Schensul: Beer tourism on the rise

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From the time I was 9 and had my first swig of Rheingold in the bleachers with my dad at Shea Stadium, I didn't get the appeal of beer. Even in college, when beer drinking was something of a sport of its own, I watched from the sidelines. It tasted like bread gone bad, it smelled like a hangover waiting to happen, and you never seemed to drink a beer — you had to "pound it."

So why was I sitting at a brew pub in Denver discussing the relative merits of the 16 or so brews on the menu with a patient and knowledgeable waitress? Why, after finally choosing one, was I now torn between drinking my Rock Bottom Red or just admiring its color in the late-afternoon sun? And why, as the sun faded, was I thinking about blowing off the concert I planned to attend that night in favor of just staying around for a dinner and a chance to sample the Rock Bottom's special-of-the-day brew?
It's because I finally got it. The appeal of beer. Or, well, ale. Or was it lager? Or IPA? I don't bother with the details — as a traveler. I've learned it's best to go with the flow. And that certainly applies when you've got beer on your itinerary.
And mixing beer with travel has become an increasingly popular pairing.
In fact, it's created a whole new niche market: beer tourism.

So at the same time all these cool and quirky breweries are springing up in the U.S. and abroad (and I mean everywhere — like South Korea and even, France), you've got all these travelers who've updated their priorities and expectations about the purpose of their trip. It's all about experiences. They want interaction with locals, they want to learn new skills, they want to be inspired.
Craft breweries are a perfect opportunity for edification, as well as some literal sustenance that's often not just your standard beer nuts and pretzels but locally produced cheeses or chocolates, instead. (Haven't come across those pig's feet in the jar, I'm happy to report.)
Of course, a visit to a major brewing plant qualifies as beer tourism. I've been to the Coors plant in Colorado and more recently the Budweiser Budvar Brewery in Ceskι Budejovice (Budweis in German), in the Czech Republic (no, it's not that Budweiser). They're pretty impressive just for sheer size.
But the visit to the Rockmill Brewery in the little town of Lancaster in the Hocking Hills area of southeastern Ohio was much different and more meaningful. Entering the rustic tasting room in the former horse stable on the family farm and meeting Matt Barbee and his co-owner, his mom, brought the beer down to a human level.
Barbee was so amped about his brewing enterprise and so well-versed and meticulous about his craft that he lost me after the first two sentences — something about "dubbels" and "tripels." They all tasted fresh and full to me, but I have to tell you, I'm a sucker for any bottle with a dog on the label — and the dog on the limited edition on display was a tribute to a beloved dog that had died a few months before our visit.
It was Barbee's passion that I connected with. That is the real deal. That's what's appealing — even when the bitter aftertaste is not.
Then, too, I've realized that not only can beer be interesting, it can be stunningly delicious. I can still see (and wish I could taste) the strawberry beer sorbet-like dessert, presented in a frosty champagne glass that was the cherry on top of our beer and food pairing dinner at Bier Central, one of the top brewpubs in Antwerp, Belgium. Bier Central is one of the can't misses if you're going to Antwerp, which any beer-o-phile should put on her list.
Which brings us back to beer tourism and how to go about tapping into the available resources.
The first thing to keep in mind is that beer tourism is very much in its infancy, though its economic potential has been duly noted and the balls are rolling.
Craft breweries aren't exactly good candidates for business alliances and partnerships and traditional business plans. First, craft brewers are by definition independent. And also by definition (the Association of Craft Brewers definition, anyway), they want to keep their operations small. Second, a lot of the craft breweries are concentrated in places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angles and Portland, Ore.
But there are also small gems that have set up operations in the countryside, some on farms, some in down-at-the-heels areas where property is less expensive. These may be too off the beaten path to know about or even get to.
But tourism offices and state officials see the brewpubs' increasing popularity as a source of revenue through tourism as well as a potential force to revitalize those struggling regions. Across the country, states are providing funding, offering tax breaks and smoothing legal hurtles that are often thrown in the path of any business involved in the sale of alcohol.
In a few cases, you'll find hotels are getting proactive, too. In Pennsylvania, some are offering craft-beer packages and spa treatments with sudsy pedicures. A bed-and-breakfast in Michigan offers a home-brew session with Saugatuk Brewing as part of a weekend package.
With the number of brewpubs in America now over 4,300 (up 14 percent from 2014 to 2015), there have been developments and resources created for travelers with a taste for beer. Here are the main options:
BEER TRAILS: Tourist offices and brewery associations in several cities, regions and states have organized beer-themed trails. You can find them on tourism websites, often linking to a beer-makers guild or association. The trails point out the breweries that offer tours and tastings.
DAY TOURS: A few entrepreneurs have started day tours via motor coach, taking visitors from brewery to brewery, adding their local insight — and the designated driver comes with the bus.
EVENTS: There's an official American Craft Beer Week in mid-May. The website for the event also has a calendar listing the official beer week for every state that has one.
(read more here)