Gamify your guzzling

The Sacramento Beer Frontier passport makes a game out of trying new breweries, but could it turn Sac into a magnet for beer-bro tourists?

Aaron O’Callaghan enjoys his own swag.

Aaron O’Callaghan enjoys his own swag.

Photo by Jon Hermison

“Drunk Pokémon.”

These words pop into my head as I stand in the West Sacramento Rubicon Brewing Co. location, trying to work up the nerve to ask the bartender to stamp my Sacramento Beer Frontier passport, hoping he won’t laugh at me. He doesn’t.

The program, designed by environmental grants manager and beer enthusiast Aaron O’Callaghan, officially launched this year, and is already a hit with local adventurers. Like Pokémon Go, you have to leave the comfort of your home to participate, only you visit your choice of 52 Sacramento area breweries to collect stamps—instead of violent, squeaky cartoons. Along the way, you earn prizes: a bottle opener, a pint glass, a local brewery map. If nothing else, it’s a good way to track every brewery you’ve been to, like how a real passport gives you a visual for all the countries you’ve visited.

I enter Rubicon with my friend who’s lived in West Sacramento for six years. Still, he was unaware Rubicon even had a location in his neighborhood. As the two of us sip beers and play shuffleboard, the passport has already done its job.

“This whole project is about bringing awareness to your neighborhood brewery,” O’Callaghan tells me a few days earlier over beers at Sactown Union Brewery. “This is a fun way for locals to come up with something to do and engage in their community, instead of spending time chasing the most interesting beers from across the country.”

I like beer, but struggle to understand the appeal of collecting stamps from breweries like it was an accomplishment. Yet, when I accompanied O’Callaghan a month earlier at a promotional event at Fountainhead Brewing Co., the response was overwhelming. The primary purpose was to give out passports to Kickstarter backers (he raised $8,632 last year to launch this project). He rewarded them with roughly 25 passports, but sold an additional 50 to people off the street. Their eyes lit up when O’Callaghan explained the concept.

Passport holders are actually using them, too. At Rubicon, my friend and I meet a guy with a passport, and we ask him what he likes about it. “I’m a stat man,” he replies, deadpan, which seems like an odd reason. He also tells us he tracks all his individual beers with an app called Untappd.

Another fan, Peter Brown, a Roseville teacher, says he loves how the program turns discovering new breweries into a game.

“It’s a genius product,” Brown says. “I feel like a kid at Disneyland.”

I’m all for fun, but I worry about the impact this program will have on Sacramento in the long run. I watched Bend, Ore.—a town I visit annually to see my oldest friend—became overly crowded with frat-type beer tourists after the city created a beer map last year, highlighting themselves as a “beer destination.” From my observations, hotels had nearly doubled in price from the year before and were almost impossible to book. Traffic was horrendous.

O’Callaghan says he worries about the same thing, and points out that most of the beer maps and ale trails in these towns—Bend included—are designed by tourist boards with the purpose of flooding the town with cash-filled tourists. Beer Frontier is owned and operated by O’Callaghan, just a guy who wanted to create a fun project for other like-minded beer drinkers. His target audience isn’t hardcore beer drinkers. So far, he’s gotten the biggest response from locals looking for an excuse to check out the city’s many breweries.

“I don’t know that Sacramento will ever become Bend, Portland or San Diego,” O’Callaghan says, but he points out that a small increase in business could greatly improve our beer scene. “These breweries operate on a pretty tight margin. Just increasing traffic by a little bit could have a good overall effect on the region as a whole in terms of the sustainability of the industry.”

Beer Frontier could grow much bigger. O’Callaghan isn’t opposed to the idea, but it seems unlikely. Since his program isn’t connected to a tourist board, it’ll likely stay local and keep the city from becoming a beer-tourist playground. Besides, the passports aren’t in hotels; they’re inside local hangouts like Taylor’s Market.

No one has gotten all 52 stamps yet, which will earn you a customized map of the breweries, the order in which you visited them and your beer-guzzling time frame. (There’s no time limit.) O’Callaghan personally makes these—that’s not something Visit Bend would do.

In the end, I made it to the first level with just four stamps, which earned me a custom bottle opener. I wanted to see if winning a prize would excite me enough to go further. Not so much. But then again, I’m no Pokémon fan. As others enjoy this little game, at least I can feel comfortable that the breweries aren’t packed with obnoxious beer tourists—for now.