Friday, January 27, 2023

Drink Williamsburg bus brakes for craft beverages, all year-round

Drink Williamsburg founders are offering a safe, responsible way for craft-beverage enthusiasts to taste what's on tap in Williamsburg. (Courtesy Drink Williamsburg)
Drink Williamsburg’s bus tours are tapping into local and non-local interest in what’s on tap in Williamsburg year-round. (Courtesy Drink Williamsburg)

If Lance Zaal and Adam Theis have their way, they’ll be the designated drivers for a new generation of craft-beverage enthusiasts in Williamsburg.

The new tourist experience is not so much about Colonial Williamsburg’s iconic Governor’s Palace. It’s more about what the governor might have had down the street at a tavern, before riding home in a carriage.

That’s roughly the idea behind Drink Williamsburg, a 2016 start-up that offers bus tours to craft brewers and distillers.

The niche Zaal and Theis see themselves filling is straightforward. They give visitors and locals a safe, responsible way to enjoy a different sort of colonial-inspired history – one with resonance in the era of social media and experience-driven tourism.

“We thought there was an opportunity to do something fun in Williamsburg,” Zaal said in a recent phone interview.

Theis and Zaal launched their service last fall. They have a 14-passenger bus that stops at Silver Hand Meadery, 224 Monticello Ave., Copper Fox Distillery, 901 Capitol Landing Rd., Williamsburg Distillery, 7218 Merrimac Trail, the Virginia Beer Co., 401 Second St., and Brass Cannon Brewing Co., 5476 Mooretown Rd.

beer tasting
Drink Williamsburg customers can choose between a $60 tour of four craft-beverage makers or a three-hour happy-hour crawl for $35. (Courtesy Drink Williamsburg)

The four-hour tours cost $60 per person and include tastings. They’re available Wednesday through Sunday at 1 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 5 p.m., according to the website for Drink Williamsburg, which bills itself as “The Ultimate Drinking Experience.” There’s also a three-hour “happy hour crawl” at 6 p.m. every day but Sunday for $35, not including drinks.

So far, about 60 percent of Drink Williamsburg’s patrons have been visitors to the area, Zaal said, with locals making up the remainder.

For Silver Hand Meadery’s Glenn Lavender, the tours give him a chance to spotlight his mead, a honey-based fermented alcoholic beverage. To frame the experience as something that is not just about getting wasted, he offers honey tastings to awaken participants’ senses of smell and taste.

“We’re trying to focus more on the art,” he said.

The bus outings also give people from other places in Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach a reason to come to the Historic Triangle during the off-season, he added.

“I think it’s a smart thing,” he said.

no honey bear
A honey tasting for is part of the visit for Drink Williamsburg customers at Silver Hand Meadery, (Courtesy Drink Williamsburg)

Another beverage producer echoed his view.

“So far it’s been a fantastically positive experience,” said Karen Gattuso, the manager at Copper Fox Distillery.

At Copper Fox, customers get off the bus near the shop and take a roughly 20-minute tour of the site, including bottling, barrel storage and the tasting room. They also have a 30- to 40-minute tasting.

“So it’s really easy,” Gattuso said.

On top of that, she added, it’s an opportunity for local craft producers to boost awareness of each other and their industry, like the Williamsburg Tasting Trail, which is a separate entity, she stressed.

Together, though, the tasting trail and bus tours such as Drink Williamsburg and Taste Virginia, a Virginia Beach-based bus service that also features Williamsburg, allow for cross promotion.

“All of that benefits all of us,” she said.

A local tourism official also points to upsides. Drink Williamsburg offers visitors a nightlife option they didn’t have before, as well as a reason to come to the Historic Triangle during the fall, winter and spring, said Bob Harris, senior vice president of tourism at the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance.

“It really gives us that year-round spirit,” he said.

Plus, services such as Drink Williamsburg have the potential to draw a new generation of visitors, including younger travelers who want to share their outings on social media, according to Harris.

“This is a big part of their weekend travel experience,” he said, referring to millennials. “We love having this kind of stuff.”

Drink Williamsburg's 14-passenger bus has wooden floors and is available for private parties and corporate outings. (Photo Drink Williamsburg)
Drink Williamsburg’s 14-passenger bus has wooden floors and is available for private parties and corporate outings. (Photo Drink Williamsburg)

That’s a sensibility Drink Williamsburg’s cofounders get. The average age of their patrons is roughly late 20s to early 30s, Zaal said. Some are in the early 40s, according to Theis.

Customers find Drink Williamsburg through a variety of digital and nondigital means, including social media, word of mouth and internet searches for craft-beverage tours, according to Theis. And with the start of the summer season looming, they’ve seen an uptick in inquiries within the past few weeks, he added. 

“If you’re a group at a time share, we can come pick you up,” Theis said.

For another producer, the mere existence of such a service is a basis for cautious optimism – a sign of the growing scale of the Historic Triangle’s craft-beverage scene.

“The great thing about these tours is you know they’re here to learn about you and your business,” said Michael Claar, director of operations at Alewerks Brewing Co., 197B Ewell Rd. “It’s not just a party.”

Note: This story has been updated to include Virginia Beer Co.

 

Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, TIME.com, nationalgeographic.com and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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