Perspectives on the Business of Beer Tourism

(US Sen. Mark Warner enjoys a pint at O’Connor Brewing Company. Photo by Kathy Keeney)

(US Sen. Mark Warner enjoys a pint at O’Connor Brewing Company. Photo by Kathy Keeney)

By Jeff Maisey

Coming of age – legal drinking age that is – in the early 1980s was akin to living in the Dark Ages for a beer consumer in Virginia. Transitioning to an Age of Discovery required an exploration beyond Norfolk, Virginia city limits (my hometown) in a quest for good beer.

The post-prohibition, mass production beers known to all were dominant, of course. I, for one, considered myself lucky to come across a rare Guinness Extra Stout or Bass Pale Ale at a grocery store or restaurant. Imported brands were limited to a handful of Dutch (Heineken/Grolsch) and German (Beck’s/St. Pauli Girl) lagers/pilsners, as well as those from Canada like Molson, Moosehead and LaBatt.

In the Hampton Roads region, those of us in Norfolk would drive 45 minutes up to the Williamsburg Pottery Factory, located in Lightfoot, where an oasis of great beer was presented on shelves and clustered by country of origin.

Keep in mind these were pre-internet days. Any knowledge of Belgian triples, British ESBs or German dunkelweizen was primarily the result of randomly purchasing a bottle from the Pottery Factory to take home.  These store shelves were also the point of entry for American craft beer in the form of Anchor Steam and Yuengling as well as upstart brand Pete’s Wicked Ale.

A few days before Christmas in the late ‘80s, I attended the Palace Green Lighting in Colonial Williamsburg. Just after sunset, a hanging basket of wood was set ablaze in front of each house approaching the Colonial Governor’s Palace. A firing squad shot muskets into the air for each in celebration.

Immediately following on the cold December nigh, I popped into one of the historic taverns – Chowning’s – and encountered my first Samuel Adams. It was served in a pewter mug along with bite-size Smithfield ham sandwiches.

It was soon after this experience that I concluded the best way to enjoy better beer was to travel to places where beer was an essential ingredient of the culture.

My first real beer travel adventure was in England to drink Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout at the source in tiny Tadcaster. I found very much to my liking the plethora of British pubs, each with a good 8 to 10 hand-pulled taps of beer previously unknown to me.

I’ve since spent a lot of my vacation time visiting beer halls, pubs, cafes and breweries throughout Europe. My travels, though, haven’t been limited to just a quest for beer. In each case, I, along with friends, enhance our experience by taking-in castles, canal rides, live music, museums, art galleries, hiking, biking…you get the point. It’s a lifestyle chosen by what I like to believe are “culturally enlightened” people, and that is to say it’s a mindset, not limited by demographics.

In Virginia, it was also the mid-1980s that modern-day wineries began to appear. Each had a tasting room where patrons could sample, relax and purchase a bottle or case to go. In essence, it was the beginning of Virginia’s still booming agri-tourism trade. By the mid-2000s, the number of Virginia wineries was in the 200 range.

By contrast, in 2006, craft breweries within the Commonwealth numbered only in the 20s. Unless they operated as a brewpub, serving both food and beer, breweries were considered to be a manufacturing facility and no law existed to grant them the same privilege enjoyed by wineries to allow visitors to sample, consume or walk out the front door with a bottle of beer.

That, as we know, all changed in 2012 thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild and the passage of State Bill 604. A true, organically-grown cultural revolution has been the result with a far-reaching economic impact that ties together breweries, restaurants, hotels, and attractions ranging from outdoor adventures like mountain bike trails, and kayaking to concerts, museums and festivals.

In just four years, craft beer has become big business in Virginia and everyone is taking note.

“One of the 11 foundations of tourism for the Commonwealth is now craft beer,” said Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufactures Association, which oversees the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. “We’re over a billion dollar industry now. We are a driver of tourism. The Virginia Tourism Corporation is doing advertising as far away as Canada getting people coming through Virginia on the way to the beach, and they stay and play in our breweries. Tourism is as much about craft beer as it was about wine, culinary, mountains and beaches. It’s just going to keep growing.”

