New Glarus Brewery Tour: One Big Gift Shop

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. 

Get really hungry and look for this sign!

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.

I think the other end of that deer is on the menu!

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.

Three copper kettles and little information are what you can expect when visiting New Glarus.

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.

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Categories: Beer

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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25 Comments on “New Glarus Brewery Tour: One Big Gift Shop”

  1. September 6, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    That is a bummer! I’ve been wanting to tour NG as well, especially after my friends experience was so awesome (He had the hard hat tour, that must be key). I’m pretty sure i’d be as disappointed as you were. When I did an Distillery tour last year at Woodford, what made it so interesting is the tour guide did such a great job of explaining the process as well as the history. Everyone had such a great time and we don’t even care for bourbon that much! (Sorry Don, I am making small but positive strides in my appreciation for it though)

    • September 6, 2011 at 11:47 am #

      Yeah, the tour guide is so important to the experience. If you’re going to do a self-guided tour, at least provide a minimum of information. I think the hard hat tour is more of a traditional one and is by far the ONLY way to go, unless you’re just looking to have a few beers and buy a shirt (which probably covers 90% of visitors).

  2. September 6, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Personally, I loved the self-guided tour. I’m often in food & beverage plants for my career and rarely have I seen a plant as immaculate and well planned as New Glarus Brewery’s. Besides, aren’t all breweries nearly the same? Pipes, kettles, and packaging lines? From a brewery’s perspective — whose goal is to sell more good beer! — I came away with a very good impression of New Glarus Brewery and have moved them up in my “favorite brewers” category.

    I bet you’re right — the hard-hat tour would be a little more interesting.

    • September 6, 2011 at 11:52 am #

      That’s what makes me nuts – it’s an amazing feat of engineering, but you have to be in the food and beverage manufacturing industry to know what the hell’s happening! Immaculate and impressive for sure, but confusing and *gulp* boring for someone who doesn’t know about brewing but wants to learn.

  3. September 6, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Hmmm … disappointing. Especially for New Glarus. They have such great beer. I assume fans show up to discover what makes New Glarus, New Glarus. If a fan can’t get that out of their visit, then what’s the point, really? Aside from enjoying some brewery-fresh beer or only-at-the-brewery beer. Not a bad consolation I guess.

    These days of busy craft brewing, I can understand if they prefer not to do daily tours because it eats into production requirements. But yeah, some placards, a video, a nicely done takeaway with brewery and beer info wouldn’t hurt.

    • September 6, 2011 at 11:51 am #

      I’m interested to see what Troegs does with the new “tour friendly” brewery they’re building in Hershey, PA. If it’s like this one it’s another lost opportunity. Hopefully there’s be more guts.

  4. September 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    I haven’t heard about the hard-hat tour, but I had heard that the “gift shop tour” was pretty much that. Disappointing, especially after you’d heard good things.

    Not that you’d ever have a reason to be in NW Wisconsin, but if you are, the Leinenkugels brewery tour is really informative and in-depth. Leinie’s beer is mediocre at best, but I’ve done the tour 3 different times and learned something new and interesting every time, whether it be about brewing or the history of the company or the area.

    • September 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

      I did the Miller tour a few years back and the combination of heritage and industriousness was impressive, even if the beer’s not. Lots of info on that tour and a good feel for what Miller is all about (or what they want you to think they’re all about).

  5. September 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    What a disappointment! I have been on a few brewery tours and every one of those tours had a guide and for the most part the guide was informative. A video or some information placards would be an informative touch to visitors, especially if you have no to little clue about the beer making process.

    • September 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      Hopefully they’ll add a couple of tidbits for folks who want to know more, as it’s a pretty cool facility and should be easy to do…

  6. September 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Does this mean we all stop drinking New Glarus in protest? As they are no longer in Chicago that isn’t to hard for me.

    • September 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

      NEVER!!

