Breweries: Do this, NOT this.

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?

Cheers!

34 thoughts on “Breweries: Do this, NOT this.”

    1. Ah, extra pale lager. It’s so natural to say ale I slipped up. Thanks for catching.

      Totally agree that people have bad days and make make mistakes. I really hope this was an off day for them, but it doesn’t make it right. Also, this policy of theirs to not allow samples of their best selling beer wasn’t just a one day thing. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I know they don’t have a license to sell pints, but geez.

  1. Great article. Had a similar experience at Jack’s Abby finding both their beers and their customer service top notch. Little disappointed to hear about your experience at Trillium. I was hoping to stop by for a visit there soon but may think twice or at least may ask around to see if others have had a similar experience. I think breweries (especially small ones) have a tendency as they grow and become more popular (trendy) to forget what got them there. Especially given the number of new breweries popping up, the last thing I need is any type of attitude from the staff because there are plenty of other places that I can visit to get great craft beer and a great experience. So guess my advice to these folks is to leave the attitude at the door…….you are just brewing beer folks.

    1. Bob, I really, really hope they were just having an off day, I was as disappointed by the experience as you are to hear it. I’d be very curious what others’ experiences have been. I don’t live in Boston anymore, so don’t have any contacts that I know of who’ve visited. Let me know if you find anything out or if you end up going.

      Couldn’t agree more – even if the beer IS great, I don’t need attitude or rudeness, ever. As you say, too many other great places to support. Thanks for stopping by and for the insightful comments!

    2. Trillium’s customer service is fantastic. I’ve been there dozens of times (at least weekly since they’ve opened) and I’ve never seen them be anything but amazing. The only rudeness or attitude I see is from an blogger who feels entitled to free beer.

      1. I’m glad to hear that others have had great experiences there, though I don’t think people should be afraid/unable to offer their own honest opinions. I understand that this was one singular experience, but it was pretty bad.

        My intentions for writing this were simply to point out what a good and bad experience look like. It had NOTHING to do with the samples not being free – I would have gladly paid for a taste of what I’m sure is a great beer, honestly. It was the total experience: lack of enthusiasm or interest in us as customers, delivery of the information, and their policy to offer some samples vs. others, especially their ‘best seller’ that ruffled my feathers.

      2. I’ve been to Trillium a small handful of times now, and have yet to have a good experience with their customer service. They always seem to have a cool attitude towards me, and are a bit brusque. I’m a homebrewer, so I tried to strike up a conversation about the brewing process, to which they (the 2 guys working the drafts) told me they only work the front, and didn’t want to carry on any kind of conversation.

        Luckily, the Fort Point Pale Ale is good enough to come back for refills, when they actually have it available (which is fairly rare).

        1. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had similar experiences. Major bummer! Someday I’ll try the Fort Point pale ale, but I probably won’t go out of my way to go to the tap room again. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

          1. “Someday I’ll try the Fort Point pale ale” – if only you had the opportunity to purchase a 750ml bottle for $8. Oh wait. You did.

            “their policy to offer some samples vs. others, especially their ‘best seller’” – You hit the nail on the head here. This is an in demand beer, that runs out faster and faster every time they brew it. Is it that inconceivable that they would want to not give it away for free in order to maintain a supply of it? The more they give away, the less they can sell to people who actually want to support local breweries. Not people who show up, take up room at the bar, snap a few pictures, drink free samples and leave.

            1. You know, I actually DID buy a bottle of the Fort Point Pale for my brother who lives locally, but since we were traveling, I opted not to buy beer for us. Like I said in another comment, I would have gladly purchased a sample or a pint, but because of their license they can’t offer that option, which is completely understandable. Perhaps if they had simply said “we’re not offering samples of that today” and not “this beer is so good it sells itself” it would’ve sat better.
              Overall if the rest of the experience hadn’t been so crappy I would’ve probably let it go, but the WHOLE experience was a major let down. They literally seemed annoyed that we were there. We didn’t go there to get free samples of beer – we went to check out a new brewery and support them. With one sample of their precious best selling beer, and maybe even a smile, I’m sure we would’ve bought more.

    3. Hey Bob,

      I live down the street from Trillium and have to say this blogger’s experience seems out of the ordinary. I’ve been several times and am always greeted with a smile. The staff has never given me attitude when I’ve asked for a sample (and there’s usually a line around the block on growler fill days after 5pm). Don’t let one person’s account determine whether or not to visit! The space is small and I’d recommend going earlier in the day, but Trillium is well worth your time.

  2. Check your facts The ONLY beer Spencer produces is a Belgian Pale Ale ale not a farmhouse. The people at Trillium make a better beer than you ever could and aren’t that rude at all. Shame on you for your narrow minded opinions…. Please don’t come back to Boson

    1. THIS is exactly why people don’t want to provide honest criticism of breweries. I am one person with one experience that I decided to share. I’m not saying other peoples opinions or experiences are wrong, but you certainly are. Guess what, everyone has different experiences but very few speak out about their negative ones because of ridiculous comments like yours. I won’t be going back to Boson as it turns out – but I’ll sure as hell be coming back to BOSTON, which is my hometown that I love dearly. Oh, and I looked directly at the Spencer website for my FACTS and nowhere does it list a specific “style” for their beer. My impression, my opinion, of the beer was it seemed very farmhouse in yeast character and flavor. Shame on YOU for being a bullying internet troll.

