In the suds: What Coors Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch each want you to learn on a tour of their breweries is that their product is the tastiest beer made from the finest ingredients by a corporation dedicated to honesty, integrity and whatever other really honorable characteristic they can get the tour guy to memorize. What you come away with, however, is (1) the impression that you have to be German and named some variation of Adolf to start your own big brewery; and (2) the realization that Americans consume a hell of a lot of beer.
And quite a bit of it comes out of Colorado: Coors is headquartered in Golden, and there is an Anheuser-Busch plant in Fort Collins. Both, it so happens, are set up to shuffle potential consumers through as easily as they funnel mash into massive copper kettles. But while the tours are free (read: free beer), I found only Coors worth the time and effort--not just because the beer is so much better, but also because the tour itself is interesting, blessedly brief (45 minutes) and less concerned with telling you how many charities the company supports than how beer is made.
Our visit to Coors started in the parking lot at the corner of Ford and 14th, where a shuttle picked us up for a short (what else?) tour of Golden. As we pulled into the seven-acre Coors complex, the driver was quick to point out that the water surrounding the plant is not the water used to make the beer (a good thing--it looked like it could house very drunk two-headed fish). The tours leave every half hour, and since we arrived a few minutes before the next one, we were led into the huge lobby, where a wall mural cheerfully depicts the chronology of Adolf Coors's dream to produce beer, a dream that began in Golden in 1873. The employees we encountered were equally cheerful--but who wouldn't be, when company perks include two free beers a day? From there we were packed into an elevator, where our guide--who managed to be amusing and sincere without coming off like a beer geek--made jokes about the smell of the hops. (In fact, both tours made a big deal about the smell, as if we are all too stupid to understand that the odor was a natural--even welcome--by-product of brewing beer; it was like being out with a date who keeps apologizing for having fish for dinner.) Otherwise, the guide's spiel was well-rehearsed, and he faltered but once when, much to his embarrassment, he forgot the company motto. "Oh, my God, this is the first time this has ever happened, I swear," he said. "It's, um, wait. Oh, it'll come to me." After the tour was over, I tracked him down and got it out of him: "Quality in all we are and all we do."
Well, mostly. Certainly in the way Coors handles the tour--it progressed smoothly from the brewhouse to the quality-control lab (where the usual "Hey, how can we get that job?" jokes were bandied about by the crowd, most of whom looked like overgrown college kids cultivating fairly comfortable beer bellies) to the fermenting and aging rooms to the packaging plant. The final segment was a walk down a hallway hung with posters of Coors products, the one sales pitch we encountered--other than those amazing figures thrown at us throughout the tour. The numbers sounded high, but who's going to say: "Hey, you don't make one and a half million gallons of beer here a day--by the looks of the kegs whizzing by, you only make one and a quarter million." And, in the end, who cares? Because the important part of the tour was the tasting room, where each tourist could sample three seven-ounce beers or, if there were actually that many Coors beers you wanted to taste, six four-ouncers. We went with Coors Dry (light for a dry, with little aftertaste), Zima (get drunk on Fresca!), Coors Extra Gold (bland, bland, bland), Artic Ice (the best of the lot; smooth, with a zippy flavor) and Killian's (still one of the better reds). We drank a mere portion of them (no, really) and were intrigued by the fact that although Coors makes a big deal about its drunk-driving policy, to drink responsibly you'd have to sit there for two hours before driving home.
Instead, we headed up to Fort Collins, where Anheuser-Busch is conveniently located right off I-25. Unfortunately, location was one of the few appealing aspects of this tour. The beers (you're limited to two ten-ounce beers) were served in icky, waxy paper cups (Coors uses glass) that didn't enhance their contents. The Elk Mountain Red wasn't bad, but the Bud Dry and Busch were awful. Michelob Dark is one of those beers that tastes great for the first three sips--and then its sweetness becomes nauseating. And the one beer we really wanted to try--the brew that was promoted heavily on posters, table tents and out of the mouths of everyone who worked there--was Bud Ice. But it wasn't available for tasting.
So bearing the brunt of keeping the tour entertaining were the Clydesdales, six massive beasts that reside in stalls cleaner than a hospital. A group of local kindergartners that our guide says come frequently to see the horses (yeah, only in Fort Collins...) stood transfixed before them. I wanted to tell them that this wasn't real--that real horses have a little bit of spittle dribbling out of the sides of their mouths, and their straw is always wet and matted down. But not the Clydesdales'. Billowy clouds of foot-high, bright-yellow straw swished beneath their feet, and their manes looked like Paul Mitchell himself had been called in for grooming. I imagine that, when they are ready to defecate, they paw at the ground three times and an attendant comes and holds a bucket underneath. But, wow, they are beautiful.
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After that, the tour went flat, even though the guide was super-nice and obviously loves what he does. We had to walk a quarter-mile outside (lovely in the cold) to get to the brewery itself, and then, after a brief introduction to the history and the founders, Adolphus Busch and Eberhart Anheuser, were forced to watch a snoozer of a six-minute movie on the brewing process. Half of the remainder of the tour involved actual brewing and packaging, and half involved advertising (some of the old campaigns were pretty cool) and a rundown of the other products Anheuser-Busch makes and the charities the company supports. Then there's the drunk-driving speech, the hallway of beers, and free! free! at last.
It wasn't until after both tours had ended that we found out you don't have to take the tour in order to get the free beer. At Anheuser-Busch, all they ask is that you go look at the horses for a few minutes. And the driver of our Coors shuttle informed us that if you tell the guide you're there for the "short tour," you'll be whisked off to the tasting room, no questions asked. In fact, the driver added, an elderly couple drives up from Denver five days a week just to get the short tour.
"They're retired and they like beer," she said. "So that's how they like to spend their time."