Brewery tours: From the grain to the glass

See how suds are made — and sample the finished product — at these regional breweries

  • Heavy Seas Brewery president Hugh Sisson leads one of several Saturday tours.
Heavy Seas Brewery president Hugh Sisson leads one of several… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
January 20, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a man addressed a crowd of about 50 at a brewery right outside Baltimore and said, "Let us pray."

He raised his arm, looked over his flock and solemnly intoned: "Our lager which art in barrels, thy will be drunk, at the Heavy Seas Beer Tour. Give us this day our foamy heads, and forgive us our spillages, as we forgive those who spill against us."

The man wasn't a tipsy priest, but Hugh Sisson, founder of Heavy Seas, who delivers the same speech before the two or three tours that pass through his brewery almost every Saturday.

The crowd was there to learn about beer — its variety, its creation, its consumption. Such tours are not commonplace in Maryland, but as craft beer culture has entered the mainstream, that's changing.

The DuClaw Brewing Co. in Abingdon also offers them, as does the Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon. And Delaware has established a website dedicated to its wine and ale trail. In Pennsylvania, Yuengling offers free public tours.

Sisson has been leading his tours for 15 years, but it's only in the past two that they have become weekly events, drawing crowds of 50 to 75.

"This has become a real happening," Sisson said.

The tours are slow strolls through the brewery that start with feeling the hops and end at the packaging line. They're not particularly academic, more like "It's a Small World After All" with beer samples.

"This is beer, it's not brain surgery," he said. "Nothing hangs on this. If it's not fun, it's not going to work."

Heavy Seas

Heavy Seas' brewery is located in a nondescript warehouse in Halethorpe. The brewery has been there for 15 years and could be easily overlooked if not for a neon sign that reads Clipper City, the company's name until last year, when the product was rebranded.

The tours formerly took place once a month, but shifted slowly to every Saturday. Some now sell out routinely in advance. That's because of the changing habits of beer drinkers, Sisson said.

"Craft beer culture has clearly ascended," he said. "And Baltimore has been getting into it more, I'm happy to say."

On this particular Saturday, the tasting room was shoulder to shoulder. Those on the 12:30 p.m. tour lingered as the crowd arriving for the 2 p.m. filled up their glasses (the brewery offers five 5-ounce beer samples with the purchase of a $5 glass).

Beer-making begins with barley, hops, water and yeast, Sisson explained. Barley (or sometimes wheat) is malted, or processed to isolate its enzymes, and mashed, or dunked in boiling water. Hops are added, and the brew is then moved to giant vats — one here holds the equivalent of 1,400 cases — where it's fermented for weeks.

You've heard the story before, but not the way Sisson tells it. With salt-and-pepper, slicked-back hair and a Heavy Seas vest, he narrated the tour with all the flourish of a town crier at Colonial Williamsburg.

"If you get too technical, you lose them," he explained.

Along the way he gives the crowd hops to smell and malt to taste, and by the time they've reached the enormous tanks where the beer is fermenting and the yeast runs freely on the floor, the tour is over.

For breweries, the upside of these guided tours is obvious: It enables them to introduce their product to new audiences. "Obviously, my goal is to make you a Heavy Seas devotee," Sisson told the group.

In fact, they're so valuable, Flying Dog Ales is working with Heavy Seas to change the state law that prevents breweries from serving more than 6-ounce samples during tours; the Frederick brewery stopped its public tours in 2009 as a result.

"With craft beer, it's important to get people to the brewery to show them the beer and all the thought creativity that goes into making it," said Flying Dog marketing director Ben Savage. "It's a way to differentiate ourselves from other businesses."

Delaware breweries

In Delaware, brewery tours are more firmly established. The state has even created a wine and ale trail that highlights all of the local breweries, their tours and tasting schedules. But they're conducted in the same spirit as the Maryland tours.

At Dogfish Head, founder Sam Calagione still leads some of the tours. Events czar Mark Carter described it as the opposite of a "Plexiglas tour." Guests are taken through an enormous, 115,000-square-foot facility in Milton that shows off the company's earliest brewing technology, a 10-gallon brew system that has since given way to a 100-gallon one. At 30 or 35 minutes, it's shorter than Heavy Seas' tour and offers fewer samples — four 3-ounce samples.

The company has been offering tours since 1995. Then, there were maybe five people walking around, said Carter, who started out as a guide. Now the Saturday tours typically have 35 people.

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