CLEVELAND – Bob Campbell wants beer drinkers to understand his mission: It’s time, he believes, for people to get on board and learn about beer.
Campbell and his wife, Shelle, operate Cleveland Brew Bus, which this summer began touring the area’s various microbreweries, stopping for samples as the couple act as guides. The Campbells are a team, narrating and joking as they take patrons to Great Lakes Brewing Co., Indigo Imp Brewery, Nano Brew, the BottleHouse and others.
“We educate them,” Bob Campbell said. “We teach ‘LAST’ – look, agitate, smell, taste.”
But the real payoff, Campbell says, is when a novice drinker has an epiphany.
Once, several women told him they didn’t like dark beers. “By the end of the trip,” he said, “they liked stouts.”
On another excursion, Campbell chugged the bus to 5-year-old Indigo Imp on Superior Avenue near Easy 36th Street. Owner-brewer Matt Chappel guided an attentive group from Global Tech Recruiters on the finer points of open fermentation.
“I think it’s a great way for people to see how a brewery works and to try their beers in a private format,” he said as the 11 tour guests sipped beers and chatted amid the brewhouse vats. “It’s good for me because it brings people in who might not have heard about us.”
Rob Murphy, an owner of Global Tech Recruiters, decided the tour would be a reward for employees hitting sales goals.
Murphy, whose tastes lean more to lagers, said he enjoyed learning about “the whole brewing process of beer being made – tasting, smelling.” And, he said, he learned he liked the distinctive ales from Indigo Imp.
Then his group climbed aboard for the second stop: venerable Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
“We’re a ‘knowledge and fun’ bus,” Bob Campbell said as he steered the bright-yellow bus adorned with painted bubbles through city streets.
The informative beer-history tours blend a bit of local history with a dose of neighborhood news. The couple - energetic and animated - keep folks entertained with questions, comments and trivia.
At Great Lakes, pourers served specific styles as Bob bounced between two tables to discuss differences between lagers and ales, waving his arms and eagerly lecturing. Nearby, Shelle watched.
“I want people to do what people did in the ’90s with wine – not overconsume, just enjoy the taste,” she said.
The Campbells’ willingness to educate people about beer came about while visiting Indianapolis two years ago. The couple were “microcraft-beer hopping” but Bob said the experience was “more like a taxi service – ‘right church, wrong pew.’ It was a great idea, but there was no interaction, no engagement.”
The couple then encountered a similar feeling in Chicago – “no engagement,” Bob said. Then the proverbial light bulb clicked.
Bob said he and Shelle, who teaches fifth-graders in North Olmsted, “love engaging people – we thought, ‘We can do this better, smarter. Let’s educate them.’”
So Campbell took time off from his job as a senior vice president for a background-screening company and has poured himself into being a tour guide.
Part of the initial education had nothing to do with beer. They needed buses.
“The most grueling process I’ve ever been through,” said Bob of Strongsville. The couple scoured eBay and craigslist ads, finding buses from Detroit to Pennsylvania, testing about a dozen, bringing them to mechanics, getting them inspected.
Once they had the vehicles, the passengers were waiting to learn. And in the Campbells, they had ready and willing teachers.
“I’ve been a beer fanatic since before microcrafts were popular,” Bob said. “I would seek out good beers, beer-of-the-month-club-type things.”
The teaching is constant. On the bus, the couple narrate. At the stops, they talk about everything from the history of Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s building (the famed bullet-holes-in-the-bar story) to the specific meanings of the squiggly lines on the labels (they represent a financial bottom line, social engagement in the community and ecology).
“Then,” Bob said, “we get to the samples – what are you going to taste? What is an IPA?” Brewers also address the passengers, although “we try not to burden them on every tour.”
The audience is split – 65 percent are out-of-town visitors “wanting to get to know Cleveland, the breweries … the other 35 percent is the local target market.”
The Campbells drink what they preach. Bob is a hophead who loves India Pale Ales while Shelle (“I’m more adventurous with different styles and tastes”) leans more toward stouts and porters. And with the proliferation of local breweries, they have a growing list of craft brewers to include on tours.
Soon, they will extend the treks to Pittsburgh for a “friendly competition,” Bob says, with Clevelanders and Pittsburghers trying local brews in the Steel City, then heading to Cleveland. Tasting at a brewery before a Browns game also is on tap.
“I just love people, talking to them, and having them get excited about what they are tasting, saying, ‘I can taste the flavors!’” Shelle said.