As a welcome reprieve from the loud and crowded bars that characterize Madison Craft Beer Week festivities, a Saturday afternoon bike excursion hosted by Hop Head Beer Tours offered participants a chance to explore Madison breweries while atop two wheels. With near-perfect weather and little traffic, the tour was a pleasant experience both for experienced cyclists and Hop Head regulars.
Hop Head has made a name for itself with popular bus tours to breweries around the Madison and Milwaukee areas, elsewhere around southern Wisconsin, and Chicago; named "Bikes & Brews," this was their first-ever in a series of bike tours. Several attendees were already Hop Head tour aficionados looking to try out a new vehicle for visiting breweries.
"Hop Head's tours are always so educational and informative," said Shirley Galstad-Roh, who came to Madison from Tomah for the tour. She and her friend Julie Wehler have done several Hop Head bus tours, so they were excited to try the bike version. "It's a great idea, and they do such a good job with the tours. It's such a nice part of it, to be on the bikes," said Wehler.
"We saw the ad for this event, and we both like beer, and sunny days," said Kate Lind, who invited her father, Howard Mize, to come along for a father-daughter adventure. "There's always new stuff during Beer Week -- I haven't been to the next two breweries on the tour."
The afternoon kicked off at the Machinery Row building, which, tour leader and Hop Head Tours founder Justin Schmitz pointed out, has historical relevance when it comes to Madison brewing. Fauerbach Brewery, founded in 1848 (the same year Wisconsin achieved statehood), was based at that location until 1966, surviving Prohibition but ultimately going out of business as the industry narrowed to a handful of macro beer companies. (The Fauerbach brand was revived in 2005, and was part of the 2008 celebrations surrounding the 75th anniversary of the 21st Amendment codifying the repeal of Prohibition.) In its heyday, the brewery at Machinery Row was a well-known fixture on the shores of Lake Monona, with steamboat tours offered from just outside its doors.
From Machinery Row, the group traveled on the Capital City Trail and Starkweather Creek path to Ale Asylum, cycling at a leisurely pace and stopping occasionally to allow everyone to catch up. Participants who weren't regular cyclists expressed their appreciation for the beautiful Starkweather Creek path, while veteran bike commuters were happy to find a route to Ale Asylum that avoided Sherman Avenue.
Wil Guernsey, a bicycling enthusiast and beer lover who discovered both while living in Colorado, had never attended a Hop Head tour, but he came out for this one because of the bike component. "I was curious how they'd do it, what route they’d take," he said.
"It's inspiring me to bike more," said Ann Chi, who owns a bike but doesn't use it regularly. "It's inspiring me to drink more,” her friend Sarah Osborne jokingly countered. Like many attendees, Chi and Osborne didn't realize this was Hop Head's first bike tour. The ride went so smoothly, with excellent weather and no bike snafus to boot, that it seemed the group has been leading bike tours for years.
This one won't be their last, fortunately. Schmitz, who founded the tour company with Filipe Moreira four years ago, said it's time to offer regular bike beer tours. "The bus tours have really blown up; now we're trying to diversify our offerings," he explained. "Other tour groups around the country offer a bike option, so we knew it was feasible."
Over samples of Midnight IPA at Next Door Brewing, whose manager, Pepper Stebbins, actually helped with Hop Head Beer Tours' initial planning, Moreira discussed how it came together.
"We were talking with Pepper about a brewery tour in 2010 and had our inaugural tour to Milwaukee that year," he explained. "Four years later, we have our own 14-passenger bus, and there was a demand for bike beer tours, from our customers and in Madison."
Moreira and Schmitz partnered with Machinery Row Bicycles, a recognizable and central location just blocks from the Capitol, and decided to start with two bike tours during Madison Craft Beer Week, followed by one the first Saturday of each month, May through October. The fee is $40 for participants bringing their own bike, and $55 for those renting equipment from Machinery Row.
"If we fill up the summer tours, we'll add more!" declared Schmitz.
"The idea is fun, safe, and educational -- this is not a pub crawl," said Moreira. "We want our customers to have a good time. Safety is our focus."
Bikes and beer are a perfect pairing, Moreira pointed out. "In Wisconsin, and especially Madison, there's such a huge bike community, huge extension of trails," he said. "Right now is the perfect time to start brewery bike touring because breweries are popping up everywhere."
Moreira added that the inaugural tour's 14-mile distances is ideal, providing a good workout without being too challenging for beginners.
In contrast with the bus tours, which include slightly more beer at each stop, Schmitz said the bike tours will spend less time at each brewery and serve two 4-ounce samples per stop. "That way it's safer and more focused on biking," he noted. On Saturday, the sampling seemed to work perfectly; attendees agreed it was just enough to taste each beer without getting dehydrated or hampering cycling ability.
The last brewery of the day was One Barrel Brewing, a fitting choice considering the nanobrewery's Thursday "bike nights" (ride a bike to the brewery and your first beer is a buck) and bicycle-themed decor. "Peter [Gentry, owner] and I both love to bike, we ride our bikes to work -- that's why we do the bike night," said head brewer Dan Sherman, who gave the group a backstage tour of the small brewery.
The tour ended right across the street from One Barrel, at the historical spot where Hess Cooperage once manufactured white oak kegs for beer. Hess was Wisconsin's largest cooperage from 1904 through its closing in 1966. Gary Hess, grandson of the company's founder, Frank J. Hess, and cooper historian, gave a talk about his family's history in the barrel-making industry. Hess clearly appreciated talking with a group of cyclists. "I enjoy bicycling as well!" he exclaimed.
As the tour concluded, attendees agreed it was an energizing and educational experience. Considering how many onlookers and passing cyclists asked what we were doing and seemed excited about the brewery tour concept, Hop Head looks to have hit on a major interest in the Madison area. Whether you come primarily for the bike ride or the beer samples along the way, the brewing history and education at the tour's heart makes for a worthwhile afternoon.