This month, we’re heading outdoors with the best drinks for the backyard, beach, and beyond. In Take It Outside, we’re exploring our favorite local spots and far-flung destinations that make summer the ultimate season for elevated drinking.
When I reach Chris O’Leary, he’s on his way from New York City to Spokane, Wash., to take a beer trip with a pal he hasn’t seen since the before times. “I’m literally on a plane right now,” he texts. It’s hardly a surprise. Since 2011, O’Leary, a marketing executive who publishes the New York-focused beer blog Brew York, has visited 2,267 craft breweries around the world. Averaging between 250 and 350 breweries per year, O’Leary is one of the most well-traveled beer tourists in the world, and I’d called him to get his take on the post-pandemic future of ale trails, brew tours, and general beer-related travel as hopefully vaccinated Americans re-embrace their wanderlust this summer and beyond.
“[Breweries] are as busy now, if not busier, than I’ve ever seen them,” he says on a phone interview from SeaTac’s baggage claim. “People are just ready to get back out there.” If O’Leary is right, and beer tourism is coming back strong in a post-pandemic world, it’ll be good news for the breweries, travel companies, and other hospitality companies that rely on beer-focused travelers to spend cash in their communities. But everything has changed since we all went into lockdown last year, and the craft beer business was hardly exempt. As the country reopens and cooped-up Americans eagerly book long-delayed vacations, will breweries be on the itinerary?
‘Beer tourists spend quite a bit of money’
Before we look to the future, a brief jaunt through the recent past. As American craft beer’s volume growth has slowed in a more mature, crowded market over the past half-decade, beer tourism — a broad term typically defined as leisure travel primarily motivated by visiting breweries, beer festivals, and so forth — has mostly held steady. “What we saw prior to the pandemic, is that … beer tourism has been on the rise for quite a number of years,” says Neil Reid, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toledo and the author of several papers on beer tourism.
Data from the Brewers Association, the industry’s largest trade association, roughly tracks with that. According to an annual survey conducted among craft beer drinkers, from 2015 through 2019 the percentage of respondents who said they’d visited at least one brewery while traveling rose steadily each year, from 45 percent to 53 percent. (Among weekly drinkers, those figures were higher.) Bart Watson, the BA’s chief economist, says that “experiential [beer] tourism is growing more in line with at-the-brewery sales” as opposed to overall craft beer sales volume. “Prior to 2020, [those] were still growing very, very strongly.”
Speaking of sales: The reason Watson and other industry observers pay attention to drinkers’ interest in beer tourism is because traditionally there’s big money to be made luring visitors to breweries. While there’s no comprehensive national study showing how much cash beer tourists spend each year, regional reviews indicate it can be substantial. In 2019, an independent analysis commissioned by the tourism board in Grand Rapids, Mich., found that beer tourists generated an economic impact of $38.5 million to the surrounding county — $23.9 million in money they spent on beers, restaurant meals, hotel rooms, and the like, plus another $14.6 million indirectly recirculated through the local economy.
“Beer tourists spend quite a bit of money,” Dr. Cristina Benton, director of market and industry analysis at Anderson Economic Group and the study’s author, told me in a recent phone interview. In examining the spending habits of beer-focused Grand Rapids visitors, Benton and her colleague Sara Bowers found that beer tourists spent an average of $1,060 per party per trip compared to $959 spent on average by other groups.
Reid, who shared a study from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board that found Russian River Brewing Company’s 2019 Pliny the Younger release generated a $4.16 million economic impact on its own, points out that in addition to being potentially powerful revenue drivers, beer tourism programs tend to be fairly low-effort and low-cost for those tourism boards that elect to create them. “It’s an extra webpage, it’s an extra couple brochures. … I think the cost of promotion is pretty small, and return on investment can be pretty high,” she said, especially when factoring in all the ancillary businesses that benefit from beer tourist spending. “There’s a lot of winners when you can attract those folks.”
Of course, starting in spring 2020, those folks went into quarantine, and many brewery taprooms were forced to close for long stretches due to state restrictions on indoor service, concerns for staff safety, and the demands of new business models. Some took the opportunity to retool and expand existing outdoor setups, or build new ones. But on the whole, on-premise brewery sales decreased in 2020 compared to the year prior; the Brewers Association tracked a 25 percent dent in Q3 2020 figures alone. Beer festivals, another traditional draw for beer-thirsty travelers, were effectively kiboshed, cutting breweries off from a vital way to expand their customer bases.
All this worked out predictably poorly for event promoters, and for companies that focus on conventional, destination-based beer tourism. “Our company, like the travel industry in general, was devastated by the pandemic,” says Allan Wright, president and founder of Zephyr United, a Montana company that offers guided beer, wine, and culinary travel packages through its Taste Vacations division. (Another arm of the company also hosts a beer tourism conference, though the pandemic put it on hiatus both this year and last.) “Last year we canceled 21 out of 24 vacations on our schedule,” Wright says.
Covid-19 did destination-based beer tourism firms like Wright’s no favors. But contrary to what you might have expected, the BA’s data shows that brewery visits actually held steady, and may even have increased from 2019 to 2020. Watson cautions to take those figures with a grain of salt to account for respondents mischaracterizing their visits for to-go beers during the pandemic with more conventional beer tourism. But here, too, beer tourism infrastructure helped out, as many state guilds, regional tourism boards, and ale trail promoters shifted from pitching their constituent breweries as travel destinations to encouraging drinkers to patronize their retail operations.
