Lael Kassis travels the world for a living. One of the first things he does in almost any new place? Try the beer.
“You can’t really go anywhere without discovering a new local brewery,” said Kassis, who lives in Cambridge. “Every place has its own style. The beer connects with the destination.”
And Kassis gets to try a lot of it. He’s director of product development at Cambridge-based Go Ahead Tours, which is adding beer excursions to its international walking, safari, and wine-tasting tours — three to Europe for Oktoberfest alone, and a new 12-day “Beers of Belgium and Germany” that will launch next spring and visit breweries, beer gardens, even beer-producing monasteries.
“Wine has influenced travel decisions for many years, and we’ve seen that move to beer,” said Kassis. “If you think about the history of countries, the religious history, the culture — they’re all connected with the beer. Every country has its own beer traditions.”
You don’t have to go to Germany or Belgium to find people showing off the local beer, however. Beer and brewery tours and festivals are now on tap in almost every major US city. There are even local beer-themed spa packages and hotels.
“The craft beer thing has exploded in terms of popularity and the number of breweries that have opened, and people who are drinking it,” said Davis Naczycz, whose Urban Oyster Tours in New York City runs New York brewery and brewed-in-Brooklyn tours, a craft-beer crawl, and a craft-beer harbor cruise.
There are more breweries now in the United States than at any time since the 1870s, the Brewers Association reports. Even as overall beer and import beer sales fell last year, craft beer sales shot up 17 percent.
“Craft beer isn’t just about the classic beer nerd any more. It’s gone mainstream,” said Naczycz. And these new beer connoisseurs “want to check out the local beer scene whenever they go somewhere. There’s this air of discovery around beer. Wherever you go, there’s going to be a beer you’ve never heard of.”
Longtime brewing centers like Grand Rapids (Beer City USA 2013) and Milwaukee (it’s what made Milwaukee famous) are pushing “beercations” that include a “Brew-and-Renew” spa treatment at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids hotel, featuring a beer foot bath and massage with local hops and barley that purportedly exfoliate the skin. (How upscale is this trend? The Four Seasons in Vail offers a “beersage” with beer from Vail’s Crazy Mountain Brewing Company, and an amber ale foot soak, black ale wrap, and stout scalp treatment.)
Milwaukee takes that one wobbly step farther, with a hotel that is completely beer-themed: the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, which opened last year in a former Pabst brewery, complete with six original copper brew kettles in the lobby and a stained-glass depiction of King Gambrinus, the legendary embodiment of beer and (the resulting) joviality; it’s across the street from the Pabst visitor center, which has Captain Frederick Pabst’s roll-top desk, and near Forest Home Cemetery, where the beer barons Pabst, Valentin Blatz, and Joseph Schlitz are buried.
Prefer to sample the beer the conventional way — not just soak in it? You can drink while someone else drives you from bar to bar and brewery to brewery in minibuses in Seattle (Road Dogs Brewery Tour, three departures daily starting at 10:30 a.m.), Los Angeles (L.A. Beer Hop, L.A. Craft Beer Tours), Richmond (Richmond Brewery Tours), Cleveland (Cleveland Brew Bus), Phoenix (Arizona Brewery Tours), Grand Rapids (Grand Rapids Beer Tours), Indianapolis (Indy Brew Bus), and, closer to home, New Hampshire (Granite State Growler Tours), southern Maine (Maine Brew Bus), and, of course, Boston (Boston Brew Tours).
“There are all these breweries cropping up, and there wasn’t a good way to get from Point A to Point B, especially if you wanted to enjoy the libations,” said Indy Brew Bus owner Megan Bulla, who said she came up with the idea for the company while on a wine tour in the Napa Valley.
All her drivers are home brewers, Bulla said, “so not only are you tasting the beer, you’re learning about the whole process.”
Milwaukee (Pedal Tavern), Seattle (Cycle Saloon), and Indianapolis (the HandleBar) also have those 16-person, pedal-powered traveling bars you’ve seen and likely gotten stuck behind in college towns, which visit pubs and breweries. Hop Head Beer Tours in Madison takes groups of guests to three local breweries on conventional one-person bicycles — and, yes, they drink at each stop. And Beer & Bike Tours combines 1- to 11-day road and mountain-bike trips in the United States, Europe, and Japan, with nightcaps of cold local beers.
‘Wherever you go, there’s going to be a beer you’ve never heard of.’
Or you could let the brewers come to you, at hugely popular beer festivals, many during the summer, including D.C. Beer Week in Washington and the Seattle International Beer Fest, both in August. The Big Brew New York Beer Festival is in September. So is Septemberfest in Los Angeles. The Great American Beer Festival in Denver follows in October, San Francisco Beer Week and NYC Beer Week share February, the L.A. Beerfest and Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week are in April, and Chicago Craft Beer Week (it actually lasts 11 days) is in May.
Milwaukee’s public parks host traveling German-style beer gardens all summer, with beer poured from trucks — it’s bring-your-own beer stein, or you can rent one for a $5 refundable deposit — plus live music, hot dogs, and bratwurst, in a re-creation of a Sunday custom German immigrants enjoyed there up till Prohibition.
“Beer has always been a social drink,” said Brian Stechschulte, executive director of the San Francisco Brewers Guild. “There’s a certain level of camaraderie that occurs, especially between beer geeks and people who are learning.”
And now it’s gone from being part of a getaway to the reason for one.
“There seems to be more of a sense of designing a vacation completely around going to breweries and meeting brewers,” Stechschulte said. “People want to get in touch with beer. They want to see where it’s made, they want to meet the brewer, they want to ask questions. There are a certain number of people who just want to go to the breweries, but there are a lot of people who really want to learn.”
You can also just enjoy a brew with new best friends forever, said Kassis, back in Cambridge.
Having a pint is, after all, “a way to socialize, to meet the locals,” he said.
Because without that, he asked, what’s the point of going anywhere?
Traveling, like beer, said Kassis, “is about enjoying life.”Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.