Brew Biking USA

Bikes and beer don't normally go together but this article is a good primer for those going on any organised group bicycle holiday. This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday.
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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.

FURTHER INFO

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 byways@cybase.co.uk


[By Carlton Reid. This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday]

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