This month’s Session* topic is hosted by Brian Devine and Maria Scarpello at The Roaming Pint. Their topic, rather appropriately, is an aspect of beer travel. They ask us to ponder and write about one or more of the following questions:
So I ask you fellow bloggers and beer lovers, why is it important for us to visit the place where our beers are made? Why does drinking from the source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at it’s freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?
There is a precursor to these questions, lest we get away with assuming too much: DO you seek out the places where beer is made? If you’re reading this blog, odds are you answer that question the same as me: Yes!
I wrote about the Montana beer culture for a feature in the current issue of Rocky Mountain Brewing News, examining the nature of taprooms across our vast state. It was an entertaining exercise examining an aspect of the context of beer. Why are our tap rooms such popular destinations?
Grant Golding, who moved to Montana from the beer mecca of Oregon to be the head brewer at Cabinet Mountain Brewing in the northwest Montana town of Libby summed it up this way.
“People here seem to have more time to relax and be friendly with their neighbor rather than rush to go in, get their beer, get their food and watch the game,” says Golding. “When a stranger sits down at a tasting room bar here, locals are quick to be friendly in a curious manner, asking about where you came from, and what you’re doing and so on.”
“Whether you are a town local or not people tend to be incredibly friendly and talkative. I haven’t been to one brewery here yet where someone hasn’t turned to me in a friendly manner and started a conversation.”
That certainly isn’t a feeling unique to Montana, but Montana taprooms seem to have it in spades. Most of our 48 operating breweries tend to be located in renovated historic buildings in our core downtowns. In many cases they’ve become de facto community centers – family friendly places to unwind and catch up on all the news. (It doesn’t *hurt* that our restrictive brewery tap room laws limit consumption to 48 oz per person per day and require the taps to be shut off at 8:00 p.m.)
My pilgrimages to breweries have never been about getting the beer at its freshest. I’m not at all certain my palate is that discerning. I go to catch the context. The “vibe” if you will. To see how the brewery presents its beer in the place where it’s made. How do they want me to feel when I’m drinking it? What are they telling me about their beer by the surroundings in which they serve it?
Cruising around San Diego this August provided a chance to check my beliefs. I noticed quickly how many San Diego breweries were located in commercial/light manufacturing strip malls, a sharp contrast to the typical brewery in Montana.
AleSmith, tops on my list for a pilgrimage while there, was tucked into one of those strip malls. It had a relatively small tap room space and provided no chairs. In contrast, Society was comparatively large with big communal tables and expansive views of the brewing equipment. Modern Times’ brewery filled a nondescript industrial warehouse near the airport and provided virtually no parking. Little is welcoming from the outside. Still, its giant mural of Michael Jackson (made of post it notes – see below), tumbleweed light fixtures, and comic book page wall paper turned an otherwise stark interior into an odd spectacle of art.
Stone Brewing Co.’s new Liberty Station location was a veritable adult Disney World, complete with grand dining halls, opulent courtyards, and beer personalities at every turn (we were there for a dinner gathering of beer bloggers and had the opportunity to talk with brewmaster Mitch Steele and get a tour from Dr. Bill Sysak, among others).
None of this is right or wrong. Each created a personality in which to enjoy beer at the place it was made. Each said something about the history and “attitude” of the brewery.
Did any of this change my perception of the beer? That’s difficult to say. AleSmith’s taproom was not my favorite. Perfectly pleasant, but designed for the quick visit. A place to stop by on the way home from work, perhaps. Yet it had one of my favorite beers of the week: Speedway Stout with Vietnamese Coffee. (Alpine Beer Co.’s Pure Hoppiness was a close second.)
While killing time before flying home to Montana, we stopped at Ballast Point Brewing Co.’s original location, the Home Brew Mart. We ogled the impressive lineup of homebrewing equipment before grabbing some tasters, getting into a conversation with the employees. Before long, we were taking a private tour of the cramped back brewery and comparing samples of Ballast Point’s new Grunion Pale Ale with and without fresh grapefruit peels in our glasses.
Did any of that change my perception of the beer? Yes. Beer is social. And the social aspect of it contributes mightily to context.
There is little doubt in my mind that Grunion Pale Ale tasted better that day because the guy who developed the recipe was telling us how he did it, while showing us a different way to drink it, all in the place he made it.
Is that a good thing? Absolutely, because it’s never been solely about the beer.