The Hops: Gears and beers

Gears and Beers
Where does the tight-knit connection between beer and cycling originate?

For Ray Bennett, an avid bicyclist and 27-year RAGBRAI veteran, it is always nice to have a destination at the end of a long, hot bike ride with friends—especially a destination with cold beer. Bennett, who lives in North Liberty, notes that “if you ride 15 or 20 miles, you might want to stop and enjoy a beer.”

Enjoying cold brews with friends is just one of many ways cyclists, brewers and bar owners agree that the beer and bicycling communities are connected. The bike-brew bond, they said, extends to philanthropy, lifestyle and even values, and it is not only visible on beer labels and cycling shirts, but in the number of bike racks and spandex-clad patrons at brewpubs and bars.

“I think it is a willingness and desire to seek out better things. Whether it’s a better built bike or better made beer, or whatever the case is,” said Mike Gauthier, the manager at El Bait Shop in Des Moines, of the tight-knit connection between beer and cycling.

Situated in downtown Des Moines at the confluence of city and regional bike trails, some of which lead to other parts of the state, El Bait Shop is a hub for thirsty cyclists that features 26 bike racks, a maintenance rack with an air hose, decorative bikes hanging from the rafters and walls and a large outdoor patio. (When asked if all bike paths in Iowa lead to El Bait Shop, Gauthier said with a laugh, “That’s probably not too far of a stretch.”) In addition to its bicycling amenities and adornments, El Bait Shop hosts Fat Tire Fun Rides (bike trips to area bars and breweries that are sponsored by the New Belgium Brewing Company), donates money to the Des Moines Bicycle Collective and further promotes biking by featuring a link to on its website.

Gauthier, who commutes by bike, said El Bait Shop’s proximity to trails and attractions, as well as beer and food, are factors that draw cyclists. But he also acknowledged a deeper connection between the beer and bike communities that stems from the advocacy work of breweries. Gauthier said many craft breweries, including the Deschutes Brewery and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, fund trail work and nature conservancy, both of which benefit cyclists. This gesture of support by breweries is reciprocated by bike riders’ enthusiasm for pints of beer.

At New Belgium, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, the connection between beer and bikes is part of the brewery’s foundation. According to spokesperson Bryan Simpson, New Belgium was “conceived” on co-founder Jeff Lebesch’s bicycle tour of Belgium. Inspired by the beers he drank en route, Lebesch developed the beers that became Abbey Belgian Style Ale and Fat Tire Amber Ale. Named in honor of the mountain bike Lebesch used on his Belgian tour, Fat Tire became closely identified with the brewery.

Simpson said the history and passion for cycling at New Belgium has shaped the brewery’s outreach, facilities and even employee benefits. In 2000, New Belgium created the Tour de Fat, a one-day bike festival that takes place in 12 cities and raises funds for local bicycling nonprofit groups. With covered bike parking, showers and an on-site cross-bike track, Simpson said New Belgium has been certified as a platinum-level bicycle-friendly business by the League of American Bicyclists. And as an added perk, New Belgium employees receive a “limited release Fat Tire Cruiser bike” on their first anniversary with the brewery.

Though Simpson feels the connection between beer and cycling transcends branding, Gauthier said it is key to the relationship, even citing New Belgium’s bike-themed beers as an example. “Whenever we see something that, I guess, is relative [to bikes], it certainly catches our attention,” Gauthier said. “We are certainly not immune to marketing.”

Ryan Baker, owner of World of Bikes in Iowa City, reiterated Gauthier’s observation: “If I’m looking for a new beer to try and it happens to have a bike-related something on it, I might be a little more curious about it.”

Bike symbolism is not the only draw, though. Gauthier and Simpson said personal ethics and lifestyle choices play a large role in the beer-cycling bond—a thought echoed by Baker, who said breweries that promote sustainable living and support the biking community are equally appealing to him. The beer and cycling communities, as well as those in the slow food movement, are like-minded in the sense that they enjoy the outdoor experience, emphasize healthy living, seek quality products and try to “slow things down a little bit,” said Simpson.

“I think both communities are striving for the same thing, a break and mini escape from the real world!” wrote Teresa Albert, co-owner of the Millstream Brewing Company, in an email. Every summer, Millstream sponsors the Tour de Brew, a RAGBRAI warm-up where participants are given a beer at the beginning, end, and every 10 miles in between. Millstream also sponsors the Iowa City Cycling Club and riders sport cycling jerseys with the brewery’s logo. “Craft beer and bikes are an escape from life for a brief and much needed moment. You can go anywhere in your everyday life and drive a car or have a domestic beer, but to really experience something different you have this special release in the craft world!”

Not only do beer and cycling enthusiasts think alike, they also tend to be younger and have more disposable income, Gauthier said. Also, Simpson says that the beer and cycling industries have a shared history in regards to their grassroots revivals. Both were once dominated by a few national brands, but now small breweries and bicycle boutiques are popping up everywhere, perhaps a testament to the strong “do-it-yourself” mentality in both circles.

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But regardless of their myriad similarities, everyone agreed that the most meaningful and refreshing connection is the jovial camaraderie engendered by both beer and bicycles. Baker said Cyclists are typically social people, and drinking beer pairs well with cycling’s social aspect. A beer always quenched his thirst after a long ride in hot weather.

“People understand that bikers like to go out for long rides and they like to drink beer during or after,” Gauthier said. “So it’s not the worst business decision in the world to find a bicycle trail to park your brewery or bar by.”

Casey Wagner lives in Iowa City.

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