Paul Wellman

Much like what’s happened across the country, Santa Barbara’s craft brew scene exploded in recent years, as nearly 20 producers now operate from Carpinteria to Lompoc. With more on the way —  most notably the Night Lizard Brewing Company, which is coming to 607 State Street sometime soon — how are beer lovers supposed to keep track of it all?

Harish Prather’s answer to this draughty dilemma is the Santa Barbara Ale Trail, a digital app and printed map that neatly organizes all of the breweries in Santa Barbara County and rewards repeat visitors. “I’m so excited about the craft brew scene in Santa Barbara, and this map is really just our way to encourage people to engage with community-oriented businesses,” said Prather of the free map and app. “It’s a one-stop place to see the latest beer list, upcoming events, the new releases, and other things that the beer world cares about.”

Prather, who came to town in 1999 to attend S.B. City College and worked for years in restaurants, came up with the idea while a graduate student at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. He studied the carbon footprint of buying bottled beer in stores versus refilling growlers at nearby breweries, and he realized there was a vast difference when it came to transportation and packaging costs.

So, with the help of start-up mentor Kyle Ashby and the support of UCSB’s Technology Management Program, he first developed the Loyale app about a year ago as a sort of digital punch card, where a certain number of check-ins and/or refills lead to special deals with participating breweries. That part of the business continues to evolve, with subscription-like services available to breweries for a small monthly fee. The app also provides an easy-to-use and automated platform that enables small breweries to expand their digital presence. “It gives each brewery the technology that only a big brewery can afford,” said Prather.  

But the real consumer interface for Santa Barbara beer lovers is the Ale Trail, which awards prizes to those folks who use the Loyale app to track their brewery explorations. “The purpose of the prizes is to provide a memory of the experience,” said Prather, so that can include free glasses and other memorabilia. Prather said that more than 2,500 people have started the Ale Trail, with more than 300 hitting at least 10 breweries last year, and that the Loyale app currently has more than 4,000 users in the county. The whole project is bolstered by the printed map, a slick guide sponsored by Jump on the Bus and the Surf ’n’ Suds Beer Festival that can be found in every brewery listed.

Prather hopes to expand both his app and map idea elsewhere and is already doing a similar project in the tri-valley region of the Bay Area, promoting breweries from Livermore to Pleasanton. He’s also aggregating a wider range of breweries into California Beer Trail excursions, such as “Highway 101 South,” which will list every brewery from Paso Robles to downtown Los Angeles.

Professionally speaking, Prather is really a budding tech entrepreneur. But when it comes to passion, he’s all about promoting sustainable means of enjoying Santa Barbara’s growing legion of ale artisans. “This just makes it more fun for people to go out and explore craft beer,” he said.

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