Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Skip this Budweiser

Budweiser factory tour - Fairfield, CA

We are all familiar with the drive to and from San Francisco and the Bay Area. The drive down I-80, through Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, etc. As we pass Fairfield and Suisun City we notice the giant Budweiser plant in the not-so-far distance. Many of us venture in that direction to take the kids to the Jelly Belly factory tour. How many have stopped for the Budweiser tour? I decided it was time to check it out and report back to you, my faithful audience.

As you drive up to the front of the plant you won't find too many signs or indications that they even offer a tour. The hours are 10 - 4. In the summer they run every day but Sundays. From September through May they run Tuesdays - Saturdays. You'll park in the parking lot to the right side of the complex. You won't see a gift shop or entrance right away. Instead you will need to go through the corporate entrance at the front of the building. The receptionist will then lead you into the factory and up to the gift shop/waiting area on the second floor.

My first frustration was rather minor. I had arrived at 10:25 and the receptionist told me that the tours started on the hour. So the next one was going to be at 11. I could look around the gift shop and wait in the waiting area. We all know I don't drink, so there was definitely no interest in buying something with a drinking motif. But the gift shop did have quite an array of items that you would expect to see: clothing, drinking accessories like coolies and bottle openers, and signs and more. I did a quick once over and then sat and waited.

Budweiser tasting room

At 11 an employee came in and told us he was there to take us next door to the tasting room for the tour. He explained that there was unlimited soda and pretzels for everyone. For those of legal age, they could go to the counter and choose to taste from a selection of beers available. They did not pour just a dixie cup full. You got an 8 oz. glass of beer. You were also given a ticket that was for your second taste selection. You could choose to have that as soon as you polished off your first glass or you could wait til after the walking tour was completed.

The big frustration (for me) then came up. The walking tour would not start until 11:30.  So now I had another half hour to wait! Sigh. I suppose this serves a purpose. People are enjoying their samples and maybe, if they drink them both before the tour they won't have to worry about their sobriety when it's time to drive away from the facility later. Still, I found it annoying. Why wasn't this disclosed before? They should have said that the walking tour starts on the half hour. I felt a bit misled.

At about 11:20 the guide started to give an introductory spiel about the company and facility. There was also a short video explaining the five most important ingredients: barley, hops, rice, water, and yeast. Finally safety glasses were passed out and we were able to begin the walking tour.

We first stopped and took a look at the conveyor system for bottling beer. It was not working. The guide explained that most of the beer these days is put into cans as the bottles are less popular. So this line was not running most of the month. Our next stop was to see the tanks.

The beer goes through a series of processes. The first set are the hot processes. Water is combined with ground barley to create a mash. The mash is combined with milled rice and boiled. Enzymes start to break down the mash's startch into fermentable sugars. It is then brewed with the hops, which give it flavor. It is now called wort. The wort is cooled down so that they can then start the cold process.

Yeast is added to start the fermentation process of the wort. The wort is transferred to giant tanks that hold hundreds of gallons. The yeast ferments the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Now we have beer. Budweiser is known for its beechwood aging. They place a foot and a half high layer of beechwood chips in the bottom of each tank. The beechwood aids in continued formation of flavor and carbonation.

Our stop was to see the cold tanks where the beer was aging with the beechwood in the bottom. The tanks were about 10 feet in diameter and 72 feet long - giant! The cold room we were in was at about 42 degrees, had three stories, and had a total of 120 of these tanks. We did not get to see any part of the hot process.

Our final stop was to see the canning line. Millions of blue Budweiser cans were speeding down lines being filled with beer and then packaged. It was definitely noisy.

And that was it. Really. We saw an idle bottling line, some giant cold tanks, and the speeding canning line. That's it. What a huge disappointment. Basically, if you go to Pyramid or River City Brewing downtown you can see the same storage tanks, just smaller. You're just missing the assembly lines.

Now you know why I titled this post "Skip the Budweiser". There was really nothing worth seeing. The only benefit I could see to going on this tour was if you love their beer and you want a total of 16 ounces of free beer to drink and some souvenirs from the gift shop. It's much more interesting to just hop on down to Brew it Up (now closed 2013) and make your own.

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