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Learning and drinking beer as City Brew Tours launches in Baltimore

Barry Hansen, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for City Brew Tours, discusses beer during a tour stop at Brew House No. 16 in Mount Vernon on Oct. 8. [frame#DSC_8917.JPG; ]
Barry Hansen, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for City Brew Tours, discusses beer during a tour stop at Brew House No. 16 in Mount Vernon on Oct. 8. [frame#DSC_8917.JPG; ] (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Standing inside Heavy Seas Beer's taproom in Halethorpe on Wednesday evening, Barry Hansen is telling the company's history in rich detail with ease. Minutes later, he's leading a group of men and women — ages spanning from 21 to the retired — through the production facility, detailing the step-by-step process of how Heavy Seas makes its beers.

Given the amount of facts and anecdotes Hansen effortlessly offers, you'd think he was a long-time employee, or maybe even a principal.

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But the reality is Hansen doesn't even work for Heavy Seas. The 28-year-old Washington resident is the Mid-Atlantic regional manager of City Brew Tours, a company that drives customers to four local breweries each outing. Its first tour offered to the public here takes place at 5 p.m. Saturday, and it's already fully booked. (I attended a shortened media preview that included stops at Brew House No. 16 and Waverly Brewing Company, in addition to Heavy Seas.)

Hansen said City Brew Tours — which was founded in 2008 in Burlington, Vt., by Chad Brodsky and has expanded to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and now Baltimore — should flourish here over time. He believes interest will be generated from both beer-enthusiastic Marylanders and visitors to the area.

"You guys have enough tourism to keep this working. You have a ton of interest from locals in craft beer — the success of Baltimore Beer Week is a testament to that," Hansen said the following day. "If you can hit both locals and tourists, it's going to work."

Based on my experience Wednesday, I tend to agree.

This business model of touring different operations — each with their own unique histories — comes at a time of growth for Baltimore's beer industry. New microbreweries pop up annually, and the established craft-beer veterans are gaining strong reputations, even beyond state lines. It was only a matter of time before a company recognized how ripe our market was for a tour provider.

Right after 6 p.m. Wednesday, Hansen — who will lead Baltimore tours for the first month before he trains new guides — picked us up at the Charles Center Metro station in a 15-passenger Ford Econoline van. On our way to Heavy Seas, I quickly realized how sociable the tour would be.

Hansen began with an icebreaker: your name, hometown, favorite type of beer and last beer consumed. (Hansen, for the record, grew up in Connecticut and loves amber ales.) Then we went over beer's 10,000-year history, and learned random facts that surprisingly stuck with me. (George Washington had his own porter recipe; Yuengling distributed ice cream during Prohibition.)

At Heavy Seas, Hansen not only told history, but demonstrated his beer knowledge, describing the flavors we tasted with expertise — but in layman's terms. Later, I learned how serious he was about beer — Hansen used degrees in biomedical engineering and biotechnology to get into the brewing industry, and brews part time with D.C.'s Capitol City Brewing Company.

When I asked what he loved about the industry, his response had nothing to do with drinking beer or not having to sit behind a cubicle for a living.

"It's innovative on a bunch of different levels, but it's collaborative on all of them," Hansen said. "If people could just see that they can have allies in the same industry, and not just competitors, I think it could really revolutionize small business."

In Baltimore, not every brewery is on board with City Brew Tours. The Brewer's Art and Union Craft Brewing, two well-known breweries, are not participating. (Union's Jon Zerivitz said in an email that aspects of the tour model, like using City Brew Tour guides instead of Union employees, "wasn't working for us.")

Still, many Baltimore companies see the appeal. (Beyond the three we visited, Oliver Brewing Co., Charm City Meadworks and Peabody Heights Brewery are also involved. And participating breweries that offer their own tours separate from City Brew Tours will continue to do so.)

"I think it's always a little bit of a shock to [participating breweries] at first because it almost seems too good to be true," Hansen said. "We actually pay the breweries for samples, and we bring them people. All we really require is that we're able to provide that V.I.P. experience."

We certainly received inside looks at these operations, from seeing Heavy Seas' massive production facility up close to chewing on different malts Waverly uses in its recipes. At Brew House, we ate five mini-courses (including wings, pork sliders and soup), while Hansen accurately instructed us the beer samples that would pair best with the food. The meal was fine, but it was the totality of the experience that made me a believer in the tour.

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The only potential gripe I could see is the length of a normal tour. An $85 daytime tour or $90 night tour takes roughly five hours, and includes 16 beer samples and the Brew House No. 16 meal.

That price point seems fair, but I wonder if people will be intimidated by the time commitment. The topic is fun, and you'll likely have a buzz when the van drops you back off at the pickup point, but I'll be curious to see if non-beer-enthusiasts can stay engaged that long. Our three-hour tour felt like the right amount.

Hansen could prove me wrong, because he's that skilled as a guide. His knowledge was obvious, but the delivery was most impressive. If other breweries are worried that City Brew Tour guides might get their stories wrong, Hansen should alleviate such concerns. And if he finds similarly minded employees to train, then I expect City Brew Tours to eventually thrive.

He understands proper training will be imperative to the company's success here.

"I want to make sure that nobody drops the ball in terms of what they're talking about at each of these places," Hansen said. "That generates a lot of trust and respect. I think it speaks volumes to our business that we have places that let us do that as big as Heavy Seas."

Above all else, though, Hansen knows none of this matters if the tour doesn't serve its most basic function.

"[My purpose] is what any other tour guide's is," he said. "You just want to make sure the people are having a fantastic time."

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