“Last year we had 40 million visitors to the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe, while at a brewery collaboration at Stone Brewing in Richmond. “It’s a $26 million industry and employs hundreds of thousands of folks. An integral part of that tourism is folks visiting our craft breweries. They come in; they love the beers; love the experience they get. Craft breweries, wineries and oysters are all part of the puzzle. I think craft breweries have really put us on the map and give tourists another reason why they should come to Virginia.”

“Craft beer is a huge driver for travelers, and with more than 160 breweries around the state (and counting), it’s easy to see why Virginia is for Craft Beer Lovers,” added Caroline Logan, Director of Communications, Virginia Tourism Corporation. “Craft beer is one of our core lures, so we work closely with the craft beer industry and our tourism industry partners around the state to promote Virginia as a destination for craft beer lovers. We do this through social media, advertising, special events, and public relations efforts.”

While beer tourism is new and exciting in Virginia, it’s been going strong on the West Coast for some time. As large craft breweries from California and Oregon have sought locations on the East Coast to operate a production facility to better distribute fresher product to consumers from Main to Florida, they also have tasting rooms and bring their tourism strategies.

“In San Diego craft beer tourism is huge,” said Stone Brewing president and co-founder Steve Wagner. “We’ve got 130-plus breweries there now and it’s a big part of our tourism business. We have a San Diego Craft Beer Week. We get financing from the city to advertise because we get tons of visitors. It’s a real shot in the arm for the economy, and it helps us build our brands.”

Stone plans to offer a full service restaurant and outdoor experience in RVA just as it does in Southern California. This may even include a Stone hotel.

“We like to provide a complete experience to craft beer fans when they come to visit us,” said Wagner. “We want them to have a great tour experience. We want them to bring their families and be able to have a great meal and typically sit-down outdoors. That’s something we learned early-on and that’s what we’ll provide here in Richmond too.”

Where Stone Brewery selected Richmond for its edgy, urban vibe and strategically important geographic location at the intersection of I-95 and I-64 smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic region, fellow San Diego-area Green Flash Brewing Company will operate in Virginia Beach (opening November 13) for distribution purposes, but especially for the tourism component. Green Flash owner Mike Hinkley wanted a coastal community, a military hub, and area with a dynamic tourism draw. Virginia Beach is ideal.

Brad Van Dommelen is the recently-hired director of Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. Van Dommelen hails from the tourism office of Traverse City, Michigan where culinary tourism is a huge draw, especially for wine and craft beer. He has been please with the recent developments related to breweries opening in Virginia Beach.

“The craft beer industry in Virginia Beach is a newer product in our tourism mix and now we are reaching a scale that truly makes Virginia Beach a viable destination for craft beer tourism,” he said. “We are promoting this experience through our website, social media and also in niche publications that focus on this market segment.”

The folks at Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery selected Roanoke as their future East Coast home for its connection to I-81 and because of the city’s similarity to Bend and the mountains.

Having close ties to the hills for such outdoor activities as rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking the Appalachian Trail is an important lifestyle compliment for many craft beer travelers. Several regional tourism bureaus advertise using such imagery to appeal to active beer-cationers to visit breweries along their designated beer trail.

Arguably the most popular beer trail is Nelson County’s Brew Ridge Trail, which was spearheaded by Starr Hill Brewery founder Mark Thompson. The scenic county was known for its wineries but sought a way to connect the breweries stretching from Arrington to Crozet.

“It was very successful early on, when breweries were still so sparse in the state,” said Taylor Smack, owner of Blue Mountain Brewery, Blue Mountain Barrel House and South Street Brewery. “Having us all clustered together in a county already rife with agricultural- and outdoors-oriented tourism really worked for us.”

Nelson County is a rural area. The main city within an hour drive is Charlottesville. About 90% of Blue Mountain’s customers Monday through Thursday live nearby. That number is 50% Friday through Sunday when tourists hit the road for the weekend getaway. Tourism has played a major role in Blue Mountain’s success.

