Session #93: Beer Travel

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Our 93rd Session is hosted is Brian Devine, who writes The Roaming Pint, along with Maria Scarpello, and the pair “have been traveling around in their 29-foot RV, named Stanley, since August 2010 seeking out all kinds of great beer destinations.” For their topic, they’ve understandably chosen Beer Travel.

Since travel is such an important part of our lives I wanted our topic to focus on beer travel. In Session #29, Beer by Bart asked writers to tell them about their favorite beer trips to which they got some great responses of personal favorites and general tips for certain cities.

So as not to tread over old ground my question is going to focus on the “why” more than the “what”. So I ask you fellow bloggers and beer lovers, why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at it’s freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

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Beer travel has exploded in the last few decades and has become a far bigger part of the success of smaller and local breweries than we often acknowledge. When I was a kid — yes, I’m old — most of the big breweries offered tours but because there were so few operating in the U.S., they were few are far between. Before I was old enough to drink I’d been inside the Budweiser brewery in Virginia (then associated with what used to be called Busch Gardens: The Old Country, an amusement park in Williamsburg), Yuengling (not too far from where I grew up in Pennsylvania) and the old Reading brewery in my hometown (though not for a tour, my stepfather stopped by to see a friend, with me in tow). But apart from the national breweries and the regionals hanging on by their fingernails, there simply wasn’t a lot of beer tourism opportunities around.

Abroad was slightly different, certainly in nations with rich brewing traditions. But this was before Americans traveled very much, before air travel became affordable for many more people. When I was young, a trip by plane was rare for almost everybody I knew. I was ten before I set foot on a plane, and I still beat many of my friends into the air. By contrast, my kids had flown maybe a dozen times before they reached double digits, and tellingly they’ve been complaining lately that it’s been far too long since we’ve taken a vacation via airplane (so we’re spending Thanksgiving in Hawaii). But back then, most people who discovered good beer in other countries were stationed there as part of their military service or had business travel in Europe. You hear that story repeated a lot.

My first trip to England was in 1982, when I was still a civilian, but I still managed to visit a couple of breweries — Fuller’s and the old Orange Brewery in Pimlico, an early British brew pub. But among my friends, at least, that was still a rarity. I moved to California in 1985, and between the many new breweries opening then along with Safeway’s Liquor Barn chain, things finally started to open up. But it’s been a slow, if steady climb. With renewed interest in beer generally, travel to beer locations like England, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic seemed to increase dramatically, and there were tour companies set up for the occasional beer tour, and some of the early beer magazines set up their own tours, as well. Little by little, breweries started getting more visitors each year. The smart ones prepared for them, hired tour guides, created gift shops with merchandise to sell, added tap rooms for sampling, which only increased the people coming.

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Inside the Trappist brewery at Rochefort.

In the 2000s, beer weeks started emerging, providing even greater incentives for beer travel. Smart tourism boards in cities and towns embraced these as a way to encourage travel to their areas, and the beer weeks that have flourished have been great for their respective hometowns. I used to keep track of all the beer weeks (though sadly have fallen behind) but as of a couple of years ago there were over 100 beer weeks worldwide, though the bulk of them are in North America.

But now that we’re approaching 3,000 breweries in America, beer travel has gone mainstream. There’s just so many to visit, and most new breweries plan for visitors. Few breweries open these days without merchandise, tours or a tasting room. They know people will visit them, in a children of the barleycorn “if you build it, they will come” sort of way. Many guilds and visitors centers have created brewery tour maps as part of the literature available for tourists, knowing many will ask for this information. People, friends and relatives, I know who are outside the beer bubble most of us live or work in, are coming back from trips with tales of breweries visited, something almost unthinkable a decade or two ago. Even my recently retired schoolteacher uncle and nurse aunt, who barely drank a drop before, are counting breweries as places visited in their globetrotting golden years. It’s definitely become a thing, with a life of its own.

