That’s the premise behind the Brew Barons Beer Trail, launched today by Dauphin County’s tourism bureau, Visit Hershey & Harrisburg (VHH).
“It’s very exciting because it’s the first experience we have actually taken ownership of—we built it and developed the partners,” said Mary Smith, President and CEO for VHH. “During these unprecedented times, people are still looking for experiences, and the beauty of this is, people can do this whenever and however they want—there’s no expiration date.”
The 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” utilizing the app’s GPS capabilities to earn three tiers of prizes including a stainless steel growler with the Beer Barons logo.
There’s an App for That
Digitizing the trail provides the best experience for beer aficionados, with plenty of the fun factor, according to VHH’s Jason Meckes. And he should know—his title is “experience development director.” He was hired last September specifically to create marketable Dauphin County experiences designed to attract residents and visitors alike. He previously served as executive director of the Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society. The Brew Barons Beer Trail is his first project for VHH.
“We see the app as something people will download and use as a source for what’s happening with all the cool breweries in our region,” Meckes said. “For example, people can ‘favorite’ their favorite breweries and events, and they can receive messages telling them when a new brewery opens, a new release comes out, and much more—the app is designed to be intuitive and experiential.”
There’s growth potential, for both the app and the trail.
“One of the most exciting things about this is—we built this because there are so many breweries in the region, but there are many more set to pop up in the next few months,” said Smith.
Tall Tales, Tall Ales
So what exactly is a “brew baron?”
It ties into a tall tale, but it probably goes down pretty smoothly when you’re drinking a tall glass of amber ale. Basically, each and every brewer is a modern day “brew baron,” harkening back to Prohibition when the Harrisburg area’s underground brewers may or may not have actually been called “barons.” Trail-goers who earn top prizes also earn the title of “Brew Baron.”
“We knew it was important to give the entire trail a brand of its own,” Meckes said.
Area restaurants are also featured on the app—the GPS-based platform makes it easy for visitors to find the nearest eateries, as well as attractions and hotel partners.
What about the timing of the trail, being announced mid-pandemic? The COVID-19 outbreak delayed VHH’s trail launch by more than two months, but with Dauphin County now in the green phase, officials feel the timing is right.
“So much of what our organization is focused on is reopening,” said Sue Kunisky, VHH vice president of operations. “I think the beer trail is the best thing for us to have teed up because so many of the breweries are small businesses, and they’re going to be one of the most nimble types of businesses to reopen.”
VHH recently unveiled their “Safe Together Pledge,” a campaign encouraging business owners and consumers to follow all state and federal safety guidelines designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Hopping on Board
Participating breweries range from Harrisburg’s Zeroday Brewing Co., including its Outpost at the Broad Street Market, to Middletown’s Tattered Flag Brewery and Still Works, brewery icon Tröegs Independent Brewing of Hershey, along with up-and-comers like Marysville’s Liquid Noise Brewing Co. There’s no more than five miles between check-in locations.
“People want to see brewing happening on-site—it gives validity,” said Shawn Wirick, Liquid Noise co-owner. “When people find beer or food not made anywhere else—that’s the kind of stuff beer tourists travel for.”
Area breweries were quick to hop on board the Beer Barons Beer Trail.
“I’m so glad they did it,” said Kristin Messner-Baker, co-owner at Harrisburg’s The Vegetable Hunter, which includes a boutique brewery. “In our experience being on the Cumberland Valley Beer Trail, it really brings people in, and it’s really exciting how it supports lots of different businesses, because you send people on to other destinations. And it’s so cool that they’re doing this all digital—that’s so forward-thinking.”
Three years ago, Baker added the brewery to her café, which she owns and operates with her husband, John. They say the Harrisburg region is on the cusp of becoming a major beer destination.
“The breweries here are top-notch—you have the nationwide leader, Tröegs, down to us—the smallest brewery in Harrisburg,” John said. “Our hope for the trail is that it helps people enjoy some great beer and get some sort of normalcy back.”
R&D Leads to R&R
Connecting the dots and establishing the beer trail is one thing. But there’s an economic engine driving the project. Months of intense research and development led VHH officials to the starting line.
“We interviewed 60 different beer entities—different visitor bureaus from Fort Worth, Texas, to Asheville, North Carolina, locally from the Cumberland Valley Beer Trail to Pittsburgh, so that we were not needlessly reinventing the wheel—we wanted to see what worked,” said Meckes.
And the data supported their ideas. According to the Brewers Association, Pennsylvania craft breweries rank second in the nation with an economic impact of more than $6.3 million. The state’s breweries rank second in production, brewing more than 3.6 million barrels in 2019. Nationwide, 55 million adults visited craft breweries while traveling in 2019. And beer tourists typically travel in a party of four, stay for at least one overnight, and spend an average of $252.38 per person per trip. The Cumberland Valley Beer Trail had a $1.3 million economic impact in 2018.
“We realize the visitation stats from visitors outside the region will not be here during the first year—it’s really going to draw locals first,” Kunisky said. “But over time, the beer trail will act as a seasonal destination, all 12 months, with a ripple effect on our hotels, restaurants, to level off the peaks and valleys in our visitations.”
After months of planning, and a delayed announcement, Meckes said today’s launch is especially cause for celebration.
“As a beer fan myself, this project has been a special connection between my job and hobby… I’ll probably have a beer to celebrate.”
For more information, see brewbarons.com, and search for the app “Brew Barons.”
Participating breweries include:
- Al’s of Hampden/Pizza Boy Brewing Co.
- Boneshire Brew Works
- Ever Grain Brewing Co.
- Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant
- Lancaster Brewing Company – Harrisburg
- Liquid Noise Brewing Co.
- Mellow Mink Brewing Co.
- Mount Gretna Craft Brewery & Red Canoe Store
- Official BBQ/Pizza Boy Brewing Co.
- Rotunda Brew Pub
- Rubber Soul Brewing Co. (coming soon)
- Spring Gate Brewery
- Tattered Flag Brewery and Still Works
- Tattered Flag Distillery and Lounge
- The Brewery at Hershey
- The Millworks Brewery
- The Vegetable Hunter Brewery
- The Watershed Pub (coming soon)
- Troegs Independent Brewing
- Zeroday Brewing Co. (reopening soon)
- Zeroday Outpost at Broad Street Market