Want pints, will travel: the rise of beer tourism in the UK

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Destination: Belgium has long been a popular country for beer tourism, and the UK is catching up
Destination: Belgium has long been a popular country for beer tourism, and the UK is catching up

Related tags Public house Uk

What makes a place a hotbed for beer tourism and why has the concept become so popular?

When booking a holiday, most people are concerned about the weather, the cost of flights and the local exchange rate. However, for an increasing number of people, the selection of pubs and beer on offer is a key factor when deciding where to go for their getaway. 

In many ways, beer tourism is nothing new. People have been heading to Munich in their lederhosen for Oktoberfest for generations, while in the early to mid 2000s, Belgium became a feeding frenzy for American’s seeking out legendary beers such as Westvleteren 12 and Cantillon Gueuze.

However, with the arrival of craft beer, the concept has exploded in the UK, with pub crawls and brewery tours popping up across almost every major city. People come from far and wide to sample brews directly from the source at tap rooms or to visit historic pubs in iconic locations, and with Brits increasingly choosing to stay in the UK for their holidays,​ beer tourism has never been bigger.

Journalist and London Beer City organiser Will Hawkes believes that the growing interest in beer and its history are the main factors behind the rise of beer tourism within the UK.

“It's down to the wider interest in beer and also a growing understanding that Britain has a remarkable brewing heritage,” he says. “That's only going to grow.”

A beery adventure

One person who is looking to take advantage of this surge in interest in beer and its surrounding culture is Jonny Quirk, founder of the newly released Beer Adventures app. The app provides users with pre-built beer tours in more than 50 world cities, including seven in the UK (with multiple tours in London and Manchester).

"Just like travelling for food and wine, beer is something that people are truly travelling the world for,” Quirk says. "It's an ever-growing artisanal product and ticks so many boxes of what you are looking to fill your time with on holiday. It has a strong history – it is an interesting process to learn about brewing and the scene differs from city to city and country to country.

“It really isn't an understatement to say that being directed to or having the knowledge to visit the best places in town can make or break a holiday,” he continues. “A city could become a regular favourite for many years if the traveller visits five or six great pubs, bars or restaurants. If they hit all duds then it's likely they'll take their cash with them somewhere new next year. 

“Our app directly takes you to all the best places through a curated technology-led experience so you can have a fun day out and real beer adventure at the touch of a few buttons."

“It really isn't an understatement to say that having the knowledge to visit the best places in town can make or break a holiday,”

– Jonny Quirk, Beer Adventures 

Among the beer tours on offer within the Beer Adventure app are Bermondsey’s (in)famous beer mile – taking in brewery tap rooms such as Fourpure and Brew By Numbers – and a trip around Manchester’s best pubs and bars including Port Steet Beer House and Marble brewery’s 57 Thomas Street.

"Beer Adventures supports local, independent bars and breweries doing something unique,” Quirk adds. “We guarantee anyone who uses our app will be sipping the finest brews in no time, pairing it with great food and have direct access to all the offbeat places that aren't on the usual tourist trail, even though you'll still pass all the major city sights."

If trooping round threadbare tap rooms under railway arches doesn’t sound like your idea of a holiday, then how about staying in a traditional pub overlooking the beautiful English countryside? With many international tourists stating staying in a pub one of their top three activities to do while in the UK, operators are increasingly looking to boost sales by offering their services to a foreign audience.

Stay In A Pub is the UK’s leading pub accommodation website. Launched in 2013, the website works with its sister company Cask Marque to promote pubs in iconic locations or with unique food and drink offerings.

Tasting local culture

“The problem at the moment is that if you are the Dog & Duck pub and you put your website online, you are probably on page 15 of Google and nobody finds you,” says Cask Marque’s Paul Nunny. “Stay In A Pub is number one on Google so therefore by typing in 'stay in a pub' you can find accommodation and book through our site. It’s an easy access for pubs to sell their wares basically.”

Cask Marque also runs another sister site called Visit A Brewery, which enables tourists to learn how breweries work and how real ale is made, and Nunny believes that the interest in local produce is one of the driving factors behind beer tourism’s popularity.

“The local factor is really important; it captures people's imagination whether they are inbound tourists or staycation people,” he says. “They like the flavour of the local culture.”

On the subject of what exactly makes a location popular for beer tourists, Hawkes believes heritage and beer choice are the two major factors determining the popularity of a venue or destination.

“There are two main ways that a place becomes popular with beer tourists – by being very traditional or the absolute opposite, stark modernity,” he says. “With the former, it's as much about feel as actual heritage.

"People want to go to Belgium to taste the beer they love in its 'natural' habitat.

– Will Hawkes, Journalist

“Look at the breweries of Bamberg in Germany, where the best taverns all have the same look and feel – dark wood, trinkets here and there, beer served in stoneware mugs. It's samey but it makes tourists feel they're getting something very authentic, which is key.”

“The other option is to be as modern as possible, with the most up-to-date beers and a young clientele,” he continues, “It's probably a more short-term approach, but we all know places like that and some of them are excellent. There are lots in Copenhagen!”

“In terms of destinations (ie, towns/regions rather than pubs), it's the same thing. Tradition sells – people want to go to Belgium to taste the beer they love in its 'natural' habitat. Many people also want to go to breweries, particularly in the US. That will become more prevalent over here as more of the new generation of breweries establish seven-days-a-week tap houses.”

Authentic recommendations

With pubs continuing to struggle and tap rooms becoming a growing trend within the UK beer market,​ the question facing operators is how can they improve their options to take advantage of the growing interest in beer tourism and make sure they aren’t left behind?

Quirk thinks that because of the interest in cask beer – a uniquely British product – from overseas, pubs need not be too concerned, but warns that authenticity and locality are key.

“I've been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the US over the past few years and those guys are obsessed with cask – so many of them want to come to Britain, sit in a pub, learn about the cask process and soak up proper pub culture,” he says. “Beer tourism definitely isn't just some one-sided hipster fad.”

“As long as pubs, bars and restaurants serving beer are doing a proper job serving local beers and the customer feels like they're getting good value for money and a genuine experience then they'll have a great time and want to come back.

“Serving the best local produce or the staff having great local knowledge of what the scene is like is so important"

– Jonny Quirk, Beer Adventures 

“Serving the best local produce or the staff having great local knowledge of what the scene is like is so important. Tourists want recommendations at all turns and if they trust a venue because of its offering then they're just as likely to follow up on the bartender's recommendation of a local brewery to go and check out.”

On what pubs can do to promote their offerings, Nunny adds: “It's important they put their menus on their website, which can convince people to go and stay there. Promoting local beers and their menus is one of the key things they need to do and the other thing is to try and make sure that their website gives a real feel for the place so they can sell any promotions or activities they have going on.”

With more UK breweries opening their own tap rooms and becoming more famous abroad, and pubs continuing to prove a popular draw for foreign visitors, beer tourism is a market that is likely to continue to grow well into the future. 

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