendly, and you could tell that they were really excited to share all about their beer.
So, breweries, if you want your customers to have a great experience, make sure to be welcoming, explain details about your brewery and the beer, and act EXCITED about what you are doing. The reason people visit is that you make beer for a living, which is awesome! Lastly, if a patron is extra interested, and you have the time, go the extra mile. In my experience, the vast majority of breweries already do an excellent job at this.
It might seem obvious, but breweries, don’t be rude and condescending! It doesn’t matter how busy you are. There is nothing worse than going into a brewery excited to try their beer and leaving with both a literal and figurative bad taste in your mouth. Basic customer service rules still apply at a brewery – be nice! Also, even if your beer is extra delicious, there is no reason not to let your patrons try it. It comes off as majorly snide and cocky.
There are a wide variety of brewery experiences, which vary based on the size of the brewery and their resources, off vs. peak hour, and the patrons own wants and needs. If you as a patron are looking for a personal experience, try visiting at an off hour time. You will have a better experience and the brewery will too.
What were your favorite brewery experiences like? Have you had any majorly crappy experiences?