50 States with Brian Hink
Beer tourism is quickly becoming an appreciable sector of the tourism industry. Last year, Nielsen found that the average American visits about two breweries during an average vacation. That’s pretty awesome.
And we’re thankful for it. Travelocity recently began ranking metropolitan areas by their beer-worthiness, and Cape May County (represented as Ocean City) was ranked #15 in the small metro area group.
That’s pretty huge for us. Beer tourism, in general, is pretty huge for us. We love our out-of-towners. (Hey, y’all… You know we’re still here in the off-season, right?!?)
In general, New Jersey’s craft beer scene is still in its infancy. Since the change in New Jersey’s legal structure in 2012 that allowed for tasting rooms, we’ve seen a veritable explosion in breweries throughout the Garden State.
With the easy access to delicious, fresh produce, it’s only a matter of time before New Jersey takes its place among the truly well-respected beer destinations. In the meantime, we’re still in the bottom five states in breweries per capita.
But Cape May County is seeing an upswing. Since we opened, four new breweries have followed in our footsteps, and three more are in planning stages. Add that to the handful of breweries in Cumberland and Atlantic counties, and we’re seeing Deep South New Jersey becoming a beer destination set to rival just about any across the country.
“A crowd draws a crowd,” says Head Brewer Brian Hink, “and as long as the other breweries around us are making standout beers, the more the merrier!”
And Brian knows a thing or two about beer tourism. He’s recently achieved something that very few people this side of retirement achieve: Brian’s visited all fifty states, sampling delicious brews along the way.
As a kid, he’d knocked off eleven states, traveling back and forth to visit family in Florida. But after a cross-country trip to deliver a friend to Seattle in March of 2008, he knocked off sixteen more and began to realize that all fifty wouldn’t be as difficult as one might imagine.
Apparently, it wasn’t. Nearly 80% of his travels were done in the past ten years, many of them with his fiancee Kris and younger brother Andrew. Earlier this month, he got the last three under his belt: Alaska, Hawaii, and North Dakota.
The tourism department of North Dakota must have realized at some point that anyone visiting North Dakota was there for one reason: to check it off their list. So, they started the “Best for Last Club.”
“You go to the visitor center, tell them you saved the best for last, and they give you a certificate, magnet, and t-shirt signifying you hit North Dakota last,” Brian explains. “They have a guestbook to sign, and when I signed it on Saturday, September 2nd, I was the 11th person to sign it that day!”
Obviously, when your life is beer and your life’s mission is to visit all fifty states, you’re going to visit a few breweries and sample a few beers along the way. Brian says that breweries are usually the starting point when he begins researching a trip.
“I’ll build it out from there,” he says. “I’ve never been a tourist and always avoid the touristy shit, but most of our trips are planned around visiting national parks and breweries so we usually don’t have to go out of our way to avoid that kind of stuff.”
Completely unbiased, of course, Brian says that the best beer is “without question” here in the Northeast.
“Vermont and Maine put out top-notch beer, and Massachusetts has quite the reputation, so we’re kinda spoiled to have some of the tastiest beers in the world within an easy drive from here,” he says. “New Jersey was really late to the game, but we’re coming on really strong with so many great local options right up there with the best coming out of New England.”
His second cross-country trip in 2012 was basically an excuse to visit New Belgium — at a time when New Jersey’s beer scene was practically non-existent and New Belgium’s beer wasn’t available within five states of us.
“Their Mothership in Fort Collins, CO, and their newer one in Asheville, NC, are just out-of-this-world operations. Words almost can’t describe how good of a job they’ve done at creating the perfect customer experience,” he says.
“This was actually where I first fell in love with sour beers and owe them a ton of my sour beer-loving journey. On the tour, which I signed up for two months in advance to ensure Kris and I would get on it, they take you through their Foeder Forest: a giant wood-aging room with 20-30 Foeders — giant oak tanks I’ve been begging Hank and Ryan for some time now.”
There, he was able to sample La Folie, their sour brown ale, which eventually influenced the development of our first barrel-aged sour, The Keel.
