By Gregg Smith

Only twenty-five years ago few places in America offered a variety of beers. Then, slowly, things changed. With the emergence of microbreweries consumers finally had a choice, but curiously, as the local selection of beer increased, beer enthusiasts began roaming farther and farther afield for beer. It seems odd, but on closer study it makes sense. Their growing interest in great beer ignited a thirst for more.

At first, beer travel was simply a search for an adequately supplied homebrew shop, or perhaps a bar that carried more than a dozen brands. Later, as the types of beer swelled, travel too increased. Short runs to a beer store gradually expanded into trips to new breweries, and regional beer fests, then on to the large ‘national’ beer festivals. It was a logical development that eventually led to the latest trend in living a full beer life – International touring.

Touring overseas can take a beer traveler anywhere, but it usually leads to the brewing centers of Belgium, Great Britain, and Germany, and getting there typically focuses on one of three approaches: the solo trip, the small group, or the professionally booked tour. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each comes in a variety of price ranges.

Solo Tours:

Planning your own beer tour builds in an asset the majority of travelers find most valuable – flexibility. A veteran of solo touring, Lisa Variano warns that the flexibility sometimes comes at a price. “You must be prepared to do a lot of leg work.” she advises, “You’re the one arranging all the flights, hotels and connections, and you need to do a lot of research to get the best deals, especially when using travel services on the net. Look early and look often.”

Variano lists a number of other references she’s found useful. Her travel tools include guidebooks, magazines and the Internet. She recommends starting well in advance at the local library or bookstore. “Map out your basic plan,” she said,”then study your options.” Travel guides like Frommer’s and Michelin to help fill out a rough itinerary. Their descriptions provide fairly accurate hotel reviews in a wide price range and also list points of interest, cultural events and restaurants. “On a beer tour the guide books give you a good base,” says Variano, “but you need more. The most popular tourist guides say nothing about the area’s beer.”

For the second part of her planning Variano again hits the books, concentrating on well-known beer authors to identify the best spots for beer and breweries. Then, with the information for each town in hand, she sketches out a tour. “The best part of planning my own is that other than the hotel reservations I can easily modify what I ‘m doing.” She explains, “If I find a great brewery, or a friendly pub, it’s no problem to alter my schedule. That’s what I like about touring on my own.”

In designing your own tour, a few general guidelines help. 1.) Research your destinations well before making reservations. 2.) Copy down addresses of pubs and breweries in an easy to carry notepad. 3.) Try not to cram too much into your trip. Remember, you chose a solo tour for the flexibility.

Professional Tours:

Unlike the solo tour, a professionally booked trip eliminates virtually all the hassles of planning, thrusting it firmly into the hands of the tour company. Your major responsibility is selecting the tour that best meets your budget and needs. “With a professional tour I make sure I’m getting a heavily discounted rate by traveling with a group.” Says tour veteran Bob Beckwith, who thinks the selection of a professional tour, requires some of the same tools as solo travel, namely magazines and the Internet.

Specializing in the beer business, brewspapers and magazines regularly list tours in their upcoming events calendar, and frequently carry ads for overseas beer tours. Likewise, Internet sites feature tour news, and often provide a links to a specific tour site.

Among the most popular destinations for beer tours are Munich and Bavaria, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. In fact, every year, several different companies construct tours of the UK, most of them centered on a visit to the Great British Beer Fest.

“The best part of these tours is that the most demanding thing you have to think about is getting to the bus on time.” Said Beckwith. He chuckles when thinking about the structure. “It’s easy, just make sure the itinerary matches what you’re interested in doing, after that it’s brainless, there’s nothing to worry about.” Of course there is a downside. “If you want to just hang out for an afternoon, you might not be able to go about it at your own pace.” Beckwith acknowledges, “They may have arranged for lunch at a pub in one town and dinner in another, but if you can live with that, the lock-step nature of the tour does eliminate a lot of worry.”

When selecting a professional tour a simple checklist again aids in your decision. 1.) Research the itinerary thoroughly. 2.) Find out how much of the tour is “inclusive” and ask if meals are provided in the cost. 3.) Look carefully for any hidden charges, and 4.) Be sure you fully understand the cancellation and refund policy.

Small Group Tours:

Another emerging method of travel is the small group tour. Choosing neither the regimented itineraries of professional bookings, nor the wide open schedules of solo travel, some beer clubs, and other social groups, formed their own tours.

When clubs put together small tours they automatically gain two big assurances: knowing their travel companions, and common interest. In addition, if begun well enough in advance, club members can all have a voice in what they visit, and as a group, agree on the general schedule. On a recent trip to Europe, Bruce Steege encountered few surprises. “We discussed the details before hand and knew where we were going, and that we’d have a lot of free time.” He recalled, “Before we left, some mini-groups had already formed and planned little side trips.”

Small groups don’t seem to want or need the minute-by-minute scheduling of larger professional tours. Organizing a specific brewery visit or beer tasting every other day (or two) provides enough of a shared experience. At the same time it allows plenty of time for individual exploring, and on a club tour people always have the ‘safety in numbers’ factor. “We wandered off in small groups every day,” said Steege, “and we were confident that between us we could figure things out, even if none of us spoke the language.”

Booking a small group excursion requires a little more planning than a solo trip, but not too much more, because the steps in putting it together are similar. First, decide on a rough plan, and make sure there’s plenty of flexibility. Next, appoint one or two people as ‘group leaders’. They will assume responsibility for contacting the travel agent, and negotiating fares and connections. Selecting a reputable travel agent with experience in booking tours will not only make this part of the planning easier, but will occasionally yield ‘must see’ suggestions the group overlooked.

Once the rough itinerary has been set, the group leader(s) should complete one other function that parallels solo trip planning – beer research. Again here, beer guides and websites supply a wealth of information, and although individual travelers may compile their own lists, a sheet of recommended tavern names and addresses are always appreciated. “We had a list of bars and restaurants for each new town.” Steege recalled, “It made things easy to find, and you could slip it right in your pocket. It simplified getting around.”

If your group decides to organize a trip follow a few basic guidelines in planning:

Agree on a general list of places to visit.
Appoint group leader(s).
Contact breweries in advance to arrange tours.
Make sure the group understands the ‘drop dead’ dates for deposits.
Review the cancellation policy carefully 6.) Gather the group together for a pre-trip briefing.
Overseas beer travel has never been easier, in part because of the growth in microbreweries and imports. As the variety of beer expanded, the media responded with a proliferation of guide books, websites, travel tours, and beer magazines, which in turn built a bridge of knowledge across the Atlantic.

To their credit, Europeans have recognized America’s increased interest in beer. Indeed they hardly think twice about troops of Yanks scouring their backyards on a search for great beer. Whether hunting for ales in Britain, Abbey beers in Belgium, or lagers in Germany, the path to beer adventure is waiting.

Take it.

Copyright 2000, Gregg Smith

Originally Posted to www.northamericanbrewers.org May 19, 2000