Beer, there's no getting around the fact, is fattening. Spend a week
quaffing gallons of the stuff and you'll end up looking like Jimmy 'Five
Bellies' Gardener, Gazza's rotund drinking buddy.
But what if you exercise during your personal beer fest? That's the idea
behind the Californian bicycling and beer-drinking holiday from Backroads,
'America's #1 active travel company'. You pedal through the day, and guzzle
to your heart's content in the evening.
But it's the quality of the beer that counts, not the quantity.
The Backroads trip takes in microbreweries rather than the conglomerates
responsible for the dull-as-ditchwater beers most people associate with
America. Microbrewed beer is full of flavour, personality and strength.
Supping the odd pint or two in the evening is the perfect way to wind down
after spinning the pedals all day.
But to enjoy this tour you don't need to be a bike freak or a beer geek.
Courtney Turner, 26, a manager at Deloitte Touche in Chicago was on the
Backroads trip with her beer-loving father, Steve. He's an enthusiast
cyclist, but she isn't.
"There are riders of all abilities here and there's a back-up van so I feel
confident I won't get left too far behind. I'm usually the tail ender,
riding along at my own pace. This suits me fine."
There were two other women on the trip, neither of whom would describe
themselves as 'cyclists'.
For Patty Oya, 24, a child development specialist from Las Vegas, this was
her sixth Backroads trip and it's not the cycling that's the draw but the
locations. She's been all over North America with Backroads and, despite the high price of the trips, sees no reason to switch companies.
"I haven't tried other activity companies because Backroads offers
everything I want. There are cheaper vacations but everything is taken care
of by the Backroads leaders. It's my annual treat."
Patty always holidays with her father and younger brother. Her older brother was enticed on to this particular trip because of the beer theme.
Microbrewed beer, being natural, wholesome and fresh, is big in
California. The whole craft-brewing movement started here. The first
American microbrewery opened in 1977 when ex-Navy sailor Jack MacAuliffe
founded the New Albion brewery at Sonoma, north of San Francisco. His beers
weren't perfect but they were full of character and his ideas caught on:
there are now over 300 independent microbreweries in America.
Unfortunately, MacAuliffe's landmark business lasted only four years. After
it went belly-up his brewing equipment was bought by the Mendocino Brewing
Company who, in 1981, created California's first brewpub, situated in
Hopland, a one street town 100 miles north of San Francisco.
This is the first pub on the Backroads beer trail and is famous for its Red
Tail Ale. This is an amber tipple which has a long-lasting, complex
character created by a blend of pale and caramel malted barley and is
balanced to a dry bitter finish with whole hops from Washington State. It
comes to the table in three pint pitchers.
The brewpub is housed in one of Hopland's oldest structures, a 100-year old
brick building which was once the Hop Vine Saloon. The interior walls are
covered with the original turn-of-the-century ornamental stamped tin.
Brit beer lovers feel at home. As well as a darts board, the Hopland
brewpub's beers - five ales, a stout and a seasonal porter - are made with
recipes from a 19th century British brewing manual. You can watch the
brewing process through windows in the adjoining brewhouse.
If this makes you thirsty, you can order shot-glass tastes of the various
beers for a couple of dollars. We supped our somewhat larger samples in the
beer garden at a picnic table beneath a canopy of grape leaves and trellised hops.
We had yet to cycle a mile. This was a lunching stopover on the van transit
from San Francisco to our starting point in Mendocino.
This small town, with its wooden buildings, Victorian spires and creaking
weather vanes, is pure New England. It was originally a logging town but has been an upmarket artist's haven since the 1950s. The Mendocino Hotel, the most characterful in town, has antique fixtures and fittings, plush leather armchairs and roaring open fires. It dates back to 1878.
No fine beers at the hotel but the town's main bar, a few blocks away, had
an excellent selection. It also had a thick, crunchy carpet of discarded
pistachio shells. The nuts are free, they make you drink more beer.
The hard work started the next morning when we were each fitted to a bike,
equipped with water bottles and given a natty red handlebar bag in which to
store energy food, sun-cream and a puncture repair kit.
On most organised cycle holidays you're given a map and have to navigate
yourself to that night's hotel. But the Backroads method is for step-by-step directions. Over three A4 photocopied pages every last kilometre of the route is described. Landmarks, suggested stopping points, turns, hills, all are listed.
The route directions are stored in a see-through panel on the handlebar bag.
But it's difficult to concentrate on route finding when the views along the
way are so distracting. The microbreweries trip wends its way back to San
Francisco via the Silverado Trail (once travelled, and made famous by,
Robert Louis Stevenson), taking in spectacular stretches of the jagged
Pacific coastline. There are also cool descents through Sequoia forests
where a freewheeling bicycle is the best way to experience the sappy smells
and eerie silence of the ancient giant redwoods.
