Biker Brewers

In the pre-dawn hours, even the birds are asleep in England’s hop country, and the sun has yet to gild the clouds gliding over from the west country. On the shoulder of a narrow lane, a light breeze rustles the hedgerow and, across the way, the first hint of dawn reveals the profile of an oast house. As your gaze follows the horizon, you hear the soft buzz of an awakening bee. You set yourself for a deep breath to gather in the dew-drenched bouquet of the Kentish hop fields and orchards.

When a motorcycle leaps over the rise, fills the air with its roar and flies by, touches earth with a chirp and howls off into the distance. Your nose stings with the smell of burnt petrol. You wonder, was that an apparition? No. It was a brewer, Ian Dixon, out for a spot of fresh air before a long day at work.

It’s a scene repeated all over the world as brewers head to work astride two wheels and a roll of thunder. What is that draws so many of them to motorcycles? Given their responsibilities, and the constant care and attention demanded by every step of the brewing process, they can hardly be seen as outlaws or daredevils.

As production director of the Shepherd Neame brewery in the small rural town of Faversham, Dixon must arrive by 5 a.m. to see that the first mash, known as the “Morning Six” in this corner of the world, is steeping within the hour. Twelve short hours later, the brew must be far enough along to be left on its own for the night, freshly hopped and cooled, the yeast pitched, busily ingesting, digesting and propagating.

Shepherd Neame is believed to be England’s oldest brewery, brewing continuously since 1698 at one site, rich in tradition, and purists may wonder where Dixon’s Harley-Davidson fits in. According to Dixon, numerous British brewers ride motorcycles, although he’s not sure why. “If you like a bit of speed for relaxation, you’ll get more fun from a motorcycle. Or it could be a nostalgic fondness for the heyday of British industry.”

Dixon confesses to owning 10 bikes of his own, and many are British classics. His voice grows wistful as he lists a few from his stable: a Norton Commando Mark III, Douglas Dragonfly, BSA Bantam, Panther M-100 with a Steib sidecar (“like in the German war movies, only without the machine gun”), Royal Enfield Turbo Twin, Francis Barnett Cruiser, Triumph Bonneville T-120. An embarrassment of riches? “Well,” Dixon says, “I don’t know about riches, but it’s certainly an embarrassment.”

Dixon has a parting thought on the lure of the motorcycle. “It’s the only way I know to become invisible in England. Other motorists certainly don’t see you.”

Seven time zones to the west, however, brewers on bikes are readily visible, riding in packs in broad western American daylight. The 1996 Sturgis Rally drew three riders from the Coors Brewing Company in Golden, Colorado, who rode their Harley-Davidsons to the Black Hills of South Dakota for the massive gathering and celebration of Harleyness.

For those of you who were passed on the highway, that was Leo Kiely, Coors’ President and CEO, on a black and chrome Road King; Tim Wolf, CFO, on a silver and blue Dyna Low Rider; and Senior V.P. Bob Ehret astride a maroon and candy apple red Heritage Softail Classic with python pipes. All grinning broadly.

Although Coors makes many beers, the three riders favor Original Coors. Do they see a link between their beer and Harley-Davidson? “Both are American in the most wonderful, powerful way,” says Wolf. To be sure, Original Coors has deep roots in the Old West, brewed at Golden since 1874, with Rocky Mountain spring water and two-row barley grown only in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado. Today’s “original” formulation, which includes a small amount of rice adjunct, is identical to that used to create the beer known as Coors Banquet during the early seventies, when the Coors mystique was at its peak.

Michael Jackson has referred to Coors Original as “the lightest and cleanest premium beer in the world” but an observer more uniquely qualified to comment on the confluence of Coors and Harley-Davidson is John Stage, pit boss at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Q in Syracuse, New York. When not slathering ribs with his own sensuous sauces, Stage divides his time evenly between a 1957 Panhead and a 1993 Softail Custom. “They get upset if I spend more time with one than the other,” he notes. In the evenings, he chats with customers at the bar and often drinks Coors Original. “It’s a good, drinkable beer. Nothin’ fancy. Nothin’ fruity. The more beers I try, the more I go back to the simple beers. And Coors is great with barbecue.”

Another brewery biker at the Sturgis Rally was Mitchell Perry, who made the trip on a two-tone blue Harley-Davidson FXRS-SP. A forklift driver at the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, California, Perry is one of a throng of motorcycle enthusiasts at the legendary brewery.

Although founded in 1896, Anchor’s present fame dates from 1965 when Fritz Maytag first became involved. The brewery was then on the verge of closing, until Maytag risked his time and ultimately his money to rescue it. In so doing, he also saved an indigenous American beer style — Steam Beer — and inspired a generation of craft brewers.

As befits the varied origins of Anchor’s beer styles — from the American steam beer (a.k.a. California common) to British ale, porter and barleywine, and German wheat beer — Anchor’s motorcycles come from all over the world. President and brewmaster Fritz Maytag rides a BMW GS 1000, and brewer Mark Carpenter, who has been riding motorcycles since he was 15, owns a Triton 650, a Triumph T120 and a Ducati 916. In keeping with San Francisco’s proximity to the Pacific Rim, the brewery’s staff rides Japanese bikes as well, including brewer Eddie Heston’s black Kawasaki Ninja.

