I spoke with Evan Cohan, the brains behind the beers and bikes.
BG: How long has your company been around?
EC: We just finished our 2nd year doing tours. It's something I’ve been doing for 3-4 years on my own and with friends. We have 6-7 tours under our belt now.
BG: Where are you from, originally?
EC: Ventura, California.
Beer Cycling offers two major tours, one in Northern Belgium (Flanders) and one in the Netherlands. These are 10 day trips where accommodations and meals (breakfast & lunch) are included. The longest ride of the Belgium tour is 41 miles. Howeve,r Evan and the beer cycling guides really cater to beginning cyclists. With that in mind, Flanders is the perfect flat place to ride in the heart of Europe. Flanders combines a rich historical, contemporary culture, where you can view extraordinary architecture and beautiful country side, at a leisurely pace. But let's be honest, the primary focus is beer. Averaging about 30 miles/day, Evan lets the breweries dictate the route.
"The cycling is secondary to the beer...Brewery owners have been so excited to have us come over. They look at us as ambassadors...They’re very generous and accommodating. This tour is a little more VIP status."
BG: So, you did a 2-month, 2,000 mile bike tour down the East Coast here in the U.S. & visited about 70 breweries. What was that experience like? What were some surprise breweries along the way that you loved, and why?
EC: The 2,000 mile 60-brewery East Coast tour was something I'd be plotting and scheming for years. Having never really visited the east coast, I thought biking down it would be the perfect way to experience the landscape at a slower pace. And I decided to let the locations of the breweries along the way dictate my path. This lead to some fun, random adventures. Upon venturing up to Montreal to visit Unibroue (in Chambly), I was bummed when they refused to let me in, but ended up being presently surprised at the quality of all the other breweries in the area. Montreal I think now has over 20 breweries, and Quebec city is bustling as well. Even just riding in the countryside I would pass small random breweries. Like these guys: https://www.facebook.com/tchequebec ; A random Czech chemist who settled into Quebec and started making kick-ass Czech lagers. Randomly awesome. My favorite brewery of the trip was these guys: http://www.labarberie.com/ Translate to "The Beardery" from French. I guess the owners all had beards when the started it so it seemed like a good name? Anways, amazing wide range of experimental beers, good people. I think I spent at least 4 hours there! In general I was totally blown away at almost everything just north of our border. Other highlights included Allagash, Dogfish Head, Southampton, and Brooklyn Brewing, but there were really too many to count. It was on this trip that I decided to do beer tours for an actual job. I was planning to start a business anyways, and this sounded like the most fun thing I could think of. Actually, doing the tours in Belgium sounded like the most fun thing I could think of, so that's what I did.
BG: Going back to Beer Cycling, in Europe, on this last tour, you visited Brouwerij De Ryck and Cantillon brewery in Belgium. How did you set up the tours w/ the breweries? Have all of the breweries in the area now heard of beer cycling? What do they think?
EC: Setting up tours at breweries originally started by the normal methods of contacting them via their webpage, email, or by phone. In most cases they were happy to oblige. Others took some persistence, but everyone was generally very generous and excited to have Americans visit. Since the US is Belgium's biggest client for beer, they see us all as ambassadors, and are eager to have us spread their gospel back home. Over the years I've luckily got some face to face with the beer people out there, and that certainly has helped. Going to beer festivals, and door to door just introducing myself.
How I found De Ryck was actually kind of funny... I sent an email to Stefaan, owner of Brouwerij de Musketiers (they make the awesome "Troubadour" beers) asking about a tour. He stated they did not have the facility to grant tours, but recommended their colleagues at Brouwerij De Ryck south west of Ghent. I emailed Miek at De Ryck, and she was happy to grant us a tour. When I mentioned that I was recommended to them by Stefaan since he doesn't offer tours she laughed and said, "That's because he doesn't have his own brewery!". It turns out he contract brews at De Proef, which is a large multi-use brewery near Ghent that has dozens of clients they make beer brands for. Apparently, some people like to keep it a secret that their beer is made there, as Musketiers don't mention it on their labels / website. Sorry Stefaan, that now the secret is out!
More and more breweries have heard of us, part due to our consistent presence, my requests, and also due to our good fortune to be featured in the newspaper and magazines in Belgium on occasion. Each tour I try to include a new brewery, so over time we'll have more and more options and experiences. It's hard to pick a favorite but we've definitely developed the closest relationship with Brouwerij Van Steenberge (Gulden Draak, Piraat), De Dolle Brouwers, and De Ryck. All of my focus goes to the Flemish (Dutch speaking) areas, as they reside in the more flat easy biking north part of the country. One year if I can practice my French more I may venture south into Wallonia.
BG: You recently visited Gruut Stadsbrouwerij, the only brewery in Ghent, that makes beers without the use of hops and uses Gruit, instead. What’s your overall impression of these beers compared to U.S. craft beers brewed w/ hops?
EC: Gruut is a female owned, small brewery in the country. I don’t think you would be able to tell a huge difference in the taste. They taste a little more spicy and refreshing, really amazing beers.
BG: At Brouwerij Van Steenberge in Ertvelde, they have new disposable plastic orb kegs. So, this will be the new way they export kegged beer to the US? Could you elaborate? When will we see this?
EC: We've already started to see this in Portland. A big problem Belgium had was waiting months for kegs to come back, and the expense to transport was huge. Now, a lot of breweries are sending these disposable kegs to America. There's less cost and speeds up the process. There's a real evolution of beer happening out there. Most breweries now have an IPA, which is an American influence and a very new beer style for them. In Europe, time is a virtue. With the monasteries and beer, there's a lot of history involved.
BG: Are there food and beer pairings on either of the tours?
EC: Yeah, we started doing cheese and beer pairings. Our Dutch tour guide is an expert food and beer pairer and we will often go to restaurants there that will do pairings.
A typical day may take you to through gorgeous country side to Brouwerij Van Steenberge, famous for their fine Gulden Draak, Piraat, and Augustijn beers. Taste the new new Gulden Draak 9000 in the city of Ghent, while getting a personal tour of the facilities from the brewery owner. Then you might enjoy dinner at Brasserie Aba-Jour followed by drinks at Het Waterhuis, overlooking the canal.