Beer & Bikes: A Match Made In Heaven
In recent years, cycling culture in metro Detroit has gone from nearly nonexistent to explosively popular, with significant cycling infrastructure being added in major metropolitan centers and small towns alike. At the same time, the same thing has been happening with craft beer culture, evolving from the niche realm of beer geekdom to mass consumption. Coincidence? Never. As bike culture and beer culture have grown exponentially in Michigan, they have also been growing together, in a symbiotic relationship of fun.
Stephen Johnson launched the Motor City Tour Company
in 2009 as Motor City Brew Tours, offering guided brewery tours (with samples) by bus. Each tour would hit three different breweries, and was more than just a standard-issue pub crawl: designed for people with a real passion (or at least sincere interest) for craft beer, the tours also included a meet-and-greet with the brewers themselves and a behind-the-scenes walk-through of the brewing facilities. As Motor City Brew Tours grew, Johnson began offering different kinds of tour packages: first walking tours, then biking tours.
"Last spring we started Motor City Bike and Brew Tours, [historic] brewery or Prohibition-themed tours where you drink at the end," he says. "We started doing them last April and [by the end of the season we had done] 21 bike tours with 400 people. What we learned from [the people who came] was that they had no idea I did bus tours; they were all in the biking community or were friends of people who were, but they were really into beer."
As Johnson started swapping stories with other riders, they would tell him that whenever they go on vacation they ride to find the best bar "to drink a good beer" (in other words, craft beer). As an avid cyclist himself, Johnson knew exactly what they meant.
"That's what I do. I like to bike. I like to drink good beer. It just proves that all bikers like to drink!" He adds, "There's more in common in the craft beer community and biking community than not in common. It's not just we're big Michigan beer geeks in our own little club but also most of these people whether road bikers, mountain bikers or triathletes all drink beer."
Now one of Johnson's main objectives is to figure out other ways to intertwine the biking and beer community, but he's certainly not the first person in metro Detroit to form a union between the two. It was really the perfect storm of factors falling into place that has led to the growing pastime of "beer biking" we know today. The rise in foodie culture paved the way for culinary tourism, which lent itself naturally to brewery and beer bar tours (after all, the idea of a pub crawl is nothing new; there is a certain measure of timelessness in schlepping groups of people from bar to bar for an evening of competitive consumption).
Similarly, social gatherings of cyclists have grown from a handful of loose bicycle collectives that organized makeshift "tours" to major non-profit organizations attracting major corporate sponsors, the cooperation of city governments (to shut down streets), and thousands of riders, who all end up drinking -you guessed it - beer.
Tour-de-Troit started in 2002 with a few riders and a cooler. Bil Lusa - who is many things, among them an entrepreneur – got involved in 2005 and has been called at various times the "beermergency manager, bike and beer Jesus, and Johnny Appleseed of bikes and beer."
"It went from about 100 people and a keg of beer to 5,000 people and closing the streets," he says. He jokes about how "corporate" the annual fall ride through the city has become: "We've got McDonald's, Quicken Loans and Flagstar Bank as our sponsors. The great thing about Tour-de-Troit is that there's so many nonprofits and fundraisers that are about ‘awareness' and nothing ever gets done. There's all this infrastructure for biking [in the city] now that didn't exist here before and we paid for it. We're continuing to work on the non-motorized plan [for Detroit], and this all comes out of a bunch of people riding their bikes and enjoying beer."
Tour-de-Troit always ends with a huge party in Corktown's Roosevelt Park sponsored by local stalwarts like Slows BAR BQ, MillKing It Productions, Foran's Grand Trunk Pub and many more.
"With Tour-de-Troit, the party is part of the calling card … part of it is being Detroiters and showing people from all over the region around town; part of it is that I know your local bike tour doesn't feed you good food, you get a dried-up bagel and a shitty Gatorade at the end. Of course we have beer and DJs at the end, why wouldn't we?"
He adds that, for him, having a fitness event where everyone drinks beer afterwards was "a culture shock in the best possible way," and that now it is considered commonplace. "For us, [Tour-de-Troit] is a celebration of cycling. And I don't know what a party is without beer."
