For obvious reasons, bicycles and beer don’t always mix. Yet New Belgium Brewing Company might not even exist if it weren’t for bicycles.
Fat Tire amber ale, the craft brewery’s flagship offering, was inspired by a bike and brewery tour that co-founder Jeff Lebesch took through Belgium decades ago. The Colorado-based brewery’s logo includes a bicycle, and bikes are part of the perks of working for the company: After a year on the job, employees get a bike as a gift; after five years, they get to take a bicycle trip through Belgium.
“Biking is something that a lot of our employees really embrace,” says the brewery’s Matt Kowal. “We have full bike racks every day because so many people ride their bikes to work.”
Then there’s Tour de Fat, the company’s annual touring beer and bike festival that begins Saturday in Washington at Yards Park before moving on to eight other cities. The free festival, now in its 17th year, starts with a morning bike ride before a day filled with music (from Esme Patterson and Los Amigos Invisibles), comedy, carnival-style sideshows, eccentric bicycles and New Belgium brews (see sidebar).
“I think the first show is always going to have a good energy to it, the excitement of getting back on the road,” says Kowal, Tour de Fat’s impresario, talent booker and emcee.
D.C. is an important stop on the tour, Kowal says, because biking needs the kind of infrastructure government can provide.
“If you want to show that biking isn’t just something that’s a novelty, then D.C. is the place to show how serious you are about it,” he says. “We really care about bikes so we like going to D.C. and feeling a little closer to the [halls] of power.” Proceeds from beer sales at Tour de Fat go toward local bike nonprofits, including the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the D.C. chapter of Black Women Bike and Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling.
Attractions at Tour de Fat include the bike rodeo, where attendees can take one of a half-dozen weird bikes out for a spin. “There’s one where you pedal backward and then it goes forward,” Kowal says.
You can also compete in a goofy “The Bike Is Right!” game show to win a Fat Tire-branded bike. “We’re selecting contestants to come up from the crowd and compete by dancing and clowning and charming their way to a new bicycle with a lot of high jinks,” Kowal says.
For Kowal, who has worked on the festival for 12 years, Tour de Fat is all about spreading the gospel of craft beer and cycling.
“The bicycle that is on the Fat Tire label has been an interesting metaphor for the company,” Kowal says. “It’s a blessing that this bicycle is on the label — not a mountain bike or a 10-speed, but a relaxing bicycle. A Fat Tire bike is about taking your time, and the Tour de Fat is based in that kind of vibe.”
A taste of Carnie Blood
If you go to Tour de Fat for the brews, you’ll be happy to find a few new offerings this year. Citradelic, a tangerine-flavored IPA, and Heavy Melon, a watermelon lime ale, join a slate of old favorites and “will be great if it’s a hot day,” says the brewery’s Matt Kowal. But the real draw for beer geeks is Carnie Blood, an ever-changing beer brewed exclusively for Tour de Fat. This year’s version is a chicory chocolate imperial stout with 9.1 percent alcohol by volume. “It’s not aged on wood, but chicory gives it a bit of that flavor, like French coffee, a woodsy earthy flavor,” Kowal says.
Yards Park, 355 Water St. SE; Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., free.
Read more about biking in D.C.: