Booming brewery tourism

Ontario's local microbrewers have steadily increased visitors, with many of them offering tours and beer sampling. <br />

Step inside the Neustadt Springs Brewery in Neustadt, Ont., and you can’t help but notice the large world map Val Stimpson has hung from the wall.

Nor can you miss the brightly coloured pins marking the hometowns of the visitors who, for the past 12 years, have graced the 150-year-old building with their presence.

“We’ve had some people from Latvia. We’ve had people from Outer Mongolia,” says Stimpson, the brewery’s co-owner.

“It never fails to amaze me who walks through my doors ... I wish they’d all buy beer, but they don’t!”

Since Stimpson opened Neustadt Springs in 1997 with her husband Andy, some 50,000 thirsty, curious travellers have made the pilgrimage to the small town of 500 about three hours northwest of Toronto.

But among small brewers, the Stimpsons’ experience isn’t that unique. According to the Ontario Craft Brewers, which represents most of the province’s small and mid-sized beer makers, the number of tourists who have paid visits to microbreweries over the past four years has climbed steadily.

Theories behind that growth include the recession, which has cut into travel budgets and forced some vacationers to stay closer to home. Then, there’s the popularity of the 100 Mile Diet and the trend toward eating and buying locally.

The OCB also spends about $900,000 per year on marketing, which includes promoting craft beers at events like Toronto’s upcoming Festival of Beer, and publishing brochures detailing the ideal microbrewery day trips for people across Ontario.

“I think people want to support the little guys,” says Lisa Dunbar, the OCB’s marketing director. “They want to support people that are local to them, absolutely.”

When Neustadt Springs opened, there were only about “five or six” microbreweries in Ontario, says Stimpson. Major labels like Molson and Labatt dominated the scene, and the whole idea of going out of one’s way for uniquely brewed beer, she says, was “very low on the radar.”

Today, the OCB represents 25 microbreweries. Small brewers employ more than one-fifth of the people who work in Ontario’s brewing industry. They brew more than 150 stouts, ales, pilsners and lagers, and have carved out a five-per-cent share of the province’s beer market.

They’ve also made inroads into the hallowed halls of Queen’s Park: in 2008, Speaker Steve Peters hosted a tasting with his fellow MPPs to choose the official beers of the Ontario legislature. And the winner of the coveted “Speaker’s Selection” category? Neustadt Springs.

“We feel special over here,” says Stimpson, who worked in England’s brewing industry before moving to Canada. “It’s just fantastic the way they put (microbreweries) up on a pedestal, when we’re really just ordinary guys trying to earn a few bucks.”

Another small-town operation, Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, has seen its beer production spike eightfold since it opened in Vankleek Hill, Ont., in 2006.

Each week, says co-founder Steve Beauchesne, the brewery draws some 500 tourists to the small town of about 2,000, located an hour’s drive east of Ottawa.

“I think we’re kind of the reason they’re coming to town,” says Beauchesne, who runs Beau’s with most of his extended family.

“I think we’re bringing a lot of people to (Vankleek Hill), which we’re quite proud of.”

The decision to market the brewery as a tourist destination was “almost an afterthought,” Beauchesne says. Today, visitors get a full tour that includes the chance to sample their beers early in, during and after the fermentation process.

There’s also a live band once a month, he says, and plans are afoot to install a new patio and eventually open a fully functioning brew pub.

“We’ve done tours for people who know absolutely nothing about beer, and we’ve done tours for avid home brewers,” says Beauchesne. “They all walk away raving about how much they’ve learned — but it’s not boring learning, it’s fun learning.”

While the OCB doesn’t keep hard statistics on the number of people who make special trips to microbreweries, Dunbar says their members are reporting that visits have definitely gone up.

Ultimately, there’s a new generation of “savvy” beer drinkers out there who are looking for more than just a cold beer to quaff on a hot day, says Dunbar.

“They want to hear about food matching tips. They love the opportunity to meet the brewmaster,” she says. “And that’s something large breweries don’t always provide beer drinkers access to.”

 
 
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