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The Visible Brewery

11/30/-1

Overexposed and Overrated?

by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 4, No.5)

Despite the popularity of “brewers under glass” among brewpub owners and designers, the trend of putting the inner workings of a brewery in front of the consumers table is due for re-examination.

When I was a kid, a breakthrough in educational toys was the “visible man” — a transparent version of the human figure that displayed in minute detail all of the body’s veins, arteries, and internal organs. It was an impressive model, making thousands of us aware of the incredible complexity of the human organism — look at all those blood vessels, nerves, muscles, and bones! The visible man, however, was no substitute for superheroes or G.I. Joes and was something of a failure in the marketplace, probably because it provoked as much disgust as curiosity.

In the old B-movie classic The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Ray Milland plays a scientist who acquires X-ray vision. At first, he is entertained by his new abilities, which allow him to unobtrusively play the voyeur at a party. As his powers develop, however, he sees not the flesh beneath a woman’s clothing but only her skeleton. Not being an osteopath, he found it difficult to get excited over the vision of a shapely hip bone or a well-turned femur.

I find myself experiencing a similar growing disenchantment with what I call today’s “visible brewery” — operating breweries that serve as industrial theaters to brewpub patrons. In these brewpubs, I am likely to see an overalls-clad, rubber-booted worker washing out a fermentation tank, fiddling with kettle controls, or wrestling with a pump while I attempt to savor a few beers. The noise and smells of a working brewery become ever-present distractions to pub patrons — even to beer geeks like me.

Usually, the brewery and workers are separated from pub patrons by a glass partition — the display case or zoo effect, depending on your point of view. I am surprised signs are not prominently displayed identifying the various brewers with their behavior and habitat; after all, until quite recently they have been an endangered species in America. The glass barrier has the advantage, however, of creating some distance between brewer and patron that allows both to somewhat peacefully coexist. But in the same way that Milland’s X-ray vision matured, even this barrier to the brewery skeleton is now disappearing.

In some new breweries, for example, only a railing separates tables from tanks. While hard piping may be used throughout, accidents are still possible. Burning one’s legs on a cup of McDonald’s coffee would be nothing compared to getting hosed with hot wort or caustic soda. These new brewery facilities are impressive, but production seems to owe as much nowadays to Madison Avenue as to Munich. What was once a great idea — showing customers some of the brewing process — is rapidly degenerating into showtime, a disturbing trend.

I don’t mean to disparage the visible brewery completely. People who are not brewers benefit immeasurably from seeing the brewing process, learning about beer, and drinking hand-crafted brews where they are made. But showmanship is no guarantee of quality. I once visited a beautiful little brewpub that proudly displayed its gleaming equipment, only to find every one of its beers infected. Somehow I was more disturbed by this finding, with all the brewery’s pumps and circumstances, than if it had been a dingy hole-in-the-wall tavern with poorly maintained taps.

Visible breweries seem to have developed in the United States for two major reasons, both related to marketing. First, Americans are typically isolated from the source of the goods they consume. Mass distribution moves products great distances to deliver the plethora of products seen in even the humblest supermarkets (a constant source of amazement to foreign visitors). But convenience has come with a price — the loss of direct relationship with the local farm, mill, or brewery. Of course, until fairly recently, most of us had no local brewery. Now, the American obsession is to demonstrate, in painstaking detail, just how beer is made in the place it is consumed.

The other reason visible breweries have developed involves trust. A brewpub wants its patrons to believe, “We have nothing to hide — we make our beer right here. Look, you can even see us doing it. This is the real thing, direct to the consumer!” They might as well stick giant “real” labels on the serving tanks, like the supermarket stickers on mayonnaise or whipped cream (funny, the substitute products don’t use labels that say “fake”). And the pub may not be the true source of the beer after all. Many craft breweries that have outgrown their original size now maintain separate production facilities that supply their smaller pubs.

Most brewers seem to put up with the situation of being on stage. “It was kind of like being in a zoo initially, but I got used to it,” a Seattle brewer told me. “People don’t watch you for any significant length of time. You learn to look past them and get your work done.” Many workers start their brewing day when the pub or brewery is closed to visitors, only then attacking many of the grunt jobs or messy cleanups.

Some pub owners, however, want visitors to see people actively brewing. A Cleveland brewer’s employers once had him start brewing in conjunction with a visit by Michael Jackson so that he could be in the middle of the process when the famous writer arrived. “It was no big deal to Jackson — he’d seen all this before,” the brewer said. “But then they invited me to attend a dinner and tasting with him right afterward. I still had three hours to go on the beer.” He also mentioned problems with the brewery’s design: Sharing a stairway with customers and pathways with waitstaff hampered his work. “There was no seclusion, no doors,” he said. “I didn’t mind people watching me work, but it was hard to keep them out of the brewery.”

Another brewer designed his new work space specifically to separate himself from customers. “I like to play music real loud when I’m working. It helps me concentrate. I have to shut people out,” he said. “If you’re truly making craft beer, it can’t just be a show. Besides,” he laughed, “it’s necessary to maintain the mystery of what’s going on. People who do visit the brewery think it’s more special that way.”

I’m reminded of an incident that took place while I was working in the cellar of a large winery. I was tasting red wine from various barrels with the winemaker. We were standing on the third tier of a huge wooden-barrel rack. After drawing a sample into a glass, we followed the professional practice of smelling and tasting it, then walking to the end of the row and spitting it out into a drain on the floor below. The winemaker was just about to let it fly when a salesman appeared directly below, ushering guests around — one of them in a white silk suit. Somehow the winemaker avoided spitting, but nearly choked with laughter in the process, sending the wine up his nose instead. Too bad — he might have lost a perfect opportunity to involve a visitor quite visibly in the real winemaking process.

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