Beer & Bikes | A Craft Beer Cycle Tour of Colorado
Colorado is known for two things: world-class mountain bike trails and seriously good beer. We went along to do some testing...
“You know, this isn't like anywhere else in America, right?" It was my first time in Colorado but I already knew this bartender was right.
While the rest of America is shadowed by rising obesity figures and a strange aversion to passports, Colorado attracts a different crowd.
The state is a mecca for adventure lovers, marked on the map for its mountain bike trails and craft beer breweries. I'm here to try both.
Beyond the skyscrapers of Denver lies the university town of Fort Collins. This where I meet Bob Williams, the founder of Beer & Bike Tours.
As the name suggests, he takes visitors on a guided mountain bike tour followed by a trip to number of the town's craft breweries.
"Fort Collins is no bigger than Brighton, but it's home to 14 breweries with another 50 less than an hour away"
As I pulled up in Fort Collins, I expected to find an enthusiastic cyclist dressed all in lycra. Bob greeted me warmly. Enthusiastic, yes – but no lycra.
Bob's two greatest passions are beer and bikes. It was only after he'd spend a decade living in Germany and Japan with his family that he discovered he could turn his hobby into a business.
Tired of visiting the same old local bars in the Japanese city of Kobe, Bob and his friends set off to explore the city's beer scene on bikes. “It became quite a regular thing!" says Bob.
When he moved back to Colorado, Bob turned his hobby into a fully-fledged business called Beer & Bikes Tours. Now he runs tours around America's beer capital, Fort Collins, as well as the rest of the US, Germany, Italy, Copenhagen and Japan.
Historically, Americans haven't got the best reputation for beer. Oversized pitchers of light tasteless beer come to mind. It was back in the late 1980s that Fort Collins became a hub of the country's microbreweries.
Fort Collins is no bigger than Brighton, but nowadays it's home to 14 breweries with an extra 50 in the Greater Denver area alone. No wonder the area has fostered a reputation for being the craft beer capital of the US. But first, the biking...
Like many, I think I can ride a mountain bike.
However there's a big difference between cruising around the block when you were a kid and navigating your way around a maze of fir trees, roots and boulders at 20mph.
I imagined we were heading for a trail just like this.
Instead, Bob drove our group of three to the quiet grassy fields on the outskirts of town, overlooking Colorado State University football stadium where the Rolling Stones played in 1969.
"For someone whose main experience of bikes is as a drunken form of transportation, I was doing pretty well.."
We set off on the Pineridge and Foothill trails. These are cut through the long grass, just wide enough to fit a bike.
Bob tailors his tours to what his clients want - from five-hour long downhill sessions to gentle introductions to mountain biking. In our case, it was the latter with the promise of three brewery stops afterwards.
There are no terrifying downhills to tackle, just rolling fields with short climbs and easy rocky descents. The trails here are less popular than those in nearby Boulder, but almost never busy and equally as fun.
Fort Collins has around 300 days of sunshine per year. Last night it had rained for the first time in weeks. The sky was blue but there were thick patches of mud on dry trail. It felt like cycling through chocolate mousse.
As we rode, Bob chatted animatedly about the area, pointing out famous local residents like Georgia Gould who won bronze in the cross country at London 2012 Olympics - "you'll sometimes see this woman hauling ass around these trails, that's Georgia" - and the wildlife - "we get the odd mountain lion or coyote up here from time to time."
Occasionally we'd come across a rocky patch, bulging with tree roots. The aim is to skilfully weave around it or ride straight over.
I tried the second approach. The handlebars jolted and I nearly flung myself into the bushes. “Brake with your back brakes first!" I heard Bob cry behind me.
At over 5,000 ft above sea level, the altitude has a surprisingly noticeable effect. With 15 per cent less oxygen than at sea level, even the smallest hill leaves you feeling breathless and constantly thirsty.
Uphills were definitely more challenging than I anticipated. I made an immediate mental note to hit the gym once I got home.
"With 15 per cent less oxygen than sea level, even the smallest hill leaves you OUT OF BREATH"
Before long, I was cruising along with a lot less fear, bouncing over small rocks rather than approaching them with wariness usually reserved for encounters with wild animals.
We covered seven miles in about forty-five minutes. For someone whose main experience of bikes is as a drunken form of transportation, this was pretty good going. Sweaty and spattered with mud, we were ready for our brewery hop around town.
First stop was the Horse & Dragon, a four week old family business housed in an old aeroplane hanger.
Tim Cochran, the founder, was stood behind the bar pouring pints with his daughter. He named the brewery after his and his wife Carol's Chinese horoscope symbols.
We perched on one of the reclaimed wooden stools to sip through my overflowing tasting tray – from the light citrus Almost-Summer through to the rich Sad Panda Stout.
If you go, make sure you try the Whistle Blast Honey Brown. I could drink it all day long.
Through the large glass windows, huge brewing tanks stood silently fermenting the next batch. A world map was taped to the wall inviting visitors to mark their hometown with sticker. I was proud to add the very first one to England.
Next stop, Odell Brewing Company, the second oldest microbrewery in Colorado and by far one of the largest. Unlike the Horse & Dragon, this place has been running since 1989 and now supplies 11 states with ales and IPAs.
It's now expanded to house a mid-sized brewery with a huge tap room for visitors to try their wares. I made my way towards the terrace with my second tasting tray and a fat cheese-wurst hot dog. When in Rome, right?
"Travel and pasteurisation ruin the taste, which is why you'll never see a bottle in the UK"
Odell's beer is cold-filtered which means don't pasteurise their beer like major brands. It has to be kept cold and drunk within three to six months of bottling. Pasteurisation combined with travel can ruin the taste, which is why you'll only see a handful of bottles in the UK. Those with more hops travel better.
Next, a 30 minute whistle-stop tour around the brewery, guided by one of the brewer's wives. Breweries are very much a family affair here. This was followed by a pint of their famous 90 Shilling beer, picked straight off the bottling line.
Sustainability and preserving the environment is high on everyone's priority list in Fort Collins for obvious reasons. Odell's use solar panels on their roof to contribute to their electricity usage. They also now don't make a single landfill contribution by using as much recyclable materials as possible.
Finally, we finished our day at Equinox Brewing, a hippy-style tap house with a small brewery stashed in a garage at the back.
Local bands play on the terrace during the summer evenings. The beer "menu" changes on a weekly basis, so there's endless room to come back and taste more.
“By now, you've probably worked out which one you like, right?" said Bob. It turns out I've a new-found love for brown ale. Eclipse Brown it is, then.
We sit on the terrace with John, a colleague of Bob's, his brother Kevin and baby Patrick, basking in the sun and learning more about biking in Fort Collins and a surprising local interest in the English premiership football (yes, real football!)
By the end of the day, I clocked around an hour riding and five hours drinking beer. Just the way it should be in my book. “Here you can be who you want to be," says Bob. "There's no ego or pressure."
That's the beauty of life in Colorado. It's shaped by their love of the outdoors and their taste of the good things in life: friends, biking and a decent pint of ale. It's not like America at all, and I think that's why I like it.