Lily Waite, on the joys of beer tourism
Tuesday 04 August 2020
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Of all the trips I’ve made over the past half-decade, I can’t think of a single one that hasn’t included some sort of beer tourism. In the USA last year I sought out taprooms I’d longed to visit; on a weekend visit to Paris for my dad’s 60th birthday, my partner and I snuck away to drink Hill Farmstead at La Fine Mousse; and before that, I accidentally hijacked the same partner’s 21st birthday trip to Copenhagen, because, well, we’d never been to Warpigs. She has, in true testament to her generosity of spirit, since forgiven me.
Considering the breadth of style present within modern craft beer, the vastly varied, international influences from which brewers pull, and the inherent allure of novelty, it makes sense that tourism is an integral part of the beer world. Whether we adore certain breweries to an extent that pilgrimages become essential – after elevating iconic beers and brewhouses to their pedestals for so long that after a while it becomes imperative that we experience them in their true, local context – or we feel so strongly for tradition that we must witness the geographical and spiritual home of, say, Bavarian lager or Belgian Lambic, travelling for beer is all part of the experience.
Travelling for beer is all part of the experience
Part of the joy of beer tourism is, by virtue of beer’s ever-increasing ubiquity, the ease of it. The ease by which you can travel to a different city, country, or continent, and, after a quick Google search, likely find a taproom or bar pouring a decent IPA, or a tasty pale. Beer tourism isn’t confined to the realms of great expense, expansive planning, and a week-long fluctuation of a hangover. It can be, and often is, the joy of discovering a great bar as a brief side quest, or stumbling upon a brewery when you’re least expecting it.
The best part is, to my mind, that you can easily, and regularly, be a beer tourist in your own home town or city. Now that a pandemic has ensnared the world in its steely grip, however, what future remains for beer tourism? Is there anything left but ordering cans from around the world, and occasionally venturing out no further than a few hundred metres from your front door? Is tourism, for now, confined to your own home town?
Chris O’Leary is probably the most prolific traveller-for-beer I’ve ever met – he might even be the most journeyed traveller that I’ve ever met, in fact. Over the last six-and-a-half years, O’Leary’s visited 1,952 breweries, in 21 countries. 1,620 of those have been in his native USA – he’s done all 50 states – and he’s now working on visiting a brewery in every Canadian province and territory. “I’m now more than halfway there,” he tells me.
After two trips in the same month to Oregon and Colorado, in 2013, he realised he’d hit 30 breweries in 30 days. “Visiting so many different taprooms and having unique and memorable experiences at them inspired me to take this on as a challenge to myself: to explore the places I travel through their breweries and beer,” he explains. “That evolved over time to become my main reason for travelling.”
But then, of course, the pandemic hit. As ‘shelter in place’ orders began to roll out throughout the US in the third week of March, New York City ‘locked down’. Now, in June, not much has changed. “I’ll admit, I’m getting stir-crazy,” O’Leary says. “I’m used to leaving New York City once every two weeks or so, and I haven’t left in three months.” Despite the listlessness we surely all feel, he’s found some positives in being confined to his home. “The pandemic has given me a huge opportunity to appreciate the wealth of great beer here in New York,” he says. “I think I’ve had a total of five beers from outside of New York State in the span of those three months… I’ve been far more connected to New York beer than I’ve ever been.”
This greater connection to our local surroundings is something the majority of us have shared during the course of this lockdown. With travel restrictions in place, and local businesses struggling, more of us have turned to local breweries, bottle shops, and (where takeaway beers have been possible) pubs, for beer than during The Before Times.
Alice Hayward, general manager of Cloudwater Brew Co’s taproom in Bermondsey, South London, has seen much of the same. “Especially where they cannot (or shouldn’t) travel unnecessarily, a lot of folk have been turning to their local outlets – whether that’s beer, groceries or books,” she says. “There’s been a big push on the importance of independence and keeping small businesses alive, which is fantastic.”
The taproom has remained closed since the third week of March, with Cloudwater choosing to streamline sales through the online shop, based at the brewery in Manchester. Given its location in an archway on a residential street, the taproom partially relies on tourists and visitors to the Bermondsey Beer Mile, as well as those seeking it out as a destination, for custom. “Over 50% of our customers some weekends are domestic or international tourists,” Hayward says. “We’re a destination because of the brewery’s reputation: we get customers all over the world who are specifically coming to visit us, particularly from the USA and China.”
Realistically, until a vaccine for Coronavirus is found, and made available, the continuation of both domestic and international tourism remains highly unlikely. For venues that rely on tourist custom, financial viability, and therefore opening, is a long way off. “Even with the proper implementation of necessary safeguarding measures, we at 73 Enid Street would only be able to open as a bar with a very reduced capacity, which is completely financially unfeasible,” she says. “COVID-19 has entirely changed – and will continue to – the landscape of communal spaces, and bars in general, and with more people continuing to work from home, the boom of online ordering will continue. It’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create the ambience and social vibe of a bar or pub until a vaccine has been found.”
One brewery that’s seen a marked increase in online ordering is Cornwall’s Harbour Brewing Co. Despite being based in the UK’s top holiday destination, the majority of their sales come from London, with much of their volume sold in restaurants. “Only 5% of our business has been Cornwall, which surprises people,” Harbour ‘brand guy’ Adam Sargent says, “but being a county with some of the lowest wages, highest property prices, only 500,000 full-time residents, and (at last count) 41 breweries fighting for that business, we put more of our focus on the South East.”
With London’s on-trade shuttered, Sargent estimates business is down by 95%. Despite this, online sales are “through the roof,” he says. “It is amazing to be able to connect with drinkers directly. We get to see first hand where our beer is going across the country and put names to the amazing people supporting us. It can sometimes seem faceless when stuck in the brewery or office.” With lockdown still mostly in force, and pubs and bars closed, the only way to ‘visit’ tourist hotspots like Cornwall is to order a taste of it online. If you can’t visit a destination brewery, like Harbour, at least you can make the beer come to you.
As lockdown begins to tentatively (and in the majority of cases, prematurely) ease across the world, it’ll certainly be a while before the wheels of tourism – beer or otherwise – begin to turn again. And with all major events in 2020 cancelled, for many there will be few reasons to go anywhere at all.
I think initially, there will absolutely be more of a focus on local beer
“I think initially, there will absolutely be more of a focus on local beer,” says O’Leary. “People’s comfort levels are certainly going to differ as reopening happens, but I think people will be comfortable visiting their local taproom for a pint before they’re comfortable boarding a plane again. Beer tourism is highly dependent on travel, and I don’t know when I’m going to be getting on a plane again. Heck, I don’t even know when I’m going to be getting on a train again, just to leave the city and visit breweries on Long Island, on the Jersey Shore, or in the Hudson Valley. ”
As well as re-centring our focus on that which lies around us, and prompting us to increase our support for local businesses. My brother, for example, who has mostly only ever bought beer from his local Sainsbury’s, has recently placed orders with his local brewery. He’s far from unique in this. “While it’s hit the bars and pubs themselves, there’s been a focus on good, consistent beers,” confirms Hayward, “and an uptake from those who wouldn’t ordinarily buy from an independent brewery who are discovering all these amazing beers for the first time because they’re taking advantage of offers, or because their local pub is closed, so they’ve searched for what’s around them.”
COVID-19 has thrown much of what we knew at the start of this year into question, and continues to threaten many of our favourite breweries, pubs, and restaurants, and beer tourism certainly hangs in the balance. But, as O’Leary points out, there’s two sides to every coin.
“I worry that global travel is never going to be the same again, and the added hassles of post-COVID travel may not be worth it to a lot of people. But every potential beer tourist also lives somewhere where they can support their local breweries more, so apart from breweries that are highly-dependent on tourist traffic, it might balance out.”
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