Think you know craft beer? Sure, you can pick an IPA from a pale ale, and a porter from a stout. But unless you've been to the US and immersed yourself in its behemoth craft scene, you're really only blowing the froth off the top of the true experience.
Consider this: at the Australian Independent Beer Awards (the 'Indies') this year, 10 different styles of craft beer were judged. At the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last year, a total of 102 expressions were represented. Think fruit beers, wheat beers and fruit-wheat beers; barrel-aged ales and sour ales; coffee, chocolate and honey beers; pilseners and bocks, saisons and zwickelbiers; and too many Belgian and German-themed variations to count.
At last count, Australia has just over 400 craft breweries, according to the Independent Brewers' Association, in a growing market. In the US, where craft brewing has already experienced a domestic boom, there are more than 6300 craft breweries, all looking for new ways to broaden their reach.
Enter San Diego-based craft beer enthusiast and project manager Ruby Benoit, who is championing an ambitious plan to open the door to "beer tourism" between mature craft beer markets such as the US and Canada, and developing ones such as Australia and China.
"There are so many different beer styles and I've been lucky to enjoy some really tasty beer in all parts of the world," she says.
"Since Australia's craft beer scene is still growing, Australian craft beer enthusiasts haven't been exposed to the huge variety of craft beer styles out there."
Just around the world
In around 14 hours' flying time, Australians can land in Los Angeles and take their pick of West Coast craft beer strongholds including San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Portland. Other states with vibrant craft beer scenes include Colorado and North Carolina. In Columbus, Ohio, you can even stay in the world's first craft-beer themed hotel, , where you will be greeted at reception with a complimentary beer and find craft beer on-tap in your room, which has a window into the adjoining brewery.
Benoit says craft beer enthusiasts display connoisseurship similar to fans of wine or whisky. "They know what they like and they want to taste the best craft beer that is out there," she says.
A two-way flow of craft beer tourists between the US and Australia would be expected to deliver substantial economic benefits to both countries with trips not only to craft beer cellar doors, but also to fine dining and agritourism, as well as traditional tourist activities.
Australians visiting the better-established US craft beer industry can also expect to find 'bed & brew' packages, organised craft beer tours including a 'beer cruise', and a range of outdoor-style adventure activities that end at – you guessed it – a craft beer brewery.
To market to market
Erika Petersons, a Newcastle-based travel consultant for Well Connected Travel, says there is "absolutely" a market for a craft beer-led boom in inter-Pacific tourism.
"People are demanding unique experiences and by going to a craft brewery, which may not be on the tourist trail, you also get the opportunity to enjoy all the other craft and food options in that neighbourhood as well," she says.
"We're already seeing a lot of interest in beer degustations, featuring local brewers matching their beer with locally sourced food. Craft beer is booming everywhere, and a lot of people are keen to seek out more and better ways to enjoy it."
Open door policy
Will Tatchell, the owner of Tasmanian-based Van Dieman Brewing and a board member of the Independent Brewers Association, says it's still early days, but he sees nothing but upside in an exchange of knowledge between Australian and US brewers, plus the opening of new experiences for craft beer enthusiasts.
"Craft brewers are incredibly sharing of their knowledge and we're always looking to grow that, so Ruby's plan really has no downside for us," he says.
"In consumer terms, that knowledge exchange helps us to brew a better product so we're encouraging enthusiasts to first explore their own backyard, and then look to the US, which really is mammoth."
Benoit says she is well advanced in discussions in both Australia and the US and hopes to roll out her 'beer tourism' initiative in 2019.