  7. September 6, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Their hardhat tours are probably one of the best brewery tours out there. Sadly they are only available on Friday’s at 1pm. We happened to go on one of the first ones they did and Dan Carey led the tour. It was quite the experience. You get to go many places the self-guided tour does not including both the new brewery and old riverside brewery. Also, as with most of the intimate tours, you get to sample beer from various stages within the brewing process and even beers that have not been released to the public yet. If you get a chance to make it back to New Glarus, make time for the hardhat tour, you will not be disappointed.

    Also, if you thought the brewery was one big gift shop, take a drive up to Chippewa Falls and check out the Lenie Lodge…..so much Lenie branded crap its sickening…they totally have lost their touch since they have been affiliated with Miller-Coors.

    • September 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

      The hard hat tour sounds awesome, but clearly there’s some middle ground between that and the self guided ramble offered at the Hilltop. Hopefully they’ll close the gap a bit and at least make the hilltop experience more meaningful.

      and I can imagine what Lenie’s has become.

  8. Dave
    September 6, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Jim, I have to agree, the self mis-guided tour is lacking. It feels like walking around a Costco (albeit with much better beer). When I went, a few employees were kind enough to chat, but they’re on the job and I felt odd taking up too much time.

    Did you at least get to try their Black Top and/or Laughing Fox, the two new Unplugged seasonal beers? Both excellent in my humble opinion.

    If and when I’m up there again, it’s hard hat or nothing.

    • September 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

      Agreed on the hard hat thing, and I didn’t get a chance to try either, as they weren’t on tap the day we were there. 😦

  9. September 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks for the post and pictures! When and if I get up there, based upon your story and the comments, I’ll definitely shoot for a Friday arrival.

    So is it just a “tap station” or is there a bar area/tasting room that you can sit back and enjoy?

    • Don
      September 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

      Just a tap station. They did have some picnic tables outside in a nice grassy area with a fountain, which was quite pleasant, but it was about 90 degrees and about 75% humidity, so it wasn’t the most comfortable place in the world. I don’t think I’ve come across any brewery that does it better than Victory, and their restaurant/tap room. You can literally hang out there all day and night, however they no longer give tours, so you have to take that into consideration.

    • September 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

      Definitely make sure you go for the Hard Hat tour and make sure to call ahead – I hear they book up quickly. I think this would have been a totally different post had we been able to make it a day later – sounds pretty amazing.

      Once again we’re the example for what NOT to do! 🙂

      • Don
        September 6, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

        Always here to provide that public service!

      • September 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

        I’ve been in the same situation a couple of times, especially with the small breweries in the mountains around here. We found Three Barrels closed for the day, even though we arrived during their listed hours of operation. Another place out on the plains was shut down the week before for a liquor code violation. Oh well, it’s all a craft beer adventure. 🙂

  10. September 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    I’ve been told that Yuenglings puts on a good tour, with a tap room for tasting. It might be worth the trip. Also, for you Mid-Atlantic folks (Jim), the 6th annual Maryland Microbrewery Festival at Union Mills is scheduled for the 24th of this month. They’ll have 12 Local breweries providing more than 30 different brews and home-brewing seminars. Its not as big as the one Don attended in Boise but there’re some positive aspects to that.

  11. September 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    We had the same experience when we were up there two months ago. It actually took us a while to find it since they have the hard-hat facility and the Disney facility. Luckily we met some cool people and hung out in New Glarus for the day. We actually had more fun at the Toffler’s Bar and Pub.

    • September 7, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

      Yeah, looks like it’s the hard hat tour or don’t bother, unless (as in your case) you meet other interesting and equally dissatisfied beer geeks at the Disney brewery. I mostly saw yuppie moms.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Tale of Two Breweries; Deschutes Brewing and New Glarus Brewing | Beer & Whiskey Brothers Blog - September 7, 2011

    […] you were looking at.  This was less than optimal and left it feeling like it was just a gift shop, like Jim described here. This octopus contraption spun out about 100 beers a minute while I was watching it…Its AWESOME! […]

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