“People came to pick up carry-out [orders] and support as many local breweries as possible,” says Patrick Fannin, the head brewer at Dreaming Creek Brewery in Richmond, Ky. The brewery, which had only been open for a year prior to the pandemic, is a stop on the Brewgrass Trail, a 20-brewery network in the greater Lexington area organized by Kentucky’s Department of Tourism. “The trail was a kind of [customers’] guide of which ones to go to,” Fannin surmises.
In eastern Pennsylvania, the Visit Bucks County tourism board used its social media handles to encourage visits to the 27 breweries on its ale trail from followers within driving distance. “The Bucks County Ale Trail was actively promoted during the pandemic, primarily over social media, as many of the breweries still sold beer to-go,” says Paul Bencivengo, the president and chief operating officer of Visit Bucks County.
This makes sense when you consider the nature of most beer tourism in the U.S. While marquee beer destinations like Denver, Asheville, and San Diego are strong enough draws to entice drinkers to make cross-country pilgrimages, says Reid, most beer tourists typically hail from within 150 miles or so of the breweries they’re visiting. “It’s basically a weekend trip,” he says.
As Watson points out, local drinkers skipping the supermarket for the taproom to-go window isn’t beer tourism, certainly not in the sense that Reid and his colleagues define it. But there’s some evidence that actual beer tourism did persist during the pandemic. With U.S. air travel dropping as much as 60 percent in 2020, dedicated beer tourists itching for an approximated taproom experience took to the road instead. To wit: Brew York’s O’Leary estimates he still managed to visit about 220 breweries in 2020, just a slight deviation from his norm, mostly by car travel. “Most of it was road trips. … A lot of my planning was around where Covid-19 [case] numbers were the lowest,” he says.
For Harvest Hosts, a travel firm that rents RVs to members looking to camp at one of the 2,500+ breweries, wineries, and farms that the company has contracted with across the company, that tendency was a boon for business. “We have seen a massive increase (over 400 percent) in RVers visiting breweries since the pandemic started,” Joel Holland, the company’s CEO, says via email. Harvest Hosts counts 338 breweries in its hosting network; in 2020, Holland says, its customers spent more than $25 million at all the businesses that participate in its program.
The combined effect of increased local emphasis, new outdoor spaces, and a shift to road travel may have softened the pandemic’s impact on American beer tourism last year. “I think beer tourism held up better than we would have expected, and is probably poised to rebound,” says Watson. “These numbers suggest that the fundamental demand [for beer tourism] didn’t really go anywhere.”
A post-pandemic bounceback?
As vaccinations continue to rise across the country, the factors do seem favorable for beer tourism to return to something like its pre-pandemic benchmarks. For one thing, Americans are itching to travel. In a June 2021 survey, Destination Analysts, a travel market research firm, found that over 77 percent of Americans plan to travel for leisure in the next three months or so, and 90 percent of those trips will be overnighters. Harvest Hosts’ own survey, conducted at the top of the year, shows similar appetite, with 60 percent of respondents saying they’ll travel more than in 2019. Holland says the firm is seeing customers extend the lengths of their trips as restrictions lift, and that Americans’ slow return to international travel “bodes very well for road travel to wonderful small town breweries.” The company projects that its RV-mobilized travelers will spend upwards of $40 million at their host locations in 2021.
Wright, at Zephyr United, hoped the bounceback would lift destination-based beer tourism that requires air travel. So far, so good: “We not only are back to where we were before, we are well ahead of our numbers from 2019,” he says.
From his vantage point at the BA, Watson sees only a few potential headwinds for beer tourism. For one thing, it’s experience-driven hospitality, he points out, a discipline that may be tough for more production-oriented breweries to master. “People don’t go [to breweries] necessarily just to look at the shiny tanks, they go for the knowledge, for learning, for the experience … and that can be replicated in other beverage alcohol arenas,” he says. On that note, with craft distilleries across the country lobbying for expanded privileges to do tastings and on-site sales, and vineyards already very sophisticated on those counts, beverage-loving tourists have more options than ever at which to spend their travel dollars. Craft beer drinkers, Watson emphasizes, are nothing if not “omni-biborous”: that is, they like drinking craft beer, but like drinking everything else, too.
Still, those are not insurmountable challenges, and though Watson cautions that beer tourism may not bounce back all at once, he speculates its return may come with a welcome post-pandemic “wildcard” for breweries. “A whole bunch of breweries developed new ways of selling beer … with more to-go and delivery” options, he says. That hard-won pandemic expertise may enable breweries to leverage direct-to-consumer sales (in states where that’s legal) to maintain relationships with beer tourists who visit, vineyard-style. “I think it opens up new potential, you know when bigger markets have that, to increase beer tourism, and more importantly the follow-up sales from those visits,” Watson muses.
That remains to be seen, but more certain, for now, is that beer tourism is coming back in some capacity. As he grabs his suitcase in Seattle, I ask Chris O’Leary what advice he has to offer to anyone looking to begin their own march to 2,267 brewery visits this summer. “Look for the hidden gem beer towns,” he replies. “The big [beer tourism] destinations are probably going to be even busier than normal.”