Cheap Fun and Libations: Brewery and Winery Tours

by Janey Osterlind on 9 August 2011 4 comments
Photo: Betsy Weber

Brewery and winery tastings used to be more of a way to score a free drink. Today, however, they offer not only gratis samples of select drinks, but also an opportunity to learn the difference between a regular brew and a microbrew or how your favorite vineyard fared during Prohibition. If you don’t consider yourself a full-fledged beer enthusiast or oenophile, fear not — that’s why tours and tastings are offered in the first place. And, if you don’t even know the first thing to expect when embarking on one of these experiences, read on! (See also: 10 Great Wines Under $10)

What to Expect on a Brewery or Winery Tour

Most brewery tours are free, with more in-depth tours or experiences costing extra. Anheuser-Busch, for example, has a Beermaster Tour that takes guests to more behind-the-scenes locations than its free version and costs $25 for guests over 21. It also has a Beer School that teaches visitors pouring techniques, food pairings, and the different ingredients used for brewing and costs $10 for guests over 21.

Winery tours and tastings, on the other hand, often cost a flat fee, depending on the size and prestige of the winery. I have been on tours of wineries dotting the Midwest countryside for as little as $2.50 per person, while others in more prestigious locations can run you about $40. Unlike brewery tours, which often run continuously throughout the day, winery tours and tastings are sometimes by appointment only. Cakebread Cellars, one of my personal favorites located in Napa Valley, is just such a winery.

Generally people of all ages can participate in brewery and winery tours, although those under a certain age (normally 21) must be accompanied by an adult. The tours often end with a free tasting of select products which can, of course, only be sampled by those of us who are aged 21 or over. Although all ages can tour, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should — think about whether your pint-sized companions would enjoy said tour without the promise of a pint of their own at the conclusion of the visit.

As far as the size of your tour or tasting group, it varies widely depending on the time, day, and season of your visit, as well as the size of the facility. Groups of 6-40 are standard. Like most attractions, brewery and winery tours and tastings are more crowded on the weekends, particularly during the summer when people are vacationing. If you choose to take part in one of these attractions during those times, be prepared to be jostled, and don’t get upset if you can’t hear the tour guide or tasting leader that well. It comes with the territory. If you really want to ensure individual attention, you can sometimes reserve private tours or tastings by calling ahead of time. Unlike the option open to the general public, though, private events often cost money.

Your tour or tasting will be conducted by an employee of the brewery or winery who has been trained in that establishment’s history, beer- or wine-making process, and products. The guide won’t necessarily have any training beyond that, although many are required to become TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS to help recognize potential alcohol-related problems) certified.

On average, tastings and tours alike last about 45 minutes. As expected, though, the more the tasting or tour costs, the more in-depth the information you will receive, and the longer the experience.

One little-known fact about both brewery and winery tours is that there are cold parts of the tour. Fermentation in both the beer- and the wine-making process occurs best at low temperatures, so you’ll most likely be spending time in pretty chilly areas. Consider dressing in layers when going on these excursions. Also good to know — closed-toed shoes are required for the majority of brewery tours. I honestly can’t say why (please share if you know!), but I have seen it on the vast majority of brewery websites and in the breweries I’ve visited. Another good tip is to avoid cologne and perfume, as well as smoking, during your visit. Particularly during wine tastings, scent is an integral part of the experience. Taste is also important to both beer and wine tastings, and smoking affects taste.

How to Find Brewery and Winery Tours and Tastings

If you’re looking for the real deal, try this list of ABC's ten best brewery tours in America or find the best wine trails (groupings of wineries by region) at Wine Trails USA. If you’re looking for things local to your area, a quick Internet search of breweries or wineries should yield useful results, although you should pair that search with one for reviews of that establishment to avoid disappointment. You could also try your friendly local chamber of commerce or tourism bureau — both of those offices often has information on attractions in the area, including breweries and wineries.

When to Try a Tour

Although grapes are harvested from early September until early November in the U.S., winery tours and tastings are generally conducted year-round. As expected, though, more people tend to visit wineries when the weather is best, starting in May each year, through mid-October. Winery tasting and tour groups swell to their largest size during grape harvest season, which is in full swing in September and October. Like wineries, brewery tours also tend to be more crowded in the summer months. You should also expect large crowds during Oktoberfest (held from mid-September to early October).

Do you have any tips for how to have an enjoyable brewery or winery tour or tasting? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Meg Favreau's picture

Another thing to check out is events at breweries and wineries. When I lived in Philadelphia, one of the breweries would regularly host talks on the city's beer history and serve free beer samples during the event.

Guest's picture

Thanks for this! I have been wanting to go to a winery for awhile and this article helps.

Guest's picture

The reason for closed toe shoes, is that you are entering a work environment and it would be easy to squash a toe or get cut on anything like broken glass. I most places it is an OSHA like organization that makes those rules. Great article

-Bill Walden
The New Hampshire Beer Scene

Janey Osterlind's picture

Thanks for the answer about why closed-toed shoes are required, Bill! Mystery solved.