The German heritage lives on in the beers of Missouri, though unfortunately the ones with names that hint of ye olde Europe—Budweiser and Busch—long ago lost any taste reference to their homeland. Now just yellow fizzy water with half the body of real beer, these mass–market thirst–quenchers are thankfully losing some market share to local upstarts with more respect for the heritage. When I meet with Dan Kopman, the co–founder of Schlafly Beer in St. Louis after my biking trip, he leads me through a brewery where every available foot of space is being filled with new brewing tanks. "It feels like St. Louis is going through a divorce with Budweiser," he says. "Our sales have doubled in 20 months and last summer we were just flat running out of beer on a regular basis. The new capacity is getting us caught up."
In the town of Hermann, I make a beeline to the Tin Mill Brewing Company, a small operation that brews by the German purity law of 1516. They're closed when I arrive and I'm cursing my decision to dally at the Stone Hill winery too long. Fortunately the Concert Hall & Barrel Bar around the corner—billed as "the oldest bar west of the Mississippi"—has the Tin Mill beers on tap. I'm expecting something decent, but instead I'm blown away. The pilsner brings back memories of my trip through the Czech Republic and the doppelbock is a complex brew that lights up every taste bud. The Hefe–Weizen wheat beer is nothing short of transcendent—I can't remember having a better one anywhere, anytime.
In the smaller farming towns right off the Katy Trail, however, the "King of Beers" still has its crown. I stop into the Portland Riverfront Bar & Grill for a fried fish sandwich lunch the next day as it looks to be the only lunch place I'll see for hours. Straight out of a movie set, the dark interior has battered Formica tables, ripped fake leather chairs, and a pool table, plus 19 signs and lights for Bud and Bud Light. No credit cards and no checks accepted, but apparently the locals get some slack: a poster displayed behind the bar has hand–scrawled names of all the people who are cut off until they pay their outstanding tab. From a numbers standpoint, it looks to be a third of the town's population.
Pistols and Prison Brews
On the last full day of riding, I have my first conversation with another cyclist going the same direction. Charlene is riding the whole 225–mile trail, but she's not your typical spandex–covered road biker with something to prove. Puffing on a cigarette when I pull up beside her, she's alternating between biking and walking. We chat for a while about where she's been camping along the way, and the lowdown she's gotten from one campground owner about which towns to avoid for overnight stays. "I'm not worried about somebody stealing my cart of stuff though," she says. "I've got a loaded pistol in case I run into any trouble." This seems like a good cue to return to my solitary journey, so I bid her goodbye and she's soon a dot in the distance behind me.
My last stop of Jefferson City looks impressive from a distance, the big dome of the state capitol building dominating the skyline. A local tourism person meets me and my bike at the trail stop and then reads my mind: we go straight to the Summit Lake winery just outside of town.
We ride around the city, eventually stopping at what is the main tourist attraction: the former Missouri State Penitentiary building dating back to 1836. It is certainly more interesting looking than the near–windowless Missouri Baptist Convention building a few blocks away—and appears to have more natural light. What are those Baptists trying to hide?
My ears perk up at the mention of Prison Brews, a brewpub just down the street from the old prison building. I return there that night for dinner and find a crowd behind bars. The pub has gone nuts with the theme, a bar with lots of fake prison bars, and beers with names like Go to Jail Ale, Big House Brown, and Parole Porter. The 1895 building is a welcoming place, however, complete with a wood–burning brick pizza oven.
The next morning I eat such a huge, calorie–filled breakfast at the Cliff House Manor where I'm staying that I ought to be doing another 30 miles on the bike, but instead I coast downhill past the capitol building to the Amtrak station. The River Runner train takes me back to Washington, Missouri, the scenery whizzing by at a pace that seems frenetic after days of moving at a bicycle's pace. I'm distracted anyway. A flirtatious cougar woman who is pushing 50 has slipped herself into the empty seat next to a college kid in the row across from me and is falling all over him every time we round a bend. It's painful to watch and I don't get to see how it ends. When I disembark they stay on, both headed to St. Louis.
I ride from the trailhead near Washington a few miles back to where my car is, ending up at Augusta Brewing Company, perched over the Katy Trail. A sign above the bar says, "There can't be good living without good beer." I've shed a few pounds despite eating well and drinking well and I've traveled 110 miles and back using my leg muscles and the train. It feels like good living to me.
If You Go:
A comprehensive online guide to the whole trail is available at BikeKatyTrail.com and more is available at the Missouri Tourism site. For information on the 100+ wineries in the state, see MissouriWine.org. For more info on individual areas, see the tourism sites for St. Charles, Washington, Hermann, and Jefferson City. St. Louis is a short hop away from the Katy Trail and is a bike-friendly city.
Editor Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 3rd edition). His latest book is Travel Writing 2.0: Earning Money From Your Travels in the New Media Landscape.
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