Visiting breweries is a popular pastime. At the end of last year, there were over 7,000 breweries in the U.S., with another 1,000 projected to open in 2019, according to the Brewers Association. Right now, 85% of people over the age of 21 live within a 10-mile radius of a brewery, and across the District, Maryland, and Virginia there are over 300 breweries and brewpubs.
So, what features should you look for to ensure you have a memorable brewery experience? D.C. Beer asked me to tackle this question, so consumers everywhere know what to look for—and what to avoid.
1: Damn Good Beer
A brewery has to attract their customers based on their product – quality beer served correctly. The glassware should be rinsed before serving, with minimal bubbles on the sides, and draft lines should be cleaned regularly. Otherwise, beer might taste like it’s been poured through a sack of pennies. The beer itself should never have off flavors. If the beer tastes too much like cardboard, paper, buttered popcorn, green apple, or (gasp!) Band-Aids, it’s usually a sign that the beer isn’t being produced or served at the quality you should expect.
Ideally, a brewery should offer a decent variety of styles to appeal to anyone. Ideally. Lately, however, I’ve come to appreciate breweries that specialize in particular styles, such as sours, IPAs, stouts, and barrel-aged. Breweries should also feature beers that aren’t sold in stores or otherwise widely available. New and rare releases make visiting a brewery repeatedly worth the trip.
2: Passionate Staff
Expecting great beer and knowledgeable staff isn’t a surprise, but when it comes to taproom staff, this is crucial. If I ask about the ingredients in a beer or the brewing process and the server can’t answer basic questions I’m not going to be impressed. Servers don’t necessarily need to be Ciccerone-certified, but they should be able to explain what’s in the beer and how it’s made.
Passion is just as important as knowledge and customer service—passion demonstrated by the staff’s words and actions. That’s what ensures a memorable experience. On a recent visit to a brewery in suburban Maryland, I found the beer to be adequate (not outstanding), but I vividly remember my conversation with the taproom manager. She took the time to describe the beer and embodied the passion the brewers had for the next beers they planned to brew. That’s all it took to get me to start planning my return visit.
3: Drinking in Comfort and Style
A brewery’s taproom ambiance should make patrons comfortable, so they want to stay and hang out a while. It should be pleasant to sit, drink beer, talk, and maybe play a tabletop game. I always appreciate it when the taproom has a clear connection to the beer itself. For example, Sapwood Cellars in Columbia, Maryland describe themselves as “dually focused on barrel-aged mixed fermented beers and fresh hoppy ales,” and I absolutely love that they use barrels as a decor feature in the taproom.
Another way breweries can create a memorable experience is by offering beer flights in unique ways or with unusual glassware. It’s a great way to get visitors to generate some free publicity via social media. Jailbreak Brewing Company in Laurel, Maryland, serves their flights on a gigantic “jail” key to align with their name. At The Veil Brewing Co. in Richmond, Virginia, most of the beer is served in long-stemmed glasses, almost resembling a wine service in appearance. Very memorable!
4: Feed Me
Food is important. It’s not as important as beer, of course, but it still matters. Personally, I love seeing a food truck that offers different and unique foods parked next to a brewery. While burgers and pizza are always great beer food, it really excites me to see specialties like chicken and waffles, grilled cheese, creole, gyros, or something else exceptional.
At a brewpub with a kitchen, nothing excites me more than seeing beer suggestions to pair with menu items. I remember going to Funky Buddha Brewery in Florida, and for every menu item, they suggested the right beer pairing. That will definitely ensure you have a great experience!
5: Learning and Playing
Tours are often the least important aspect for a memorable brewery experience, but a great brewery tour can mean a lot to a visitor who’s never been to the brewery before. Some tours are self-guided “take a look in this room,” some tours are hours long and feature tastings along the way, but nobody wants to take the same tour at a different brewery. Keep the tour interesting!
Games are another great way to have a memorable brewery experience. Hanging out with friends, drinking beer and playing games makes the brewery visit feel like home. Red Bear Brewing in Washington, D.C., keeps over 120 games in their library and on any weekend day as many of half the patrons are playing something. How can you forget an experience like that!
With growing competition and new players in the industry every day, it’s crucial for breweries to create memorable experiences for customers. These are just five areas I look for to have an incredible, unforgettable adventure at a brewery, but I’m curious what you think. What else would you add?