But Tour-de-Troit is hardly Lusa's first time at the bike rodeo. Before moving to Detroit, he lived in Ann Arbor - at a time when downtown Ann Arbor wasn't nearly the bustling hive of foot traffic and lively bar scene it is today. He and his friends were living there and found themselves restless with the lackluster social drinking scene, so they formed the Westside Drinking Authority (WDA).
"We would get together every Thursday night for happy hour," he explains. "We formed this loose association of people we met around town. At the time there were empty storefronts on Main Street in Ann Arbor [and] the Eightball at the Blind Pig was the only bar open late; the trendy shit didn't exist like you see now. So we would do things like take people over the Sidetrack in Ypsilanti," a place long known for having "good beer."
Through random whim and happenstance, an Ann Arbor to Ypsi bike tour formed. They pieced together a route off the main roads and gave people a social opportunity to visit different bars without getting wrecked and getting behind the wheel of a car. "From a tour standpoint it's kind of a natural fit; there's not that instance of, ‘Hey, we're driving from bar to bar and getting wrecked,'" Lusa says. "From my standpoint you can drink a beer and burn it off by the next stop, and you can cover more ground than a traditional pub crawl."
At the time they started the WDA ride, they felt it was something of a community service to show people they can have fun in Ann Arbor and that it was okay to do so. "That's sort of how the bike tour started; we wanted to show people a good bar scene and do it safely."
The WDA tour started in 2000 with a handful of people hitting 11-12 bars. It is still held every year in the spring and is still a free event. "We're trying to keep it as recreational as possible," Lusa says. This year they had about 40 riders with an ambitious itinerary of nearly 20 possible bars, though the whole thing is very laid-back and people are free to come and go with no real set-in-stone "schedule." "It's always been really inclusive; there's a lot of experienced and inexperienced riders helping each other out and making sure no one drops off or ends up in the bushes."
When Lusa moved to Detroit he sought to recreate that culture. He saw there really wasn't much in the way of a craft beer OR cycling community, "so I did my best to show people what was out there and bring people down here and brewers down here. The one thing I was worried about was that I wouldn't have anywhere to ride my bike, but the city itself was such an easy place to ride that all those things came together." His theory is that "if more people ride bicycles and drink better beer things will just work out," and tours like the BIKE-toberfest bar crawl
he organized for the inaugural Detroit Beer Week
in 2010 have helped make that theory a reality.
More people ARE riding bikes and drinking better beer, and now for someone looking to get involved in the beer-and-biking social movement there are more options than ever. Wheelhouse Detroit
offers private beer bar and brewery tours throughout the city; the Bike Ypsi
Taco Tour starts at the Corner Brewery and includes a specially-made craft brew just for the tour; Bike Detroit's
regular rides usually start from Motor City Brewing Works or Honest John's; there are also annual rides like the Colin Hubbell Memorial Fund
Midtown ride which meets at Traffic Jam & Snug, a brewpub in Midtown, and Velo Detroit
, a pedaling pub crawl.
Biking even helps promote a little cross-border cooperation, whether that border is 8 Mile Road ("Cross the Border Thursdays
" starts at Woodbridge Pub and stops at Danny's Irish Pub for food and drink in Ferndale) or the international border separating Detroit and Windsor (the Detroit Port Authority hopes to add ferry service with the specific intent of promoting cross-border bike tourism
which could include the award-winning Windsor Eats "Wine Ride
" …not beer but close enough).
The phenomenon is hardly unique to metro Detroit. All over the state and country, beer and bikes are inexorably related. The Zoo-de-Mack
on Mackinaw Island is a huge weekend of biking and partying. Harpoon Brewery hosts an annual "Brewery to Brewery
" ride from its brewery in Boston to its brewery in Vermont – 148 miles in a single day (riders are well-beered afterwards). New Belgium Brewing Company holds the "Tour de Fat
," so named for their signature Fat Tire Amber Ale, in over a dozen cities across America throughout the summer and fall. Pittsburgh has a bike-themed bar called Over the Bar Bicycle Café
; Nashville has the Pedal Tavern
, a 16-person "bicycle-powered party on wheels."
"The nascent craft beer movement even in its early days was long intertwined with cyclists and avid bike riders," Lusa remarks. "I can't say exactly why that is. Adults who ride bikes have an appreciation for the finer things; they find a way to enjoy the way from point A to point B [and] some people maintain that lends itself to enjoying good beer. Another thing is you'll never find a cyclist on a low-carb diet."
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography