On a small island in Louisiana’s bayou country, visitors entering a red-brick building are greeted by a distinctive hot-pepper smell. As they move further in, they encounter a display of oak barrels and several assembly lines staffed by locals. This is the Tabasco factory, the only place in the world that bottles the famous sauce. “You can watch employees whose families have worked here for generations,” says Cecil Hymel, vice president of administration for McIlhenny, Tabasco’s parent company. And those taking a tour of the facilities are treated to something different they can find nowhere else: Tabasco-flavored ice cream.
Tabasco’s factory is one of hundreds worldwide that open their doors regularly to visitors eager to get an inside look at the people and machines that “make the food we eat, the cars we drive, the musical instruments we play, and the sporting goods we use,” says Karen Axelrod, coauthor of Watch It Made in the U.S.A.: A Visitor’s Guide to the Best Factory Tours and Company Museums.
Some tours offer increasingly rare opportunities. While visits to large breweries can be more like amusement-park outings, for example, guests of the Anchor Brewing factory in San Francisco can watch the beer-brewing process from start to finish. “We’re very proud of the fact the tour is pretty technical, that we show the entire brewing, cellaring, and packaging process, starting in a brewhouse we believe is the most beautiful in the world,” says John Dannerbeck, Anchor’s sales manager. And the company doesn’t skimp on the serving sizes during the tasting at the end.
A factory tour can provide the real flavor of a region’s unique culture and history, while letting participants do things they couldn’t experience otherwise. Eating Tabasco ice cream is one. Watching motorcycles being tested at the Harley-Davidson factory in York, PA, the company’s largest production facility, is another. Visitors get to see the maiden voyage of each bike: at the end of the assembly line, each one is started and ridden on rollers to make sure it’s ready for the road.
Gift shops are a not-unexpected conclusion of most tours, but the best ones sell memorable souvenirs. At the Louisville Slugger factory, after you’ve seen the bat used by Joe DiMaggio during his 56-game hitting streak of 1941 or the stick wielded by Babe Ruth during his 60-home-run season of 1927, you can buy your own personalized bat or mini-bat to take home (or to the ball field).
Another plus, in today’s tough times: tours are usually free or reasonably priced. Before you go, though, make sure to find out if you must book in advance and when tours are offered and production takes place.
Once you’ve got the facts, make your plans to visit one of these sites (some are overseas, but all offer English-language guidance). Where else but on a factory tour can you enjoy a cold one at the Anchor Steam factory bar with the brewers who made it?