  3. June & I got to tour Harpoon, Allagash and Rising Tide while we were in in NE last summer. All were gracious host. In fact, the same girl in the picture showing you around Rising Tide took care of us too. Great little brewery. Didn’t get to tour the rest you visited, but I did sample some Trillium while in Boston and had the same impression. The beer was OK, more like a good home brew, but not what I expect from any professional brewery.

    1. The folks at Rising Tide were fantastic, and Allagash was amazing. Glad you had good experiences there too 🙂

      Trillium is still a new brewery so hopefully the beer will improve as they work the kinks out, but yea, not what I was hoping for. Hopefully they are just going through growing pains. They’re not doing themselves any favors by being so stand-offish though. Hopefully that improves as well. Thanks for your comment!

  4. There is a brewery down here that has gotten a reputation of having unfriendly bar staff that do not know anything about the beer on draft. As much as I want to like the place and support a local business, you’re right, the atmosphere and welcoming makes or breaks the experience. You would think it would be a no-brainer!!!

    1. I know, right? I can’t understand why any brewery would hire folks that aren’t the utmost of friendly. It’s like rule number one: hire awesome people to work with the public. Even if the beer is great, I won’t go somewhere if I don’t feel welcomed. Craft beer is typically such a welcoming family of sorts. I was really shocked at how blasé they were about the whole thing. So uninterested. Oh well! Bound to be a few bad experiences/breweries out there.

  5. I’m interested in the Spencer Abbey- did they have people around to chat with at all? I agree that glassware and gardens are worth the trip but I’m surprised there isn’t more information on the brewery and goings on.

    1. There was a single monk at the gift shop where they sell the Trappist jams/jellies and religious paraphernalia. That was where we found the glassware. We asked the monk there about whether you could visit the brewery, and all he did was sort of laugh and say no. Women aren’t allowed in the main area I’m pretty sure. The area/driveway where the brewery is, is completely prohibited to visitors. Bummer.

      1. I’m from a town over from Spencer (ran away to Maine), so I’m thrilled to hear about the Trappists beer. The monastery has been there for ages, and because it doesn’t operate like a typical business it is a little weird for people. Up in Bangor, Maine, the Friar’s recently started brewing. I had spoken to them when they were just offering a baked goods about how they deal with crowds and they explained that since they aren’t trying to make money, they just close their doors when they are of food. And I think the same goes for their hand-bottled beers.

        Women can attend masses at the church (there’s a small nook for visitors, if I recall correctly, it’s been ages since I went), but it’s true they aren’t allowed on the main grounds, but neither is anyone else who isn’t a monk.

        I think it can be off-putting for people who aren’t used to it. Most brewers are business folk who are in it for passion and profit. The monks have different motives, and though I’m sure the money helps it isn’t the number one priority. I could be wrong, since comparing the Trappist’s brewery to the Friar’s up here is almost apples and oranges.

        1. I do understand the point of what they are doing, and I think you’re absolutely right. They are making beer for different reasons than most, which is refreshing and great. We went in knowing we might be disappointed about ‘touring’ and tried to make the best out of the situation.

          I do wish they had some information on their website that described whether you can/cannot visit and their reasoning for not allowing people to visit. It would’ve saved us some time.

          1. That would be helpful. Somehow I think that the Monks may not be on the cutting edge of the web-marketing, though. 🙂

            And it wasn’t meant as a critique, because it is super-frustrating that you can’t tour. Just insight or half-assed insight from a former local gal who moved away.

      2. It’s part of the rules put in place from the Trappist association. Spencer has to follow all the rules so they can use the Trappist trademark. That means no new beers for a few years, only occassional media/industry tours and the most modern brewery you’ll ever see

  6. I haven’t been able to go check out their brewery yet, but based on the taste of their beers alone you should go check out Night Shift in Everett (next time you come back to Boston). They just upgraded their brewery to produce more, and every beer of theirs that I’ve had has been incredible.

    Also worth checking out is the Bantam Cider tap room in Union Square in Somerville. Those guys are doing some great things with cider.

    In a few months Slumbrew is opening a brewery/tap room in Union Square as well, they also are making some excellent beers.

  7. Going to a brewery for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. Each one has it’s on ebbs and flows and it’s own vibes. Certain areas offer samples, other areas offer growlers, other areas offer flights, other areas offer out the door sales… etc. It can be intense and awkward and what I’ve found in my experience is that employees (especially those behind the bar) are not really looking out for those who just need to be guided to where they would like to be. There’s never a “Hey guys, are you looking to have a seat and grab a couple beers or are you looking for some to-go growlers? Cool. If you head down that way and talk to so-and-so behind the bar, they’ll hook you up with whatever you want.” It’s usually very cold stares, and if you ask them where to do X, Y or Z, it’s typically et with the most eye-rolling response possible.

    TL;DR: I wish more breweries and employees would be aware of how stressful going to a brewery for the first or second time can be, and be more willing to help those who look lost.

  8. If you’re ever is the desert of Southern California, stay away from Coachella Valley Brewing Co.. Basically the same experience as you described with unkempt and dirty areas in the tasting room mixed in.

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