The visible brewery: overexposed, overrated?

By Alan Moen

When I was a kid, one of the hot educational toys was the "visible man" - a transparent version of a human figure with all the veins, arteries, and internal organs brazenly displayed. It was an impressive model, making thousands of us aware just what an incredible, complex organism the human body is - just look at all those blood vessels, nerves. muscles and bones! However, the visible man was no substitute for superheroes or G.I. Joes. The toy was something of a failure in the marketplace, probably because it provoked as much disgust as curiosity.

In the old B movie classic The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Ray Milland plays a scientist who acquires X-ray vision. At first the effect is entertaining, allowing him to unobtrusively play the voyeur at a party. Soon, however, he sees not the flesh beneath a woman's clothing but only her skeleton. His sight had gone too far. Not being an osteopath, he found it difficult to get too excited over the vision of a shapely hip bone or well-turned femur.

I find myself experiencing something of the same reaction to what I call today's new "visible brewery, " especially in its most common manifestation, the brew pub. While calmly attempting to savor a few beers, I am likely to see an overall-clad, rubber-booted worker hosing out a fermentation tank. fiddling with brew kettle controls, or wresting with a pump. The noise and smells of a working brewery, pleasant or not, are an ever present distraction to pub patrons, even beer geeks like myself.

Usually, of course, brewery and workers are separated from pub patrons by glass - the display case or zoo effect, depending on your point of view. One is surprised not to see the occasional sign identifying the various brewers, their behavior and habitat, since they have been until quite recently an endangered species in America. The glass barrier has the advantage, however, of maintaining some distance between brewer and patron to allow both to somewhat peacefully coexist.

But, like the X-Ray Eyes movie, even this barrier is now disappearing. In the Pike Brewery's new location in Seattle, only a railing separates tables from tanks. While hard piping has been used throughout, the possibilities of an accident are real. Burning one's legs on a cup of McDonald's coffee would be nothing compared to getting hosed with hot wort or caustic soda. The brewery's new facility is impressive, but the idea of production here seems to owe as much to Madison Avenue as to Munich. What was once a great idea - showing customers something of the brewing process - is rapidly degenerating into showtime, period.

There seem to be two major reasons for the development of the visible brewery in the United States. Americans are typically isolated from the sources of the goods we consume; mass distribution has allowed the plethora of products in even the humblest supermarket, a constant source of amazement to foreign visitors. But convenience has come with a price, cutting us off from a more direct relationship with the local farm, mill, or brewery. Of course, until fairly recently, there was no local brewery for most of us. Now, the American obsession has become the reverse - to demonstrate, in painstaking detail, just how and where beer is made.

The other reason involves trust. A brew pub today might well tell its patrons, "we have nothing to hide - we make our beer right here. Look, you can even see us doing it. This is the real thing, direct to the consumer." I'm surprised we don't see giant "real" labels on the serving tanks these days, like the supermarket stickers on mayonnaise or whipped cream (funny, the substitute products don't use "fake" labels.)

I don't mean to disparage the visible trend completely. People who are not brewers themselves have benefited immeasurably from seeing the brewing process and learning about beer, as well as by drinking hand-crafted brews where they are made. But this is no guarantee of quality. I once visited a beautiful little brew pub with its gleaming equipment proudly displayed, only to find every one of its beers infected. Somehow this was more disturbing to me, with all of the pumps and circumstances of the place, than if it had been a dingy hole-in-the -wall tavern with poorly maintained taps.

Most brewers themselves seem to put up with the situation of being on stage. "It was kind of like being in a zoo initially, but I got used to it," a Seattle brewer told me." People don't watch you for any significant length of time. You learn to look past them and get your work done." Many workers start their brewing day when the pub or brewery is closed to visitors, doing most of the grunt jobs or messy cleanup then.

Some pub owners, however, want visitors to see people actively brewing. A brewer from Cleveland mentioned that his employers once had him start brewing in conjunction with a visit by Michael Jackson so that he could be in the middle of the process when the famous writer arrived. " It was no big deal to Jackson - he'd seen all this before, " he said. "But then they invited me to attend a dinner and tasting with him right afterward. I still had three hours to go on the beer." He also mentioned problems with the brewery design that got in the way of his work- sharing a stairway with customers and pathways with waitpersons. "There was no seclusion, no doors . I didn't mind people watching me work, but it was hard to keep them out of the brewery."

Another Northwest brewer designed his new work space specifically to keep away from customers. "I like to play music real loud when I'm working . It helps me concentrate. I have to shut people out, " he said. "If you're truly making a craft beer, it can't just be a show. Besides, " he laughed," it's necessary to maintain the mystery of what's going on. People who do visit the brewery think it's more special. A scantily-clad woman is more exciting walking down the street that if she were completely nude."

Chauvinistic observations aside, I'm reminded of an incident that took place while I was working in the cellar of a large winery, tasting red wine from different barrels with the winemaker. We were standing on the third tier of a huge wooden barrel rack. After drawing a sample into a glass, we followed the professional practice of smelling and tasting it, then walking to the end of the row and spitting it out into a drain on the floor below. The winemaker was just in the process of letting fly when a salesman appeared directly below, ushering guests around, one of them in a white suit. Somehow he avoided spitting, but nearly choked with laughter in the process, sending the wine up his nose instead. Too bad - he lost the perfect opportunity to involve a visitor quite visibly in the real winemaking process.

© 1996 Alan Moen