Beers and Baskets: Breweries Connect with Disc Golfers

Draft Picks by | Feb 2019 | Issue #133
Illustration by Thom Glick

Jason Mariner loves to play disc golf, though he’ll be the first to tell you he’s no professional. He also loves craft beer. Luckily, the avid amateur can mix these two interests more easily than ever. “There’s just something about it. The pace of play lends itself to cracking a beer,” says the Arizona native. “Having a quality beer on the course makes playing the game that much more enjoyable.”

Disc golf may not be one of America’s best-known sports, though its growth over the past decade is undeniable. There are over 6,000 disc golf courses scattered across the country today, an enormous number for a niche activity with homegrown roots. Craft brewing has seen a similar explosion, with the number of craft breweries in the US now quickly approaching 7,000. With both phenomena on the rise, it should come as no surprise that there has been a convergence of these two interests, with breweries nationwide—large and small—playing a key role.

Interestingly, the evolution of disc golf and craft brewing share similar timelines and origin stories. Just as homebrewers had long been playing with their beer recipes, the early developers of disc golf had been experimenting with their sport. Craft breweries quietly began to appear in the late 1970s, starting with Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion in Sonoma, Calif., in 1976. Down the coast in Pasadena, Ed Headrick founded the Disc Golf Association (DGA) and the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) the same year. By the 1980s, brewing and disc golf were well on their way and grew substantially in the decades following.

At its core, disc golf is a simple game. Players throw special, weighted discs, or “Frisbees,” at a target, and the player who hits the target (called a “hole” or a “basket”) in the fewest throws, wins. Much like traditional golf, most courses have either nine or 18 holes. There’s a lot of walking involved between throws, and the game is played outside, usually in pleasant weather. As you may imagine, players discovered that the downtime between shots lent itself perfectly to enjoying a good beer or two. More than a few craft breweries also noticed this near-perfect pairing and seized the opportunity.

At the heart of the convergence of these two burgeoning American interests is a very simple principle for breweries: the desire to enhance a customer’s experience.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Booneville, Calif., was the first craft brewery to open a disc golf course on its campus in 2000. Former brewer Dan Houck constructed the initial course with a homebrewer’s ingenuity. Materials, including used wine barrels and piping from old brewing equipment, were cobbled together to build the first holes. Over time, the course has been expanded, the equipment upgraded, and today the par 3, 18-hole course is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

“Disc golf doesn’t enhance our business, per se, but it does enhance the visitor’s experience,” says Steve Miller, marketing manager for Anderson Valley. According to Miller, the brewery’s isolated location lent itself well to disc golf. “We’re in a very remote part of Northern California. There’s not a lot to do, so we found ourselves brewing beer and playing disc golf.”

But this isn’t just a California phenomenon. Pisgah Brewing Company, located just outside Asheville, N.C., recently joined the contingent of disc golf-loving breweries. Pisgah’s founder, Dave Quinn, has long been an avid player and the brewery has been one of the official sponsors of the Western North Carolina Disc Golf Association since 2005. Given the large parcels of land the brewery occupies in Black Mountain, it should come as no surprise that it has a 9-hole course of its own.

Benton Wharton, Pisgah’s general manager, shared why disc golf is a natural fit for the brewery and its customers. “Out here in western North Carolina, the outdoors is part of our day-to-day culture. I would say that it’s only natural that disc golf is a great excuse to walk around in a beautiful area and hopefully consume some great, tasty beverages, like Greybeard IPA.”

Down in Texas, Live Oak Brewing Company was looking for another way to connect its customers to the brand and saw opportunity with disc golf. Austin’s newest 9-hole course has seen its popularity take flight thanks to a dedicated core of local disc golf enthusiasts. “We have a large property full of 200-plus-year-old Southern live oaks that we wanted our visitors to enjoy,” says Dusan Kwiatkowski, Live Oak’s head brewer, “and disc golf is a pretty low impact way to do that.” Live Oak opened its course in February 2017 and its first tournament, held just eight months later, drew a crowd of 60 players. It plans to expand the course in 2019.

Live Oak isn’t the only brewery hosting disc golf tournaments, either. Each summer, Anderson Valley organizes the BoontFling Tournament and the brewery is also the title sponsor of the San Francisco Safari held annually at Golden Gate Park. Pisgah hosts its own competitions, too.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Surly Brewing Company has enjoyed sustained interested in its own event, the Surly Open. The tournament was first held in 2006 on Surly grounds and remains the brewery’s longest running event, eclipsing even Darkness Day, which began in 2007. There are 240 spots for competitors in the Open, broken up into two sessions. Surly’s beer is prominently featured—no surprise— starting with Coffee Bender for the morning crowd and a more diverse selection available in the afternoon. Jim Mott, one of Surly’s longest-tenured employees who supports events and operations, organizes the event, which sees about 60 percent of its participants return year after year.

While the simultaneous growth of microbreweries and disc golf explains the crossover to some degree, there’s more to this union of beer and baskets than mere coincidence. The two interests also share demographics similarities: relatively young, educated people who have found enjoyment by straying from the mainstream. And with growth comes new faces and opportunities. “Just like [they drink] craft beer, more women are playing disc golf every day,” says Anderson Valley’s Miller.

With more and more breweries adding value for their customer base by forging relationships with the disc golf community, the paths of each are likely to continue. And that should be good news if you’re a fan of either or, hopefully, both growing industries. “Nothing’s better than being able to walk the course, slinging some discs and drinking a good beer,” Mariner adds. “It’s just about perfect.”