“Our Afton Blue Mountain Brewery and restaurant sits on the way to Wintergreen resort,” explain Smack. “It’s at the feet of mile 0 of the Blue Ridge Parkway (to the south) and the southernmost entrance to Shenandoah National Park (to the north). The George Washington National Forest winds its way through Nelson. We’ve got Crabtree Falls, the James River, and as much history as any place in a state that has more history than anywhere in America. We’re 25 minutes from Charlottesville, the University of Virginia and Monticello. There are 14 vineyards, 5 breweries, 3 distilleries, a kombucha brewery and a hard cidery in a county with only 12,000 people and one stop light. We’ve got apple orchards, Fall festivals, the Lockn’ music festival and on and on. We’re basically built to succeed with tourism. This was not at all the case when Blue Mountain opened its doors to a bit of eye-rolling as the first brewery in rural Nelson County in the middle of a hay field in 2007, but hey, we helped to create our own reality. The craft beverage producers here have just added a very lively new dimension to tourism that Nelson County already had. And it really has worked wonderfully.

Much of Virginia is rural with small towns scattered in every direction. Some towns and cities now look to craft beer as a means of revival.

Last year, Senator Warner hosted the Southwest Virginia Craft Beer Summit allowed industry leaders and community stakeholders to discuss the economic development opportunities surrounding craft beer.

“I’ve seen the development of craft breweries over the last decade in Virginia,” said Sen. Warner by phone. “I saw what an impact is has from a tourism standpoint and from a community building standpoint. Back when I was governor we created the Music Heritage Trail in Southwest Virginia – the Crooked Road. It was a great connection between the Crooked Road effort and the craft breweries in Southwest Virginia. To go back now and see downtown Bristol alive in way it hadn’t been in a long time is great. I wanted to know what we could do from a state and federal level to try to encourage more of this. This is both community building and economic development together.”

“Building critical mass is important for any community,” said Catherine Fox, Vice President of Public Affairs & Development, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.For example, Vinton is excited about their new brewery and hopes to attract a hotel development.  Their proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway gives them more product to package and attract visitors.   The Beerway is a perfect example of connecting the breweries in all areas.”

The trend for today’s travelers is for authentic, experiential travel—they want to experience the destination like a local might, and they’re always on the lookout for local flavor.

“Travelers are also planning their trips in a “hub and spoke” model,” said Caroline Logan. “They are traveling to a destination – like Williamsburg, for example – as the main lure, or hub, for Colonial Williamsburg. But while they’re there, they’ll also visit a brewery, rent a bike and ride the Capital Trail, eat at a local restaurant, and do some shopping. It’s Vacation+ — and craft breweries definitely fit into that equation.”

Michael Claar, who now works as chief of operations at Alewerks in Williamsburg, was the manager of DoG Street Pub, located in Merchants Square. The craft beer component offered added value to the visitor experience in Williamsburg.

“It’s a reward to the parents of families who still reliably visit and it attracts the sought after non-family adults looking for a mature experience,” said Claar. “If you visit France you drink French wine; when you visit Williamsburg you drink Williamsburg beer. Craft beer allows visitors to get a taste of what it is like to live in a particular region in a visceral and literal way.”

To that point, Alewerks contract brews several beers exclusively for the Williamsburg Foundation. Beer such as Old Stitch Brown Ale is found in gift shops and in the historic taverns including King’s Arms.

“Frank Clark, Historian with the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways program, performs intensive research in each beer before bringing the recipe to Alewerks Brewmaster Geoff Logan, where they decipher how to translate to modern recipes and methods while remaining authentic,” explained Claar. “The partnership developed out of the friendship and mutual respect between Clark and Logan.”

Alewerks currently brews and bottles Old Stitch Brown Ale, Dear Old Mum Spiced Wheat Ale, Weatherburn’s Tavern Bristol Ale and Toby’s Triplethreads Porter for Colonial Williamsburg.

Governor Terry McAuliffe announced 39 more breweries will open in Virginia by the end of 2016. And if that’s now enough, Secretary of Commerce Todd Haymore expects to bring more from out of state.

“Virginia is going to continue to recruit new business, and craft beer is an important part of that,” Haymore said. “We’ll be going for international breweries coming here, out of state breweries, and also local breweries – to help them expand.”

“Craft beer is big business in Virginia, supporting about 8,900 jobs and with an estimated economic impact of $1 billion,” Logan said. “While we don’t yet have specific data for the economic impact of beer-cationers in Virginia, craft beer is one of our big travel drivers, and we had a record-breaking year in 2015. Visitors spent $23 billion, which supporting 223,100 jobs and contributed $1.6 billion to state and local taxes. Craft beer definitely had a role in that!”


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