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Progress 2017: How craft beverage tourism can continue booming in the Cayuga County area

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Prison City

Patrons sample beer made by Prison City Pub & Brewery in Auburn Jan. 20, 2017.

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen

AUBURN — Of the hundreds who lined up outside Prison City Pub & Brewery in September and December for cans of its beer, the majority came from outside Cayuga County.

From as near as Syracuse and as far as Portland, Oregon, beer fans have been pouring into Prison City for its No. 1-ranked Mass Riot India pale ale, its Great American Beer Festival silver medalist Bleek Worden Belgian pale ale, its novel Cocoa Puff-flavored Puff Puff Shiv brown ale and more.

Marc and Dawn Schulz, who opened the State Street brewpub in December 2014, said about 50 percent of its customers came from outside the Cayuga County area — before Paste Magazine named Mass Riot No. 1 of 247 IPAs in its annual blind taste test last summer. Since then, Marc Schulz said, it's been about 65 percent.

There's a term for that: beer tourism.

"It keeps spreading how far people are traveling to Prison City — to Auburn, New York — for beer," Marc Schulz said. "Tourism's monumental and extremely paramount to our success."

Since September 2014, when The Good Shepherds Brewing Co. became the first brewery to open its doors in Auburn since Prohibition, the Cayuga County area's craft beer scene has suddenly surged. Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Co. in Weedsport followed in October, Prison City toward the end of the year and Aurora Ale & Lager Co. the following summer.

Further bolstering the area's craft beverage scene in that short window of time has been the opening of Sterling Cidery in July 2015, Last Shot Distillery in Skaneateles later that year and, most recently, Grisamore Cider Works in Locke.

More new businesses have factored into the Cayuga County area's craft beverage scene despite not producing any of their own: Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market in Auburn, which joins D&L Truk Stop on Owasco Street as bottle shops whose rare selections draw visitors from well outside the area. And Finger Lakes on Tap in Skaneateles, a 60-tap showcase of upstate New York's craft beer output, opened in summer 2015.

Mike Sigona, who opened Thirsty Pug in June 2014, said more than half of his customers are people from outside the area who came to check out its craft beverage scene. Like Auburn's museums, Skaneateles' boutiques and all things cultural, craft beer has been driving travel to localized pockets of production like the Cayuga County area as it grows into a $55.7 billion industry nationally. 

"You can plan a mini beer vacation in Auburn," Sigona said.

With nine new businesses in the Cayuga County area significantly increasing its craft beverage draw, Schulz, Sigona and others now face a question: How can it draw even more people to the area? With an estimated 10 million people visiting the country's 4,200 breweries yearly, and both figures trending upward, how can Cayuga County become a bigger craft beverage tourism destination?

The simplest solution would seem to be more breweries, more cideries and more distilleries. Indeed, one of the four variables in travel agency Travelocity's formula for grading the beer tourism draw of metropolitan areas is the number of breweries it boasts per 1 million residents. The more breweries, the more draw.

With four breweries and a population of almost 80,000, Cayuga County has about 50 breweries per 1 million residents — putting it well within range of Travelocity's top small metro-area beer tourism destinations. It's unclear, though, how the area's beer tourism score would be calculated from that and the agency's other three variables: rideshare availability (0), nonstop air destinations (13.5 from Syracuse Hancock International Airport) and lodging score (a Travelocity calculation based on average room prices).

If volume is the solution, Cayuga County and the whole Finger Lakes area appear poised for victory. Theresa Hollister, president and co-founder of the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, said that when the trail was launched in February 2011, it counted 24 members in its swath of New York spanning Rochester to Binghamton. Now there are more than 110 — and counting.

"The more publicity the beer trail gets, the more people realize the Finger Lakes isn't just a destination for wine," Hollister said. "I think it's going to go the same with distilleries and cideries. I envision, at some point, it will become a whole craft beverage tourism destination."

The Finger Lakes' nationally known wineries — of which 11 are located in Cayuga County — appear to be a model for tourism by volume. With more than 100 wineries concentrated in a much smaller area than that of the beer trail, wine tours can be conveniently planned along just about any shore of any Finger Lake, Schulz said, whereas beer tours require some more creative mapping.

The two forms of tourism aren't completely analogous, though: Wine may be more isolated and less friendly to inclusion with other craft beverages. Schulz invoked the image of the guy on the wine tour who wants to stay in the car or stop at a bar for a cold one. Spirits and cider, meanwhile, seem to enjoy more crossover on the palates of beer fans: Last Shot owner and distiller Chris Uyehara said he's been working with Prison City, Lunkenheimer and Finger Lakes on Tap, offering their receptive beer crowds a chance to sample his whiskey, gin and more.

Schulz and Sigona also pointed to deeper differences between beer and wine tourism — or, as Schulz said with air quotes, "beer nerds" and "wine snobs."

Prison City Pub & Brewery

Brewer Ben Maeso gets help from his brother Dan Maeso with mashing grains at Prison City Pub & Brewery in Auburn in July 2015.

The latter is more male-driven, Sigona said, and maybe a little less open-minded. Whereas wine fans seem to balance their attention between the beverage's various styles, he continued, beer fans overemphasize the IPA at the expense of sours, saisons, stouts and others. The rising authority of ranking platforms like BeerAdvocate, Untappd and, to be sure, Paste, has also made beer drinkers less adventurous, he said: Sometimes, their minds are made up that a beer is good or bad before they can even whiff it.

Schulz added that he's never heard of wine enthusiasts waiting three hours in line for a bottle or case of it.

The frequent cause of those lines — rankings, awards and almost cultish word-of-mouth — is also demonstrably important to the Cayuga County area's growth as a craft beverage tourism destination, Schulz and Sigona said. It may even be more important than simply adding more producers.

Where Asheville, North Carolina, and Portland, Oregon, became early beer meccas in the '90s and '00s by boasting dozens of breweries per capita, the eastern Massachusetts area has more recently earned as much attention from beer fans on the strength of the critically acclaimed Trillium (Boston/Canton), Tree House (Monson) and Night Shift (Everett) breweries alone, Schulz said.

In Auburn, Prison City saw firsthand the drawing power of such acclaim when Paste's IPA list was published, Schulz and Sigona said. A line of 100-plus snaked outside the brewpub before it even opened for its September Mass Riot release, which eventually saw more than 500 mob its State Street block. Hundreds more followed in December.

"Hype does drive sales," Sigona said. "If they assume it's the best, then everybody wants the best and they're willing to do anything to get it. Prison City having that is huge."

With several national accolades to its name, Schulz said, Prison City has only to make its beer more available to capitalize on its draw. The brewpub frequently gets calls from customers two or three hours away, asking if they'll be able to bring any of its beer home should they make the trip. Given the current strain on brewer Ben Maeso's five-barrel system, however, they can't.

Schulz hopes that with the recent acquisition of the 1,000-square-foot space below Prison City — and, at some point, the construction of a 4,000-7,000-square-foot production facility in Auburn — that situation will change in the near future. Until then, he said, some people will balk at traveling for beer they can't take with them.

Instead of simply more beer, then, Schulz and Sigona believe the key to making the Cayuga County area a bigger craft beverage tourism destination is more of the right beer. Travelocity's formula may not account for quality. But the two believe adding breweries, cideries and distilleries won't increase the area's craft tourism draw as much as more distinction for its already existing ones will.

"People aren't going to just travel around because there's a concentration of breweries," Schulz said. "They want to travel because there's a concentration of amazing breweries."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.


Features editor for The Citizen.