With an assist from the State Tourism Office, Delaware’s beer, wine and spirits producers are attracting a growing number of visitors

By Kevin Noonan

A few tasty pairings
at Crooked Hammock
in Middletown. Photos courtesy DEonTap.com

Delaware has always been proud of the things that are uniquely ours, and the state has always pushed and promoted the things with which we identify, especially in the areas of food and drink. We’re known for oyster feasts (for men), shrimp feasts (for women), restaurants that serve muskrat, giant pans for frying chicken, catapults that launch pumpkins into the sky and even a festival that pays homage to that most maligned of foods, scrapple.

And now the State of Delaware has set its sights on promoting another local product that is becoming increasingly popular — beer.

Actually, it’s not just beer. In recent years there has been phenomenal growth in the number of local breweries, wineries, distilleries and meaderies throughout the state. Local craft beers and brew pubs, in particular, have flourished in all three counties.

The Delaware State Tourism board noticed that growth, especially its popularity with young adults, and reacted accordingly. It started the Delaware Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail, which highlights and promotes the craft alcohol industry, as well as the satellite industries that also profit from tourists, whether they’re from Delaware or out of state.

“We started working with the craft beer industry in 2009-2010,’’ says Liz Keller, the director of the Delaware Tourism Office. “We were able to bring the craft breweries and wineries to one table to talk about how can we really raise the profile of the state, and that’s when we launched [the Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail].”

Dogfish Head in Milton is one of the trail’s most popular stops, but the brewery now has plenty of company to help tell Delaware’s craft alcohol story.

That trail initially was called the Delaware Wine and Ale Trail and comprised 12 wineries and breweries. Now there are 29 breweries, wineries, distilleries and meaderies. Since breweries make up the majority of stops on the trail — 19 of them — they now get top billing.

Key to the trail is an app that tracks visits to the establishments, and anyone who completes the trail gets a commemorative beer glass. Keller says the app has been downloaded 3,000 times and more than 1,000 people have completed the trail. There was also a 38 percent increase in trail completions after the app was installed. Those completions are evenly divided by Delawareans and out-of-state visitors. The top states to complete the trail are, in order, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

Information on how to follow that trail is at VisitDelaware.com/de-on-tap.

Of course, Delaware isn’t the only state cashing in on the craft beverage craze, but it does drink a lot of beer for such a small state. According to The Brewers Association — a non-profit trade group of 5,400 brewers, suppliers and distributors that promotes the craft beer industry and homebrewing — Delaware was 20th in the nation in 2021 in the number of brew pubs per capita (per 100,000 residents who are 21 and older). In our region, that’s behind Pennsylvania (16th) and ahead of Maryland (35th) and New Jersey (45th).

We’re No. 2!

 In case you were wondering, No.1 in the nation for most brew pubs per capita is Vermont, followed by Maine and Montana.

Also, according to the Brewers Association, Delaware had 35 craft breweries in 2021, which was 46th in the nation. The 299,620 barrels of beer Delaware produced was 22nd and the $430 million economic impact on the state was 40th. But Delaware’s impact per capita ranked 7th, and here’s something of which all First Staters can be proud: When it came to gallons consumed by adults 21 and older, Delaware was second in the nation, at 12.3 gallons. Once again, Vermont led the way nationally, and by quite a few pitchers — adults 21 and older in that state drank 24.2 gallons of beer per capita.

Nationally, craft breweries and beer consumption continue to grow. In 2021, there were 9,118 craft breweries in the U.S. That’s 4.4 percent growth from the previous year. The Brewers Association has broken the breweries down to five categories, and all of them experienced growth in 2021, especially regional brands, which grew 65.7 percent. The number of microbreweries grew 18.4 percent, tap rooms grew 8.1 percent, and brew pubs grew 6.4 percent.

A selection of wines from Harvest Ride Winery in Marydel, near the Delaware-Maryland border.

When it comes to local craft breweries, there’s no question as to which is first in The First State — Dogfish Head in Milton has not only become a local favorite, but it’s also developed a national profile, which isn’t easy to do from a small market in the incredibly competitive craft beer industry.

But even though Dogfish Head is the star of the show, the real purpose of the Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail is to share the love with lesser-known breweries that don’t have the bigger profile of brewers like Dogfish Head, Big Oyster, Iron Hill, and some others.

