1. Hops are not everything-Going on a California beer tour means going on a West Coast beer tour. I've grown up surrounded by the West Coast craft beer movement and it is a hop driven movement. That being said, we came to appreciate early on our tour that malt forward beers are good. From our first stop at Eagle Rock Brewery we experienced great malty beer that was often more drinkable and in some ways enjoyable than the hoppy beers we have come to expect. Magnolia had some great malt-forward beers, as did Lagunitas (although they had their fair share of hoppy ones as well), Moonlight, and 21st Amendment. While this was by no means our first experience of malty beer, we came to appreciate the break from the one-and-done hop of many beers on the West Coast.
2. Brewing large scale is often a labor of love-For some reason I ended up asking a lot of business questions on this trip. When we had the chance to talk to brewers and owners I asked questions like: How many barrels per year do you produce? Are you profitable? Can you share your journey from homebrewing to now? What I learned was interesting. Several breweries do not make money. One had been around for five years and did not make money. The owner had to sell his house and his wife still worked to support the family. But they both supported the business because they loved it. It gave me a lot of admiration for these breweries. Beer for them is so much more than a drink. It is an art and they are willing to give a lot to make their art so others can enjoy it.
3. Seasonal beers say a lot about a brewery-Another unique aspect of our tour that highlighted the benefits of being up close with breweries was the chance to peek into the pantry, so to speak. It is difficult to get a sense of a brewery from a web-site or the limited selection you see on the shelf at any given store. When you visit breweries, however, you can take in the entire lineup of beers currently being made and oftentimes the many beers that are now part of their archive. This was no more obvious than at Lagunitas Brewing Company, where there's always a season for a new seasonal. We sampled a couple different seasonals and saw on their shelves many that have come and gone. This was contrasted by North Coast Brewing Company which does not make seasonals at all; they stick to their stock beers and don't venture out much. A brewery like Lagunitas, however, displays creativity and boldness, and while prolific, their quality does not suffer. It says a lot about a brewery and their brewmaster when they are able to consistently offer new and noteworthy creations, season after season.
We had many more beer related revelations on our trip; perhaps the other guys might wish to add to this list. Overall I felt that visiting breweries in person truly did heighten the enjoyment of the beer. Meeting the people, seeing the facilities, and connecting it all with the beer is an experience that reveals new aspects of something old and familiar. It is certainly something I recommend.