Over the last several decades, the popularity of local breweries has increased, sometimes steadily and sometimes exponentially. According to the National Beer Wholesalers Association (nbwa), in 1983 there were 49 registered breweries in the country. At the end of 2020 that number had ballooned to 6,406.
The U.S. is so flush with breweries that some states have more than the entire country did not so long ago. Maine contains nearly 200 breweries, Virginia has about 420, and Michigan boasts more than 600. While consumers like options, the sheer amount can be daunting. This massive scale also makes it challenging for breweries to stand out in such a saturated market.
In recent years, beer trails have emerged as an option for differentiation. These curated lists of breweries to visit share similar features to Kentucky’s famed bourbon trail. The concept is fairly simple, with localities highlighting breweries by including them on a “trail” the same way Kentucky shines a spotlight on various distilleries.
Patrons of the breweries affiliated with specific trails will mark off a brewery using either an app or a physical beer trail passport distributed by the breweries themselves. After participants have checked into enough breweries, usually 8–10, they are gifted beer trail swag like shirts and hats.
Sean Sullivan, who serves as the executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild (MBG), says although there’s no clear consensus about when beer trails first appeared on the brewery scene, the Maine beer trail (which is organized and run through the MBG) has been around for more than 20 years, and he believes it’s one of the oldest in the country.
Sullivan says the trail was originally founded as an educational tool. Until 2011, breweries were not allowed to sell beer directly to customers in the state of Maine. The guild, seeing an opportunity to teach locals and tourists about the burgeoning brewery scene, set up the beer trail as a way to inform people about the process of crafting their favorite local suds.
“The goal of the trail originally was to build awareness about the fact that there are local people who are making this product right here,” he says. “It was really about driving visitors, which it still is today, but initially the focus was education and awareness.”
All registered breweries in Maine are represented by the MBG and are added to the beer trail. Breweries pay annual dues to the guild based on the barrelage they produce but do not have to fork over any extra fees to reap the benefits of being on the trail, which Sullivan says are numerous.
Next to driving foot traffic, the most valuable benefit may be the hard data operators along the trail receive. It’s something the guild wasn’t able to do until it switched to a digital passport.
“Based on data we use, both from what we have collected and outside sources, we have a general idea of what the average craft brewery receipt is, which is between $18–$20,” he says. “We can take that information and then compare it to the number of people who have checked into breweries on the app. Then we can show individual breweries how many customers have been directed to their businesses because of the beer trail.”
This data can also be used to generate an ROI for guild membership by multiplying the average check amount to the number of trail-referred visitors and then factoring in the cost of annual dues.
While the Maine Beer Trail is one of the more established models, newer iterations, like Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail, are also finding success. The five-year-old beer trail features 19 breweries across multiple cities in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley region. Unlike the Maine Beer Trail, which was founded by a guild, the Beerwerks trail was created by local tourism offices.
“The Beerwerks trail is a collaborative effort between the localities,” says Jennifer Callison, tourism and marketing manager in the Office of Economic Development for the city of Waynesboro, Virginia. “We [the localities] each have different roles and responsibilities when it comes to the trail.”
Callison, who also currently serves as chairwoman of the trail, says the participating tourism offices contribute to the project financially, allowing breweries to join for free. The office in Waynesboro handles the passports, while other offices promote the trail through social media and other platforms.
“Each brewery has a section on the website that links to their personal website,” she says. “We do shout-outs on social media and mention different breweries in different blogs.”
While the trail in Maine shifted to a digital model, Beerwerks has opted to use physical passports after an unsuccessful digital run. Visitors of the trail mail in their stamped passports after visiting eight breweries in order to receive a gift.
“Since 2018, which was the first full year of us using the passports, we’ve received 6,186 passports,” Callison says. “And we’ve mailed out T-shirts to all those people.”
She also says being able to track how many passports come in allows the tourism offices to determine the effectiveness and reach of their marketing efforts.
“[Last] year we got a lot of out-of-state passports,” she says. “Since about June, around 60 percent of passports coming back were from out of state.”
With an origin story similar to Beerwerks, Experience Grand Rapids, a destination marketing organization, created the Beer City Brewsaders app for breweries in the city and surrounding areas of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Perrin Brewing Company is among the featured businesses.
Lindsey VanDenBoom, senior marketing manager at Perrin, says that with so many new breweries popping up, being associated with the Brewsaders is a great way for a business to get its name in front of consumers.
“When people come into town, it’s so easy to have them check out the Brewsaders app and the digital passport,” she says. “It lets people know about the different breweries on the trail they can check out. It’s a great extra piece of marketing for us.”
VanDenBoom says she thinks the experience beer trails offer patrons will lead to an increase in traffic as the country continues to reopen.
“There’s a little bit of excitement that goes along with it,” she says. “I think that excitement will encourage people to get back out and get some normalcy back in their lives.”