Beyond the Tourist Trap: When Breweries Go Off the Beaten Path

September 13, 2018

By Sean C. Diaz, September 13, 2018

Traveling to any new city invites the risk of falling into tourist traps. Savvier globetrotters may know not to book a hotel in Times Square or limit their Hawaiian getaway to Waikiki, but sometimes visitors of new cities simply don’t know where to venture beyond the city center. Throwing craft beer tourism into this mix only complicates things. While many breweries continue to open in the middle of tourist-packed towns, others are finding their own voice outside the noise.

About a year ago, James and Liz Massey had just announced they were going to open a brewery in their home town—Savannah, Georgia. As a beautiful historic town draped with iconic Spanish moss and rich Southern cuisine, Savannah’s tourism industry was, and still is, bursting at the seams. While numerous businesses—breweries in particular—reside in Savannah’s historic downtown district to take advantage of tourism, James and Liz decided to open their brewery, Two Tides Brewing Co., a few miles outside of the city center in the Starland District.

“When someone Googles what they should do in Savannah, odds are they’ll end up staying downtown,” says Liz. “But that’s just the thing. Our little area isn’t on the map just yet. It’s growing for sure, but we chose to open up here for a reason.”

“Right,” James adds. “We never wanted this to be a tourist spot.”

The couple was aware that not many out-of-towners would end up in the Starland district, but their options were limited when they decided to open. Thanks to exorbitant rent, opening a business in downtown Savannah required far more funding than James and Liz had planned for. Rather than considering this a failing, however, they saw an opportunity. They live in the Starland District themselves, and realized that if they wanted to be different from the downtown breweries, they’d need to embrace what they loved about Savannah. As a result, they designed Two Tides for locals, not visitors.

James and Liz Massey of Two Tides Brewing Co. Photo by the author.

The brewery itself blends in perfectly with the surrounding district peppered with 1920s-era homes. The small, three-barrel brewhouse is on the bottom floor; panes of glass provide a view right into the production floor, where James brews up to three times a day. On the second floor, the building greets you with creaking floorboards wafting the scent of sweet boiling wort as you explore each room, each inviting a different experience, from a pinball arcade to quiet balconies perfect for sipping and chatting. Liz and James also commissioned murals by local artists, inviting the newcomers that do visit to experience the culture of the Starland District.

James and Liz realized that they didn’t need tourism to be successful. They focused on what their community really wanted: being the only brewery in Savannah with frequent small-batch can releases, an ever-rotating tap list of versatile brews and hype-worthy collaborations, and bringing exciting events and opportunities to the taproom whenever possible.

Working With What You Have

While Two Tides is still relatively new, it’s keeping apace with other breweries that have opened outside a city’s beating heart.

“It was very important to me that the neighborhood felt comfortable with us—being a place for them to hang out,” says Wesley Keegan, the owner and brewmaster of TailGate Brewery in Nashville. “The reality was, if the neighborhood didn't like the place—if the locals didn’t like us—then why would a tourist ever think to come by?”

When TailGate first opened up on the outskirts of Nashville in 2014, Keegan wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. At the time, Nashville was seeing a lot of people move to the city, and Music Row—Nashville’s premier tourist destination—was still driving much of the city’s visitor traffic. Opening up a large brewing production downtown wasn’t feasible for Keegan, though. Breweries at the time didn’t have taprooms, and high rent and few opportunities for expansion downtown limited his options. Keegan knew if he wanted to change how Nashville looked at breweries, he’d have to find a space to make it work.

He found exactly what he needed in a then-decade-old abandoned Moose Lodge located 10 miles outside of downtown—already equipped with floor drains and a working kitchen. Although it wasn’t anything like or anywhere near the other breweries in town, Keegan knew that by changing it up and working with what he had, he would be able to craft a new kind of brewery experience for Nashville.

If you make great beer, the location doesn’t really matter.”

A visit to TailGate’s headquarters reveals why it’s become so successful. The structure of the space speaks to its Moose Lodge DNA with an updated country edge. What makes the space unique is the care Keegan has taken to make sure he accommodates everyone. Each part of the taproom is sectioned off, so if you’re looking for a calm, quiet space to chat with friends, it’s available. But if you’re in the mood for an award-winning Peanut Butter Milk Stout and some Preds watching, you’ll find that, too. TailGate has since expanded to three locations in Nashville—the second being right in the heart of Music Row, a decision Keegan didn’t make lightly.

