If Dauphin County were a city, it would be in the top 30, nationwide, for breweries per capita.
Based on population, and with more breweries set to open, it would take the next round of national beer statistics by storm. Nearby, Lancaster is already in the top 25.
Jason Meckes did his homework when he helped design Visit Hershey & Harrisburg’s (VHH) new Brew Barons Beer Trail, which launched in mid-July.
“Beer tourism is a proven model, so we took the logical first step,” said Meckes, whose title is “experience development director.” “Some beer trails are part of a marketing department’s afterthought, but this wasn’t without research and development.”
Meckes was hired last September specifically to create marketable Dauphin County experiences designed to attract residents and visitors alike.
Homework is something he’s used to—he’s a former teacher. And he most recently served as executive director of the Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society, where he paired riverboat cruises with local craft breweries for “brews cruises.”
The Brew Barons Beer Trail links about 20 craft breweries throughout Dauphin County via a cutting-edge mobile app, “Brew Barons.” Partner breweries are all listed, with their hours and locations, and trail-hoppers “check in” using the app’s GPS capabilities to earn three tiers of prizes, including a stainless steel growler with the Beer Barons logo.
One of the biggest benefits of basing the trail on an app is the real-time data it captures. And Meckes considers the trail’s first month of figures “a pretty remarkable success.”
In the first four weeks, the app registered 1,100 downloads, 1,092 brewery check-ins, an average of 3.6 check-ins per user and 18 hotel reservations for beer trail packages. Nearly 30% of users are from outside the area.
According to Meckes’ research, the average local user spends $35.17, while the average visitor from outside the area spends $252.38.
“The Brew Barons Beer Trail added an estimated $29,588.55 to local businesses in four weeks’ time,” said Meckes. “Helping businesses stay afloat during what’s probably the most challenging time they’ve ever faced—I’m quite proud that we’ve been able to make an impact, and this is just the beginning.”
The trail, originally planned for a spring launch, was delayed due to the pandemic. Once the state went green and breweries started re-opening, the visitors bureau went full steam ahead on the trail’s launch.
And they only see more green lights ahead. Four more breweries are set to join the trail through the remainder of 2020.
“Beer tourism is not only a thing—it’s growing,” Meckes said. “One of the biggest questions is whether we are in a bubble. We’ve seen similar things in other industries, with other trends. But it takes two years for a brewery to apply for a permit and then start brewing. And based on the number of permits being issued—it’s like seeing two years into the future—craft beer is still growing.”
Meckes defines “beer tourism” as “when you’re specifically traveling to breweries for what are called ‘beer assets.’”
And Dauphin County has plenty of those assets.
“Nationally, we have the recognized beers of Tröegs, but we also have smaller breweries with a local feel and flavor like Mellow Mink focused on sours and aged beers,” Meckes said. “Others, like Zeroday, they really shine when it comes to off-the-wall names and flavors, and Appalachian Brewing has a huge reputation for everything in between. And we have our eye on new breweries like Harris Family and others getting ready to do exciting things.”
Browsing through breweries’ trail data from the first month, check-ins show visits to a wide variety of breweries, including plenty of smaller players.
“One of the most incredible things I’ve seen—one of the newest area breweries is Liquid Noise, and they’re in the top 10 for check-ins on our app,” Meckes said.
Chris Trogner, co-owner of Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, was struck by VHH’s “enthusiasm” for the trail’s development.
“We know that, with their energy and support, the app will absolutely be a success,” Trogner said. “It was easy for us to say yes to their request since they’ve made sure the user experience is their main focus, while making the process very easy for breweries, as well.”
While Tröegs represents the largest brewery on the trail, Kristin Messner-Baker represents the smallest. She’s the co-owner of Harrisburg’s The Vegetable Hunter, which includes a boutique brewery.
“We were first and foremost a vegan restaurant, but adding the brewery complemented everything,” she said. “We’re probably one of the only vegan restaurants with a brewery in the nation.”
Brews at The Vegetable Hunter, made in fresh, small batches, range widely from a peach IPA to a strawberry double IPA to a blueberry sour.
Messner-Baker said that the trail’s launch came at the perfect time “to help people enjoy great beer and get some sort of normalcy back.”
“This is a way people can do social distancing, but grab a beer and have fun, too,” she said. “Right now, in this world, we need fun things that give us something to look forward to.”
For more information, see brewbarons.com, and search for the app “Brew Barons.”