brew trek
Ska Brewing

what makes a good brewery? a brew trek primer

Ask any two people what makes a good brewery and you will definitely get at least two different answers. You’ll be lucky if you get just two opinions, and you can bet that they’d be more contradictory than a TV evangelist explaining what those charges to Miss Kitty’s Companions are for.

As you can see if you’ve visited our Beer Gallery, we’ve been to a few breweries and brewpubs over the years; and what’s pictured is just the tip of the iceberg. Unless you’re completely blottoed, you can’t help but observe certain traits, and begin to discern what it is that makes you want to come back time and again. For us, there are two main criteria we make note of at every brewery; not necessarily 100% accurate, but generally good indicators.

Renegade Brewing

The Brew Trek Bar-to-Table Ratio
The ratio of patrons sitting at the bar as opposed to tables in an establishment; the more at the bar, the better a place will be.

I can count on one hand the number of times this ratio didn’t presage how enjoyable a place would be. People who come in and immediately sit at a table when there are stools available at the bar usually are just there for the food, to be seen, or don’t feel like talking. There are exceptions, especially if you have a group of people coming in, it’s pretty tough holding a conversation when half your friends are eight feet down the bar. There is also a gray area if there is a dedicated bar area set apart in places that have dining sections; just having patrons in the bar area can be a good enough indicator. Bottom line, we will always sit at the bar unless it’s full, or if we’re with a larger group.

The reason why this counts? People who tend to sit at the bar are eager to talk to both the staff and patrons about their love of craft beer, and life in general. In the smaller places, your bartender is more than likely the owner and/or brewer, giving you insights into what you’re drinking and why they’re passionate about brewing beer. In the end, if you’re just there to drink beer, you’re missing out on stories you will savor as time goes by.

Kristen from Trinity Brewing

The Brew Trek Vibe
The gut feeling you get about a brewery based upon the decor, fellow patrons, staff, and brewers/owners.

This is probably the most subjective indicator and can give a false impression based upon the circumstances of when a visit is made. A negative vibe can come from any number of things including one or more of the following: uninformed or apathetic staff; patrons who could care less if the place they’re eating at brews it’s own beer; decor trying too hard to impart a certain philosophy, era, or style; and most importantly, uninspired or bad beer.

A positive vibe is more than just the opposite of what can be negative. Let’s take decor for instance. Some of the best breweries I’ve visited were barely more than warehouse spaces; the difference being that those spaces impart something of the owners, they draw you in and make you feel comfortable, regardless of any rough edges.

Furthermore, It’s more than just having an informed staff. A bartender or server who just parrots a prepared statement on what the brewery offers can be downright annoying; they are nothing more than automatons quickly revealed for what they are when a question is asked beyond their programming.  The best staff have opinions of their own and aren’t afraid to show any lack of knowledge; they are open to learning more. What it boils down to is that if you walk into a new brewery and don’t want to order a flight (or if you’d have to order multiple flights if the tap line up is large), your server can suggest something based upon your preference for another brewery’s beers.

As these indicators coalesced in my mind over the years, I had reservations about using the word vibe; it just seemed too hippie to me. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed appropriate. You could also use the word ‘atmosphere,’ but I don’t think that conveys all of the variables involved.

So, the next time you’re sitting in your favorite brewery or brewpub and trying to put your finger on why you’re having such a good time, or perish the thought, having not such a good time, think back on what I’ve written here. Maybe the Beer Gods have converged and are sharing in the revelry, or maybe you’ve hit a place with the correct bar-to-table ratio.

This entry was published on March 17, 2012 at 10:33 am. It’s filed under Beer, Brew Pub, Brewery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “what makes a good brewery? a brew trek primer

  1. Good thoughts! Vibe or atmosphere?

    I agree that it’s kind of “touchy feely”, but vibe does fit. I’ll keep your article in mind when I’m enjoying or not a brewpub or brewery. Thanks!


    David Ivey Inbox Magazine Editor

    PS. Check out our free e-book and mag.

  2. My favorite place is McMenamin’s on the Columbia River in Vancouver. I cannot count the times I have been there and each time I get a good vibe. I grab a beer and watch the river run.

    • McMenamin’s sounds great, the view must be impressive. We’ve only spent a little time up that way on Salt Spring Island, and would love to spend some time on the mainland. We’ll definitely look that place up if we ever get back there!

      • The McMenamin brothers’ business model has been to buy historic landmarks throughout Oregon and Washington and refurbish them and then brew Pacific Northwest style hop-forward beers.

        There are more eclectic breweries in Portland (Vancouver is just across the Columbia River) with, no doubt, better beers. For me, it’s the associations that I have for that place. I feel at home.

        Try the Cajun fries with the Sunflower IPA and watch the sail boats tacking against the wind and current while avoiding barges.

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