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A prescription for how Wisconsin can become a Napa Valley of beer

Considering where breweries are located around the state, it makes sense to consider five distinct regions.
Considering where breweries are located around the state, it makes sense to consider five distinct regions.
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During the recent session of the state Legislature, Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel) introduced a bill to create a Wisconsin Beer Commission. This proposal to boost beer tourism around the state made a splash, in part, due to Tauchen's pitch that it could help make Wisconsin the "Napa Valley of beer." It's a prospect that's liable to excite beer geeks.

Tauchen introduced the bill (AB 856) fairly late in the now-concluded session, but is confident it will pass eventually. His intention is to get plenty of feedback on the proposal from stakeholders so the bill can be reintroduced "as close to right as possible" in the next session beginning January 2015. Craft brewery owners have expressed support for the concept since it was unveiled, including New Glarus Brewing co-owner Deb Carey.

But how does a state grow an (increasingly universal) interest in craft beer into a tourism destination? What would a Wisconsin Beer Commission need to do to realize the vision of a "Napa Valley of beer" -- and is that a worthy goal?

For starters, it's worth noting a few key differences between Napa Valley and Wisconsin, the most obvious of which is that the former is in fact a county and a designated American Viticultural Area, rather than an entire state. Napa is 788 square miles; Wisconsin is 65,556.

There's no doubt beer geeks love to travel, and Wisconsin boasts an impressive number of critically acclaimed breweries worth a trip. This writer personally cites Wisconsin craft beer culture as a major draw beckoning her to relocate from the state of New York, the central part of which provides a potential comparison when it comes to promoting tourism.

Finger Lakes Wine County in New York is divided into three primary trails (Cayuga, Keuka, and Seneca, which is typically divided into east and west options), each with specific tours intended to give tourists the chance to experience each one's distinct personality. A corresponding "beer trail" has recently been established, but because it currently includes a handful of craft breweries, it is only a single, spread-out trail for now.

The promotion of Wisconsin "beer country" could benefit from this approach too. Considering where breweries are located around the state, it makes sense to consider five distinct regions. These clusters of brewing activity can roughly be found in the northwest (points north and west of La Crosse and Eau Claire), the Fox River Valley, the upper Wisconsin River valley (primarily Wausau and the Stevens Point area), Milwaukee, and Madison/Driftless (Dane County along with points south and west). In a 2010 Isthmus piece exploring Wisconsin's viability as a "Napa Valley-style destination for the beer and cheese set," the focus was on the final region, with one tour traversing New Glarus to Monroe and another centered around Reedsburg and La Valle.

Transportation is a key factor in the accessibility, safety, responsibility and pleasure of artisanal beverage tourism. While Napa's most popular touring method is the rental car and winery map, the county also offers a wine train, jeep tours, a hot air balloon tour, bike-friendly routes, and the ubiquitous bus-and-limo tours found across every wine region.

Wisconsin's strength as a bicycling state -- it is currently ranked 8th (PDF) in the U.S. by the League of American Bicyclists -- can shine when it comes to beer tourism. By building up bike infrastructure between breweries, craft beer producers can tap into the huge bike-and-beer crowd and the growing popularity of bicycle touring, not just within the urban beer regions, but extending to breweries on the peripheries and, perhaps someday with proper trail creation, even between all five regions.

Many breweries in Madison already reward visitors for bringing their bikes, including Thursday bike special at One Barrel Brewing and Bicycle Benefits partnerships. Similar concepts could be implemented in other Wisconsin beer regions, along with trail, bike lane, and parking improvements.

Not everyone is able or willing to bike, though, so it's imperative to offer bus or limo services, with drivers who could both educate the public on Wisconsin beer history and keep a watchful eye out for on-board drunkenness, a practice craft beverage producers despise. Communication between drivers and destinations is imperative to foster a positive experience for both tourists and breweries.

Madison-based Hop Head Beer Tours is a good example. The company offers public and chartered tours around southern Wisconsin, and does not allow alcohol on its own tour bus (but may when it charters a licensed bus, and only craft beer under that circumstance), which fosters a better brewery tour experience by discouraging the "drunk bus" phenomenon many wine regions face.

But why stop there? I love Napa's Balloons Above the Valley, an idea that could just as well show off our Wisconsin's natural beauty. Jeep tours, too, would be a hoot in the more rural destinations. Or adapt the Napa Valley Wine Train concept -- it could offer meals and a more relaxing atmosphere than a bus, and would dovetail with a history-focused tour. Imagine a beer train bringing passengers from Milwaukee to Madison and back again, on board with lovingly served Wisconsin-made beer, cheese and brats.

Of course, at this point rail in Wisconsin is thoroughly politicized, but one can imagine, say, the Wisconsin Southern line from Madison to Prairie du Chien hosting a beer tour with stops that allow riders access to Capital in Middleton, the Shitty Barn in Spring Green, Lake Louie in Arena, and Woodman Brewery.

One key aspect of beer tourism is an understanding by tour guides of Wisconsin's unique contributions to beer in America. The state has a rich brewing history, one that's showcased at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi and at the Pabst and Miller tours in Milwaukee. A broader slate of region-based tours could also speak to Wisconsin's dairy heritage and even incorporate farm visits, creating more spending opportunities for tourists and a chance to see beer in another craft context.

Developing tourism around Wisconsin's beer regions stands to benefit the entire state. Along with its specified role of vending at the State Fair, a Wisconsin Beer Commission could also plan and advocate improved transportation infrastructure and promote tourism opportunities that explore both historical and contemporary brewing stories. Wisconsin has the makings of a great beer destination already, but facilitating access and cultivating a richer, more multifaceted experience could be our slam-dunk. A beer commission, if enacted, must place these issues front and center when considering what a "Napa Valley of beer" might entail.

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