Brews on the move: A look at Asheville’s beer tour industry

OUT AND ABOUT: Asheville Brews Cruise broke new ground as the first beer tour company to set up shop in Asheville. General Manager J.C. Hayes is pictured in front of two of the three passenger buses ABC uses to transport patrons from brewery to brewery during tours, which include samples of each stop's flagship and seasonal brews. Photo by Thom O'Hearn

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on the growth of brewery tours in Western North Carolina. 

All beers are made with grain, hops, water and yeast, but it’s what brewers do with those core ingredients that makes each creation unique. The same goes for Asheville’s brewery tour companies, each of which is informative and fun in its own distinct way.

Point of origin

The original Brews Cruise franchise (which currently operates in nine states) and North Carolina’s first brewery tour company, Asheville Brews Cruise, was founded in 2006 by Mark Lyons. Joe Sollazzo took over ownership in February 2011 and has continued to build on the special relationship with Asheville-area breweries that such pioneering efforts afford.

“Brews Cruise is unique because our tours cater to both the casual beer drinker and the more seasoned ‘beer geek.’ Our guides are both very knowledgeable and entertaining, so our tours are educational without being too technical or dry,” Sollazzo says. “Our guides are all familiar with the history of Asheville, local restaurants, hiking trails, etc., and can be helpful for our customers to plan the remainder of their Asheville vacation. We also provide private tours, allowing our customers to create their own unique tours.”

Whether conducted in one of the company’s two 14-passenger buses or its 32-passenger bus, all tours start and end downtown within walking distance of many of the hotels where its out-of-town customers are staying. Breweries are chosen primarily based on their ease of access (e.g. parking, size of facility) and how receptive they are to the Brews Cruise tours’ presence. Pisgah Brewing Co., French Broad Brewery, Catawba Brewing Co., Hi-Wire Brewing and Altamont Brewing Co. are regular stops. All five are familiar with tour schedules and have implemented procedures that make the visits run smoothly, usually requiring only a few hours’ notice to accommodate the next busload.

Different arrangements are in place with each brewery, but Sollazzo says Brews Cruise generally pays retail, which comes to roughly the price of a pint or flight per customer. Tour-goers usually sample a quartet of 4-ounce samples per stop and visit three breweries over the course of three-plus hours. What they try is up to the guide and bartender, but generally the brewery’s flagship beers plus one or two of its seasonal brews are selected.

Asheville Brews Cruise operates Tuesday-Sunday and will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Gift certificates and further information are available on the Brews Cruise website. avl.mx/21s

Class is in session

Cliff Mori became Western North Carolina’s first certified cicerone in 2011 because he had a driving passion to learn more about beer. Four years later, his passion has informed the establishment of a thriving tour business built on disseminating his extensive knowledge to clients as thirsty for education as they are for Asheville’s remarkable craft brews.

BREW-ed, founded by Mori in 2013, is focused primarily on educating beer drinkers, as the name would suggest. In creating the program, he drew on his experience as a bartender at Thirsty Monk and Wicked Weed Brewing as well as his time as a cicerone exam proctor and his work in helping to develop the A-B Tech fermentation-sciences program, where he also teaches.

Demand is quickly outstripping supply for BREW-ed’s services, which include educational walking tours of breweries and help in planning private events. Mori has an eye toward expansion, with additional weekday tours and growth into markets beyond Asheville both distinct possibilities. However, the necessity of tours being led exclusively by certified cicerones significantly limits the number of viable candidates capable of maintaining BREW-ed’s educational standards.

These standards are of critical importance, as Mori’s greatest sense of gratification comes from the tours’ capacity to engage and enlighten craft beer neophytes. “We have such a great beer community here in Asheville, and I love sharing it with others,” explains Mori. “I’ve had numerous guests tell me at the end of their tour that they thought they weren’t ‘beer drinkers’ when it started but they were by the end.  That’s always a great feeling, bringing someone new into the world of craft beer.”

BREW-ed will be closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day but will be operating throughout the holiday season, with gift certificates and private tours available through the BREW-ed website. brew-ed.com

Tour with a brewer(y)

After working with local food tour Eating Asheville, Josh Bailey recognized the opportunity to translate that company’s successful business model to Asheville’s brewing community. Since founding Asheville Brewery Tours in 2010, Bailey has established his tour’s niche by striking a balance between pub crawl and mobile classroom, catering not only to casual tourists but also locals already familiar with area breweries.

As with most businesses in the Asheville brewing economy, the explosive recent growth in beer tourism has counterintuitively helped to strengthen ties between players in the brewery tour market. Bailey emphasizes that, while there is a healthy sense of competition, his relationship with the other tours in town is predominantly cooperative, and referrals are frequent among companies. In reference to the symbiotic relationship his business shares with BREW-ed and Brews Cruise, Bailey explains, “If I’m closed or sold out, I’m gonna send them to those guys. We work well together.”

Asheville Brewery Tours has grown organically over the years, starting with one van before adding a second just two months later and a third a year after that. However, the most exciting aspect of ABT’s growth for Bailey is undoubtedly the long-awaited opening of his new South Slope brewery and restaurant, Bhramari Brewhouse.

Scheduled to launch before the end of December, what started as a plan for a small taproom intended to serve as a place to start and end tours has evolved into an elaborate facility with a seven-figure build-out. Focusing heavily on food pairing, Bhramari represents a distinctive approach to traditional brewery business models, and as a dedicated home base for Asheville Brewery Tours will provide customers with a unique tour experience.

Asheville Brewery Tours operates seven days a week and will be closed only on Christmas Day. Gift certificates, brewery lists and further information are available on the Asheville Brewery Tours website. avl.mx/21u

D.I.Y.

Like many great ideas, the Asheville Ale Trail was born out of frustration. When Dan Peschio and Hilton Swing started the website in late 2012, there were around 24 breweries in Western North Carolina. The only way to learn about special events and new beer releases, however, was to visit each individual brewery’s homepage, a task Swing notes “is difficult if you don’t even know about all of them.” After three hours of online searching to figure out where to spend their Saturday evening, they realized Asheville needed some sort of guide that focused on beer, breweries and the brewing community, and the two got to work.

In the Ale Trail, Peschio and Swing have tried to include every area brewery, cidery and maker of sake and distilled spirits on their website and free companion guidebook, which they distribute to more than 125 local locations. “We feel the unique experience a brewery offers its guests should be just as important as the beer they serve, and that’s really where we come in,” Peschio says. “We try to inform folks about all the different breweries, what the upcoming releases are and what’s happening at the breweries that week. Self-guided tours were a natural extension of our reconnaissance.”

Appealing to visitors who want to tour at their own pace, he and Swing scouted out and mapped walking tours of the South Slope and the Patton Avenue/downtown area as well as a bike tour that runs from West Asheville to downtown. “With the biking tours we’re taking a chance, but it’s such a great way to see the city,” Peschio says. “We emphasize wearing a helmet and one beer per wheel, but people are people. I’m sure some folks get down to Wedge [Brewing Co.], start thinking about the uphill home and call Uber.”

Swing says he and Peschio make regular “field visits” to monitor trail conditions and are currently working on a few new tour routes. They will also have some major announcements in the near future “that will help visitors safely find their way to the area’s best breweries and beer-friendly restaurants, bars and bottle shops.”

Check out the Asheville Ale Trail at ashevillealetrail.com. 

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