“We approached everything from a craft-beer-first, customer-first, quality-first mentality—and still do. What I learned from all the other breweries I’d seen on the West Coast is that if you make great beer, the location doesn’t really matter. So, in the same vein, if we make a great product, 10 miles really wouldn’t be an issue.”

Because Keegan set out to make TailGate a local haunt, that feeling carries through even in the Music Row location.

Bringing Local Culture to the Taproom

Meanwhile, in Florida, The Tank Brewing Co. finds itself far away from the action of Miami’s famous tourist mecca of South Beach—instead nestled in an industrial district near the Miami airport. Brewery owner Carlos Padron saw this very un-central location as a boon.

“Miami isn’t just South Beach. That’s a different Miami, and it’s certainly not the Miami we’re a part of,” he says. “Our Miami has art and culture, and it’s not just about that one small tourism section. And we believe that we’re a part of that culture.”

Initially, The Tank operated exclusively in distribution. It moved into the industrial area because it needed space to create volume to distribute. Once taprooms became more common for breweries, however, Padron realized that The Tank could offer a unique perspective on the taproom model.

Beer at TailGate Brewery. Photo by the author.

Padron also knew that the locals—the real locals—would be able to see right through The Tank the brand didn’t reflect honesty and integrity, and opening a solo tasting room downtown didn’t jibe with that. Alongside its extensive cigar selection and numerous rotating and award-winning taps, the taproom truly reflects the The Tank’s own little slice of Miami, from the main bar to the domino tables.

Brewing in the Country

Unlike The Tank, TailGate and Two Tides, other breweries have made their homes well outside of major cities. A long drive through winding, steeply inclined roads, rural farms and cellular dead zones leads to Fine Creek Brewing Co., a sprawling small-scale brewing project in the countryside of Richmond, Virginia.

Mark Benusa, the owner and operator of Fine Creek Brewing, runs the project at his family’s wedding venue destination. Along with his friend Gabe Slagle, the head brewer, Benusa rooted the business in what some would consider the middle of nowhere—a fact that might concern others in the tourist-driven city center of Richmond.

“I mean, I was worried,” says Benusa. “We just didn’t know what kind of response we would yield from our audience. But, honestly, what we’ve found is that the more and more breweries that pile up in the cities, the more it kind of sets us apart in a lot of ways.”

While other breweries might be put off by the prospect of running their own water, sewage and electrical, Benusa and Slagle were ready to work with what they had. They knew their brand would only be stronger by building on land that was already part of Benusa’s family. While there were plenty of hurdles to overcome, the payoff has been well worth it, they say.

Gabe Slagle, head brewer of Fine Creek. Photo courtesy of Fine Creek Brewing Co.

Just like TailGate, Two Tides and The Tank, Fine Creek is all about offering an experience. Visitors are greeted by hops growing on vines leading to the large brewing facility built to highlight the Virginia countryside. You can spend time wandering the grounds, enjoying fire pits and menus of rotating locally sourced ingredients that would fill any New York chef with envy. And then, of course, there’s the beer.

Because of their decision to build where they did, Fine Creek has found a new type of beer tourist: the overnighter. With the bed and breakfast on site, guests can grab a bottle or three and stay in one of the cozy cottages located only a few yards from the brewery. You don’t even have to move your car.

“We knew we were doing something different by building this out in the country—doing it in a way where we were very taproom-focused, ground-focused, full-experience-focused,” says Benusa. “It’s the reason we offer food. We're not the place people just come for 30 minutes because they're going to hit eight other breweries that evening. They're coming, and they're staying for two hours or more, easy.”

The one thing that all of these breweries share is that they saw the potential of their town or district telling a story through the experiences they offer. They knew that their businesses would be measured not by how much money they were making on a 12-ounce pour, but how they cared for their guests. It’s about crafting a world for both visitors and locals, leaving them with a lasting memory and the wish to come back tomorrow.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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