Tours tap into popularity of craft beer

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A customer bellies up to the bar at Resolution Brewing in Anchorage. Tour operators have developed products to take advantage of Alaska’s growing craft beer industry.
A customer bellies up to the bar at Resolution Brewing in Anchorage. Tour operators have developed products to take advantage of Alaska’s growing craft beer industry.

This summer, cyclists will tackle the rugged terrain of the Alaska Mountain Range and Denali National Park with the bicycle tour company Pedalers Pub and Grille.

The 10-day tour is about more than sightseeing and cycling, however. As guests explore Alaska's dramatic landscapes, they will also sample beer from several of the state's craft breweries.

"Everyone knows Oregon, Washington and other big brewing areas down in the Lower 48, but Alaska has some excellent breweries that often get overlooked," said Pedalers managing director Tom Sheehan, who introduced the Craft Beers & Roadhouses tour in 2017. "The state's booming craft beer industry has a lot of variety. Because my Alaska guides and I are all beer enthusiasts, this tour seemed like the perfect combo."

Sheehan spotlights releases by Anchorage Brewing, Healy's 49th State Brewing, Silver Gulch Brewing in Fairbanks and other producers on his beer and bike tour, weaving taproom visits and private tastings at overnight hotels into each itinerary.

He is one of several Alaska tour operators tapping into the beer-travel trend.

Alaska Trail Guides leads Anchorage-area, fat-tire biking tours that include sipping sessions at places like Resolution Brewing Co. and Girdwood Brewing Co. Big Swig Tours offers guided Anchorage beer outings via van or bike, and the company's Hops on the Rail adventure pairs pints with an Alaska Railroad trip to Talkeetna.

Kelly "Midgi" Moore of Juneau Food Tours ends her flagship Tour With Taste with flights of Alaskan Brewing Co. beers.

"That tasting was so popular that I've now added a second beer stop to the original tour and to the new Juneau Bites & Booze tour," she said. "Alaska beer has grown so much in recent years, and there's lots to showcase."

Alaska welcomed 10 new breweries between 2014 and 2016, according to numbers from the Colorado-based Brewers Association. The organization, which promotes small and independent American craft brewers, said the number of U.S. breweries topped 5,300 in 2016, up 16.6% from the previous year.

Alaska's 32 craft breweries made a combined $232 million economic impact in 2016 alone.

Across the state, Girdwood Brewing, Barnaby Brewing Co. in Juneau and Cooper Landing Brewing Co. are among newcomers that have debuted in recent months. Additional operations are on the way in Ketchikan, Palmer, Juneau, Skagway and beyond.

Partnering with beer-tour companies helps new producers expand their brand presence, though small outfits such as Resolution Brewing also report strong interest from independent travelers.

"In the summer, we definitely see an influx of travelers," said Cole Tamblyn, Resolution's head brewer. "Some come on organized tours, but we often have people who grab cabs from downtown so that they can check us out, too. The craft beer scene here is really big and exciting, and we enjoy shedding light on what's happening locally."

More established brands have also noticed an uptick in out-of-town business. Darcy Kniefel, beer ambassador at Midnight Sun Brewing Co., estimates that tourist traffic helps to nearly double tasting room business in the summer as compared to the winter season. To make the experience more memorable, Midnight Sun packs its summer schedule with one-off releases and taproom-only samples.

Kniefel sees travelers of various ages and points of origin stop in to sample beers and stock up on merchandise and bottles to take home.

The beer business is growing here in Alaska, and those breweries are supporting local people and bringing money into this state," she said. "It is important for us to stay local and stay true to our fans, but it is also very exciting when we get to welcome people from outside of Alaska."

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