Hop Head is expanding its offerings to beer festivals and regional tours.
Banish the image of a "drunk bus" from your mind -- Hop Head Beer Tours is about responsible, safe, and respectful enjoyment of Midwest brewing regions. In December, founders Justin Schmitz and Felipe Moreira will celebrate the fourth anniversary of their brewery tour company, which has grown from offering a handful of bus tours of Madison-area breweries to a full-fledged craft beer appreciation project.
"We want to introduce people to local and regional beers safely, to let people learn and have a safe ride," Moreira says, adding that Wisconsin's reputation as a drinking state -- and issues with drunk driving -- helped inspire their mission.
"It took a while for us to take off, but now the breweries want our business. We have good relationships with them," Moreira explains. "We're not a party bus or a pub crawl. When people call us we make sure they understand that, and ask them what kind of experience they have in mind." Drinking, in fact, is not allowed on the bus itself: "I mean, do you really need to drink a beer in the 10 minutes or so between breweries? There is plenty of beer at the breweries!" reads a Hop Head ticket FAQ.
What's kept customers attending are well-informed, well-organized and educational tours, with new offerings every year. "That's why we've been successful -- we're always looking to do something new and eclectic," says Schmitz.
Love bike touring? Hop Head has a tour for you: Its bike tours of Madison-area breweries all sold out in 2014, with 175 guests attending the 10 tours offered. Next year, Hop Head will be shooting for bike tours every other week, in season. Hop Head will also add a Milwaukee bike tour specifically aimed at those who are comfortable with urban cycling in traffic. "We have a good relationship with Lakefront [Brewery] already, and Schlitz has a really cool location. The tour would really get into the history of beer in Wisconsin," says Schmitz.
For food lovers and cooks interested in exploring the culinary side of beer, Hop Head also offers beer dinners with prominent area chefs and food artisans. Guests tour a brewery to taste craft beers on their own, then attend a three-course pairing dinner that puts the beers in context with local foods. Diners are also able to chat with the brewer and chef.
This is Hop Head's third year offering beer dinners, all of which will be held at the Capitol Chophouse. The next one up, featuring Wisconsin Brewing Company, Candinas chocolates and Edelweiss Cheese Shop, is Nov. 8. An Ale Asylum dinner is slated for Jan. 10, and one featuring Capital Brewery for March 7. "Last year, our Ale Asylum and Karben4 dinners both sold out," says Moreira.
And for those interested in a more comprehensive "beergrimage" experience, Hop Head offers multi-day regional tours. Private tours can be scheduled, and the company hopes to expand its public tours. Already scheduled is a multi-day jaunt to Michigan breweries March 6-8, 2015; details are still being nailed down for a Chicago tour in February. Schmitz says he's also been exploring Colorado breweries for a possible tour next year.
In keeping with its mission to reduce irresponsible drinking, Hop Head has also been providing shuttles to an increasing number of festivals, from Firkin Fest in Milwaukee to Great Taste of the Midwest. "There's been more and more demand for those," says Schmitz. In time, he says, he may look to partner with other bus tour groups to form some kind of brewery tour safety organization.
"There hasn't been anything going on that really celebrates the history of beer here, so we wanted to do that," Moreira explains. "It's not about drinking so much as learning."