The beauty of beer

© Michael Fajardo

If I had a drinking establishment, I’d call it Handle Bar, I thought. So pleased was I with that name, I had a tentative look online to find handlebar trophy mounts, the kind that look like you had hunted a bike like it were a deer and then stuffed it and framed it on the wall of your pub. Outside, the bike racks would be plentiful, inside there would be tapes of classic races on the set and a drying room for any wet clobber.

A great idea – what a life that would be, as a freewheeling publican – but, surely, fantasy. Nope. Handle Bars already exist; several in the US, in fact. And as for cycle-themed paraphernalia, coffee shops and bars across the world are already decked with sleek posters and cycle-themed beverages. Still, maybe I could come up with a name of a beer; some kind of pun on bikes…maybe Blazing saddles…no, wait…Spoke too soon. That game exhausted, it’s on to the unashamedly simple question of why you’d want such a thing in the first place. The simple truth is that beer and bikes belong together, behind which there lies an even bigger, simpler truth: they’re both beautiful, social and familiar.

I’ve often heard it said that cycling is a perfect way to get to the pub. Where the Romans had the Elysian Fields to pine after, there’s a place in the British psyche devoted to the pursuit of a slab of sunshine, some wasps and a cold (read: warm) pint. And just as Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator drags himself through endless battles with sweaty masked men wielding axes all the while picturing his fingers running over wheat stalks on his family farm beyond the grave, so every vein-popping trawl over a couple of hillocks is made more bearable by the promise of an ale. Of course, the idea that this experience is limited to our Sceptred (read: cold) Isle is poppycock of the highest order. Riders from all over the world need a brew.

Perhaps the bond is greater still: craft beer in particular has gained in credentials along a comparable trajectory to cycling. Craft beer cities in the US? What leaps to mind is New York, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco – though not necessarily in that order – all of which are home to prospering communities of cyclists. On the surface, that dotted line looks a little sketchy, but anyone who has been to those cities can relate that theyare home to some great beers and some great/pretentious/overpriced/unique/underappreciated places to drink them. Personally, I’m not truly at home anywhere until someone with a full beard and no hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a sleeve of tattoos has served me an expensive 6% beer.

As a passive observer of beer culture (just drinking whatever’s bought for you doesn’t seem like much of a qualification), I decided to defer to someone who knows their pales from their ales and rung up writer Brooklyn-based Joshua Bernstein, author of Brewed Awakening. “At the end of the ride, what’s the one thing you want? A beer,” he confirms. Is it that simple? I’m not convinced that necessitates the passion that burns in the belly of the craft-beer drinker.

In a sense, beer is the ‘carrot at the end of the stick’, if that mixed-metaphor doesn’t bring up too much of a bad taste, it’s also a little misleading. No; water is a beverage, beer is a brotherhood.

“There’s a fascinating kinship between breweries and sporting events. That’s developing even more, especially with cycling,” Bernstein explains. “For people who really enjoy craft beers, who really understand what makes them special, there’s a lot of crossover with cycling. They’re both niches, but if you imagine a Venn diagram of the two – they’re relaxing, they’re not greatly expensive, they both reward dedication and they definitely bring people together.”

When Bernstein talks about gathering at a brewery or an appropriate bar, he suggests that it is some kind of communion. People together, people talking, traditions and customs observed, participating in history. If cycling has its solitary elements, that’s counterbalanced in some way by how well the community clings together around the clothes it wears and the brew it’s served. The values of patience and craft and a deeper insinuation of more familiar times and settings give both quite a draw.Even if some arm of Diageo doesn’t hire me after that spree of taglines, it won’t stop them being aware that bicycles mean beer; you may not have followed quite how many adverts for a beer feature someone cycling, but watch next time how many brands have gone that way.

Smaller players have taken a more exciting approach. New Belgium Brewing’s portentously titled ‘Tour de Fat’ is reported to be like a carnival of wheels and wacky costumes. At this point I hand over to Bernstein’s article in Embibe Magazine: “New Belgium’s bicycle commitment begins with its employees, who are encouraged to cycle to work and are given cruiser-style bikes to commemorate their first anniversary with the brewery. But perhaps the brewery’s most impressive achievement is the annual Tour de Fat. Touching down in 13 cities across the U.S., this circus-flavored stew incorporates a costumed bicycle parade, death-defying bike tricks (watch out for the fire!) and vaudeville acts, all washed down with plenty of Fat Tire and environmentalism: At each stop, New Belgium makes a trade with an attendee: a tricked-out commuter bike in exchange for their car, which is donated to charity.”

Breweries have become a home for cycling, not just in the US, but in Europe too. Spin Up In a Brewery is Sussex’s Darkstar Brewery’s answer to a tailgate party: BBQ’s, bikes and you know the rest. It reminds me of the intertwining of a burgeoning football structure in Europe and the coffeehouse culture that was on the rise at the time. Part of the game was about drinking and discussing formations and gossip while sipping an espresso.

Today, urban culture is embracing the tender kiss of an iced stubby. Accessories can turn your bike into your very own booze cruise. Beer-biking or the pedibus, or whatever incarnation of that infernal wagon that allows you to cycle/be driven around while you pedal and gulp your way oblivion, is probably making some stag party very happy right now, while pissing off some drivers for good measure.

For racing, it was always thus. Vin Denson, quoted in Procycling about his time in the 60s as a devoted domestique to Rik van Looy, said of the role: “You did whatever he wanted, including the fetching of beers, which he had a great fondness for in mid-race. Domestiques were reduced to chasing long miles to bring the great man a bottle of Stella [Artois]”.

Today, the beer is part of the occasion. Yorkshire’s Great Newsome Brewery is marking the county’s proud role in Le Grand Depart of Le Tour de France by unveiling the appropriately named Maillot Jaune. While riders may not stop for a tipple as in those days of yore when people had their priorities straight, Yorkshire has a chance to bring centuries of tradition in ale to lend its own twist to the occasion.

For me, Bernstein’s advice rings most true with my own plans for the summer: “Bike to breweries, it’s an end in itself.”

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