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Forget The Pinot, Pass The Porter: In California’s Wine Country, Beer Tours Are Hopping

Grab a seat on the Brew Bus 101. Just leave room for the company mascot: a 78-pound bulldog named Meatball.

I jumped in my car early one recent Sunday morning. My destination: Ventura, California, a picturesque tourist town on the California coast, a major destination for city day trippers. But I wasn’t out for a wine-sniffing spin at the region’s many vineyards. No, I was driving an hour and a half from my Los Angeles home to sip something else entirely: beer.

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Ventura is the proverbial drinking town with a surfing problem. On the furthest edges of California’s wine country (the territory made famous in movies like Sideways and a thousand PBS travel shows), Ventura and the upcoast town of Santa Barbara make considerable trade from Los Angelenos coming to sample wine on weekends. In downtown Santa Barbara alone, more than 20 wineries offer tasting rooms; the much smaller town of Ventura is home to more than a dozen as well.

My destination was a tour bus was parked outside the Ventura Visitor’s Center–and it was there to hook outsiders not on the region’s famous grapes but on wine’s spunkier, yeastier cousin.

The tour’s operator, Brew Bus 101 launched just a few months ago. Founded by an EMT and his college professor wife looking to start their own business, they found a niche taking tourists, work groups, and bachelor or bachelorette parties on tours of microbreweries. And they’re just one example of a burgeoning national beer tourism industry that’s drawing both visitors and big bucks.

Photo: Neal Ungerleider for Fast Company

Meet Meatball

On my visit, the Brew Bus (named after Highway 101, the coastal artery that connects Ventura with Santa Barbara) stopped by three local Ventura microbreweries and a restaurant over five hours. The company’s converted school bus was remodeled inside to fit 12 paying patrons, who had tables in front of them, comfortable bar-style padded seating, and USB ports. For the next couple of hours, tour guests swapped jokes and made new friends as the bus made its way from brewery to brewery.

The companies doing the pouring made sure bus riders had separate seating from other visitors, with my $65 ticket cost including sampler platters at each of the four breweries. Breweries that partner with the tour company are able to fill seats during the slower early afternoon hours and make extra income from the beers many riders purchased once they’d downed the offerings from the sampler. And for those with wooden legs or stronger constitutions, day-long tours that cover the stretch of highway from Ventura to Santa Barbara are available, as well.

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The company’s tour bus also has a mascot painted on the side: a 78-pound, six-year-old bulldog named Meatball who was rescued from a local shelter. Inside the bus, Meatball rides with customers–a solid example of a pet-friendly business (Though the company, they say, makes accommodations for guests with dog allergies). Brew Bus 101 is still a young business with embryonic marketing efforts; they launched at the beginning of 2015 and I first came across them when they rented a booth at a Los Angeles beer festival. They work in a crowded field; in Ventura and Santa Barbara, approximately five other companies offer tours of local breweries. As a small business with only one bus, they’re still finding their sea legs: Social media marketing is still minimal, and promotion at this stage is primarily done through word of mouth in the tight-knit California craft-brew community.

For company co-founders Cody and Jacqueline Anderson, running the tour was a way to spend time together (along with Meatball) while building a successful business. “My job as an EMT has long shifts, and my wife is a professor at three different colleges,” Anderson tells me. “We wanted to come up with a business ideas that was something all three of us could do together. We felt like there wasn’t enough time together, that we were newlyweds, and frustrated by not being able to hang out. We looked at a bunch of different business models. This one stuck out and it all came together.” On the bus, Cody keeps the wheels on the road and the schedule flowing as patrons order extra pints at the bars on the route.

My visit included several Ventura-area breweries: Downtown Ventura’s Anacapa Brewing Company, Ventura Surf Brewery, Poseidon Brewing Company, and a food stop at the Nate Silver-endorsed taco destination Spencer Makenzie’s. As is the rule in southern California, the beer lists at the breweries skewed towards IPAs and other hoppy drinks.

Jacqueline, meanwhile, leads the passengers in road games like match-the-logo-to-the-beer-company and keeps the conversation flowing. Meatball gets the sweetest job of all–to sit in the corner on the bus in a very comfortable dog bed and guard the refrigerator stuffed full of bottled water. On beer tours, rehydration on the road is very important.

As we spoke–over the phone since noisy school buses or crowded bars aren’t too conducive for interviews–Cody said something that surprised me: the hardest part of his business was obtaining and customizing his vehicle. Drunk and rowdy customers, licensing issues, attracting new clients–no problems there. Getting a bus that was regulatory compliant and the right fit for day-long tours was.

For a family business offering bus tours with a single vehicle, Anderson learned, California emission standards (the infamous local “smog checks” were an unexpected challenge. Shortly before they were headed cross-country to Ohio to buy a used bus they found a good deal on, the Andersons discovered the Ohio bus wouldn’t have met California standards. Retrofitting it to meet local emission requirements would have cost thousands of extra dollars they didn’t have. Instead, the couple found an abandoned San Diego School District bus that ended up in a yard in the Los Angeles exurb of Oxnard. They saved their startup a significant pile of cash by buying locally, and then found accessories to renovate the interior on “eBay and whatnot.”

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For the new tour company, finding breweries and local tourism authorities to work with proved easier than they had anticipated. They chose to focus on beer tours because the couple both enjoyed craft beers and visited local breweries frequently on weekends. The breweries they cold-called were familiar to them from their previous trips. “I cold-called each brewery, introduced myself as someone running a new business, and said we were interested as adding them as a stop,” Cody added. “Most of them were willing to sit down with us, talk about business, and introduce us with open arms.”

Brew Bus 101 then made another strategic move for a new beer tourism company: they made nice with the local convention and visitors bureau. “We sat down with the city of Ventura, and designed a tour for them exclusively in Ventura,” Anderson said. The company’s tours leave from in front of the Ventura Visitor Bureau, and are promoted on their site. The Ventura Visitor Bureau operates their own winery tour, but the beer front is free for aspiring entrepreneurs. Because Ventura and Santa Barbara are in easy day-trip distance of Los Angeles and its’ suburbs, beer tours are an easy way of generating money for local businesses.

When a brewery participates in a tour, Anderson says, both sides benefit. In exchange for a guaranteed large group of patrons coming in on off-hours, the breweries generally arrange reduced rates with Brew Bus 101. The patrons, meanwhile, pay full price for any drinks or food beyond the sampler, and are hopefully converted by the venue into repeat patrons. On my tour, we stopped in early on a Sunday afternoon and some of the breweries did quite well. At Ventura Surf Brewery, located in an industrial park, their homebrewing supply shop made considerable extra business from tour guests. They also made a really good porter.

The Beer Tourism Boom

Although wine is still the king for California alcohol tourism–Solvang, the setting for much of Sideways, is about 60 miles up the road from Ventura–beer tourism has been tapping an increasingly large percentage of the market. Although cities with dense concentrations of microbreweries like New York, Chicago, and Portland have been the biggest beneficiaries of the trend, it has meant even more to beer-loving rural regions looking for new tourism draws.

In western North Carolina, beer tourism has become a major economic force that drives hundreds of thousands of dollars in business for breweries around Asheville each year. An annual beer festival held by West-Coast brewer Sierra Nevada, which runs a brewery in North Carolina, attracted over 5,000 guests last year. Down the coast in Georgia, a new state bill allowing guests on brewery tours to drink samples on-site is being touted as a way to increase tourism.

Chris Gallant, cofounder of The Bronx Brewery In New York, tells Fast Company that out-of-towners comprise a significant portion of visitors to his brewery’s tasting room, especially on weekends. While most of the visitors on beer tours tend to be locals, he’s seen visitors from as far afield as Colorado and Sweden make the visit to his business (which is well off New York’s tourist path). There’s an added bonus, he says: Visitors tend to buy more expensive samplers, in order to try as many beers as possible.

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The Bronx BreweryPhoto: courtesy of The Bronx Brewery

For larger breweries, the effects can be compounded even more. Adam Riehl, general manager at Washington’s Redhook Brewery, told Fast Company that “during the high season for tourism in 2014, between May and September, we received over 12,000 guests in our brewery for tours. The majority of these guests either came before the tour for lunch or stayed after, which has a significantly positive impact on our daily business. To put that number in perspective, outside tourist season we received about 1,200 guests per month for tours and that population was about 95% locals.”

Keeping The Brews Flowing

Although beer tourism is increasingly popular, it faces a challenging problem: most tourists (including myself) are day-trippers rather than dedicated beer vacationers. Ventura and Santa Barbara get plenty of out-of-region visitors building a vacation around “Wine Country;” a “Beer Country” or a “Beer City” is a harder sell to tourists. But it’s getting better; the Oregon Craft Beer Board says the 2014 Oregon Brewers Festival in Portland bought $32.5 million into the local economy, with a majority of visitors being out of town tourists.

Meanwhile, for the Andersons, their challenges are the same as many other startups. How do they juggle hectic day jobs–being an adjunct professor or an EMT isn’t the most stress-free job–with running a small business? How do they attract new customers and pay the bills? How do they build relationships with the cruise ships that dock at Ventura and with the large conferences that meet at nearby hotels? “We’re working like crazy,” Anderson says, “But it’s worth it.”

All I knew, after spending a few hours wandering downtown Ventura post-tour and returning to sobriety before the drive back to Los Angeles, was that I tried some amazing beers I never would have encountered otherwise–I particularly recommend Surf’s Shaka IPA and Poseidon’s better-than-it-sounds Chocolate Starfish Stout. And a tourist town thick with surfers and quality ales isn’t a bad place to spend a Sunday.