Flying Dog pours knowledge (and beer) for eager visitors
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, June 15, 2012
The rapid growth of beer bars and local breweries has meant an explosion in people who want to take brewery tours, but those tours are not created equal. On some, you get dry recitations of process ("… so then the liquid goes into this tank over here, which is called the lauter tun …") while walking around a bare warehouse that looks about as cool as a converted Costco.
On the other end of the spectrum is Flying Dog Brewery, which offers engaging two-hour tours of its enormous Frederick facility every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
At the very beginning of the tour -- right after climbing flights of metal stairs to peer into 1,550-gallon metal tanks -- a staff member comes around with a pitcher of wort, the building block of beer, and pours samples into everyone’s glass. It tastes like a thin simple syrup with a little bit of malty sweetness -- or, basically, sugar water. And that’s exactly what it is: the sugary liquid that results when ground malt is steeped in hot water, right before the hops and yeast are added and beer begins to take on its characteristic flavors.
As Tommy Hunter, the D.C. representative of Flying Dog, points out later, not many people have tasted wort unless they’re brewers. “We think it’s important that people know about the brewing process,” he says. "[Tasting the beer] helps us teach people about what we do and why we do it."
There are other tasting opportunities in the fermentation room, where the beer ages inside towering stainless steel tanks, and again near the end of the tour, when guests get a sample of a beer from the “bright” tank, where it is carbonated before bottling. The beer changes with every tour, Hunter says, depending on what’s recently been brewed.
You learn as much from these quick tastes of beers in progress as you do from glimpses of the quality control room, which looks like a lab smuggled out of the National Institutes of Health, and from viewing the bottling line and warehouse, where plastic-wrapped cases of beer tower high overhead.
What really makes the tour are the guides, who could be anyone from Flying Dog Chief Executive Jim Caruso to one of the brewers to a longtime fan the brewery has hired as a paid guide. They rattle off engaging stories and stats about Flying Dog, such as the fact that its bestselling brew is Raging B---- Belgian IPA. You’ll learn about how Flying Dog founder George Stranahan was a neighbor of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Woody Creek, Colo., and how illustrator Ralph Steadman, who provided the iconic drawings for Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” came to create the images for Flying Dog’s labels.
Then there’s the brewery’s creation myth, which involves a trek in the Himalayas, an all-night party and a painting of an airborne English “bird dog” with wings, which gave Flying Dog its name.
Everything wraps up in the tapping room, where you can sample 20 Flying Dog beers on tap. The brewery had halted its tours in December 2009 after realizing that state law allowed people to taste only six ounces of beer per visit. After working to change the law, Flying Dog reopened for tours in July 2011.
Of course, it’s not easy to get in: As of this week, all tours are booked through mid-July, and there are no Saturday dates until September. Flying Dog’s online reservation system lets you book as far ahead as December 2013. Hunter says you can always call to see whether there have been any last-minute cancellations, “but it’s not likely.”