On July 22, 2015

Craft beer pilgrimages

Vermont has been referred to of late as the Bavaria of New England, a state to which people travel to enjoy its mountains and scenic beauty, its high-quality foods, like cheeses and sausages—and its beer. To a large degree, the state’s economy and infrastructure were built to accommodate, equip, feed and entertain our visitors. The place is simply too beautiful for us Vermonters to keep it all to ourselves, and for the most part we are happy to share.

Part of how we share Vermont-made things is to celebrate them with festivals. There are well-established annual food and beer festivals in many towns and cities including Killington, Okemo, Mount Snow, Smugglers Notch, the Mad River Valley, Middlebury, Brattleboro, and Burlington.

Vermont has a reputation for quality, upheld by generations of craftsman, farmers and manufacturers, yet Vermont’s reputation for high quality beer was nonexistent until the late 1980s. In 1986, Catamount Brewing Co. became Vermont’s first post-Prohibition craft brewery (a.k.a. microbrewery), and in 1988 Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington was established as Vermont’s first modern brewpub (a pub with its own in-house brewery). Others soon followed. Now Vermont is recognized as having more breweries per capita than any other state.

As successful microbreweries kept outgrowing the definition of “micro-,” that prefix was dropped in favor of “craft” to differentiate it from the pre-1970s national breweries and their mass-produced products. Craft beer continued to grow in popularity in the 1990s and has exploded in recent years, seeing year-over-year market growth and double-digit sales increases. Eleven breweries opened in Vermont in 2014, while three breweries closed. Over 40 breweries and brewpubs are now in operation across the state, with another 15 planning to open by the end of 2015, according to vtbeer.org, a great resource for lovers of Vermont beer.

Breweries and brewpubs have long been tourist magnets, bringing significant lift to local economies all over the Green Mountain State. And for good reason. In recent years, The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper Double IPA, made in Waterbury, was named the best beer in the world, and Hill Farmstead Brewery in West Greensboro was named the best brewer in the U.S. Both bring hordes of beer-craving fans to their towns, many of whom drive hundreds of miles in beer-lusted pilgrimage.

To capitalize on such trends, the Vermont Brewers Association (VBA) launched a highly successful passport program over 15 years ago. It has since been emulated by brewing trade groups all over the country. The program provides pocket-sized blank passports available at most Vermont breweries for guests to get stamped with each brewery’s logo as they visit a Vermont brewery or brewpub. Send the passport card in with enough stamps on it, and get a small prize. Send it in completely filled in with stamps, and get a bag of swag. Since the program’s inception, tens of thousands of passport cards have been printed, with frequent reprints due to increased numbers of breweries.

VBA executive director Kurt Staudter receives about 1,000 passports back each year. “That translates to hundreds of thousands of brewery visits over the life of the program, based on the cards that have been turned in,” he said. “It’s almost four to one, out-of-staters to Vermonters,” he noted.

The buzz about trying Vermont beers extends well beyond the breweries to pubs and restaurants throughout the state. “When you come to Vermont, you’re looking for Vermont beers,” said Mark Verespy, owner of The Killarney, an Irish pub located near the base of the Okemo Mountain Road. “There are so many great Vermont beers! Obviously, we have to carry Irish stuff, but our draft lineup is disproportionately composed of Vermont beers. We get a lot of pressure from outside companies to carry beers from all over, but we don’t have enough draft lines for all the Vermont beers, let alone something from, say, California. We barely scratch the surface of what’s available from here in Vermont.”

According to the Brewers Association, craft brewing’s national trade group, the economic impact of craft beer on the state Vermont was $196.3 million in 2012. Vermont breweries produced 229,062 barrels of beer in 2013, which equates to 15.1 gallons per adult aged 21 years and over. Clearly, we have beer to share!

The Vermont Brewers Association is in the process of putting together its own economic impact analysis, parallel to the data from the national group.

Among those taking advantage of the rise of beer tourism in Vermont are a growing handful of transportation companies and tour operators who will provide visitor a comfortable and safe means of getting from brewery to brewery, maximizing the number of breweries they can visit in one day. One such company is Upper Valley Ride (uvride.com), which recently purchased the locally-founded Good Bus, adding mini-coaches and beer tour savvy to their portfolio.

“The enthusiasm for craft beer is almost limitless now,” said Staudter. “You used to have to cajole people to get them to try craft beer. We’re hearing from people now who’ve never tasted Bud and who’ve basically grown up on craft beer,” said Staudter.

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