Tourism is a major economic driver for the Greenville-Asheville, N.C., region, and there are many popular attractions that lure tourists and their dollars.
But is beer really one of them?
You bet, and it has become one of the fastest-growing attractions that should be taken more seriously as such, say the people who count those incoming dollars.
Upstate breweries are among those that have become a hot draw, and the number likely will increase this spring and summer with the arrival of warmer weather, local brewers say.
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The 40-plus breweries in Western North Carolina, including the big new Sierra Nevada plant near Asheville, have become a drawing card for craft beer drinkers in both Carolinas.
Tracking specific beer tourism is difficult, with no real studies available to say how many visitors are attracted here by breweries. But across the board, brewers agree that tourist traffic is strong and building. Visitation helps raise awareness of breweries and can lead to more sales in stores, pubs and restaurants.
Greenville has three breweries (Quest, Thomas Creek and Brewery 85) plus the Blue Ridge Brewpub; Travelers Rest is home to Swamp Rabbit Brewery; and RJ Rockers is located in Spartanburg. More breweries have announced plans to open in Greenville and Anderson.
The Sierra Nevada brewery, just an hour’s drive from Greenville, has had tremendous visitation, spokesman Bill Manley said. “We’re booked two weeks ahead for tour spots and a month ahead for weekends,” he said. With the brewery’s new taproom and restaurant opening in March, Sierra has just hired three more tour guides and is planning to to offer more tours.
Meanwhile, S.C. breweries and beer spots already are feeling that bounce. At Greenville’s Brewery 85, about 35 percent to 40 percent of visitation is from tourists, “depending on what day it is,” said owner Will McCameron. “It’s really all of the Asheville breweries combined that serve as a magnet” for visitors.
The Community Tap craft beer and wine store sees a steady stream of visitors along with Greenville residents, said shop co-owner Mike Okupinski.
“You can only benefit from being close to a place like Asheville,” he said. “People are coming from all over. And being between Atlanta and Charlotte, people will ‘Google’ Greenville beer” and stop by.
Thomas Creek Brewery in Greenville sees 250-300 people a week in its tasting room, and 15 percent to 20 percent are from out of town, said spokesman Weston Gaskill. “We’ve had people from around the world visit the brewery, from as far away as Germany and Sweden.”
He expects Sierra Nevada and the New Belgium brewery, which will open later this year near downtown Asheville, to “help bring tens of thousands of tourists to the area,” he said. “Since Greenville is so close, I believe beer lovers will take the quick detour” to the Upstate.
Mark Johnsen, owner of RJ Rockers in Spartanburg, agreed. “We get a lot of people coming from ‘beer pilgrimages’ to Asheville,” he said. He thinks that beer bloggers are doing their part to boost brewery awareness.
Beer tourism has been growing across the Palmetto State, said Brook Bristow, executive director of the S.C. Brewers Guild. Twenty breweries and 14 brewpubs are open statewide.
“Charleston has eight breweries now, and several brewpubs and potentially, eight more coming,” he said. But closer to home here, “There is no doubt that our proximity to Asheville has greatly benefited Greenville in terms of craft beer culture.”
The upcoming Greenville Craft Beer Week celebration, April 19-25, will bring more visitation and attention to Upstate beer operations, he said. Details on this year’s events are still coming together, but last year they included beer dinners, rare beer tastings, a collaboration beer and a festival produced by the Community Tap.
In the Asheville area, beer tourism is booming. Asheville and Buncombe County, N.C., have 18 breweries, and more than 40 are open around the mountains, with more on the way.
Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard, N.C., is already seeing an impact on visitation from Sierra Nevada, spokeswoman Anne-Fittten Glenn said. Visitors are coming there from up and down the East Coast.
Many Asheville breweries are adding outdoor venues this spring to enhance the visitor experience, including Highland Brewing and Green Man Brewery, where rooftop beer gardens are under construction.
Asheville beer festivals also have been a huge tourist draw. Events like Brewgrass and the Beer City Festival have brought thousands of craft beer fans, said Jennifer McLucas, director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, which represents Western North Carolina breweries.
At Sierra Nevada, last year’s Beer Camp festival pulled a sold-out crowd of 5,600 with strong attendance from Greenville, Atlanta, Knoxville, Charlotte, and Johnson City, Tenn., Manley said.
The cluster of breweries on Asheville’s South Slope has also proven a draw itself. Six breweries are open there, with two more under construction.
“They create an area of destination,” said Julia Herz of the Brewers Association trade group in Boulder, Colo. “People coming from outside the region to visit a brewery will usually visit more than one,” she said. “It’s clear that Asheville is a town where (beer fans) visit.”
At the Bruisin’ Ales specialty beer store in downtown Asheville, “we just had our busiest January and February since opening in 2006,” said store co-owner Julie Atallah. “A good portion of beer travelers are regional, especially during the winter months. But seasonally, we see plenty of people from around the country as well as international travelers. Asheville is on the ‘map’ now. People come here with lists seeking specific beers more than ever before.”
The recent launch of an online beer store at Bruisin’ Ales has resulted in sales across the U.S. and overseas, she said. “I believe this will be a record year for beer tourism and a time of transition,” she said. “The beer scene here always catered to locals. Now we’re finding new ways to cater to locals and travelers alike.”