Want Beer, Will Travel: From Coast to Coast, Brewery Tourism Is On the Rise

Feature by | Sep 2014 | Issue #92

Peter Bissell, co-owner of Bissell Brothers Brewing

In 2011, Zach Poole was sipping local beers around Portland, Maine and thought it would be a great if there were transportation between each pint. After he found a 13-passenger short school bus, Poole launched the Maine Brew Bus tour company and continues to run his original brewery tour, the Casco Fiasco, every Saturday.

“It became real when he found a bus on Craigslist for $2,800,” says Don Littlefield, Poole’s business partner. “Allagash Brewing was the anchor,” he adds. It was a destination brewery that people were already coming to visit in a city that’s evolved into something of a craft beer lover’s dream. Three other breweries round out the 4.5-hour itinerary, which includes lunch at a downtown brewpub.

Within six months they were mentioned in the Boston Globe, exposing them to beer travelers throughout New England. Tours began to quickly sell out. They added a second, larger bus and have since grown to offer 11 different tours, plus private and custom trips. During most of the year more than eighty percent of their visitors come from out of state, including cruise ship passengers in the fall. Before long, the local tourism board began to realize that people were traveling to Portland just to visit breweries.

“We shook things up a bit,” says Littlefield. “Especially when we became the No. 1 activity (out of 46) on TripAdvisor before we had been in operation for a full year.”

While connoisseurs have long traveled to countries like Belgium to try monastic brews and farmhouse ales, the phenomenon of beer tourism in the United States is still relatively new. A decade ago tasting beer from a particular region of the United States, as many do with wine in Napa County or the Willamette Valley, was virtually unheard of. That’s no longer the case. Craft breweries have sprouted up everywhere as the country experiences a return to localization.

Following the example set by the wine industry, a beer tourism movement has emerged as a parallel attraction. And it’s not only helping to fuel the growth of more breweries, it has spawned numerous brewery tours and trails, and led to the creation of souvenirs, specialized accommodations and bed and brew hotel packages.

Almost every craft beer city now has an operation like Poole’s, from Urban Oyster’s neighborhood-specific crawls of New York to the excursions in Boulder and Fort Collins run by the Colorado Brewery Bus. Not long ago the need for a local beer guide might have seemed laughable. Now, with so many breweries, they’ve become essential for time-strapped travelers.

Mapping a Changing Landscape
The Finger Lakes region of New York has had a thriving wine tourism trade for decades, but visiting breweries is still a relatively new concept to many vacationers. When the Finger Lakes Beer Trail started in 2011 there were 24 breweries. Today there are 74 counting those in planning. As they do with wine, beer tourists are now coming from Ontario, the Northeast, and on cross-country mega brewery trips in RVs. They aren’t just visiting single breweries, but a handful. They’re exploring beer terroir, even if they don’t always realize it.

“Craft beer tastes different in the Finger Lakes than in Portland, Oregon,” says Theresa Hollister, co-founder of the Finger Lakes Beer Trail. “For instance, Seneca Lake breweries tout the water from the lake as making a difference. There are flavor profiles that a beer connoisseur would pick up.”

Hollister and her partner Adam Smith recently received a $198,000 Market New York grant from the state’s Regional Economic Development Council, which allowed them to increase the print run of their brewery map from 20,000 copies in 2013 to 100,000 copies this year. They’ve broadened their marketing reach and have helped to turn the region into a beer destination. The harmony between tour operators, brewers and aficionados has been so successful that they are launching the first annual Finger Lakes Beer Fest in October, modeling it after the region’s wine fest, which regularly draws upwards of 20,000 attendees. Eventually, Hollister thinks their beer festival will draw comparable numbers.

Other towns, never before seen as vacation destinations, are becoming beer hot spots, too. How many people were catching flights or driving 10 hours to visit Grand Rapids before the craft beer scene there took off?

