New businesses put beer tourism on smooth road

Good news for fans of Atlanta's craft beer scene. Now you can catch a safe, sociable ride to a variety of metro breweries and brew pubs on guided tours that include tasting sessions and insider glimpses of the beer-making process.

Two new companies — Atlanta Brews Cruise and Atlanta Beer Tours — began operating in May, charging $45-$60 per passenger.

That the tours suddenly popped up around the same time is something of a coincidence and a confirmation that Atlanta was ripe for this kind of business, agree Brews Cruise owner Sandy Roberts and Beer Tours owner Dan Fontaine.

In fact, one recent Saturday afternoon, Roberts was steering his long white Brews Cruise van out of the parking lot at the Jailhouse Brewing Co. in Hampton just a few minutes before Fontaine and Beer Tours partner Aaron Rolka arrived in a similar van loaded with another tour group.

Roberts is a retired Henry County schoolteacher who decided to bring the Brews Cruise franchise to Atlanta after going on the Asheville Brews Cruise.

"I thought, 'I can do that,' " Roberts said. "We're still learning and working out the bugs. But we're having a lot of fun with it, and most of the people on our tours have been on tours in other cities, so they know what to expect."

Fontaine, an award-winning home brewer and former stand-up comedian, also was inspired by beer tours in Asheville and other cities, as well as a wine-tasting trip he and his wife took in Spain.

"I got married recently and we went on a wine tour in Rioja," Fontaine said. "We had so much fun and we learned a lot. It hit me that it would be cool to be able to take people in Atlanta to places they hadn't been and let them try beers they hadn't tried before."

Mark Lyons, who grew up in North Carolina, launched the Asheville Brews Cruise in 2006 before expanding the concept to franchises in Charleston, S.C., Denver and, most recently, Atlanta. Nashville and Bend, Ore., where Lyons currently resides, are advertised as "coming soon."

Lyons sees beer tours as a vital part of the current growth of the American craft beer culture.

"Our evolution is to continue on as a pillar of the tourism side of the craft beer business and do it right," Lyons said. "We're not a party bus showing up at breweries with a bunch of intoxicated people. We want it to be an appreciative and educational experience."

At Jailhouse, owner/brewer Glenn Golden said he's already seen more visitors at his brewery as a result of the tours.

"We're a little brewery a little off the beaten path here in Hampton, so it gets us some more exposure," Golden said. "It's being marketed through hotels and to people from out of town, and that brings in fresh faces. What I also like is that they come early, and that brings people here when we're a little slower."

Two of Atlanta's more visible beer aficionados, blogger Dennis Malcolm Byron, aka Ale Sharpton, and John Sukroo, a self-described "beer geek," rode the Beer Tours van to Jailhouse, intent on tasting a couple of Golden's newest offerings, Prison Camp Pils and Beer of the Guards.

They gave a thumbs-up to the beers. And they had kudos for the tour, which made a stop at the Eagle & Lion, a British-style brew pub in Griffin, before heading to Jailhouse.

"The reason I wanted to do this one is that it gives you the opportunity to go to more than one place in the same day, especially with the distances involved," Sukroo said. "But I may do one of the intown ones, too, because just getting from one side of Atlanta to the other can be painful. I think these guys are filling a niche here."

"It puts another stamp of approval on Atlanta being an official beer city," Boyd said. "People are starting to recognize that. The beer tours just exhibit a lot of the beer culture we have going on here now."

Brew tours

Atlanta Brews Cruise, 404-384-6006, www.brewscruise.com/atlanta

Fee: $45 per passenger, local and group discounts available, reservations required

Tours: "Atlanta Classic Beer Tour" 3:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, departs Five Seasons Westside in Atlanta with possible stops at Sweetwater, Red Brick, Red Hare and Gordon Biersch. "Atlanta South Side Beer Tour" 1:30-5:30 p.m. Saturdays, departs 15th St. Pizza and Pub in McDonough with stops at the Jailhouse Brewing Co. and Eagle & Lion. Coming soon: Decatur and Athens tours.

Atlanta Beer Tours, www.atlantabeertours.com

Fee: $60, $35 designated driver, promo discounts available, reservations required

Tours: 2-6:30 p.m. Saturdays, departs Hop City in Atlanta: July 7, Sweetwater, Burnt Hickory, 5 Seasons; July 28, Jailhouse, Eagle & Lion, 5 Seasons; Aug. 4, Sweetwater, Burnt Hickory, 5 Seasons; Aug. 25, Jailhouse, Eagle & Lion, 5 Seasons; Sept. 1, Sweetwater, Burnt Hickory, 5 Seasons; Sept. 22, Jailhouse, Eagle & Lion, 5 Seasons; Oct. 26, Boos and Brews at Sweetwater. Coming soon: growler shop tours.