“My whole world changed,” he says. “From then, I started seeking out sours everywhere I went.”
A few other notable operations that Brian has experienced throughout his travels include Allagash in Portland, ME, Captain Lawrence outside Westchester, NY, Modern Times in San Diego, The Bruery in Anaheim, and Yuengling “for the walking history lesson.”
On a trip to Denver to visit his older brother Gary two years ago, Brian fell in love with the New England-style IPAs coming out of there.
“I was blown away by the New England IPAs coming out of Odd 13, Weldwerks, and Fiction,” he tells us, with each one absolutely crushing the style.”
At the time, the New England IPA wasn’t really considered a style. If you enjoyed those beers, you had to make weekly trips to New England to get them.
“This was maybe a few months before White Caps first came out,” he says, “and I definitely based a lot of that beer from conversations with the guys at those breweries.”
Brian points to Colorado or Vermont as being the most favorable to beer tourism as their laws are particularly helpful.
“Hello? No need for a tour and allowed to sell snacks?!?” he says. “As I’ve gained a greater understanding of the inner workings of different state’s liquor laws, those two states definitely stand out as being very pro-brewery, and it shows with their beer tourism. We all know someone who runs up to Stowe every few weeks for a fresh case of Heady Topper and probably hits no less than five other breweries on the way there and back, and I’m always amazed after chatting with some of my friends at Colorado breweries in regards to their laws.”
Brian points specifically to Colorado’s Brewers Guild’s Collaboration Fest: each beer poured is a collaboration beer. We participated two years ago, collaborating with Fiction. (Odd little fact: their owner, also named Ryan, also has his pilot’s license, grew up in South Jersey, and Fiction is half-a-block from Brian’s brother’s current house.)
“I think we should straight-up steal that idea,” Brian says. “I think it’s an amazing idea, offers something unique, really brings the community together, and is just a fun time.”
He says he tries to keep in mind how far New Jersey’s come over the past five years. In the “dark ages” before 2012, we weren’t even allowed to have tasting rooms. While some throughout the state clamor for more leeway with entertainment and selection, Brian is perfectly content with the current atmosphere and ambiance available at New Jersey’s breweries.
“There’s nothing more pleasurable than enjoying a flight in a tasting room while playing giant Jenga or Clue,” he tells us. “I personally don’t care that we can’t play live sports — in fact, I prefer it that way — if I wanted to watch sports I would go to a bar or, better yet, stay home. When I’m at a brewery, I’m there to enjoy the brewery for what it is: sample my way through the beers and enjoy them without dealing with shouting sports fans.”
There could be more leeway in our laws, he admits, but he’s found that we have it much better than some places out there. On his most recent trip, he learned that breweries in Minnesota that brew over 20,000 barrels aren’t allowed to sell beer-to-go. In Ohio, no breweries at all are allowed to sell take-out beer, “which I find to be absolutely insane,” he says.
“So, take comfort in that, Jerseyans,” he jokes.
Nonetheless, Brian thinks we’re killing them in the beer arena.
“It’s an extremely exciting time to be a beer drinker in our area,” he says. “We have a lot of newer guys still finding their footing, but I’ve had some amazing beer from our friends across the state. Completely unscientific and just shooting from the hip here, but I’d say that New Jersey is easily in the top 12 states as far as the quality of our breweries, and that’s all happened within the past five years or so.”
Now that he’s knocked out all fifty states, Brian points to Europe as the final frontier.
“Kris has been bugging me to plan a European trip,” he says, “but over the past few years, I’ve been hellbent on hitting #50. Part of her agreeing to go on this insane trip we just did — flying to Alaska, from Alaska to Hawaii, then from Hawaii to Seattle before driving east to hit North Dakota — was that now we can start planning overseas trips. Iceland is definitely tops on the list, and obviously Belgium is somewhere I have to go, but we’ll see.”
Let us know, Brian. We’d probably like to report on what you’ve learned at Straight to the Pint. Even better, put us in your suitcase. We’d love to go to Iceland!
Where have you gone to find the best beer? (Other than Cape May, of course!) Let us know in the comments! See you soon!