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You know that beer has become an important tourism driver in the state when you go someplace else, mention you’re from Delaware and the immediate response is, “Dogfish Head,” as in the beer bottled in Milton.
That’s what happened to state tourism director Linda Parkowski on a recent trip to Texas.
“Beer tourism is probably the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry in Delaware,” she said. And, it is fast becoming a key part of the state’s brand.
It used to be that people knew Delaware for the DuPont Co. or maybe their car was built here or perhaps they sent their credit card payment to an address in Wilmington. But these days, Delaware is known by the beers that are brewed and bottled here — especially along the 15-mile stretch from Milton south to Dewey Beach.
Along this swath of highway and connector roads, visitors can tour Dogfish Head’s brewery in Milton, and travel south to Lewes, Rehoboth and Dewey beaches and sample dozens of different craft beers, ales and stouts, wines and spirits. They can hit the Nassau Valley Vineyards for a wine tour and they can sample locally distilled spirits.
And when they tire with the resort-area brewpub scene, they can go north, south and west and sample even more beer, wine and spirits.
Delaware’s traditional beach visitor has been 35 to 55 years old. But with craft beer on tap, “we’re attracting a younger demographic, 25 to 35 years old,” Parkowski said. “The millennials are looking for that locally grown product.”
In 2010, state tourism officials were looking for niche markets to promote and they developed what is now known as the Beer, Wine and Spirits Trail. Parkowski said that it, by far, has become the most popular offering on the state’s tour list. Coming soon, she said, is a new phone app to help people navigate this self-guided tour.
“The trail helps drive visitation to and build awareness of each of its locations,” Parkowski said.
When the trail started, there were 12 locations, all of them wineries and breweries. That number has doubled and grown to include distilleries.
What’s happening in Delaware reflects a national trend. In 1985 there were 110 breweries in the United States. Last year, there were 4,300.
Understanding why coastal Delaware has become a brewery and brewpub destination is a little harder to get your arms around.
Delaware doesn’t have clear mountain spring water, once a marketing tool for national brands like Coors. The barley that is raised here is mostly grown as a winter cover crop and not for conversion to malt used in beer and spirits.
(That could change once Proximity Malt opens its proposed malting facility in the old Laurel grain facility south of Laurel. The company plans to offer locally grown, sustainable malts.)
And there aren’t naturally cool underground caves such as in places where lager ales started.
But, said Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, the bottom part of the state has something else going for it. Before beer, he said, there was a vibrant and innovative restaurant scene along the coast.
“It’s kind of a great add-on,” he said. “It’s really diversifying our visitor base, too.”
The brew scene attracts beer lovers and it also draws weddings, bachelor and bachelorette parties, he said.
And there is another important factor, Thomas said. When Peggy Raley-Ward, owner of Nassau Valley Vineyards, wanted to start making wine, Delaware law wouldn’t allow it. People in the alcohol business could have just one class of license: as a retailer; as an importer, wholesalers or distributor or as a manufacturer. Raley-Ward’s vision for the vineyard was to do all three. So she got the law changed.
That has paved the way for other wineries, Thomas said.
Sam Calagione, co-founder of Dogfish Head, also had to go to the Legislature to get the law changed when he and his wife Mariah opened their first venture, Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats in Rehoboth Beach. The brewpub is still the small batch incubator for the beers that are brewed and bottled at the brewery in Milton.
Thomas said those law changes and ones that have come since have paved the way for the new small batch brew pubs, breweries, vineyards and distilleries. Essentially, the shifts in state law positioned local business owners to be able to take advantage of the wave of interest in craft beers, wines and spirits.
“Delaware was ahead of the game,” he said.
Cindy Small, now with the University of Delaware’s Small Business Development Center, said she remember the day Sam Calagione walked into the old small business development center with his business plan for a craft brewery. She was executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism at the time and the two operations were in the same building.
That day, she recalled meeting Calagione. Her take-away: “This is either going to be one of those things that is going to tank or it’s going to take off like gangbusters,” she recalled thinking.
