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Drink Up: Tour highlights local craft beverages

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Passports will take on a whole new meaning this summer with the debut of the area’s first craft beverage self-guided tour.

The Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau will unveil the Ozarks Tap and Pour Craft Beverage Tour this month, highlighting 15 breweries, distilleries and wineries between Springfield and Branson, said Sean Dixon, Springfield CVB’s director of marketing.

“It’s essentially a passport guide that people will be able to take and explore and experience and get to know just how big and how diverse our craft beverage culture is here,” Dixon said.

Beer, wine and spirits tourism has been growing in popularity, Dixon said, specifically with “ale trails” popping up around the country. The CVB modeled its program off the KC Ale Trail and Fayetteville Ale Trail – both published guides to explore local craft breweries.

“With the explosion of new options available to us just in the past year,” Dixon said, “it just seemed like a really cool trend to jump on.”

Three of Springfield’s seven breweries have opened in just over the past year.

Tie & Timber Beer Co. LLC is the city’s newest brewery, opening in April. Owners Curtis Marshall and Jen Leonard say they plan to participate in the tour.

“Tourism and the craft beer industry has just taken off the past several years,” said Marshall. “Now that Springfield has seven breweries, it’s starting to become a destination place.”

Leonard added, “It brings me back home to that culture of all the breweries … in Denver.”

As of 2017, 6,300 breweries are operating across the country, with craft breweries accounting for 12.7 percent market share, according to the Brewers Association.

The association estimates more than 10 million people toured small and independent craft breweries in 2014. And a Travelocity survey in 2016 indicated more than three quarters of people said they would like to take a trip that includes visiting craft breweries and sampling local beer.

Marshall said Tie & Timber sold 40 barrels of beer within its first two weeks, draining its supply down to just a little over one keg much earlier than anticipated.

He said it was a great example of the supportive local craft beer scene, as every brewery in town stepped up to let Tie & Timber feature their beers while the brewery restocked.

“A rising tide lifts all ships,” Marshall said. “We’re all friends; we encourage visiting each of our breweries.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many local beer, wine and spirit makers alike.

“This is one instance of an industry that still, while competitive, we recognize competition is not a terrible thing,” said Kyle Jeffries, Mother’s Brewing Co. brewery liaison. “If you are a beer lover and there are seven operating breweries in your town, then part of that experience is being able to try seven different pale ales from seven different breweries. Because all of these experiences are unique.”

Mother’s Brewing is the second oldest brewery in town, behind Springfield Brewing Co., which opened in 1997.

Since opening in 2011, Jeffries said Mother’s has grown tenfold from 1,200 barrels of beer to just under 12,000 last year.

He credits the growth to expanding distribution into Kansas, Arkansas and across Missouri, as well as the growing palate of craft beer drinkers. One of its less popular beers seven years ago, an India Pale Ale called Lil’ Helper, is now its most popular.

“The craft beer consumer in Missouri is more open to these types of styles that we’ve always associated with the West Coast,” he said. “Today, hops are not the scary thing that they once were to drinkers.”

Jeffries said craft beer is similar to the wine industry in that hubs of craft breweries become tourism destinations.

“Where there is a scene, people will want to go there to see that scene,” he said. “It’s just another example of what Springfield has to offer and why it’s worth so many people’s time to travel and come here.”

A unique feature to the Springfield-Branson tour is that it expands beyond beer to include wine and spirits.

The Missouri wine industry in 2017 boasted 165 producers utilizing 1,700 acres of vineyards, according to Wine America, the National Association of American Wineries.

The group calls Missouri “a major magnet for tourists and tourism-driven expenses,” generating over 603,000 tourist visits and $247.8 million in annual tourism expenditures.

Casey Barton, assistant manager of Curling Vine Winery in Branson, said she anticipates the craft beverage tour will bring in new business.

“Springfield has so many more microbreweries popping up,” she said. “We wanted to tap into that market.”

Curling Vine opened in 2016 and produces 21 wine varietals and three juices.

“If a lot of folks that participate in the stuff in Springfield knew how close we are – it’s just a day trip away – then a lot more people would come,” she said.

Craft spirits also is a booming industry.

According to the American Craft Spirits Association, nationwide volume was up 18.5 percent in 2016 with 6 million cases produced, creating $3 billion in sales.

Greg Pope, owner and master distiller of Branson’s Missouri Ridge Distillery, which opened in 2016, said he’s seen a 600 percent increase in visitors since March, when he was featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners: Whiskey Business.”

He expects participation in the Ozarks Tap and Pour tour to have a reciprocal effect.

“The more people who are on board with this Tap and Pour trail, the more successful it will be,” he said. “One thing that I found with all alcohol manufacturing is that they tend to be complimentary rather than competitive.”

Pope said Branson is already a global tourist destination with Springfield as a travel hub, but highlighting local craft beverages taps into an underserved population.

“By adding more breweries, wineries and distilleries, southwest Missouri is growing up,” he said. “This has long since been a family tourist destination; it’s always been geared toward two populations: the geriatrics and the youth.

“Now the adults finally have something.”

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