Beerhunter: Tips, going on a tour at your local craft brewer

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Up in Vermont there’s a glow-in-the-dark circus party at the end of the world. Neon streamers and Mardi Gras beads hang all over the place. Colorful string lights set the room aglow. Some visitors hunker down at the long bar counter, but others try on jester hats, toss Frisbees, and laugh behind the curtains of a photo booth.

The visitor center at Magic Hat, called the Artifactory, is packed full of silly diversions — a tourist stop for those who bring a quirky sense of humor to their love for craft beer. Since its founding in 1994, Magic Hat has been all about unusual ingredients and cheeky experimentation. And the company has put a lot of effort into branding its South Burlington headquarters with this fun-loving, Wonka-esque vibe.

I went up there with some friends and took a tour of the facility the other week. I got a better picture of the Magic Hat history and culture. It was exciting to chat recipes while surveying the expansive space from a high-up walkway.

The first beer I tried was Magic Hat’s Single Chair, a spring golden ale that is bright, smooth, and easy to love. Next we tried Electric Peel grapefruit ale, but the citrus was too overpowering for my taste. The Hop Drip coffee-infused IPA was tasty in small doses. And the Big Hundo imperial IPA was deliciously bitter and crisp.

Taking a brewery tour lets fans stock up on batches that may not be widely available, and pick up some unusual merch. Magic Hat sells everything from beer cozies and baby bibs to smartphone cases and headphones.

This region is full of interesting breweries. Whenever you visit, keep a few things in mind:

1. Plan your meals. Many breweries serve food — fellow Vermont institutions Otter Creek Brewing and Long Trail Brewing Company both run great restaurants — but some, like Magic Hat, don’t. So make sure to match your appetite to the offerings at your destination.

2. Bring people. Didn’t you see Sideways? Swapping opinions and reactions is what makes tasting fun. Road trips and raising a glass are both time-tested means of deepening friendships, so touring provides a double dose of bonding time.

3. Ask dumb questions. Your tour guides aren’t above explaining some basics about beer-making. You’re there to learn — and taste. Don’t shy away from asking what you really want to know, even if you think the self-professed beer wonk standing next to you is going to get all judgey. He’s probably curious, too.

4. Sample widely. Be sure to try a few kinds of beer you may think you don’t like. Many breweries test-pilot limited batches of new brews in their tasting rooms before considering a wider distribution, so the chances of trying a surprising new take on a beer you thought you disliked are much higher.

5. Drink responsibly. You can stumble home from your corner bar in reasonably good shape, but not so at a brewery. Tasting rooms aren’t for party animals, even though the samples are often free. Don’t be the guest who needs a ride home. Chances are it’s a long ride.

6. Buy a growler. We’re talking about that big glass jug that you probably shouldn’t drink all by yourself. Your friendly brewery bartender will be happy to fresh-fill one for you. Just be sure to keep it refrigerated and drink it within 72 hours of opening it. After that, stop back in — most breweries offer discount refills.

Wondering where to begin your adventures? The Pioneer Valley has a number of great breweries to choose from, but here are four I heartily recommend:

Element Brewing Company in Millers Falls. This homey little brewery has been open for five years, and it’s making some unusual, genre-bending beers. The owners run a tasting room with samples of their year-round beers, including the toasty, multi-layered Extra Special Oak ale and the rice-based Plasma, which tastes like a surprisingly smooth and delicious blend of beer and sake. The facility is too small for group tours, but staff will be happy to show you around if you ask.

Tree House Brewing Company in Monson. It’s worth a summer drive out to this company just to see its beautiful country farmhouse headquarters. The building is open for sampling, self-guided tours, and growler fills on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Be prepared to sample, then get hooked on their bestselling Julius ale, which hits all the right hoppy, citrus-fruity notes.

Abandoned Building in Easthampton. Tucked into the back of the Brickyard mill building on Pleasant Street, Abandoned Building doesn’t do tours — you can see the whole operation when you stand in the middle of the room — but it does offer visitors a chance to sit on couches, listen to music in a freshly-renovated, artsy-industrial lounge space, and partake of a variety of beers. My top pick here is the Nightshade Stout, which packs a delectably strong, dark, creamy coffee punch.

Berkshire Brewing Company in South Deerfield. You owe it to yourself to check out the inner workings of Western Mass’ largest craft beer operation, now 20 years old, if only to find out where on earth all that Steel Rail comes from. Be forewarned: the facility doesn’t sell alcohol on site, although it does offer generous samples. BBC only leads one tour a week, on Saturdays at 1 p.m., so it can get crowded, but the tour guides are knowledgeable and engaging. They want what you want — to have a good time getting lost in the art of the brew.•

Hunter Styles can be contacted at hstyles@valleydavocate.com.

Hunter Styles

Author: Hunter Styles

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