Trail of Beers: A Tale of Two Breweries

(Pictures follow blog post, Update: Minhas Tour times correction)

It was the best of beers, it was the worst of…weather.

Who would have thought that the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend would set a record for warmth?  I can recall overcast skies, cold temperatures, and heavy rain putting a damper on the holiday in years past, but never historic heat.  Still, this was the official  kickoff to the Midwestern Summer and once any weekend plan is set, it must remain set in stone – weather be damned.

The plan was simple enough.  We would ride our bikes between two of Wisconsin’s most iconic craft breweries; New Glarus Brewing Company in New Glarus and  Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe.

The two were separated by an 18.5-mile crushed limestone path we affectionately dubbed the Trail of Beers.  Technically, it consisted of two trails – the Badger State Trail and the Sugar River State Trail – but we alternately referred to both as the Trail of Beers or the Ale Trail.  On a normal day at a leisurely pace, the ride would take about an hour and a half.  No sweat…

A round-trip ride of 39 miles didn’t sound challenging enough to me or my riding partner, Joel.  We decided it would be more “epic” to start our journey 21 miles south of Monroe at the Jane Addams trailhead just outside of Freeport.  For those of you keeping track at home, we had now committed to ride 81 miles on the hottest day of the year (so far).

Leaving Freeport at 9am, it didn’t seem right to stop at Minhas for a sample (or three) at half past ten.  There was plenty of time to hit this historic brewery on our return visit.

Having visited the New Glarus Brewing Company prior, I was hip to their sampling package and prepared to exploit it.  The $3.50, 3.5 ounce shot glass that provided three beers of your choice also came with a coupon book for another free beer at an area restaurant.   Why not hit the brewery first and have a little lunch afterward?

We rolled on to New Glarus, arriving right around noon.

The ride up was deceptively easy.  The Jane Addams and Badger State Trails are lined with a canopy of trees and a smattering of sandstone outcroppings to provide shade for 90% of the trip.  These natural walls may have sheltered us from the direct sunlight, but they unintentionally screened us from the bucolic scenery aside the rolling ribbon our bikes straddled.  We only noticed our scenic surroundings during the brief moments we arrived at an occasional street crossing or in the few instances we encountered a clearing or a small town.

We also didn’t notice the heat, the humidity, and the southwesterly wind that had been at our backs until we neared the quaint, Swiss-themed village of New Glarus.

I mean no disrespect when I call this cute little town “Swiss-themed.”  There is no doubt that it is an authentic Swiss settlement dating back to 1845 - complete with preserved structures and a concerted civic commitment to keep its unique culture alive.  But it is a tourist town, so it comes across somewhere between Colonial Williamsburg and the Wisconsin Dells.  It’s a Disneyesque morphing of culture and commerce, fine-tuned to match the curiosity and impulsiveness of the masses.

The New Glarus Brewing Company sits just south of town atop a small hill.  Its well-manicured grounds begin just a few feet beyond a billboard promoting tours of the Minhas Brewery 15 miles to the south.  The sign serves as the bigger-than-life version of Amazon.com’s “others who liked this…” recommendation.

The New Glarus Brewing Company was a welcomed respite for two hot and thirsty cyclists.  The facility is brand-new, stunningly beautiful, and eco-friendly.  In addition to the beer store, there is a gift shop and tasting room.  Self-guided tours are available daily from 10am – 4pm, seven days a week.

It wasn’t until we stepped into the cold comfort of the climate-controlled facility when I noticed that my shorts and jersey were completely drenched in sweat.  I felt a chill course through my body as if I had just jumped into a swimming pool on a cold morning in early summer.  I decided to take my first sample outside and drink it in the warm air of the beer garden.

I had Two Women, Totally Naked, and a Golden Ale.

Those are beer names, by the way – not a chance encounter with a pair of female patrons who succumbed to the heat and stripped off their clothing.  Joel sampled Two Women, Totally Naked, and a Spotted Cow.

I haven’t been drinking craft beer very long, but I have found that I prefer the taste of ales over all other types.  I can’t describe the subtle nuances of flavor from one variety to the next or one brand to another.  I only know that I like the taste of Spotted Cow.  Lucky for me, it was on tap and served as the complimentary beer with my lunch at the New Glarus Hotel.

Before we left the brewery for lunch, we each purchased a 750ml (3-pound) bottle of Raspberry Tart.  The bottles fit perfectly inside the zippered commuter pannier I had attached to the rack of my Iseo.  If you’re going to ride 81 miles to sample beer, you might as well be prepared to bring some back with you...

We decided to buy a bag of ice, fill our water bottles, fill our back-up water bottles, ice down the trunk rack bag that held our back-ups, and use the rest of the ice to chill our Raspberry Tart during the ride back home.  By the time we were done with weather-proofing ourselves and the precious bottles we could only purchase in the State of Wisconsin, it was 2:45.

With only eighteen and a half miles to cover, we anticipated reaching Minhas easily by 4:15.  The plan had originally called for a 3:30 arrival, but we weren’t sweating the delay.  Buckets, pounds, sodium, and brain cells - those were the things we were sweating as we rode through the least shaded part of the trail against a southwesterly wind.

