Is this beer heaven? Yes, it's Iowa

TED MATHER / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Joe has his first - and last - mainstream brew as he prepares to set off on the RAGBRAI trail.
TED MATHER / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Joe has his first - and last - mainstream brew as he prepares to set off on the RAGBRAI trail.
Posted: August 08, 2014

HERE'S ONE more for your beer-drinking bucket list: RAGBRAI.

It stands for the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. No, you don't see the word "beer" in that title, but this seven-day, two-wheel tour can stand up there with Munich's Oktoberfest, Philly Beer Week or a night in an Irish pub as a quintessential celebration of our favorite adult beverage.

Pedaling across the corn-filled countryside is the ostensible focus of the annual event, launched 42 years ago by two columnists at the Des Moines Register. This year's ride, held during the last week of July, stretched 418 miles and climbed 11,000 feet through 90-degree heat and one brutal day of windy thunderstorms.

So, it takes a good bit of training and physical effort.

But as I joined 20,000 riders (including disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong) at this year's ride, it was clear that the feat also takes a good bit of beer.

From the beer gardens that sprouted up in every one of the 40 or so towns we visited to the seemingly ubiquitous jerseys emblazoned with brewery logos, our bicycle chains were fully lubricated with suds.

Not surprisingly, mainstream beer was plentiful; my first beer of the ride was a Sunday morning Coors Light, served at a makeshift garden across the street from a Lutheran church in Hull, where a choir sang under a tent and members served slices of peach pie. It would be the last forgettable beer I drank that week.

Though Iowa was relatively late to the microbrewing phenomenon, there's plenty of craft beer in flyover country. And the locals are enthusiastic supporters.

A traveling Iowa Craft Beer Tent was set up each day, about 15 miles from the daily finish line, to dispense outstanding fresh ale and lager from homegrown favorites including Backpocket, Exile and Peace Tree.  

When I pulled off the road for a cup, a fellow rider in a Stone Arrogant Bastard jersey noticed mine from Victory and - referring to our final destination - shouted, "Watch out for that Iowa beer - you'll never make it to Guttenberg!"

He wasn't kidding. Throughout the ride, I spotted dozens sleeping it off along the way, exhausted either by the long miles or the tall pours, or both. Truthfully, I would've been happy to spend the rest of the afternoon in the shade of a 100-year-old barn, drinking the superb light-bodied India pale ale made with Citra hops from Confluence Brewing, of Des Moines.

But there were plenty of hills to go, and no shortage of fine brews along the way.

In Edgewood (population 864), friendly bartenders at Cafe Rose served draft Golden Nugget IPA from Toppling Goliath Brewing Company, currently a much-sought favorite among beer freaks nationwide.

In Mason City, home of Meredith Willson, who wrote "The Music Man," riders lined up for local brewpub's Cream Ale served in plastic growlers that fit perfectly into a bicycle bottle cage.

In Nora Springs, where the main attraction is a granite boulder, the locals served up breakfast burritos and drafts of Millstream Schild Brau, a Vienna-style lager brewed in the famous Amana Colonies.

And in Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, et al tragically performed their last show on "the day the music died," hundreds tried to drink Lake Time Brewery dry.

"When I first heard RAGBRAI was coming to town this year," the tiny brewery's owner, Bob Rolling, told me, "I started brewing immediately."

With just a one-barrel brewhouse, the former surgical equipment salesman found himself making three batches a day, four times a week, just to keep up with demand. On the day the ride went through his town, he expected to sell 50 kegs - a full month's worth of work.

Gazing at the crowd spread across the brewery's front lawn, he said, "I knew this would go over, but I never would have expected this."

And neither did I. In my hand was Rolling's excellent Park Bench Porter - a beautiful coffeelike drink that was just the ticket after a late-night kegger. Who would've imagined that one of the finest porters I've ever tasted would be brewed in Middle Of Nowhere, Iowa?

Finding all of this good beer was no sweat, thanks to Team Good Beer, an enthusiastic crew of about 50 who happily passed out yellow tip sheets directing riders to the best beer bars and gardens along the route.

I ran into members Amanda Yakel, 28, of Marshall, Mich., and her friend, Todd Day, 30, at the Wooden Foot Saloon, in Waverly (birthplace of the comic-book Avengers' Hawkeye). The two were wearing team jerseys decorated as Bavarian lederhosen.

"You ought to see our bus," Yakel said. "We've got 100 kegs on board!"

Alas, I never made it to their campsite. But no worries - there's always another beer around the next bend at RAGBRAI.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly e-mail update at joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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