PEDALING up the hill to Abandon Brewing, above New York’s Keuka Lake, late one afternoon last week, I shift down to my lowest gear and find the agony and joy of bicycling for beer.
The sky has turned blue with billowing clouds after a late-morning electrical storm. My jersey is soaked, my legs ache.
I am thirsty.
About 100 yards into the climb, I know there is no way I’ll make it to the top without walking. The 9 percent grade has defeated stronger riders than me, I tell myself. I have nothing to prove – not after the 200 miles I’ve already put in as part of the Finger Lakes’ Bon Ton Roulet summertime cycling tour.
I had joined about 400 riders for the scenic weeklong ride as an opportunity to visit some of the dozens of breweries that have cropped up in this region over the past two years. Many of them are so-called farm breweries, created by state legislation intended to support farming and tourism. Others are welcome watering holes in quaint yet economically depressed towns like Penn Yan, Geneva and Cortland.
Today, more than 80 breweries make up the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, providing an ideal destination for the beer-drinking cyclist.
Or walker, in this case.
I snap my cleats off the pedals, stand tall and take a step.
Rainwater from the earlier storm rushes down a gully on the shoulder to my right, past brambles and a broken-down shack of a house. A car zips by and its driver gives a polite toot of the horn.
One step after the next, I aim the handlebars of my Cannondale toward the top, the sweat dripping into my eyes making it impossible for me to focus on my target.
Abandon Brewing is not one of those trendy, beer-geek destinations, where the faithful brag about scoring treasured bottles. Open for fewer than two years, it distributes kegs to no more than 100 bars and restaurants in central New York.
I’d never heard of it till the day before, when one of the owners at nearby Climbing Bines Brewery suggested that I add it to my itinerary.
A lunchtime pint of Abandon’s smooth and spicy Belgian-style rye ale, poured at Timmy G’s restaurant, in Penn Yan, confirmed his recommendation.
As the road levels slightly, I ignore the screaming protests from my mutinous thighs and climb back into the saddle. Ahead, a stone-covered driveway leads toward a 200-year-old red barn, where a friendly bartender, I’m certain, soon will be pouring me a cold one.
I take a breath and calm my huffing.
It is quiet.
Too quiet, dammit.
No cars in the parking lot. No music from inside. No conversation on the outside deck.
You have got to be freaking kidding me, I grouse. A rookie mistake! I should’ve called first.
I poke around and try the front door. No luck.
Another string of swears gathers up a bellyful of steam but deflates sharply as I swing around to face back down the hill.
My jaw drops. I ease onto a wooden picnic bench, gawking in disbelief.
Below – hundreds of feet below – the blue upper reaches of Keuka Lake cut through the verdant green of a pine forest. The winding ribbon of a wooden slat fence rambles across a nearby field. Rusty-tipped grape leaves cascade along rows of vines. A gentle breeze rolls off the hill to the west, stirring up a high-pitched murmuration of starlings.
I take in a deep breath and catch the sweet-and-sour aroma of stale beer and fresh cow manure.
The scenery, the sound, the smell – it floods all my senses. The only view that comes close, I’m thinking, is from the patio at Full Sail Brewing, in Hood River, Ore., where visitors gather over pints of Extra Special Bitter to watch hang-gliders circle above the Columbia River Gorge.
Only, I have what may be the world’s most beautiful brewery vista to myself.
I mop my brow and stretch my legs. They don’t seem so tired now.
I take it all in and catch myself thinking, “All this needs is a beer . . . “
But no – this doesn’t need a beer. I grab one of my plastic water bottles and take a swig.
It’s perfect just the way it is.