As the popularity of beer, especially locally brewed craft beer, has ballooned over the past decade, brewery-driven travel has followed suit. Destinations, suppliers and breweries are increasingly realizing the economic potential that the beer tourism market represents and are consequently developing more products -- everything from well-curated beer trails to beer-centric culinary experiences to brewery-backed hotels -- to cater to the burgeoning demand for "beercations."
"There are more beer drinkers in this country than any other type of drinker," said Margo Knight Metzger, who formerly worked in the wine industry and is now executive director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild.
Last month, the guild partnered with Visit North Carolina and Explore Asheville to host the first Beer Marketing & Tourism Conference in Asheville, N.C. The conference welcomed more than 240 beer marketing and tourism representatives from 33 states, the U.K., Ireland and Australia and was aimed at providing education and information to help attendees grow their beer tourism business.
Metzger said that in many ways beer tourism is following in the footsteps of the wine tourism industry. But, she said, "I think the potential for craft beer tourism far exceeds the potential of wine tourism, and here's why: For whatever reason consumers don't expect to see a field of barley or a field of hops growing when they go and have a craft beer experience. So it's much more accessible. A lot of the breweries are in much more urban locations, which are naturally more available to a traveler."
What's more, she said, there is also a demographic factor: "Frankly, craft beer as a destination is more attractive to a younger crowd. And so we have the potential to really garner visits from a much wider age range."
While wineries are almost always situated amid vineyards, craft beer can be brewed almost anywhere, which means that notable breweries are cropping up across the country and redefining the destination experience. Breweries and concentrations of breweries are developing in places ranging from popular tourism destinations to much smaller, off-the-beaten-path locales where good beer has the ability to draw in suds lovers from near and far.
The Sierra Nevada taproom in Mills River, N.C., outside of Asheville. The region became a draw for beer tourism after earning Beer City USA accolades in 2009 by writer Charlie Papazian.
'Beer City USA'
In 1978, there were fewer than 100 brewing locations in the U.S., according to Julia Herz, the craft beer program director for the national Brewers Association. By 2007, she said, there were 1,450 breweries across the country, and today there are more than 5,300 breweries nationwide, a number predicted to continue to grow, though at a slower pace.
As culinary, travel and mainstream media have seized on the trend over the last several years, lists emerged showcasing the top beer destinations across the country -- places like Portland, Ore., which has become known as "beervana" due to the fact that there are more breweries per capita in the city than anywhere else in the country.
Some of those lists, along with the exposure and awareness that they generated, have literally transformed destinations, almost overnight, into beer meccas.
Dodie Stephens, director of communications at Explore Asheville, said, "If we're looking at when people started realizing that Asheville was a destination for beer, I would say that concentrated around the Beer City USA accolade. It was a major boost. In 2009, Charlie Papazian, a famous beer writer, conducted this Beer City USA poll. Asheville kind of came out of nowhere, and for the next four years either won or tied for that title with major destinations like Portland, Ore. From there, we started to pop up on [other] lists [of] beer destinations. It started to take on a life of its own."
Stephens said that while microbreweries were not a factor in motivating a visit to Asheville 10 years ago, recent research showed that more than a quarter of Asheville's visitors stop by a brewery, and 14% reported that Asheville's beer scene was one of the primary reasons for their visit.
Other beer towns are experiencing similar trends.
The Lagunitas Brewing Co. is located in Petaluma in California’s Sonoma County. A growing number of breweries are joining Sonoma County’s numerous wineries. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
Indeed, while beer tourism has long been a draw to historic and iconic brewing towns in Europe, the phenomenon has started gaining serious traction in the U.S. only in the past decade, according to beer industry insiders.
Consequently, domestic destinations that have become known for their strong craft beer culture -- places like Portland, Ore.; Asheville; Denver; San Diego; and Portland, Maine; among others -- are starting to see significant economic impact from their growing beer tourism numbers.
In a Travelocity beer tourism index released last year, more than three-quarters of the 1,003 people surveyed said they would like to go on a trip where they visited craft breweries and sampled local beer.
Additionally, the Brewers Association commissioned a Nielsen Omnibus panel in June 2016 that asked, "How many, if any, craft breweries have you visited at their site in the past 12 months while traveling?" The average number cited was 2.1.
Based on a survey conducted by the Brewers Association, more than 10 million people toured craft breweries in 2014, and more than half the visitors who toured breweries were from outside the destination. The organization also found that 18% of craft beer drinkers visit three or more out-of-town breweries each year.
A beer-tasting flight at the Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., makers of cult favorite Pliny the Younger India pale ale. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
The economics of beer tourism
Given the growth and potential of the beer tourism industry, travel suppliers are increasingly incorporating craft beer and brewery experiences into their products, even in destinations that have traditionally catered predominantly to wine lovers.
In California's Napa and Sonoma valleys, arguably the two most famous wine regions in the U.S., a growing number of breweries are cropping up.
