This article appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday May 13, 2017
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson said “Beer, if drunk in moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit and promotes health.” He could have course said the same thing about tourism, particularly if combined with beer!
I recently visited Asheville, North Carolina, on a research mission – OK, it was vacation but I’ll stick with my story. We took in tours of a couple of breweries – New Belgium and Sierra Nevada both have large establishments there. These are craft brewers, albeit big ones who needed to have presence on the East Coast. Both companies started up out west and have found the combination of location, water supply and culture in Asheville matched their needs. There are also smaller brewers located in the area along with hard cider makers. The interesting thing is that these companies have become an integral part of the local tourist industry.
Back last year we visited Asheville, North Carolina and I wrote about our experience visiting the Sierra Nevada Brewery (See Here) It was great and of course on a return visit this year we felt obliged to go back and check that it was still as good. It was. The restaurant was still serving great food and accompanying it with excellent beer. The store was still selling beer related souvenirs and take-home bottles, six and twelve packs and the ubiquitous Growlers.
We also decided to check out the competing New Belgium Brewery. New Belgium has similar history to Sierra Nevada in that its origin are in the west – Colorado this time, rather than California – and that it was born out of the craft beer movement when beer lovers became disenchanted with carbonated, chemical drinks pushed at us by the big brewers. Similar movements have taken place around the world, notable being the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) n the UK, which subsequently spawned the annual Great British Beer Festival. Suffice to say though that Craft Brewing is spearheaded around the world by excellent US breweries and their beers. However back to New Belgium…..
The New Belgium Brewery is smaller than its Sierra Nevada comrade but none the worse for that. It has a different vibe, just a little more relaxed on the tourism front. The tour is of course free to tempt the faithful to identify even more closely with the brewers. Their maximum number of tour members is 20, but on our tour there were only 5 plus the tour guide, Lucy. Lucy was part of the Brew Team and was certainly knowledgable about the process, history, culture and products. There is a great sense of fun in the organization with employees being given a New Belgium bike after a years service and things like a slide to get from one level of the plant to another – see the photo! New Belgium is an employee owned company and so is unlikely to be absorbed into one of the Big (Chemical Producing!) companies. Unlike Sierra Nevada where the tasting session takes place at the end of the tour, New Belgium indulges visitors with tastings at strategically placed ‘bars’ throughout the plant. The tour ends being dropped off outside the tap room and gift shop (of course) and the Sierra Nevada full scale restaurant is replaced by a Food Truck which is really VERY good.
Which was best? Neither. They are both professional, fascinating and well worth a visit. If you’re going to the area, please try both. Not just from the beer tasting point of view, but to look at how an industrial process has been turned into a tourism opportunity.
Down here on the northern Gulf Coast we have also been absorbed by the Craft Beer movement in recent years. Both the tourists and of course the locals have been calling for something other than mass produced fizzy chemical water. Our large Military contingent along the coast has contributed to this, as they know their beer!
Without too much research you can find 13 craft breweries between Pensacola and Apalachicola. These are virtually all paired with good restaurants and all sell their own beers and the souvenirs aimed aimed at their followers. A good number have formal brewery tours, an I’m guessing that that those that don’t could happily arrange a meet up with their Brewmaster on request.
Of course this is another tourism opportunity for our Destination Marketing Organizations to jump on. The Emerald Coast Beer Trail (I’ll happy donate that title to the cause in exchange for a glass of IPA) could have tourists visiting sites right along the coast. Perhaps some sort of treasure hunt collecting stamps at the different locations, with a prize for getting all of them? Nice Marketing at it’s best and simplest, appealing to Millennials, Boomers and Foodies at the same time. The other thing to mention is this is a year round activity, and it isn’t dependent on the weather.
Just to help out here’s a list of the local Northern Gulf Coast Craft Breweries that I’ve found.
Pensacola Bay Brewery
225 E Zaragoza St
Pensacola, FL 32502-6048
McGuire’s Irish Pub & Brewery
600 E Gregory St
Pensacola, FL 32502-4153
Gulf Coast Brewery LLC
500 E Heinberg St
Pensacola, FL 32502-4145
Back in the ’70s a craft brewery was founded in California by a bunch of long hairs. This was at a time when the majority of beer in the USA was of the ‘Lite’ variety of weak, tasteless carbonated water pumped out by a few macro brewing firms. In the UK, the ‘Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was just getting traction, run by gentlemen of a certain age with frankly dodgy facial hair and style in clothes. Long story short, that Californian brewery was Sierra Nevada which went on to form the craft brewing wave and then ride it become one of the largest and most successful craft brewers in the US if not the world.
During the 2000’s they were running out of space in Chico, California and decided to open an east coast brewery, eventually deciding on Mill’s River near Asheville, North Carolina. With the craft beer phenomena in full swing, the new brewery opened in 2015.
Now Sierra Nevada brew nearly their full range of beers in a modern yet traditional (stick with me here) facility in Mill’s River. This is not just an industrial complex, but a tourist destination in its own right. A showcase for its products, its philosophy, its eco-friendly ethics and let’s face it a great way of making money from its followers and tourist.
The facility, both the grounds and the brewery are stunning. What is noticeable is that right from the start there was a dual purpose behind the design. Obviously the place needs to be dedicated to producing excellent beer, which it does admirably, but it was also designed to let visitors have as much access as possible.
From the moment you drive into the complex, everything is aimed at the visitor. Plenty of parking for regular, disabled and those driving energy efficient vehicles. The brewery do tours of course and these range from self guided to 3 hour guided tours covering specific beer interests.
The self guided (turn up and wander) and the 90 minute guided tours are free. More involved tours have a low cost. I’d advise the 90 minute guided tour as it goes where you can’t on your own and includes not only a hugely knowledgeable guide, but a major tasting session! A word of warning. Although the free tours are available all day, you should book in advance on-line (http://ow.ly/4mOZUI) as they get booked up way in advance.
Obviously the tours are informative and fun, but the aim must be to encourage your loyalty to the brand. Guess where they end? Yes, at the entrance to the gift shop and the restaurant!
The restaurant is a destination in itself. The food is superb, the wait staff well trained, pleasant and efficient, and of course the beverages fit the location with all the regular Sierra Nevada range plus what they term ‘audition’ beers – new offerings where you’re doing the market research. Of the 400+ folks employed on the site between 100 and 200 are employed in the restaurant. The Taproom, as the restaurant is named (http://ow.ly/4mP0Xu), has a number of different seating areas both inside and outside. The outside areas are also dog and kid friendly by the way. Even if you’re not into beer, the restaurant is worth visiting for the food alone.
There is often a wait for seats in the Taproom (it’s worth it), so what to do during your wait? Let the kids play in the playground, walk the dog or stroll in the grounds (they’re even putting in hiking trails, so you can work up a good thirst) or visit gift shop.
The gift shop is a beer-lovers dream. Clothing, beer drinking accessories, and of course beer itself, including rare bottles and brews only available at the brewery.
All in all it’s a lesson in how to add loyal followers to your brand, attract incremental income and also to contribute to the local economy – particularly the tours economy.