“Beer tourism really started growing after HopCat and Founders Brewing Co. started getting national recognition,” says Emily Capron, public relations manager for Experience Grand Rapids, the city’s convention and tourism bureau. “The Beer City USA wins (tie in 2012, win in 2013) were huge for jumpstarting the attraction of a craft beer scene in Grand Rapids. There are now 30 plus breweries on the Grand Rapids Beer City Ale Trail.”

According to Capron, the marketing group has actively promoted beer tourism, devoting a section to craft beer on their website and creating an Ale Trail map. Craft beer is also a focus in the Grand Rapids Pure Michigan commercial, there are billboards featuring beer around Michigan and ads appear in programs at Detroit Tigers games. A group of local craft brewers called Team Beer City even meets regularly to discusses ways to collaborate.

Annual Visits and Liquid Layovers
At the extremely limited annual release of Russian River Brewery’s Pliny the Younger Double IPA, hundreds wait for hours for a single glass. The Sonoma County Economic Development Board reported that its release generates an estimated $2.4 million in economic activity for the county, from direct sales and tourism to the area. Meanwhile, at SweetWater Brewing Company near Atlanta, brewery tours regularly hit the maximum capacity of 960 people.

“We believe folks are visiting breweries because when you are fan of the product, it’s always nice to be able to get a taste of high-quality beers fresh from the source, see how that brewery makes their beers, meet the faces behind the brews, check out their community, and hang with like-minded people,” says Francesca Zeifman, SweetWater’s communications manager. “If it’s a brewery that doesn’t distribute to their area, it’s a chance for folks to get a taste of those beers, or to taste some of the more rare beers in their portfolio. Plus, for some it’s another notch on the belt.”

SweetWater regularly has visitors from across the globe: Australia, Japan, Nicaragua, the UK and beyond. They estimate 50 to 60 percent of weekend visitors are from out of town. Being near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport means, according to Zeifman, that travelers come during layovers and tour the brewery before heading back to catch their flights. Some beer geeks even plan layovers around their specialty beer nights on Wednesdays.

The Rise of the Brew Hotel
The concept of a beer hotel might seem eccentric to some. But replace the word beer with wine and no one thinks twice. There are vineyard-based hotels with wine spas selling oak barrel baths and grape seed wraps. Guests can go grape-stomping, watch a harvest festival pageant, or board a wine train. The beer hotel is merely following in those footsteps.

In Newport, Oregon, Rogue has a three-room hotel above their brewpub featuring mini-fridges stocked with 22-ounce bottles of Rogue beer. Their 42-acre hop field in Independence is but a detour away. Elsewhere around the Pacific Northwest, McMenamins has added lodging to nine of its breweries and brewpubs, like the one inside a former elementary school in Portland. With more and more travelers coming from out of state to visit a single brewery, a beer themed hotel begins to make a lot of sense.

Dogfish Head in Delaware has 1,000 people on its brewery tour every week, and another 2,000 visit its brewpub. Around 500 of those visitors are from out of state, with about 250 coming specifically to visit Dogfish.

“We started seeing an influx of visitors about 10 years ago,” says Dogfish founder Sam Calagione. This was after moving into their facility in Milton, which was more conducive to tours, and around the time Calagione wrote Brewing Up A Business, a book which expanded the brand’s reach beyond the immediate region.

For about nine years they advertised a Brewmaster’s Suite at the Inn at Canal Square in Lewes, but that was just one room. It became evident there was more they could do.

“We saw an opportunity to engage our visitors for a longer period than what they get at our brewery tour or dinner at our pub,” says Calagione. “We wanted to get to know them and for them to get to know Dogfish and beautiful coastal Delaware.”

Cue the new 16-room Dogfish Inn. Harbor side in downtown Lewes, a short bike ride or stand-up paddleboard trip from the brewery or the brewpub at Rehoboth Beach, the beer-centric hotel features Dogfish-brand beer-infused soap and shampoo and Chicory Stout Coffee, plus a locally sourced minibar with custom glassware and bar gear for brews brought back from the brewery. On select days Calagione even sits down with guests for campfire beer story sessions. It’s a level of interaction between brewer and consumer that would be difficult to reach any other way. And really, that’s what this whole movement is all about.