On October 23, 2015

Biking for beer

The apparent association between craft beer and cycling is one of the more perplexing aspects of microbrew culture. In my early 20s, I noticed that brewery gift shops seemed to sell a surprising number of cycling jerseys—from Allagash to Stone, they’re as ubiquitous as branded pint glasses, and once or twice my brother and I have gifted them to our dad, an avid cyclist and enthusiastic beer-drinker—but the depth and substance of the connection really struck me a few years later, when I visited a friend in Portland, Oregon, and drank IPAs at Hopworks Urban Brewery (its acronym, HUB, refers to the center of a bicycle wheel), whose taproom was decorated mostly in recycled bike parts and guarded in front by electricity-generating stationary bikes, where athletically inclined customers could earn discounts on their beer by producing green energy for the facility.

The bond between bikes and beer is, on the face of things, a little illogical. Drunk cycling may be less dangerous than drunk driving (you’re more likely to kill just yourself, rather than yourself and others), but it’s still illegal—and, like any strenuous physical endeavor undertaken with alcohol in one’s system, quite unpleasant. Although beer may taste especially good at the end of a ride, it is, except in the case of extremely low-alcohol products, a source not of hydration but of dehydration. In fact, beer serves no practical purpose at all within an athletic lifestyle. Quite the opposite: it’s empty calories, essentially junk food (even if organic and hand-crafted), a calorie-laden concoction of such little nutritional value that one might expect fitness freaks to treat it no differently than Coca-Cola. But this, obviously, is not the case.

No doubt, for a lot of breweries whose profits depend in small or large part on merchandise sales, bike jerseys are just another lucrative surface upon which they can stamp their logos. But think: you don’t see a lot of brewery-themed ski jackets or soccer balls or basketball sneakers—cycling seems to be the particular sport with which beer has a natural, even if irrational, rapport. Its only real association with other sports—football, baseball—exists on the spectators’ end, not the participants’, and is dominated by macrobrews.

Harpoon Brewery, meanwhile, sponsors a yearly one-day ride between its two brewing plants, in Massachusetts and Vermont: a hilly, 140-mile course that one would assume would be impassable for anyone with a respectable beer belly. In Colorado, Oskar Blues Brewery produces not only beer but also its own line of mountain bikes, and it even operates a mountain bike resort in western North Carolina, its secondary home.

In Germany, for about a century, there has existed a thirst-quenching style of beer called a “radler” (which is also the German word for “cyclist” in the Bavarian dialect), a low-alcohol mixture of lager and lemonade intended to be drunk for refreshment on long two-wheeled journeys. In America, however, the primary force in cementing the relationship between beer and cycling has probably been Colorado’s hugely successful New Belgium Brewing Company, whose well-known origin story revolves around a bicycle trip through Belgium that inspired the company’s founder to create Fat Tire Ale, now one of the bestselling craft beers of all time. The brewery’s logo is a bicycle, and one of its corporate policies involves free commuter bikes for employees. Cycling is the bedrock of the company’s identity; other, smaller breweries may just be following suit.

Yet cyclists seem to love beer as much as brewers seem to love cyclists (or cycling-related merchandise opportunities), and perhaps this is where the more interesting mystery lies. It may not seem so mysterious at first (doesn’t everyone like beer, cyclist or not?), but on closer inspection the special union of these two pseudo-populist hobbies of privilege speaks to the complexities of countercultural affinities, new American ideas about “the good life” (which is both virtuous and epicurean, defined by gluttony and consumerism within the righteous context of “artisan,” “all-natural,” and “small-batch,” the calories cautiously offset by exercise supposedly undertaken for pleasure), and the self-contradictory alchemy of coolness.

Most of all, both craft beer and cycling seem to relate to a contemporary reaction to the dystopian possibilities of a suburbanized version of American life that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, wherein people were supposed to spend their lives commuting to some distant workplace by car through miserable, planet-destroying traffic, consuming shoddy products assembled in factories somewhere halfway around the world by exploited labor, and slowly dying due to processed food and lack of exercise. In various ways, both bikes and locally made beer reflect DIY culture, ideas about sustainability, and a desire to engage one’s immediate environs and create experiences of quality.

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