It’s funny how you never really notice that you’re cruising down a slight decline with the wind at your back.  When it happens on the first leg of your trip, you attribute it to eager anticipation, morning energy, and fresh legs.  When it doesn’t happen on the return trip, you feel like you’re riding on a stationary bike and you curse yourself for not having recognized or appreciated your good fortune earlier.

I won’t make excuses about the ride back, but…  Ok, I’ll make excuses.  It was hot.  There was less shade.  There was more wind.  The grade was slightly uphill.  I had an extra 8 pounds of ice, 6 pounds of beer and 4 pounds of water on the back of my bike.  And I had eaten too much for lunch.  I was not enjoying the ride and the rate at which I was pedaling dropped significantly.

As we approached Monroe, Joel thought he might be getting a flat.  Within a few more minutes of riding, his suspicions were confirmed.  Ordinarily, I can change a flat within five minutes, but Joel was borrowing the one bike I owned that did not have a quick release rear wheel.  While I had remembered to pack a spare – the functioning inner tube from my mountain bike that was two sizes too large for the bike Joel was on – I had failed to pack an adjustable wrench.  After ten minutes of debating our options, we decided to proceed the final mile to the brewery on foot, rolling our bikes along with us.

We arrived five minutes before the company store closed - so there would be no beer to transport back.  We were twenty five minutes too late for sampling.  We also needed to borrow an adjustable wrench or find a place in town where we could purchase one at 5pm on a Sunday.

The hostess in the sampling room at Minhas was a lifesaver.

She served us each a cold one and offered more if we wanted it.  She found a toolkit and loaned us a wrench.  Joel thought it would be a good idea for me to leave him as collateral for the wrench.  No use in both of us going back outside to change that tire…

Joel had turned into Mutual of Omaha’s Marlin Perkins and I became his trusty assistant, Jim.  While he stayed at a safe distance, I would circumcise the rhinoceros – er – dissemble the rear axle, disconnect the drum brake, install an inner tube that was a half-inch too large, re-inflate the tire with a Co2 inflator, and reattach the drum brake and axle – all while the sun continued to bake down on the Serengeti.  In true Marlin Perkins fashion, Joel would conduct the primary research for this presentation.  If that research entailed sampling a few more beers, well, somebody had to do it…

Minhas is a very different place than New Glarus.  For starters, it’s much older.  The brewery has been in existence since 1845 – the year the town of New Glarus was formed.  Its facility doesn’t look as state-of-the-art from the outside.  Its store and sampling room are a little less polished and a lot more “lived in”.  It also features the Herb and Helen Heydock World of Beer Memorabilia Museum - a beer sign collector's dream come true.   This place has the look and feel of a business that has operated throughout three centuries.

The Monroe Brewery – as it was originally named – has spawned many beer names over the past 167 years - Huber, Augsberger, Rhinelander, and Berghoff among the many you may have heard.  Joel told me that the brewery has over a hundred unique recipes and brews under contract for many private labels in addition to their own craft brews, premium beers, malt liquors, malted beverages, and sodas.  I guess I’ll have to take his word for it since I didn’t make it inside to hear about it firsthand…

Joel managed to sample the Huber Premium, Rhinelander Imperial Jack, and Shergill IPA.  I sampled a Lazy Mutt – the beer most comparable to Spotted Cow.

Once I finished fixing the flat and traded the wrench back for Joel, it was time to finish the final 21-mile leg of our ride back to Freeport.

There was more than a little anxiety as we rolled out of town.  I could only hope that the larger inner tube in Joel’s back tire didn’t rupture and end his ride, forcing me to ride back alone and return with my van to pick him up.  We blazed on, holding our breath, counting down the miles as we rode into swarm after swarm of tiny flying bugs.  We arrived back at the parking lot around 7:45pm.

For the recreational cyclist who is also a beer lover, I highly recommend the trip between these two very different breweries.  The trail is smooth with only a slight grade.  The tree cover provides great protection from the sun.  The scenery is refreshing - when it presents itself.

The beer is fantastic.  The breweries are intriguing.  One is the second oldest brewery in the country, offering up a legacy of craftsmanship with each pour.  The other represents a modern-day success story of a woman microbrewer that has proved her abilities and grown her start-up into an iconic brand with a loyal following.

If you’re one for tours, it's going to be tricky to squeeze in a full tour at either and a visit to both on the same day during the week.  Your best bet is a visit to both during the weekend.

As mentioned above, New Glarus offers a self-guided tour every day of the week from 10am - 4pm.  Minhas' tour schedule varies.  Monday it is at 11am, Tuesday through Thursday it is at 1pm, and Friday through Sunday 1pm and 3pm.

On the weekend, I would recommend driving to Monroe and riding to New Glarus - arriving between 10 and 11am.  Budgeting two hours for touring and sampling and another two hours for the return bike trip, one would still have plenty of time to return to Monroe for the Minhas Tour at 3pm.

If you’re all about the sampling or would prefer to go during the week, arrive at New Glarus at 10am, taste for 2½ hours, ride on to Minhas and taste for another 2½ hours.

Remember to drink responsibly and ride safely.  Beer doesn’t actually hydrate, so don’t rely on it for your sole source of electrolytes during your ride…

Pictures follow!

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