I tried to recall my first brewery tour, and, although the memories are hazy – not, I should point out, for any drink-related reason – I think it must have been the Anheuser-Busch tour in my non-beloved hometown of St. Louis, back in the early 1990s. I had no particular interest in beer at that point, and certainly none at all in the local offering; I was only on the tour to see the Clydesdales. Fast-forward to late 1998; I had recently moved back to the US from the UK, where I had discovered that beer was, in fact, quite tasty, and, I when living there, I used to enjoy looking from the train at oasthouses and 19th century brewery complexes as part of the built environment. But Silicon Valley in the late 1990s offered a number of brewpubs within easy stumbling distance, so I got used to looking at the setups while enjoying a few beers and a meal at places like The Tied House (now defunct) in Mountain View and Faultline Brewing Company in Sunnyvale, and the legendary Magnolia Brewery in San Francisco proper, though in their case, the brewery is well-concealed.
But I don’t think I saw a real production brewery of any size until moving to the other coast, in 2002. Although I lived in Brooklyn and knew a few of the owners of the Brooklyn Brewery in passing, as some friends lived in the same building and we’d have the odd dinner together, my first real ‘brewery tour’ was on a trip to Bar Harbor, Maine. We stopped off at both Bar Harbor Brewing Company and Atlantic Brewing Company, then separate businesses, and did the now-familiar tour-and-tasting. I still have a real fondness for Cadillac Mountain Stout and Thunder Hole Ale; both beers are brewed by Atlantic Brewing nowadays, as they took on the Bar Harbor beers when the original owners retired. There’s a much-needed discussion to be had about the craft beer industry as we know it now needing to get better at succession planning, but I digress. After that trip, brewery tours became a must-do part of any holiday, or getting to know a new locality when we moved cities/countries. It’s safe to say that I’ve seen a lot of tanks and taprooms in the decade(s) since those initial tours. Indeed, after you’ve seen a few small-to-medium breweries, they can begin to blend together; most of the time, the basic setup is broadly similar.
But having been out of the brewery tour game for so long with Covid, it felt very much like a return to normalcy to finally make it to one of my now-favourite local breweries, Hope Beer. It’s true we did have great fun at Western Herd not too long ago, but it’s on a much smaller scale than Hope, and was less of a formal tour than a very-welcome exploration of the site – a true farmhouse brewery. We were welcomed to Hope’s handy-for-the-train location by head brewer Richie Hamilton, who gave us great insights into Hope’s relationship with its Dutch ‘sister’ brewery, Hoop, and took us around the immaculate brewhouse and warehouse portions of the brewery. I’m not suggesting I’ve ever been to a ‘dirty’ brewery, but Hope is absolutely spotless – none of the expected odd puddles of water or dust from milling grain. According to Richie, some of this is down to Hope having ‘the best brewery floor in Ireland’ – because the concrete floor was custom-poured and the brewhouse all designed and installed in one go, there is a cohesion to the kit that isn’t always the standard; so many smaller breweries have tanks handed down from several previous owners, or a bottling or canning line they’ve similarly ‘inherited’ from another facility. Not so at Hope – there is perfect drainage and a symmetrical series of gleaming tanks – even the pilot kit is lovely.
And so to the tasting – we got to enjoy a sample of the excellent Bohemian Pilsener from the tank (and for local fans of this beer, buy it while you see it – much of what’s left is heading off to Italy, where it’s wildly popular), as well as others from the core range, while discussing the origins of the recipes and the local folklore presented on each can. We also tried a SEEKRIT BEER that won’t remain so much longer, and I can confirm it was very tasty indeed. There was also a fun archaeology angle to that one, so I could tick the ‘using my archaeology degrees’ box, but the rest of you will have to wait.
All told, it was great to be back wandering around an industrial estate and hearing stories of the beer and brewery – thanks so much to Richie for being a fantastic host. Can’t wait to see the SEEKRIT BEER out in the wild!