The craft brewery business is booming in Columbia, and it didn’t take long for enterprising folks to capitalize on it. Columbia Brew Bus follows in the footsteps of other brew bus services in the Southeast. It’s a shuttle service that will take riders from brewery to brewery, allowing them to sample beers at each and learn about the process of making the brew at each stop. The bus will begin taking people on tours of River Rat Brewery, Conquest Brewery, and the newly opened Swamp Cabbage Brewery just as soon as they get their vehicle approved for use by SC DOT. Soon you’ll be able to enjoy a night out with friends and sample hand-crafted brews from each brewery as you learn how each facility makes their beer. The Brew Bus offers entertaining games and sightseeing as you travel from place to place, as well as a safe traveling option from brewery to brewery. Here is some insider info from Cam Powell, one of three business partners behind the Columbia Brew Bus.
What goes on at the breweries? How long will the tours of the breweries last? Will you be giving the tours, or will someone from each brewery be giving the tours?
Someone from each brewery will be taking our guests on the tours. Basically, each stop is going to be about an hour. When you get to each brewery, you’re going to spend the first 20 minutes or so tasting the beers while one of the brewery staff talks about the beers you’re tasting. You’ll get about 24 ounces of beer at each stop. Depending on where we are, you’ll get a flight (4 or 5 small glasses of beer that are usually drunk in progression from light to dark) and a 10oz pour to take with you on the tour, or you’ll get a bigger flight and you can buy a pint if you want to take something with you. After the tasting, one of the brewers or one of the head bartenders will take you into the brewery itself and talk a little about the equipment and how they got started and what makes their beers unique. It’s a full-on facility tour. At the end, there will be 10-15 minutes where you can ask questions or buy some more beer, if you want to. We’ll have coolers on the bus to help keep your beer cold throughout the duration of the tour.
What sort of activities can your passengers expect once aboard the Brew Bus?
We’re going to have some snacks while in transit to make sure everyone has something in the stomach while we are going between these places. I’ve lived here for almost 7 years and Mike’s lived here his entire life, so we are going to pick up and drop off in the Vista and do a bit of sightseeing while we are on our way to each brewery. We are going to take you down by the State House and through the campus a little bit. For anybody who’s from out of town, you’ll get to see some of the major Columbia landmarks. While we’re riding along we’ll be playing some trivia games and things like that. Each tour will have a prize, like a nice big bottle of beer from one of the local breweries, or something else that a beer lover would like.
What days are you going to be offering the Brew Bus tours?
Starting out, it’s going to be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Hopefully, there is a big enough market and we’ll be able to expand to different days. For the first few months, we are just going to do those three days.
Will you sell tickets online and what is the projected fare?
Our full website isn’t up and running yet, but when it is, it’s going to be columbiabrewbus.com. We will sell tickets online. Right now we have the tours priced at $50. When you book online, there will be a 99 cent booking free through the company we use. If you were to book one tour, it will be $51.
You mentioned you were going to three breweries (Conquest, River Rat, and Swamp Cabbage), as your destinations. There are other brewers in town like Old Mill Brewpub and Hunter Gatherer. Will you add places to your itinerary?
We will… Being so close to when we’d like to open, we really had to narrow our focus and make sure we can achieve everything we want to. We didn’t want to do too many things and not come out to the public with a big impact.
There are a few tours like this around the coast of SC, but nothing like this here. How do you plan on drawing people into your tours here in Columbia?
We’ve contacted and worked a little bit with the Columbia Visitor Bureau and the Convention Center. Once our website is up and fully functional, they’ll be promoting that on their websites. Hopefully, we can get into some of their promotional materials. We want to get in with the hotels. We work with Theodore and Associates Insurance downtown and the guy who’s my agent used to be a hotel manager at Staybridge Suites over by Fort Jackson. He said that they have families coming in all the time there with the graduations at Fort Jackson and the military coming in. The first thing they say is “What’s there to do around here?” There are plenty of things to do here, but after you’ve been here a while, it turns into the same thing. We want to do something that’s outside of the mold.
The craft breweries are definitely breaking through and that’s something new to do here. Unless you want to shell out the money for a fare in between each place, or you want to have a designated driver, there is no safe way for everybody to get from brewery to brewery and be able to try craft beers at each one. It becomes a dilemma for a lot of people because sometimes you end up staying at these places longer than you planned to and you have to have the have the money for a cab or you have to find some other way home. For anybody going down to these craft breweries, this will eliminate any of that risk for them.
Have you done anything else, like starting a business, or is this your first business?
No, it’s my first business. My friends and I in college started a weekly online magazine that we had published a couple times just for fun. We posted it around all over Facebook and twitter and got solid readership and did that for about a year. That’s something I helped create, but as far as owning something, this is the first thing.
What has been your biggest struggle with getting the Brew Bus up and running?
Insurance was our biggest hurdle until recently. Getting commercial insurance for this type of business isn’t easy. The big boss insurance companies don’t write these kinds of policies. You get redirected to the major national insurance people that do life insurance and other major policies. You can’t deal with them directly. They just write policies through brokers, so we’ve been going through brokers in town. They then go to their bosses and say that these guys are 24-25 years old and are going to be driving the bus with alcohol involved and their bosses won’t touch that. Getting someone to write a policy was our biggest struggle at the time. We got through that and have our insurance policy in place. The biggest, other than that, has been the legal aspect of it with the government licensing. The licensing for the bus has to go through three different departments plus the police have to check to make sure all the safety measures are on it. We’re still waiting on all that to get finished up, but hopefully it will be done soon.
What kind of modifications are you going to make to the bus you’re using?
Actually, to be legal to drive it, we had to take out 10 seats. It’s a 25 passenger bus, but to be able to drive it without a commercial drivers license, it can only hold 14 passengers plus the driver. The max tour group is going to be a 14 person tour group. We are going to drive it ourselves. The main accent color on the bus is probably going to be blue, and the logo and the name is going to be all along the side. We’re going to have the sponsored breweries’ logos on the side as well.
What is your ultimate goal once you start your tours? Where do you see all of this going in the next couple years?
We definitely want to expand with it. After six months or so, if things are going well, we would like to put those extra seats back in and hire people with commercial driver licenses to conduct the tours so we can bump our tour maximum up to 20 people. Once we have our Brew Bus business model in hand and feel very comfortable with it, we are going to try to contract out our bus as a business shuttle for different hotels. We would take business people to and from the airport or if they have a large group at the hotel, we could take them out for the evening. Along the side of the bus we are going to have our regular logo but have the ability to put another sign on top of that so we can put a secondary logo for the shuttle service.
Personally speaking, if I can get paid the same amount doing this as I did at my previous job, while having fun and talking about beer to other people, that’d be great. I just want to promote beer tourism and help to enhance the craft beer scene in Columbia. Columbia has beers that are just as good, if not better, than beers being produced in other cities. There are people that travel to Asheville to try their beers, and there are people who travel to Atlanta to go to SweetWater to try their beers. I think Columbia could be like that (a beer-drinker’s destination) and I want to be a part of it.
For more information about the Columbia Brew Bus, click here for their facebook page.