Anchor Steam Beer, which Carpenter modestly describes as “the greatest beer on earth,” certainly has a robust flavor, but the Anchor fleet of motorcycles does more than inspire its riders to create big beers. Periodically, those who ride take a break from the 10-hour days for a “bike run” where they can relax away from the brewery. Whether an afternoon jaunt to Judy Ashworth’s Lyon’s Brewery pub in nearby Dublin or an overnight to the Mendocino coast, the trips reinforce the sense of dedication that pervades the Anchor family of beers.

Farther north in the state of Washington, the Pyramid Breweries have gone whole hog with not one but two “house Harleys.” The Thomas Kemper Harley is a sun-yellow “Fat Boy” with dazzling chrome pipes, and the Pyramid Harley is cherry-red with a side car. Pyramid representative Michael Goldsberry notes, “We use these bikes for various promotions… as well as for the pure enjoyment that only a perfectly hand-crafted motorcycle can bring.”

Craft-conscious Pyramid began as Hart Brewing in 1984, making Pyramid Pale Ale in the small logging town of Kalama, Washington. A new brewery was built in Kalama in 1992, the year the company merged with Thomas Kemper. In 1995, a new Seattle brewery opened, and just this year the Pyramid Brewery and Alehouse opened in Berkeley, California. Known as Pyramid Breweries since 1996, the company brews a dazzling galaxy of Thomas Kemper lagers of German and Belgian origin, and a wide range of Pyramid ales including Hefeweizen, Apricot Ale, Espresso Stout and a new Draught Pale Ale (DPA) which is Irish red in color with a nitrogen pour for creaminess.

The Pyramid brewers are as at home on wheels as they are in the brewhouse. Brewer Paul Rozek rides a Yamaha Virago 750 for “the freedom, the thrill, the exhilaration.” He is particularly enamored of Pyramid’s seasonal Snow Cap Ale, which he describes as a “rich, big mouthful, gobs of hops, bitterness and finishing, plenty of caramel malt flavor to balance bitterness.”

Another Pyramid brewer, Drew Cluley, notes, “Riding gives me feelings of pure pleasure. My bike hits the powerband at 5500 rpm just like the hoppy Northwest beers that I enjoy.” While on a brewing consultant job in Japan last summer, Cluley rode his black Honda Ascot (customized with a Phish Sticker on the rear fender) all over Nagano prefecture. “It was especially enjoyable to take-off into the hills in search of a remote ‘onsen’ (hot spring) with a growler of American Pale Ale.”

The prize for living large surely goes to brewer Dan Houck, who while traveling 55 m.p.h. on his Honda CX 500 was nailed full in the chest by a red-tailed hawk. Houck managed to stay upright, and pulled over to the shoulder of the road where he and the hawk traded stunned looks before the bird flew off. “He must have just finished a squirrel lunch or something, because there was fur and meat spread out for a hundred feet or so.” When not bird watching, Houck favors Pyramid’s new DPA for its medium maltiness and high hop content. “Perfect after a hot ride,” he notes.

Our last fearless traveler is Chuck Doughty, head brewer at Smuttynose Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Founded in 1994 and named after an island off the New Hampshire coast, Smuttynose is so truly micro the staff can’t take phone calls when the bottling line is running. Coincidentally, Doughty’s journey into brewing began when he was called upon to repair a chain-driven bottling line that bore an uncanny resemblance to his 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead. From mechanics, Doughty moved to microbiology and microbrewing, and today he brews Smuttynose’s highly regarded Shoals Pale, Old Brown Dog and the newest, Chuck Wheat (thought by some to be the Sauvignon Blanc of ales).

Doughty recently traded his ’48 Harley for a 1996 Electra Glide, citing his 70-hour brewing weeks and the subsequent lack of time to tinker with an older machine. Interviewed after returning from a 3,000-mile sojourn on his new cycle, Doughty said of his riding, “I like the freedom; it lets me get away from things.”

Why do so many brewers ride motorcycles? The link, in spite of the inspired metaphors they offer, is not to beer. As Mark Carpenter of Anchor Brewing sagely observes, “I think it’s important to keep the beer and motorcycles apart.”

Rather, the link is to the brewers’ themselves — creative, enthusiastic, fun-loving people — and the nature of the brewing process. Brewers are tied to a place and a process that demands their presence and their patience. Days begin as early as 4 a.m. and stretch out to 10 hours or more. Each step in the brewing process requires time and attention, and cannot be rushed. Place creative, enthusiastic, fun-loving people in this situation, and they are going to look for a means of escape. And there, at the brewery gates, sits a motorcycle.

Today’s brewers are yeast wranglers, watching over stationary flocks, who long to leap into the saddles of their iron steeds and head to the open range, for the feel of the wind and the taste of freedom. Long may they brew, and long may they ride.

* * *

This article first appeared in All About Beer magazine in 1997


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