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Food & Drink

Brewery visits show different sides of vacation spots

| Tuesday, July 5, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Visitors enjoy sampling beer at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati.
Rhinegeist Brewery
Visitors enjoy sampling beer at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati.
Visitors enjoy sampling beer at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati.
Rhinegeist Brewery
Visitors enjoy sampling beer at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati.

Every travel itinerary for Bob Parker includes at least two addresses — his hotel and the nearest brewery.

“My primary interest is just in trying new beers because a lot of the craft-brew scene is very local,” says Parker, a 44-year-old engineer and homebrewer in Ohio Township. “I always like to go and find ones that I've never heard of before.”

He isn't the only traveler for whom a brewery is a required stop when exploring a new town. Craft-beer bus expeditions and self-guided brewery tours have become increasingly prevalent.

But the appeal of breweries need not be limited to beer geeks. I submit that curious travelers can learn as much about a city from its breweries as from its other cultural attractions.

Breweries are not just places to get your buzz on. They are social hubs that offer insights into a community's tastes, its art and values.

The styles produced by smaller craft brewers reflect local preferences, with the bulk of the beer sold within a 50-mile radius at nearby pubs and bottle shops.

And breweries are a great place to meet people who actually live and work in the community, not just other tourists. They tend to attract a cross section of demographics and cultivate a relaxed vibe that fosters conversation with strangers.

I thought of this recently on a trip to Cincinnati. My family and I were in the Queen City for only a few days, but we made sure to stop in at what has become its premier brewery, Rhinegeist.

When we were there in April, a portion of the brewery's cavernous 25,000-square-foot tasting area was hosting a child's birthday party. Across the room, 20-somethings played cornhole and table tennis. My family and I scarfed our food at one of the long tables near the taps, chatting with neighbors about our impressions of Rheingeist's latest release, called B-Side IPA. Everybody seemed perfectly natural around one another, a kind of gumbo of Cincinnati culture.

“I think Rhinegeist is a really good representation of the culture and the city, not just the downtown area,” said Katie Hoffman, community engagement manager at Rhinegeist. “You get the cool dads from the suburbs, the kids from Downtown, the hipster grannies.”

(For the record: I didn't see any grannies in ironic T-shirts or trucker hats, but I'll take her word for it.)

Rhinegeist celebrates its locale, the neighborhood known as “Over the Rhine.” The German name Rhinegeist translates to “Ghost of the Rhine,” a reference to the historic brewery district where it operates inside a 19th-century Moerlein bottling plant on Elm Street. It is more than a production facility — it is a living museum of Cincinnati's brewing heritage.

Walking there from our downtown hotel, my wife and I took our kids through streets I might never have traversed without the promise of beer at the end. Not that the neighborhoods we crossed were dangerous, but they also weren't exactly highlighted for “family fun” in Cincinnati's official tourist guide.

Over the Rhine was ground zero for one of the largest race riots in American history 15 years ago. The neighborhood has come a long way since. But you don't have to walk far before you see signs of social neglect in the crumbling sidewalks and boarded-up windows of vacant homes.

“There are still people who think they are afraid to come here,” Hoffman says. “When I talk to people on the phone, they still have some hesitations, but then they come to the space and understand why we're up here.”

I was glad to have seen it. I'm not interested only in the scrubbed up versions of a city, and breweries can bring you to less-traveled corridors. Many breweries are tucked away in the least touristy parts of town, in warehouses and commercial districts where space is plentiful and cheap.

Breweries are often at the leading edge of community-redevelopment efforts, and they offer an interesting vision not only into what a city is at the moment, but what it is becoming. Consider the transformations happening in Pittsburgh neighborhoods where breweries have located — the East End (East End Brewing), Lawrenceville (Hop Farm, Roundabout) and the North Side (War Streets, Allegheny City Brewing).

Restaurants and shops have sprung up around Rhinegeist since it opened in 2013 as it gave residents reason to venture beyond the nearest major attraction — the historic Findlay Market.

Parker has discovered new neighborhoods, as well, when seeking out a brewery.

He was in Rochester, N.Y., last summer and found himself driving down Mt. Hope Avenue near the Genessee River. It was a part of town that, back in the 1990s when he was a student in Rochester, was not an area to stop and hang out.

Which is why he was curious to see a couple of guys standing outside a painted-brick building, holding beers and laughing. They were patrons of Swiftwater Brewing.

Parker and a buddy went back later that night and began chatting with a guy behind the bar. The guy asked, “You here for the 10:30 p.m. tour?”

No tour actually was scheduled. But Parker's new acquaintance happened to be Andy Cook, Swiftwater's owner, who was eager to show them around.

“It was just a blast,” Parker says. “And it was the kind of thing that was completely accidental.”

Chance encounters and meeting new people. For many of us, that's the thrill of travel.

Think of the stories you bring back from a trip. Are they about visiting the attractions listed in Fodor's Travel Guide, or the random people you met and experiences you never expected to have?

Chris Fleisher is spending his vacation on Florida's west coast, where he plans to spend as much time checking out breweries as at the beach.

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