I’ve wanted to visit New Glarus, Wisconsin to check out the New Glarus Hilltop Brewery for a few years now. I finally took the plunge last week, when Don and I were in Milwaukee taking care of family stuff. It was an emotionally draining week and we figured we could use a break, so we loaded up the minivan with our sister and my wife and kids and took the 100 mile ride into the wilds of central Wisconsin. Good thing the town of New Glarus is interesting, because the brewery tour was not.
New Glarus is a theme town of sorts. It wears its Swiss heritage on its sleeve – the buildings look like chalets and there are red shields resplendent with white crosses all over the place. The theme continues inside the buildings, where Swiss goods are plentiful, from pottery to bakery to army knives.
We ate lunch at the Glarner Stube, a restaurant offering Swiss fare and New Glarus beers on tap. We started with the cheese fondue and then each enjoyed a separate entrée. I ordered an enormous Bratwurst sandwich. One look and I told myself I’d only eat half of it. I then proceeded to eat the whole thing in about the time it’d take a hungry wolf to gobble it down. It was excellent. If you visit New Glarus, this is the place to eat.
We had girls with us, and there’s plenty of girlie puttering to be had in the downtown strip, and they happily made their way through the gift shops, food stops and antique stores. It’s actually a nice little town to visit, as there’s enough for the ladies to make them feel it’s worth the trip, but not so much where they can torture a fella with five hours of brick-brack browsing.
Once we were done, we headed off to the brewery. I was psyched, as I’ve heard what a wonderland the New Glarus Hilltop Brewery is. Don had called the brewery earlier in the week to let them know we were coming. We were hoping to get some insider access that we could share with you folks here, but were told that Deb and Dan would be out-of-town on Thursday. No problem we thought – we’ll do it like everyone else does, confident it’d still be cool. To be honest, it wasn’t.
The brewery strikes quite a profile as you emerge from the winding the drive that snakes up the hilltop. You enter into the gift shop, which is large and has many, many shiny branded doodads. From shirts, to hats, to glassware, to street signs, you can find a New Glarus keepsake that’s just right for you. The heart of the gift shop features a tap station, with a selection of six or seven beers available. You can order it by the pint or get a sampler, which is good for three small glasses of beer.
Once you’re beered up, you are free to take a self guided brewery “tour.” First you can peek into a window that reveals the yeast lab, where you may see someone’s back as they touch tubes. The next window is Quality Assurance, another lab which is undecipherable to someone who knows nothing about industrial brewing. Next up is the trophy case, where New Glarus shows all the accolades they’ve received and some other stuff (I’ll admit to not looking too closely, but I saw lots of red, white and blue ribbons).
After that, you enter the brewery itself, which features three brass kettles that everyone takes a picture of (myself included). There are some tanks across the way, then lots of shiny pipes that meander down to the bottling area. You follow this glass-lined hallway down to where they fill the kegs and bottles and then follow it back to the kettles. It’s all very pretty, but there’s no tour guides, no information plaques, no indication what any of the stuff you’re looking at does.
As a beer geek who knows a bit about brewing, I was able to puzzle out what most of the gear was for, but my wife and sister had no clue what they were looking at. It could have been a potato chip factory for all they knew. The lack of information and engagement was startling to me.
New Glarus has the chance to teach people about the brewing process, to explain how their impressive high-tech set up works, to help folks take a step closer to understanding what makes craft beer special. Instead they let you wander around aimlessly until you get bored and head back to the gift shop.
After walking down to the bottling area and back, that’s exactly what we did. Glasses and sweatshirts were purchased, the kids got some chocolate and we sampled a few beers. I picked up a beer glass because I figured I’d be pissed when I got back to New Jersey and didn’t have anything to show for the trip. But in the moment I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of purchasing anything. I was really disappointed by the tour (or lack thereof). It was just all so superficial, or as our sister Wendi put it, “like one big gift shop.”
To be fair, New Glarus is now offering a hard hat tour, which sounds like it’s more my speed. But that’s only offered on Fridays and we couldn’t make it work with our schedule. Instead, we were treated to three pretty brew kettles, lots of pipes and no information about what was happening. A real bummer.
I encourage the powers that be at New Glarus to invest in a few placards that explain what’s happening behind the glass, and maybe a simplified “how brewing works” video to orient folks to what’s happening behind all the sneeze guards. Until that happens, taking the tour at the Hilltop Brewery is pretty much a lost opportunity to learn what makes New Glarus tick and to create a few new beer geeks along the way. It’s a shame.
At least the fondue at the Glarner Stube was interesting.
UPDATE: Don has posted more pictures. Click Here to see them.