Taste Virginia puts craft beverage fans on a bus to Southside hot spots

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Taste Virginia's bus tours to local beverage makers are part of the booming craft beer scene on the Southside, and a window into next-generation, year-round tourism for the area. (Courtesy Taste Virginia)
Taste Virginia’s bus tours to local beverage makers are part of the booming craft beer scene on the Southside, and a window into next-generation, year-round tourism for the area. (Courtesy Taste Virginia)

It seats twelve passengers. It stops at the Southside’s craft-beverage hot spots. And at a time when beer tourism is catching on in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, it generates Instagram-worthy moments.

Just don’t think of it as a party bus.

So goes the landscape of Taste Taste Virginia Tours, a Virginia Beach-based company that specializes in guided trips to craft-beverage makers, farms, restaurants and wineries. The venture combines 21st-century tourism trends with the owners’ interest in local food and beverages.

“We don’t sell brewery tours,” Rex Hamaker, a co-owner with his wife Lisa, said in a recent phone interview. “We sell an experience.”

Taste Virginia Inc., formerly known as Taste Tidewater Tours, began conceptually in 2006, with a personal embrace of diet and lifestyle changes, including healthy eating, Hamaker said. A winery tour in Stafford, Va. provided further inspiration, along with the realization that there was no comparable service for the Tidewater area. The Hamakers, who met as students at Cox High School, have family ties to the region dating back to the 17th century.

“We love what the area has to offer,” he said. “There’s so much local, fresh stuff here.”

That sensibility comes through in Taste Virginia’s approach. Their black executive coach is available for outings such as craft beer and winery tours in Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Williamsburg, a winery tour to the Northern Neck, and craft beer, wine and oyster outings in Norfolk.

Tidewater tour bus
Taste Virginia co-owners Rex and Lisa Hamaker met as Cox High School students. (Courtesy Taste Virginia)

The price varies according to the experience. A four-hour visit to three Virginia Beach breweries is $44 per person. A four-hour local oyster and craft-beer — “An Experience 400 years in the making!” according to Taste Virginia’s website — costs $89, including tastings. More information is available online here.

About 75 to 80 percent of Taste Virginia’s business comes from local residents, including corporate and team-building events, Hamaker said. On average, they do two to three tours weekly, typically on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They’ve done bachelor parties, bachelorette parties and interpreted tours for French- and Chinese-speaking guests. Their biggest competition in Virginia Beach is the summer, when visitors flock to the oceanfront.

Even local residents often don’t realize what the craft-beverage scene has to offer, he added.

“It really opens their eyes,” he said.

That’s a theme that resonates with a local tourism official, especially as Virginia Beach strives to market itself as a year-round destination.

“We think this is a growing trend in the tourism space and we welcome it,” said Tiffany Russell, vice president of marketing and communications for the City of Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Obviously our brewery scene is continuing to grow, which is fantastic,” Russell said.

There’s no local research about craft-beverage tourism, according to Russell. Still, statewide data provides some insights.

During fiscal year 2015, four percent of travelers to coastal Virginia said they visited craft breweries, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Four percent visited wineries. A smaller number of visitors — fewer than .05 percent – said they had been to craft distilleries.

In the summer, the beach is a great natural asset, Russell said. But to appeal to a younger generation of travelers, including those who might come during the offseason from the Washington, D.C. area, spotlighting coastal culture is key.

“They want to have experiences,” Russell said, referring to millennial tourists.

say cheese
Craft-beverage tours provide the kind of personalized, Instagram-ready experience millennial visitors are looking for. (Courtesy Taste Virginia)

Plus, during the fall, winter and spring, when the beach is more of a backdrop, craft beverage makers offer a setting and moments that visitors can share on social media.

A beer producer who works with Taste Virginia echoes Russell’s view about the appeal of craft-beverage tourism, like tasting trails.

“It’s new,” said Tanya Calcagni, tasting and tours coordinator at Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing Co. “It’s different.”

Calcagni, who started at O’Connor in May 2016, has worked with Taste Virginia on about 20 tours, she said. The customers spend about hour to 90 minutes at the brewery, which gives them time to sample beers and check out the production facility, according to Calcagni. Craft-beer veterans tend to gravitate toward small-batch beers, which are harder to find; newcomers tend to sample flagship beers, which are made year-round and are a little more relatable, .

The tours mean O’Connor can showcase its products and educate the public about craft beer – and that’s better for everyone, she added.

“I think beer tourism is one of those things that have helped,” she said. “They’re kind of part of the equation,” she added, referring to Taste Virginia.

Hamaker, who has seen a steady increase in online bookings, points to an indicator of the Southside’s growing appeal as a travel destination: customers typically find them online line, looking for craft brewery or food tours.

“People are Googling it,” he said.