Indiana Ale Trails: The Road Becoming More Traveled

Indiana Ale Trails: The Road Becoming More Traveled

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Craft breweries employ some interesting strategies to get people into their taprooms. Live music is common, so are yoga (with and without bunnies), game nights, art classes, comedy…..but even business networking, Beer and Hymns, and science lectures can get people in to drink your beer.

I read somewhere that if you can get a customer to come in your door three times, then you will have cultivated a regular about 75% of the time. But, just as you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning, you can’t get a second or third visit from a patron unless you get them in the first time. That’s why there are so many brewery activities. You’d like to think it’s all about the beer (and the food in some cases), but marketing a business isn’t just about the product itself. Plenty of breweries with good beer have gone under because they couldn’t get enough people into their taproom.

However, I believe there’s one marketing tool that Indiana breweries aren’t exploiting to maximum effect. This is a tool that helps not just one brewery, but several within a given locale, ultimately building a craft beer drinker who knows and appreciates the differences and strengths of breweries, giving a brewer a chance to fill a niche with each patron. I speak of “ale trails” – specifically those that have passports for stamping and a small prize for finishing the trail.

image credit: Experience Grand Rapids

Kinds of ale trails. On our beer trips, Walter and I have come across many craft beer passport programs and ale trails, and they almost always seem to be very popular. They come in one of two flavors most often, either a brochure that has a list of the local breweries and perhaps some information about each establishment, or the passport type that gets stamped and has a payoff. I don’t think that the two are equal, and I am here to promote the passport version with vehemence.

There is another kind of trail, the kind where your payoff is more immediate. Instead of gathering stamps, each participating brewery you visit has a coupon for a deal – money off a flight, a free logo pint, 20% of merchandise – or sometimes a number of deals at one brewery or restaurant. An example of this is Indiana on Tap’s own Tasting Society Marketplace, with $1100 in deals from more than 125 partners across the entire state. This type of system gives both the drinker and the brewery immediate payoffs and it works for craft beer fans throughout the state, but there is no sense of accomplishment like with a prize-based arrangement.

In terms of behavioral economics, it’s a fact that people like to work for things, just a small bit of effort on their part will spark interest and give people a sense of purpose and accomplishment for even the most insignificant payoff. The prize itself is of almost no consequence, it’s the idea of a prize and the stamps that drive those ale trails. For example, the Beer City Brewsader® passport in Grand Rapids has been one of the most successful prize-based ale trails. Isn’t it telling that if a craft mecca like Beer City, USA thinks they are getting benefit from a passport program, then there probably isn’t a city or area that couldn’t benefit.

For the ale trail run by Experience Grand Rapids (their office of tourism) and begun in late 2015, a printed passport can be picked up from numerous locations, including all participating breweries, or an app can be downloaded on to your various devices (as of Feb. 2018). Then, check in to eight different breweries and you qualify for a free Brewsader T-shirt. Check in to all the participating breweries and you gain access to many perks, like free one-year mug clubs at some breweries, or free stickers, etc.

I talked to Kate Lieto at Experience Grand Rapids about the popularity and workings of the Brewsader Ale Trail. In just five months since launching the app version of the passport, they have had over 7,500 app downloads. Since the launch of the Brewsader passport system as a whole, tens of thousands of passports have been picked up and nearly 11,000 people have achieved the eight-stamp level and claimed their free T-shirt. In addition to being popular with drinkers, the breweries are big fans of the program and promote it strongly within their establishments. Kate told me, “All of the brewery owners to whom I have spoken have said that the passports bring them new business regularly.”

image credit: Fresh Pints

It’s interesting to note that this program is not administered by a brewers guild or a brewery, but by the city’s bureau of tourism. Clearly, they understand the power of craft beer tourism and the money/interest it generates. Why else would a non-craft beer entity be willing to invest in a program that highlights just this one portion of the city? Because it works. Kate said, “One of my favorite things about the passport is that it really is driving tourism, which is our main goal. Only 28% of our Brewsaders reside in Kent County. The rest of the Brewsaders are from other counties, states, or even countries – we have over 200 International Brewsaders!”

The popularity – and just plain common sense – of these prize-based ale trails has resulted in their presence in many cities; heck, the Illinois Brewers Guild runs one for the entire state of Illinois (all guild member breweries). Yet, you can contrast these prize-based versions to a type of ale trail that is even larger in number – the information only ale trails. They thrive because they require less input and investment on anyone’s part.

In most cases, these programs consist of brochures or fold out maps with some graphics and a static design over time to point out the craft beer destinations within a certain distance. The small initial cost for design and the printing are just about the only investments. True – they may work over time to bring a few people into the taprooms, especially if placed strategically in hotels, restaurants, and attractions, but our foray into behavioral economics would again say that these will not generate the same enthusiasm that passport programs will.

