Loudoun County has long branded itself “D.C.’s wine country,” home to a thriving community of vineyards and tasting rooms. But a new tourism study projects that its burgeoning craft beer industry could soon make the county just as popular for its ales and lagers as it is for varietal wines.
The 2014 Virginia Craft Beer Visitor Profile Study — conducted by Visit Loudoun, the county’s tourism agency, as well as the Virginia Tourism Corporation and Nelson County’s economic development office — surveyed nearly 700 visitors at breweries across Virginia, including Lost Rhino Brewing in Loudoun. By learning more about the state’s beer tourists, officials hope to capitalize on a market that has already shown potential for explosive growth.
“There’s just not a lot of information out there on beer travelers,” said Brian Jenkins, director of business strategy and research at Visit Loudoun. “We wanted to get our heads around what the value [of the industry] is, particularly with all these permits being filed.”
About eight craft breweries have opened their doors in Loudoun, officials said, and others are in the works, a rate of growth that outpaces even the county’s rapidly expanding winery scene. Sixteen brewery permits were filed in Loudoun last year, whereas the county took more than a decade to establish that many wineries, tourism officials said.
The survey results offered a more detailed look at the visitors driving the trend. About 66 percent of the respondents were men, according to the study, and the average age was 39, younger than the usual Loudoun wine visitor and leisure traveler. The typical craft beer drinker is a highly educated professional, the survey found, and many respondents said they worked in the technology, education and health-care fields.
Many of the surveyed beer drinkers indicated that they regularly participate in tastings and sometimes make an overnight trip of their visit, driving several hours to get to specific breweries, Jenkins said. Nearly 75 percent of the survey respondents said they visit two to three breweries per trip, Jenkins said, which supports the creation of a brewery trail, comparable to several popular winery trails in Loudoun.
About 80 percent of those surveyed indicated that they also visited local restaurants, historical sites and wineries, a crossover that is especially encouraging to Loudoun officials, Jenkins said, because it highlights a broader tourism benefit.
“This gets the attention of our Board of Supervisors because it’s not just that people are coming out for the breweries, but they’re getting out to all the destinations here,” he said.
Visitors who tour multiple breweries and stay overnight tend to spend about $365 per trip, the study found.
“They don’t spend quite as much as the wine visitors, but just in terms of sheer numbers, this market is much larger,” Jenkins said. Beer drinkers make up 49 percent of the nation’s beverage alcohol market; wine drinkers account for 17 percent, officials said.
The growth of Virginia’s craft beer industry mirrors a national trend. The number of craft breweries across the country has soared in recent years, rising from about 1,800 breweries in 2010 to more than 2,500 this year, according to the Brewers Association.
In Virginia, craft brewers have benefited from recent changes to state laws.
In 2012, new regulations allowed for the sale of pints at tasting rooms, making brewery businesses more profitable. This year, state lawmakers passed legislation to relax regulations for farm-based breweries — provided that the operation grows and uses its own agricultural product, such as hops or barley, in its brews.
After the passage of the new state law in July, county officials are now considering local zoning amendments governing farm-based breweries, evaluating whether to impose any additional regulations.
Once that process is complete, tourism officials said, they anticipate a wave of new brewery permits.
“We want to get all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed,” Jenkins said. “We want to get the economic impact of this tourism going as fast as we can.”