Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #176, published in April 2014. It’s technically a “Blast from the Past” story, but is still (and probably always will be) relevant.
Words by Jeff Lockwood. Photos courtesy of Dogfish Head, New Belgium Brewing, Oskar Blues, Trek and Tröegs Brewing.
As someone interested in mountain biking and reading this magazine, it’s a safe bet that sometime today, you popped open Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and saw at least one image or post of some riding buddies posing unclipped from their bikes, holding aloft a few bottles or cans of fine beer. While it’s quite a ubiquitous scene that might seem cliché to some people, there’s no denying the relationship between craft beers and mountain biking is a strong—and delicious—one.
Cycling is fundamentally a healthy endeavor, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense that beer is so often closely associated with mountain biking. Of course there are many mountain bikers who don’t drink beer, and one could easily make the case that most beer drinkers around the world wouldn’t even think of throwing a leg over a bicycle. Other cycling disciplines also seem to have their own association with alcohol, but none of those relationships are as strong and deep as the marriage of craft beer and mountain biking.
There is an incalculable number of examples of bicycle jerseys with brewery logos, bicycle events sponsored by breweries, and teams and clubs supported by brewers. You’ll also see many bicycle-inspired beers and beers named after bicycles.
While brewers have definitely capitalized upon such a relationship, it can hardly be considered exploitation. Besides, it’s not a stretch to say mountain bikers have benefitted more from relationships with breweries than the other way around.
Such relationships go beyond marketing. Many craft breweries in the United States have a strong cycling thread woven directly into the fundamental fabric of the company. “There’s lots of us in the company that come from all walks of riding. We all get together when the weather is good, and we try to ride together when we can. It’s pretty organic amongst the people here,” explains Mark Carter, director of events and philanthropy for Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware.
Dogfish Head has long supported all sorts of cycling, but it has recently upped their game by throwing some money and their considerable cachet behind the Urban Bike Project in Wilmington, Delaware. Housed in the old Wilmington Mounted Police stables, the Urban Bike Project is a nonprofit initiative that promotes cycling as an environmentally friendly form of community development. The organization teaches kids about bike safety and helps them buy their own bikes. The Urban Bike Project also receives donated bikes in various states of disrepair, fixes them and turns them around for members of the community who rely on bicycles as their sole means of transportation.
The 2009 Singlespeed World Championship mountain bike race was held in Durango, Colorado. It’s a well-known fact that this race is more of a healthy celebration of mountain bikes than a serious competition. As with any great celebration, the beer flows strong and swift before, during and after this race.
The official SSWC ’09 post-race party was held at the Ska Brewing facility located on the outskirts of Durango. Long an active supporter and participant in mountain bike culture, the Ska brewery was a logical location for the party.
Dave Thibodeau is president and co-founder of Ska Brewing and was a mountain biker before he started brewing beer. He sees a logical correlation between people who love mountain biking and great beer. “You’ve got somebody who really enjoys being on singletrack high up and getting the most out of their surroundings. It’s the same thing when they’re drinking beer. You’re not gonna go waste that experience by having a Budweiser when you can really get in deep with something that’s had a lot of effort put into it.”
Taking the genuine relationship between craft beer and mountain biking a pedal stroke further is Oskar Blues Brewery. Also calling Colorado home, Oskar Blues beer is almost exclusively sold in aluminum cans. The main impetus behind selling its beer in cans is that founder Dale Katechis decided cans were a more durable and environmentally friendly method for carrying beer in a backpack on mountain bike rides.
Tröegs Brewery in Hershey, Pennsylvania, has also started to can some of its beers. Jeff Herb, marketing media coordinator for Tröegs, explains how canned beer works well with mountain biking: “Craft beer drinkers are into cycling, hiking, camping and a variety of other outdoor activities. Since craft beer is important in their lives, drinkers never want to leave home without their favorite beer.”
While mountain biking was one of the inspirations for Oskar Blues choosing cans over bottles, the brand’s involvement in cycles goes much deeper.
For example, Oskar Blues recently opened the Cyclhops Bike Cantina in Longmont, Colorado. Cyclhops is a busy taco and tequila sit-down restaurant that also houses a full-service bike shop and retail base for the Oskar Blues brand of mountain bikes known as Reeb Cycles.
Katechis started Reeb Cycles in 2011 after his bike was stolen. Offering at least four dirt-specific handmade steel or titanium bicycles, the Reeb brand is no marketing gimmick hack. Hand-welded by Chris “Soultrain” Sulfrain, Reeb Cycles are high-end frames that manifest the independent and innovative spirit running through Oskar Blues at a micro level as well as all of mountain biking and brewing on a macro level.
“There is a commonality and an adventurous spirit that inspires people to follow their soul to a place that fits. That adventurous spirit brings people together in general. It’s not a marketing plan. It’s not a business plan. We live it. People are drawn to that passion,” explains Chad Melis, marketing guy for Oskar Blues Brewery. [Ed note: Click here for Katherine Fuller’s in-depth story on Oskar Blues and Reeb Cycles.]
It can easily be argued that mountain biking and craft brewing were born in response to, or as a revolt against, a larger, less interesting version of themselves. Bicycles are inherently fun objects. Beer is also something that has an intrinsic value of fun or entertainment. On a commodity level, they both can bring a lot of joy to a lot of people, independent of each other.
Yet, as with most things, there are people who wish to distill more purity out of something they’re passionate about to create something more unique, personal and fun. They want a little more variety. Mountain bike pioneers started in the late 1970s as a group of oddball rebels in blue jeans who started by modifying existing bikes to make cycling more fun by riding them where bikes rarely went.
Similarly, craft brewers started around the same time when Jimmy Carter threw open the window on homebrewing when he signed H.R. 1337 in 1978, making it legal for people to brew small batches of beer (or wine) for personal consumption. The seeds for both revolutions were planted then and grew from there.
“Craft beer is a smaller category within the beer market as a whole. Mountain biking is kind of that way also. Mountain bikes haven’t been around as long as other types of bikes. They’re both kind of, to a degree, subcultures of something larger. Which pairs them up pretty well,” elaborates Mark Carter from Dogfish Head.
The Brewers Association is an industry advocacy organization for American craft brewers who look upon craft brewing with the following statement: “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” Further, “craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.”
To draw the parallel with mountain biking, the history of the sport holds that some rebellious people took some trash-picked bicycles and tweaked them until they were worthy to bomb down some rugged dirt roads in northern California. There is no common mission statement for the mountain bike industry, but from its very beginning we can say mountain biking has been interpreting historic styles with unique twists and developing new styles that have no precedent. Mountain bike builders have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
Let’s be clear that it’s not just small, hand-crafted mountain bike companies that can relate to that statement. Even the most basic, mass-produced mountain bike is still unique and distinctive when compared to most bikes. The Treks, Specializeds and Giants of the world all produce mountain bikes that challenge convention by their very nature, so it’s completely fair to include bikes from the big boys in such a discussion.
Sam Foos is a brand manager for Bontrager, which is part of the Trek Bicycle Corporation. Foos explains how the passionate and fraternal connection between craft beer and mountain biking also has a place within larger bike companies. For starters, I was surprised to learn that there are at least two kegs of fine beer on tap at all times in different parts of the Trek headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Combined with 236 acres of mountain bike trails across the street from the office, things become more clear. Foos goes on to say, “Every Wednesday, we go out to the trails, work on them, ride them and then hang out and drink beers when we’re done. We wouldn’t have these trails without Trek. We don’t promote this culture, it’s just what we do every week.”
On the corporate side of beer, we can agree that mass-produced beer lacks the passion, creativity and complexity found in a pint of good craft beer. People who design and build mountain bikes, or strive to create the best beer, possess a certain vision and passion that is obvious in their products. There’s not really much complexity or passion in a cup of Coors Light.
Tim Mayhew, master brewer at Tröegs Brewery, illustrates by saying, “Mountain bikes and craft beer have obviously become big business, but one thing they both possess that separates them from others in their market is passion. I’ve never met someone in either industry that doesn’t love what they do. I think the customer recognizes and appreciates that.”
Another craft brewer that has mountain biking blood coursing through its veins is New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Aside from producing the iconic Fat Tire Amber Ale, with its label featuring a riderless balloon-tire bike lazily left on the side of the trail while the pilot presumably is off enjoying a peaceful beer, New Belgium is intimately involved with cycling. For starters, the company was born when founder Jeff Lebesch returned from a mountain biking trip through Belgium in the 1980s. Further stoking the theme of passionate innovation, Lebesch started crafting beers in a basement with co-founder and current CEO Kim Jordan and grew New Belgium into a pillar of the American craft beer industry.
“Mountain bikers are generally curious folks who are down for adventure and happy to take risks. Craft beer brewers are cut from the same cloth. There’s a sense of exploration, creativity and accomplishment in each endeavor, and they, of course, complement each other perfectly,” says Bryan Simpson, public relations director for New Belgium Brewing.
In 2000, New Belgium galvanized its intimate involvement with cycling by creating a philanthropic bicycle event designed to entertain as much as to give back to the bicycle community. Tour de Fat is a traveling bicycle festival that tours around the country raising money for bicycle advocacy. To date, Tour de Fat has raised more than $3 million. While the event has evolved to celebrate all forms of cycling, its origins are quite rooted in mountain biking. Simpson elaborates: “We’d always get the locals to show us their trails, so we had some epic rides around Flagstaff , Missoula, Portland and Fort Collins, among many others. Wherever we went, everyone wanted to outdrink and outride the beer guys when we came to town. For the most part, we held our own.”
Mountain biking and craft brewing have grown in parallel since their birth in the 1970s. While craft brewing has rapidly climbed up and to the right in PowerPoint presentations around the country, mountain bike sales and participation leveled off after peaking in the late 1990s, and they have declined since then. While mountain biking may not engage the same numbers of people it once did, it can easily be argued that those who remain in the sport do so with rabid dedication.
Spencer Powlison is quite qualified to speak on the subject of mountain biking and craft brewing. A certified cicerone—which is the beer equivalent of a sommelier—and the marketing coordinator for the Brewers Association, he also happens to be a former collegiate mountain bike racer who now rides and races in Colorado. His view of the relationship is that “both the mountain biking and craft brewing worlds have always celebrated the independent spirit, which really defines both passions.”
Dirt Rag’s own history is quite intimately intertwined with the independent spirit and passion of craft brewing. In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be stated that just about every brewery mentioned in this article has supported Dirt Rag in some way over the past 25 years, either through advertising, product donations for events, or good ol’ fashioned free beer for magazine-staff morale lifting. Dirt Rag has published several long-running columns dedicated to the topic of beer, and we still do. We’ve also handed out thousands of cups of the stuff free at events like our own Dirt Fest in May, and we’ve been active supporters of things like Tour de Fat.
Many of the magazine’s best ideas were hatched around some “beerstorming” sessions in the basement workshop at DRHQ. There were many evenings where we’d wrench while pouring some Penn Pilsner from Penn Brewery, or we’d enjoy lively conversations around fresh pints of Tröegenator. Long-time Dirt Rag friend and frequent contributor John Hinderliter’s artwork has graced many covers and pages of Dirt Rag in addition to adorning a couple of bottle labels for Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh.
Interestingly enough, Dirt Rag is not the only mountain bike magazine in the world that enjoys such a delicious relationship with good beer. Singletrack magazine from the United Kingdom is the namesake for Singletrack Flowy Ale, brewed by the mountain bikers who own Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery in Kirkby Lonsdale, England. Its label features the Singletrack logo spread across a photo of riders carving some prime singletrack. The beer is described as being “4 percent ABV, deep golden in color with super citrusy floral aromas with a massive hop mouth feel.”
As we have seen, mountain biking and craft beer co-exist in mutually beneficial harmony. While such a community populated by mountain bikers and craft breweries may be viewed as a transient ideal that only exists on weekends when we’re able to get away from the real world for a few hours, it’s still a very real entity. Mountain bikers are, by their very nature, a discerning bunch always looking to enhance their ride experience. This manifests itself in a few ways: buying new parts and bikes, traveling to exotic destinations, or building the perfect trail. Since mountain bikers are born with this insatiable trait, it makes sense they also continuously seek perfection in other areas of their lives—like an exceptional beer or two.
We’ve published a lot of stuff in 26 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.