While the popularity of ever-expanding North Bay breweries has now been well documented, the region is seeing an uptick in tourism related to craft beer, drawing visitors from afar and prompting new business to form around the sector, much like the wine industry in its infancy.
Last week, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board released a first-ever study of the craft brewing industry, finding that it contributed an estimated $123 million to the local economy in 2012 while directly supporting 500 jobs.
The study highlights a growing niche forming for a wide swath of businesses, particularly the tourism sector, as demand for artisan beer, ciders and liquors increases across both the country and the North Bay.
"It's definitely a draw" to the region, said Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer of Sonoma County Tourism, adding that the county is currently researching exactly how much of an impact it's having on lodging.
"We are in the middle of some visitor intercept research," he said. "While the numbers are not complete and only represent two months of data -- we're gathering data for a full-year -- I can say preliminary research on Sonoma County overnight visitors shows that about 2 percent of our visitors go to a brewery in Sonoma County during their stay.”
Sales of Sonoma County craft beer are growing by a rate of nearly triple the national average -- craft beer sales by volume increased 15 percent nationwide in 2012, while in Sonoma County, sales by volume rose 41 percent, according to the study, part of a broader effort by the EDB to gain economic insight and identify opportunities for growth for Sonoma County’s craft beer, cider and sprit industries.
As of February, there were 18 craft breweries in Sonoma County, eight of which opened in the last two years, according to the study. But it's not just Sonoma County, although the county is home to several well-established craft beer juggernauts: Petaluma's Lagunitas Brewing Company, Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing Company, Third Street Aleworks, also in Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing Company.
The momentum of craft beer extends throughout the Bay Area and California, prompting at least one local company seeking to capitalize on brewing interest.
Rohnert Park-based North Bay Brewery Tours was founded three years ago by two brothers and a friend, James and Ron Holt and Robert Watkins, home brewers themselves, at about the same time interest in Russian River Brewing Company's Pliny the Younger exploded nationwide.
The business model is straightforward: with deep knowledge of brewing and familiarity with the region, offer visitors a safe means of transportation to breweries while providing lessons on brewing.
"We've all been home brewing since we were old enough to drink beer," James Holt said. "We've been into the back-end of the beer scene forever. Naturally, we took a look at wine tours and realized a huge niche could be filled -- no one was serving the breweries. We were already familiar with the brewers. We got to talking and all the breweries were on board."
Mr. Holt said North Bay Brewery Tours started with one 14-passenger bus in 2011. Today, the startup is expanding its fleet to include two 14-passenger shuttle buses and two 20-passenger buses -- all with Kegerators on board -- reflecting the increased demand in beer-related visits.