Inspired by growth in the county's craft beer industry, Howard County Tourism & Promotion is using modern technology to prompt beer lovers to do some exploring.
The state's first regional beer trail app — HowardOnTap — was released Friday by the tourism council, a not-for-profit marketing organization based in the Howard County Welcome Center on Main Street in Ellicott City.
The free app can be downloaded for Apple iPhones and iPads, said Amanda Hof, partnership promotions manager for the tourism group.
"We've taken a classic concept to the next level with new technology," she said of the app, which covers stops at seven area locations, five in Howard County.
"Even though you download it, you have to physically go to these places and check in," she said. "You touch, smell and taste each place on the trail."
Hof said the tourism staff has long dreamed of producing a wine app — and still hopes to, sometime in the future. But breweries have been first to pop up in Howard County, which has no winery within its borders.
"Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. has brewed beer for years," she said. "With Jailbreak opening and Victoria Gastro Pub expanding, we thought it was time to do this."
Hof said interest continues to grow in craft beers.
"People want the experience of seeing where beer is made and smelling the hops, which have a distinctive aroma, and they want to talk to the brewmaster," Hof said.
"This tool will make all of those things easier for them."
Users of the application are prompted to push a button each time they arrive at one of the seven locations to record each visit. "Each time you reach a milestone, a beer glass pops up and fills up little by little," Hof said. "Once you complete the trail, we notify you that we have a HowardOnTap branded souvenir beer glass waiting for you at the welcome center. "
She said 1,000 glasses have been ordered, and staff "would be thrilled to order more" if the app gains in popularity.
Kevin Atticks, who represents the Maryland Wineries Association, the Brewers Association of Maryland and the newly formed Maryland Distillers Guild, predicts the app will be well received as the first of its kind.
"Craft beer lovers are very tech-engaged, and follow or use many online resources to track their favorite beer and breweries," he said.
Randy Marriner, co-owner of Victoria Gastro Pub and Ellicott City's Manor Hill Brewing, said the app has a lot of interplay built into it and people usually find that appealing.
"Conceptually, it's a great idea," he said. "It has the potential to be really fun, and we're happy to be a part of it."
The app will debut with seven participating locations, though there are 51 craft breweries in Maryland and 18 more in the works, Hof said. The plan is to keep adding locations in or near the county as they become available.
Two of the five county locations on the trail brew beer on-site: Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., in Ellicott City, and Jailbreak Brewing Co., in North Laurel.
Three other county locations on the app sell beer made off-site: Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, which makes its beer at Manor Hill Brewing; The Ale House Columbia, which is connected to Baltimore-based Oliver Brewing Co.; and Rams Head Tavern, in Savage Mill, which brews its beer at Fordham and Dominion Brewery in Delaware.
The app's remaining two locations are on-site beer producers located near Howard: Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe and Red Shedman Farm Brewery & Hop Yard, on the Frederick County side of Mount Airy.
Information on area hotels and taxi services is also available on the app for those who want to book an overnight stay or travel among the sites on the beer trail.
After Hof suggested the project a year ago, the tourism council turned to an Ellicott City firm for assistance. Ellicott City residents Bill and Kristin Vucina founded TownSprout in 2013 with an app that helps visitors and residents learn about goings-on in the historic town. That initial venture grew into writing custom apps, the owners said.
The tourism council was "a very exciting customer to work for [because] the staff really grasps newer technologies," Bill Vucina said. "We prototyped ideas, and they tweaked them."
The beer trail app has "a lot of bells and whistles," Hof said, including an initial reward for downloading it and the glass for completing the trail.
Designers even thought to include a reward for dedicated app users who complete the trail twice: a "growler" — a reusable glass container that can be filled by a brewery and capped for carryout.
"We have worked closely with the developer on the metrics, which will let us see how many people have downloaded the app, when they've checked into places, and what other information areas they're viewing," Hof said.
The tourism council will use the data to decide what's working and what's not, and to modify the app as necessary, she said.
"We are ecstatic about this," Hof said. "It's one of the most exciting projects we've ever worked on, and we're thrilled to be first."