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Tipping is not a city in China. It also isn’t exclusively a way to reward excellent service. One of the lesser-used variants of the word suggests when something goes mainstream in a big way. Craft beer, if it hasn’t “tipped” already, certainly is in the midst of doing so among the general public.
As few as three years ago, craft beer was something a person likely had heard of but with which they might not be familiar. Today, a person is kind of expected to have an opinion on craft beer, even if that opinion is whether or not the recent surge is a fad. In another few years, adults who drink beer will be expected to have a craft beer they like, or, in the case of those philosophically opposed to non-Coors Light, a craft brand they don’t mind. This will be the next stage in the craft beer culture-shift. I’m no fatalist, but the inevitability of the next stage feels predestined. I imagine a boat being pulled by the tide toward a destination. This week, I got to have a couple beers with some of the people who have decided to (keeping with my metaphor) grab some oars and get there faster.
ShoreCraftBeer.com is part of that effort.
I don’t usually write about the business aspect of this website because it feels a little self-indulgent. Also, I don’t know a lot about how it runs. They pointed me at the local breweries and said, “Write.” All I knew is they were really into beer and were willing to invest in culture coverage which is unicorn-rare in the beer blogosphere. Also, they buy the beer at meetings, which is awesome.
So I’ll count the last paragraph as full disclosure.
Why here, why now
I’ve lately been very interested in the rise of the brewpub, because it emphasizes the local nature of beer. Many if not most of the local breweries distribute well beyond the immediate area, but the Ocean City region is unique in that it already is a tourist destination. Much of the distribution, especially in the Baltimore-Philly corridor works, in a way, like a tourism commercial: Try the beer at your favorite restaurant in the greater metropolitan areas of the Mid-Atlantic. Then, when you are looking for a place to spend a long weekend, or for a place to summer, Ocean City very well may come to mind.
But driving tourism is not the brewers’ job, or even, really, their goal. Everyone I’ve spoken with brews because the like being able to brew. The more they sell, the more they can brew. So, while they have an interest in increasing tourism as local business owners, it isn’t as high a priority for them as is brewing great beer. That, for better or for worse, is what the meetings are about.
ShoreCraftBeer.com has been working with the breweries as well as local governments and NGOs to help transform Ocean City into a beer destination. As with any of the other Delmarva Tourism projects, there are a few hiccups to be overcome (Delmarva is creatively named for the three states that comprise it: Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.). People on the borders always get a little nervous about, say, spending Maryland money to help Delaware.
What sets Ocean City apart is how active a tourism department it has (and, frankly, how many hotels and restaurants) compared to the surrounding areas. The town tends to be pretty confident that anyone who spends more than a day or so within 30 miles will spend at least some time and money in Ocean City. That is a pretty safe bet, and generally it has paid off in the past.
Similarly, the state is increasingly interested in promoting beer as an export and a destination amenity, encouraging investment and even occasionally investing itself. In the last five years, most towns have gone from hemming and hawing about allowing breweries to openly competing to woo them and, by extension, those people who love to patronize them. When a politician backs you, you know you are tipping.
Building a beer republic
What I realized, sitting at the table with several of the local brewers, Glenn Irwin of the Ocean City Development Corporation and my bosses from ShoreCraftBeer.com, was that a rowing analogy is even more appropriate than I’d originally thought. Everyone at the table had different approaches and different strengths and weaknesses, but they all had the same goal, and it was something of a pure one. We want to be recognized as a beer destination. There is an economic component, obviously, but there certainly is something bigger going on than that.
For what they’ve spent to open their respective breweries, anyone at that table could have thrown up a McDonald’s and had better, more predictable returns. In my experience with craft brewers generally, they want to be good at something that it isn’t particularly easy to be good at. By extension, there are no better or worse places to get a Big Mac, but there are better and worse places to get beer. The Delmarva Peninsula increasingly is one of the better places to do that.
For me and (I think) for the folks at ShoreCraftBeer.com, it is a question of bringing your passion to bear on something you think is worthwhile. I enjoy advocating for (for example) more brew pubs. I would love it if house beers were de rigueur in my lifetime and the tavern returned to the center of cultural and civic life. It isn’t an unreasonable thing to hope for and, between this blog and the occasional speaking engagement, returning to the town tavern is the gospel I get to preach. We all come to this for different reasons. Our perspectives are personal but overlapping and our goals pretty near identical.