Ale trails in Indiana. Indiana, to this date, has favored the cheaper, and perhaps less effective version, but it looks like the passport-type is starting to pick up steam. There are apps, printed maps, and brochures for many regions that act as ale trail guides. Northwest Indiana has the South Shore Brewery Trail, the Richmond area has the Heartland Wine & Ale Trail, and Books & Brews just instituted a passport system for all of its taprooms. However, don’t only only go by the program name, many “ale trails” across the country actually do use passports, stamps, apps, and prizes, including the only locale-based passport system I know of in Indiana (until next month) – the Bloomington Ale Trail.

image credit: Bloomington Ale Trail

Steve and Arlyn Llewellyn opened Function Brewing in Bloomington in January of 2014. Later that year, Quaff On! Brewing opened a Big Woods in Bloomington and was a good brewing friend. Arlyn and Steve’s family had just returned from a vacation in Traverse City, MI and brought news of an ale trail there – having at that time four destinations in Bloomington, the Michigan trail sparked an idea that they could duplicate the program in Bloomington.

A few emails later, the Llewellyn’s knew they had interest from Upland, Quaff On!, and Bloomington Brewing Company, so they started to plan in earnest. Upland loaned them the use of their in house graphic artist, and after many hours of logo and brochure designing, writing and planning, and in April 2015, they launched the Bloomington Ale Trail passport program (social media tag is #btownaletrail) with an initial prize of a logo’d mason jar glass.

Just this year, other three breweries have joined the program: The Tap, Danny Boy Draft Works – IU, and Switchyard. This seven-brewery trail, all within walking distance of each other, has turned into a very popular activity for visitors and residents alike. Arlyn told me that they are in their third printing of brochures and the current logo’d metal camping cup is the third different prize they have offered. With new prizes from time to time, they have had many people who have chosen to conquer the trail more than once.

There’s no cost to join the program, just pick up a passport at any of the participating breweries/taprooms, the Visit Bloomington or downtown visitor center offices, or at one of the local hotels. Or, you can download the brochure from the website. Take the brochure on your brewery visits and purchase a beer at each location (any of Upland’s Bloomington taprooms will count as your Upland visit) within six months of your start date. When you get your last stamp, you can claim your prize – each participating location has a supply of prizes so you don’t have to deal with sending it in or making a special trip to pick up your prize.

image credit: Northern Indiana Ale Trail

The cost of the program is divided amongst the participating breweries, and after the initial design and planning, the work of maintenance has dropped off considerably for Function Brewing. Arlyn told me, “The biggest cost is the prize itself and the ale trail organizers can choose to select a prize which matches their budget, although we’ve definitely found that a cooler prize creates more interest. We view it as that for each prize you give out, you’ve sold at least one pint.”

This makes the program, if not easily mimicked, more than manageable for a single group to start. Arlyn told me that she would be happy to offer advice and answer questions for anyone wishing to start a similar trail. Not every town may be as walkable as Bloomington or be able to boast a bike share program, but the strong craft beverage community in Bloomington is present in many cities of Indiana, so this should be a no brainer.

Coming Indiana ale trails. In fact, the plan is already in the late stages of development for Fort Wayne and the surrounding area. The Northern IN Beer Trail (NIBT) has been in the works for just a short time (January, 2018), but is ready to roll out the first passport next month. In reality, the NIBT is just the first project of the Northern IN Beer Association (see the press release here), an effort to bring together the breweries of northern Indiana as a cohesive unit for collaborative marketing and support. Using the breweries of the Northern District of the Brewers of Indiana Guild as a demarcation, Mary Corrine Lowenstein of Hop River Brewing Company has been one of a handful of individuals leading the way to bring these 15+ breweries together.

The organization is well oiled and they have been making rapid progress. Just this week they released a statement announcing that all the breweries involved came together at Hop River to brew a collaborative hoppy wheat beer using MI hops which will be tapped during the roll out the passport program, the week of Sept. 3rd. That first push of the passport program will then culminate in the 20th annual Brewed in the Fort Craft Beer Festival with a booth to promote the nascent association and the NIBT.

image credit: Northern IN Beer Trail

Mary Corrine has a background in non-profit organization management and marketing, and NIBT has benefitted from her planning. A Facebook page was started several weeks ago and the latest updates have been met with large viewership and many comments. Clearly, this is an arrangement that Northern Indiana is ready for. The logo and passport design were finalized with the help of local artists and Hop River’s Indiana Tech. intern (see above left), so everything will definitely be ready for the rollout date. Check out the FB page for more information.

It seems that the more I look into into the paucity of these trails in Indiana, the more I find in the design stage or ready to begin. Perhaps most importantly (in terms of population size), Jeff Robinson at Visit Indy told me that they have recognized the value of these programs and that they are in the design stage for an ale trail of some sort in Indianapolis. He said, “Indy is blessed with a thriving brewery and distillery scene that has received many national accolades. While we are a bit late, my team and I are in the process of evaluating best practices to understand what has worked best in similar destinations.”

The form of the program has not been determined yet, but Visit Indy is investigating prize and non-prize versions, both on paper and with mobile apps. Things are moving quickly and Jeff is to get the program up and running in 2019. By that time, there will be a growing number of Indiana ale trails, just another sign of how well Indiana craft breweries can work together. The rising tide raises all boats.

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