Much of this beer trip also takes you through wine country, along the
famous vine-clad Alexander, Sonoma and Napa valleys.
The chief town of the Napa valley is Calistoga with its hot springs and
gushing 30ft geyser. The town has been known as the Hot Springs of the West
ever since property speculator Sam Brannan came north from San Francisco in
1852 and decided that this was the spot to build a health spa to rival
Saratoga Springs of New York State. While trying to say he would make this
the "Saratoga of California", Sam drunkenly malapropped that he would make
this the "Calistoga of Sarifornia!" The name stuck.
A mud bath, herbal body wrap, or massage at one of the thirteen spas in town is just the tonic for saddle weary travellers of today. You luxuriate in the fluffy white robes as your aching limbs are oiled, rubbed, and stretched.
Once revitalised, that evening's imbibing was at the Calistoga Inn, home of
the Napa Valley Brewing company. Its Beat the Heat wheat beer made you blase to the fact the following day's ride was going to be the longest of the trip.
Yountville to Marin County is a hot and sweaty 76 miles. Unlike all of the
other days, where you showered and changed before hitting the booze, the
ride to the Marin Brewing Company at Larkspur Landing ended with liquid
refreshment. We rode straight up to the bar and ordered Mt Tam Ale, the
bar's thirst-quenching pale ale, named after the nearby elevation, Mt
Tamalpais (on whose slopes mountain biking was invented in the 1970s).
Also on the menu were Blueberry Ale, Albion Amber Ale, Marin Weiss Wheat
Beer, Marin Doppel Weizen Wheat Ale, Point Reyes Porter, and San Quentin
Breakout Stout. All were brewed on the premises. American microbrews are
fresh and tasty.
The last beer of the trip - after the ceremonial pedal over San Francisco's
Golden Gate bridge - was a fresh pilsner brewed by Jay Mission, brewmeister
at Gordon Biersch, a brew pub and classy restaurant by the waterfront. He
told us the clean, frosty brew we were quaffing had been filtered just two
hours previously. Beat that, Budweiser.
Gordon Biersch is on the corner where Harrison Street ends at the
Embarcadero Center, San Francisco's high-class shopping mall, and is in the
shadow of the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Some people may prefer the Bay's scenery from the Fort Mason area but Gordon Biersch's view of the Bay, bridge and Treasure Island is my favourite because of the icy brews with which to toast the vista.
Unlike the brewpubs we had visited over the previous six days, which
concentrate on a high turnover of quick finishing ales, Gordon Biersch
specialises in lager. Co-owner Dan Gordon was the first American graduate in 30 years from the prestigious five-year brewing science programme at the
Weihenstephan Technical University of Munich.
Gordon's preferences are clear from the eclectic range of German-style
lagers on offer, from a Marzen with a caramel finish to a malty Mai Bock
with a kick like a mule.
Even though these are premium beers, with price tags to match, you're not
bothered because there's something quite special about this Backroads trip:
the beer flows for as long as you want it to, and it's free. Cheers.
The cost of a Backroads trip includes lodging, gourmet dining, van
shuttles during the trip, skilled leaders, and gratuities at inns and
restaurants. It does not include flights to the US.
On cycling trips, one leader drives the Backroads support van, sweeping the
route several times during the day, providing lifts and assistance to riders when needed. Another leader will cycle with the guests.
Backroads offer a camping option for their beer tasting trip but I stayed on the more luxurious inn trip. And at $1495 for a six day holiday (remember, a flight is not included) the luxurious tag is justified. Full of character, the inns and small hotels you stay at range from the Californian chic of the Boonville Hotel to the creekside simplicity of the Mill Valley Inn.
Each day there are standard, long and short route options with dog-leg
additions for masochists or van shuttles for softies.
The Backroads support van carries your luggage between hotels and is stocked with fruit, water, energy drinks and spares. It will also carry any beers or wine you pick up along the way.
801 Cedar St. Berkeley, CA 94710-1800, USA
Tel: 00 1 510 5271555 Fax: 00 1 510 5271444
Beer biking UK
If the thought of a cycling and beer drinking holiday has made you thirsty,
but you don't fancy the trip across the Atlantic, how about a weekend
meandering through the peaceful Cheshire countryside, exploring quiet
villages and staying in small country pubs known for their good food and
good beer? For ú3125 Byways Bike Breaks has a Cheshire Country Inn break
which includes two nights bed and breakfast accommodation, bike hire,
detailed routes with background information and a copy of the CAMRA guide
'Out Inn Cheshire'. Details on 0151 722 8050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
[By Carlton Reid. This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday]