- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
Here in Fort Collins, bicycles and breweries co-mingle in a happily fermented relationship, and tourists love it.
Take me. I’m staying at the historic Armstrong Hotel downtown, where I’ve checked out a beautiful turquoise loaner bike. My trusty two-wheeled steed is pointed toward the next brewery, which by my calculation lies just 15 minutes away.
The city’s platinum level status from the League of American Bicyclists means it’s bike friendly and easy to get around. Almost every road has a bike lane, separated bike paths loop around downtown, and locals are accustomed to seeing cyclists on the road. This spring, the city launched an automated bike share system similar to the one in Austin, making it easy to rent a bike and pedal from brewpub to brewpub.
Which brings us back to that beer.
Anheuser Busch turned on the first taps back in 1988 when it opened a brewery in Fort Collins. Other, craftier beers quickly followed. Odell Brewing Company and Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing opened within a few weeks of each other in 1989. New Belgium, the biggie in town, opened two years later.
Today, 70 percent of Colorado’s craft beer is brewed here. That’s a lot of beer, and I’m on a mission to visit as many of the 23 (and counting) hometown breweries as I can.
“Beer in this town is a billion dollar industry,” says Josh Hall, brand ambassador at the Fort Collins Brewery, my first stop. “If you meet, you meet over a beer. That’s how we do it.”
I dip house-made, bacon-wrapped pretzels in mustard made with beer as he tells me more. Last year, he says, Fort Collins Brewery made 12,000 barrels of beer; this year they’re on track to whip up 15,000. The brewery made its name in German lagers, but unfiltered ales have gained popularity and sours are making a resurgence. Hall orders a flight, with six tiny glasses of beer, and we sip our way through the assortment. My favorite? The Red Banshee Nitro, a medium-bodied German-style beer with a hint of fruitiness.
By now it’s time to head to the Small Batch Revival Festival, just down the road at Odell Brewing Co. It takes me about 3 minutes to pedal there, and the parking lot is packed with hundreds of bicycles when I arrive. Everyone, it seems, would rather leave the car at home when it comes to brewery hopping.
I wander the grounds, where visitors are trying some of the 50 types of beer from local makers while a band jams on stage. I sample a tasty 90 Shilling Ale, then get a quick peek at the brewery, where I learn more about the city’s hopped-up and bike-centric culture.
Biking is ingrained in the daily life in Fort Collins. Some of the city’s first home brewers, it turns out, were cyclists. A few eco-conscious breweries deliver kegs to parties by specially-adapted bicycle. There’s world-class road riding and mountain biking just outside of town, and a central website, yourgroupride.com, that lists weekly rides and races.
“The city just recognized the value of biking as a tourist draw,” says Chris Johnson, executive director of Bike Fort Collins. “Biking is the best way to get a sense of the culture and community and sights and sounds and smells.”
Beer, obviously, is equally important. Colorado State University, which is located here, offers a certificate in fermentation science. There’s even a “Bikes and Beer Radio Show” on local station KRFC 88.9.
“Bikes and beer go so well together,” says Zach Yendra, 31, one of the radio show’s hosts. “I drink beer every day. I ride my bike every day. I have a keg-o-rator at the shop, because nothing beats having a tasty craft brew at the end of the day.”
Which reminds me that I have reservations the next day at New Belgium Brewing. The free, 90-minute, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the town’s most famous beermaker includes four complimentary samples and a good dose of history.
The story of New Belgium is a good one. The brewery’s founder traveled to Belgium to learn from the source how to make beer. He brought along his mountain bike, and everywhere he went, people asked him where he’d gotten such a strange looking, fat-tired bike. Today the brewery’s Fat Tire beer pays the bills — and more, according to our guide, long-time and enthusiastic employee Burny Finkle.
New Belgium gives each employee a free 12-pack of beer every week, and a year’s service means a free cruiser bike (dozens are parked in the employee lot). After five years, employees get a trip to Belgium to see where it all started. After 10, they get a month sabbatical.
That leaves time for a few more stops on my tour. Before my visit ends, I fall in love with the Vernal Hefeweizen at Equinox Brewing and sample a weirdly tasty green chili brew at Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing.
But I haven’t even stepped foot into more than a dozen other breweries, and the names intrigue me: Snowbank Brewing Co., Horse & Dragon Brewing Co., Funkwerks Brewing Inc., Copper Muse Distillery and Pateros Creek Brewing Co.
The good news? Fort Collins is just an hour from Denver, and it’s a direct flight from Austin. I can come back for more.
And a bike will be waiting.