But the question posed by this Session’s host was not is it happening, but why? Why do we want to visit a brewery? Why is the source a “valuable experience?” It is, if you think about it, a curious development. Breweries are, at their most basic, factories; manufacturing plants; or temples to scientific and technological achievement. I’ve never admired my television enough to visit the factory where it was produced, nor virtually anything else in my home. These things may even inspire me, or make my life easier, or better, but I’ve never mustered the same curiosity about how they were made that would make me set sail on a pilgrimage to their birthplace. I’m not dying to see where the car parked in my driveway came to life, so to speak. Why not?

I’m sure someone will come up with a better answer, but I think it’s because those are all tools. They remain outside of ourselves. Beer, like all food and beverages, we ingest. It literally becomes part of us. We take it in and it becomes part of who we are. Clothes don’t make the man (or woman), but food and drink do. Food and beverages feed our soul. Food starts grand novels. Drinking fuels poetry.

Given my love for potatoes, you won’t be surprised to learn I’ve visited several potato chip makers. I’ve even been to two pretzel factories. Growing up, Hershey’s Chocolates (near where I grew up) had a wonderful tour inside the plant, the air positively thick with chocolate aromas as you walked past giant vats of it (sadly, today it’s merely a ride at Hersheypark where they pump in the chocolate smells as you sit passively in a moving car winding through dioramas). The point is I want to see where my food comes from, especially my favorite foods.

With beer, for me at least, the importance of seeing the brewery is the context. I like seeing where it was created, the space itself, the coiled hoses (ask anybody), the gleaming copper or stainless steel brewery porn. I love the smells hanging in the air, both in and around the brewery. Hearing (and seeing) the brewer explaining his process, or how he came up with the idea or recipe for a beer, is different on his or her home turf, as opposed to a meet the brewer event at a pub or behind a table at a festival.

Similarly, I like to see where the hops were grown, or the barley malted. Does it make the beer taste better? No. Does it even make me appreciate it more? Maybe, but probably not. It’s just the context of seeing where it came from, how it was put together and then tasting the finished beer. It’s a more complete picture, but I’ll certainly enjoy the beer without all that pageantry. That is, my taste buds and stomach will, my soul is another story. For that to be piqued, I need the added context of place; of geography. Where, and under what circumstances, we eat or drink anything, will alter the way it tastes, the very experience of tasting it. We know this to be true, so why should it be a surprise that place matters. Location, location, location.

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Wading through the hop fields in Yakima, Washington.

Comments

  1. Beerman49 says

    Great topic – my “why” is most attuned to “seek” mode when traveling. I’ve been on enough brewery tours the last 30+ yrs, so I do that only when there are perks attached (for which I’m willing to pay, as for the “Hard Hat” tour @ New Glarus, which includes beer & Wisconsin cheese tastings after).

    I’m more interested in brewpubs & taprooms (especially those @ breweries), & visit those whenever possible. I’ve had great times in San Diego (which, when I was working, was 4-5 times/yr). Since I’ve retired, I get there once a year, each time visiting at least one location I’ve not been to before – this year I got 3 (Alesmith taproom, plus Beer Company & Monkey Paw, the latter of which is a converted “dive bar” that’s slightly ENE of the Gaslamp district, & which had a DOZEN of its own brews on tap, plus a decent short guest list).

    I’ve been to the “Great Taste of the Midwest” (which should be 2 days instead of 1, given that there are 1K brews there) twice, & once to the Kona Brewfest. Only such gig on my “bucket list” is Oregon’s (I have friends/relatives there); any other such gig would be via “accidental discovery” well ahead of my travels – festivals sell out almost as soon as tix go on sale.

  2. says

    Thanks for participating Jay! Really liked the run down of how beer travel has evolved through your lifetime. Like many things context is king and you don’t get the full story by drinking that whale out of a bottle at home (Not that doing that is any less enjoyable).

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