“Dogfish Head gets most of the attention and has sparked a lot of entrepreneurism in this industry,” Keller says, “but there are so many cool and unique stories throughout the state, and people are excited to learn about each individual story. Each brewery, each winery, each meadery, is a little different.

“It’s all about the experience,” she adds. “It’s about the atmosphere and the ambiance, and not just the beer. It’s also about the story behind the brewery, as well.”

Ronnie Price can relate. He’s the owner and operator of Blue Earl Brewing Company, a blues-themed brewery and brew pub in Smyrna. Even though he’s been in the business longer than most — he started Blue Earl in 2014 — Price also knows that he’s off the beaten path; with a business on a side road off Route 13, he doesn’t get the traffic that a place on the highway or down at the beach might.

Next Stop on the Trail

He’s mostly gotten by on word of mouth, but the trail and the promotion done by the tourism office have been a real boon for him and other smaller brewers.

“We see customers coming in from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey,” Price says. “So, even though we don’t survey people to see why they stopped by, I know for sure that we’re getting more business from that, that we’re getting folks in here who follow the trail and we’re their next brewery.

“It’s become a thing for a lot of people to do, like a little adventure. It’s a fun game to play and the best part is that everybody benefits.”

And those benefits are spread throughout the state, which means other businesses also reap rewards from the people who follow the trail in search of something to drink.

Mispillion River Brewing is a source of pride in Milford.

“What’s good for the neighborhood is good for everybody,” says Karen Stauffer of the Delaware Restaurants Association. “Restauranters are competitive by nature, but they realize that more people mean more for everybody. That kind of volume attracts business, and everyone profits from that.

“So, definitely the [Beer, Wine & Spirits] Trail is awesome and it’s unique to this area. It’s great that one of the smallest states now has something that can compete with larger states, and they’ve done a great job promoting it.”

Jennifer Boes is the executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau, and she also credits Dogfish Head with starting the micro-brew craze in Delaware, and the Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail for expanding the appeal of local breweries, wineries, etc.

“Dogfish Head is what put our state on the map as a destination for microbrews, but since then a lot of others have started getting a lot of really good media attention, like the Wilmington Brew Works and Liquid Alchemy,” she says. “And another thing that’s helped [the popularity] of micro-breweries and brew pubs is that they’re becoming more family friendly, so you can go out on a weekend and bring the kids. That’s one reason I think it’s something we’ll see continue to grow.”

The Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau traces the growth of local beer tourism with a computer data base that tracks the attention the brewing business gets on its web site. And it found that in New Castle County over the past 12 months, the search volume for keywords related to craft breweries/beer was up 34 percent from a year ago. Also, its website (VisitWilmingtonde.com) had a 104 percent increase in page views that include brewery or beer in the URL — that includes content pages, event details and listings

Like Stauffer, Boes thinks one of the real assets to the Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail is that it doesn’t just focus on the big kids on the block. She said visitors take a special delight in discovering the variety of options in Delaware.

“People who are travelers and foodies are always looking for something a little bit off the beaten path,” she says. “And I think [the BW&S Trail] does a great job shining a light on some of the smaller breweries.”

Many of those breweries will be at one venue during the Delaware Beer, Wine & Spirits Festival on Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village in Dover. The local breweries who will be there include Blue Earl, Big Oyster, Dogfish Head, Fordham & Dominion, Iron Hill, Liquid Alchemy, Midnight Oil, Mispillion, Brickworks, Revelation, Wilmington Brew Works and Stitch House.

Local wineries that will be represented at the festival include Nassau Valley, Pizzabilli, Harvest Ridge and Salted Vine, while spirits distilleries include Brimming Horn, Dogfish Head Sprits, Beach Time Distilling and Painted Stave. For more information, including hours and ticket prices, go to DEBeerWineSpirits.com. RSVP to the Facebook event HERE.

Delaware Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail

Autumn Arch
Big Oyster
Blue Earl
Brick Works
Crooked Hammock
Dewey Beer
Dew Point
Dogfish Head
Fordham & Dominion
Iron Hill
Midnight Oil
Stitch House
Thompson Island
Wilmington Brew Works

Nassau Valley
Harvest Ridge
Salted Vine

Beach Time Distilling
Dogfish Head Spirits
Painted Stave

Brimming Horn
Liquid Alchemy

Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has written about Delaware and Delawareans for 40 years. He and his wife, Suzi, live in Arden and they're the parents of two grown children and the grandparents of two little angels. He has no interesting hobbies to speak of, but is generally recognized as one of the finest air guitarists in the country.

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