Maryland Brewery Tours has started a brewery tour to the different beer makers of Howard County, including Jailbreak Brewing, Frisco Taphouse and Brewery and Black Flag Brewery. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
As tourists piled out of the bus and into Manor Hill Brewing's farmhouse-style taproom, Chad D'Amore asked the group what they wanted to do first: take a tour of the brewery or try the beer.
They chose the beer.
The group was on the maiden voyage of Maryland Brewery Tours, which launched its afternoon trips to four Howard County Breweries on Fourth of July weekend.
The tour leaves from and returns to the Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel, which offers discounted lodging to those enjoying a complimentary pint at each stop. Beer-lovers are whisked around on a charter bus and given commemorative glasses to take home. In between stops, D'Amore entertains riders with trivia and prize giveaways.
D'Amore is the founder and CEO of CoFestCo, an events production company hosts Columbia's Hops & Harvest Festival, which celebrates local beer and food.
The festival helped beer tourism gain traction in the community, D'Amore says, and Howard County Tourism reached out regarding a formal tour of the area's breweries.
Anthony Cordo, executive director of the Howard County Tourism Council, says brewery tours are "the most ideal kind of tourism," as beer enthusiasts are likely to buy a meal to go along with their beverages and stay at a local hotel overnight.
New state legislation also "spurred a lot of interest in revising how we approach [beer tourism] as a state and create opportunities for the breweries to grow and thrive," D'Amore says.
At each stop, tourists can enjoy their beer in a taproom while awaiting a behind-the-scenes tour of the brewing process. The taprooms are diverse — Manor Hill's in Ellicott City is wood-paneled and rustic, while Jailbreak Brewing Co.'s in Laurel looks like a sleek, renovated warehouse. Push American Brewing Co. is housed in Frisco Tap House in Columbia, where tour-goers can grab a bite to eat, and Black Flag Brewing Co., also in Columbia, features a not-to-be-missed Star Wars mural.
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David Atkinson and Tynes Minor, both of Baltimore, booked their seats on the July 1 tour "for the love of beer," they say.
"Four spots in one day? Pure gold," Atkinson says.
Jane Dembner, a Columbia native, used to bike between breweries in the Pacific Northwest on her own version of a brewery tour. She's excited to see the microbrewery scene attract interest on the East Coast — and among women, she says.
"It used to be only men that drank beer," she says. "It's nice to see all the women here."
Maryland Brewery Tours is looking to expand into Baltimore, Frederick and Montgomery counties. D'Amore's long-term vision is to "cross-polinate," taking tourists from breweries in Howard County to those in the adjacent counties in one circuitous route.
The Columbia native, 34, has worked in event production for more than a decade and says he sensed a hole in the market when he moved back to his hometown a few years ago.
"Other than Wine in the Woods and programs at Merriweather [Post Pavilion], there's not a whole lot else," D'Amore says. He'd been considering a brewery tour after organizing Hops & Harvest Festival but didn't act on the idea until Howard County Tourism approached him.
While he's not an "aficionado by any means," D'Amore says he appreciates a good beer and the culture surrounding brewing.
"It's a good group of people who … know the simple things a lot of the times can be some of the most important things," he says.
Maryland Brewery Tours' next bus trips are scheduled for Aug. 5 and Aug. 19. Tours leave from the Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel (where tour-goers can get discounted lodging and drinks) at 11:45 a.m. and return at 5 p.m. $65. mdbrewerytours.com.