Since then, “it’s just been an incredible growth,” she said. “There doesn’t seem like there’s going to be an end in sight. A few years later, Small landed at Kent County tourism. There, she developed both a self-guided tour for wine, beer and spirits operations in the county and a wine and beer festival.
There is, she said, a Dogfish Head effect.
“I call it the Walmart theory,” she said. “The more variety you can put on the shelf, the more people will come.”
It was a Thursday morning in Milton and at 10:30, the cars were already parking outside the Dogfish Head Brewery. A line of people waited by the door.
By 11, when the doors opened for the first 45-minute tour of the day, more than three dozen people were there.
The tour is funky and this morning, it was led by Lars Ryan, one of the off-centered, multi-tasking employees at the brewery. His job title is so long, suffice it to say he does a little bit of everything. On this tour, his specialty was off-centered punster.
This tour is part of a summer tradition for Ashley Conticelli. It was her fifth trip to the brewery but even more astounding, she and her family are vacationing from Western Pennsylvania on the Jersey Shore this week. They took the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across just to go on the Dogfish Head Tour.
“Dogfish has delicious beer,” she said.
In past summers, they vacationed in Rehoboth Beach but this year decided to try something different, she said.
Douglas Shontz and Zach Alexakos, both of Washington, D.C., were first-timers on the tour.
“We came for the beach,” Alexakos said.
The beer tour was “one of the stops we had to make,” Shontz said.
For Joe and Melissa O’Toole and their sons, brewery tours are a given when they are vacationing. The family, from outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, have done the Dogfish Head tour before.
“My favorite part is when we got in the warehouse out back, Joe O’Toole said. “We didn’t realize this was as big volume-wise as it is.”
Tour guide Ryan, explains how beer is made (“You’re drinking yeast poop and farts”) as the crowd moves through the stainless steel tank room. He tells how Calagione pioneered the continuous, slow addition of hops into his 90-minute IPA.
“We taste the beer. We smell the beer. We do it for you guys,” he said.
And he tells them that Calagione’s first beer was made with cherries.
That free-spirited tradition continues among the coastal brewpubs that sprung up because of the Dogfish Head effect.
At the Big Oyster Brewery, along Coastal Highway north of Rehoboth Beach, Andrew D. Harton, head brewer, is a part of the growing Delaware craft beer movement.
He learned the craft brew trade as a homebrewer first, then as an assistant brewer at Iron Hill Brewery. Now, on any given night at the Big Oyster and adjoining Fins Ale House and Raw Bar, there are 29 beer varieties on tap, 10 brewed by Harton. Typically, five of them come right out of the tank.
These craft beers still take weeks to produce and build in flavor and character, he said.
And, while the malted barley may be imported from the midwest, England or Germany, Harton depends on local ingredients like blueberries to add depth and flavor to the beer.
The brewpub has been so successful that owner Jeff Hamer said he is planning to open a new facility in Lewes as his next venture. At Big Oyster, the theme is oysters and the end of prohibition, complete with old photos of prohibition and a doctor’s prescription for alcohol.
Meanwhile, this summer, visitors to Delaware’s beaches can visit Dogfish Head for their brewery tour, Nassau Valley Vineyard for their tour, Beach Time Distilling, the Crooked Hammock, near Lewes, Fins Ale House on Coastal Highway, Delaware Distilling Company, the newly opened Revelation Craft Brewing in West Rehoboth, Dogfish Head Craft Brewing and Eats and the Dewey Brewing Company — nine places to drink within 15 miles.
A meadery is in the works for the Cool Spring area and folks who want more of a craft brew experience can go north to Mispillion River Brewing Co. in Milford, west to 16-Mile Brewery in Georgetown or southwest to 3rd Wave Brewery on the Delaware side of Delmar.
People plan weddings and music and food truck events around Delaware’s craft beverage industry, Small said.
Now there are transportation companies like the Delaware Brew Bus, adding to Delaware’s beer, wine and spirits experience, she said. “It’s a job-creation engine.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com
This article was written by Molly Murray from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.