"Beer tourism is growing," said Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer for Sonoma County Tourism. "We see people who are coming just for beer, especially in Sonoma County because we have things like Pliny the Younger, which is a very limited-edition kind of cult beer. But we also see people visiting breweries as part of their normal day-to-day visits here. We have more than 40 breweries, cider houses and distilleries now in Sonoma County, so it's a viable tourism asset."
Pliny the Younger is a triple India pale ale (IPA), extremely hoppy and high in alcohol content, brewed by Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Russian River Brewing Co., one of Sonoma's most popular breweries. Each year, Russian River releases a limited run for which people will travel from across the country.
The brewery is in the process of developing a much larger facility on nearly 15 acres in Windsor, Calif., 10 miles north of its current location. The Windsor location, slated to open in summer 2018, will feature a tasting room, gift shop, guided tours and a larger brewpub with outdoor seating.
"There are 10,000 wineries in the U.S.," Herz said. "There's double the wineries [compared with breweries]. But more people are into beer. It's a fact."
Herz said that in 2016, beer sales in the U.S., including domestic and imported varieties, totaled $107 billion, compared with total wine sales of $50 billion.
"You do have a beer-loving nation first and foremost," she said. "So it's very likely that brewery tourism has disrupted winery tourism as being the only game in town."
While beer tourism is certainly on the rise, those in the wine tourism industry said they don't feel there's any reason to feel threatened. Instead, the reigning sentiment appears to be that beer, wine and spirits are industries and experiences that complement rather than compete with one another.
There is also a growing realization that the focus on foodie travel is benefitting them all.
The Brewers Guild's Metzger, said, "If you look at a drinker who is 35 or younger, it's highly likely that they cross drink, which means that they have a taste for wine, a taste for beer and most definitely a taste for spirits. And it's very occasion-specific and mood-specific and food-specific. It's kind of a new world. People aren't just beer drinkers anymore, but we do have a good head start because so many Americans, when they choose a beverage, they choose beer."
Fieldwork Brewing, based in Berkeley, Calif., has an outpost at the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, in the heart of California’s wine country. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
In Northern California, most of the beer action has typically been found in San Francisco and Sonoma, but even the wine heavyweight Napa is starting to see more beer investment among its rolling hills of vineyards. The Fieldwork Brewing Co., a popular Berkeley-based brewery, just opened an outpost in the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, and at Carneros Resort and Spa, a luxury property at the gateway to wine country in Napa. Fieldwork beer is served during the resort's supper club dinner events. Ca'Momi, an Italian eatery in downtown Napa, brews its own beer in house.
In addition, San Diego-based Stone Brewing is in the process of renovating a 10,000-square-foot building in downtown Napa that will include a brewing system, a dining venue, growler (64-ounce containers of beer poured fresh from the tap) fills and Stone merchandise, according to the company.
A rendering of the hotel and sour beer facility in Columbus, Ohio, that Scottish craft brewery BrewDog is crowdfunding, to be called the DogHouse.
In fact, Stone is taking beer tourism to the next level with plans to open the Stone Hotel, a 99-room, beer-themed property being developed in partnership with Untitled Hospitality. It's slated to open in early 2018 adjacent to the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido, Calif. At the hotel, Stone beers and special-release beers will be on tap at the three on-site bars, a complimentary Stone beer will be offered upon check-in and there will in-room delivery of growlers.
Scottish craft brewery BrewDog is in the process of crowdfunding an effort to build a craft beer hotel and sour beer facility in Columbus, Ohio, called the DogHouse.
According to BrewDog, the hotel will include an IPA-filled hot tub; a craft beer-themed spa (complete with hops face masks); an IPA on tap in the rooms, which will also have minifridges stocked with craft beers; and beer-infused meals. Guests will be offered private brewery tours. The goal is to open the DogHouse by the end of September 2018.
Elsewhere, craft beer appears to be enhancing the guest experience at hotel properties throughout the country, which are increasingly incorporating craft beer and local brewery partnerships into their food and beverage programs. It's much more common now for hotels to roll out special beer-lover packages, for example.
Beer festivals are also becoming a huge draw for destinations, as are "beer trails," itineraries that beer lovers can map out for a regional tour of local breweries, taprooms and brewpubs.
A 2015 study by Eastern Oregon University estimated that the 2015 Oregon Brewers Festival generated $19.4 million in direct spending and another $5.7 million in indirect spending.
As with any booming market, however, there are already growing concerns about how much more and whether the craft beer industry can continue to grow. A New York Times op-ed earlier this month asked "Is it last call for craft beer?" and examined whether brewery consolidation is going to ultimately make it too difficult for smaller breweries to compete.
But, according to Metzger, we likely haven't seen the end of new craft breweries that are seeking to tap into the beer tourism trend.
"I think there's still a lot of room for small, community-oriented breweries and tap rooms," she said. "I think there's not as much room for every brewery to have a presence on retail shelves. That becomes harder by the day with all the breweries that are out there competing for the same shelf space. But for breweries that exist to serve their community and welcome travelers, there is pretty much infinite space for those to operate."