For two hours, I was a spy. Not like James Bond, exactly. After all, I think martinis kinda suck; I’d rather have a beer.
So for two hours, I was a beer spy. And guess what? You can be one, too.
It all started when I read about a company called Secret Hopper. The article explained how the company pays people with beer to anonymously drink at breweries all across America. In return, the beer spy would tell Secret Hopper (and by extension, the brewery) all about the experience.
Okay, so the above is essentially what I already do for a living -- but I wanted to learn how regular, everyday people could do it, too. And I liked Secret Hopper’s mission: they aren’t “here to critique beer,” but “to maximize the experience surrounding it.” Their goal is to “create the best possible craft beer experience,” which sounded like a cause I could get behind.
If it sounds like something you’d be interested in trying you can sign up at Secret Hopper’s website. Here’s what happened after I did just that, and became a beer spy.
credits:"[Secret Hopper / Facebook](https://www.facebook.com/SecretHopper/)" align:center
Typically, breweries don’t publicly disclose that they’re part of Secret Hopper, but the brewhouse I went to didn’t mind: I spied on Station 26 Brewing Co. in Denver, Colorado. Can you guess where they’re located? Yup, in a replica of the set of Pete Dinklage’s 2003 arthouse hit The Station Agent.
....Okay, not really -- the brewery is located in a fire station. (But you should still see Tyrion Lannister in that movie -- he’s great!)
credit: "[Station 26 / Instagram](https://www.instagram.com/p/BUztgUiAOKL/)" align:right width:350
I’d had Station 26’s Tangerine Cream before -- the delightful, 5.2% ABV citrus and cream concoction was super easy to drink. I was excited to finally try their other brews and check out their home. Because like Secret Hopper says, drinking beer isn’t just about the beer itself -- it’s about who you’re drinking it with, where you’re drinking it, and how the whole engagement makes you feel.
Now, normally when you walk into a brewery, you simply order a beer and hang out. But when you’re a super secret beer spy, you have to pay attention! Sure, Secret Hopper was covering the beer I was about to order -- but nothing is free in America, folks. In exchange, I’d be forced to keep my eyes open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange in order to not miss the smallest details of the brewery. And after my visit, I’d need to answer Secret Hopper’s 25 point questionnaire, that includes questions such as:
“How soon were you greeted after you approached the bar?”
“How long did it take for the beers to be delivered?”
“How long did it take to get the check after you asked for it?”
Man, I just wanted to kick back with a beer and enjoy a conversation with my friend and girlfriend! This spy shit is hard. Especially since I didn’t wanna shove a stopwatch in the bartender’s face. He’d totally know I was a narc. Err...a beer spy.
Secret Hopper told me I should order a flight of beers, and then a pint afterwards. Our bartender was on the ball, and got us that flight right away. And even though Secret Hopper isn’t concerned with how the beer tastes, I am! Out of the beers that I had that night, the Colorado Cream (highly sessionable; I could’ve easily had more than one pint!) and Lemongrass Wheat (love those Lemondrop hops) were my favorites.
credits:"[Station 26 Brewing Co. / Facebook](https://www.facebook.com/S26BC/photos/a.473744409388016.1073741829.468810763214714/1435179776577803/?type=3&theater)"
While catching up with my friend, I was also taking note of my environment. It was a bit tricky at first, but eventually I got into a rhythm of chatting and looking around. I knew if I didn’t pay close attention, I couldn’t properly answer questions like these:
“Upon entering the brewery, what are your eyes drawn to?”
“Did the bartender engage in conversation with you?”
“What did you smell first upon walking in?”
In order: the big red wall behind the bar; yes; and pizza (there was a food truck hawking slices outside). I bet you don’t normally remember what first caught your eye when entering a brewery. (I sure don’t.) But now that I was being implored to, I started taking in my surroundings in a way I never have before.
credits:"[Station 26 Brewing Co. / Facebook](https://www.facebook.com/S26BC/photos/a.473744409388016.1073741829.468810763214714/1501029469992833/?type=3&theater)" width:450 align:right
I saw a wall full of badges from local and national firehouses. I talked to the bartender more than I normally would. I noted if the bathroom was clean. I also noticed that at the bottom of the tap list on the wall, it said “Fermenting,” providing a short list of the beers that’ll be tapped soon, like a Peach Milkshake IPA. Damn! Well, now I guess I have to come back.
Because my focus as a Secret Hopper wasn’t to write about what the beer tasted like -- my normal M.O. when I go to a brewery -- it inspired me to engage with the atmosphere much more than usual. And I was won over: It was a beautiful fall day and the garage doors to the brewery were open. The bar was full, but not crowded. The staff was in a good mood. The beer was flowing. And my friend made my brewery experience even better by asking me to officiate his wedding! (Now that I’ve put it in writing, he can’t back out of it.)
I’d encourage you to apply to be a Secret Hopper. Even though surreptitiously timing your bartender for part of your visit is a bit of a pain in the ass, you’ll get some free beer out of it. And best of all, it’ll shift your perspective when entering a brewery for the first -- or second, or fiftieth -- time. As you soak in the entire vibe, you’ll realize that a brewery is about so much more than just beer.