Will Bike for Beer
Decades ago Northshore communities were connected by railroad lines and diesel trains hauling pulpwood and timber across the state. Today, there is no railroad.
Instead there is the Tammany Trace, a 31-mile recreational trail converted from Illinois Central Gulf Railroad lines. The rails-to-trails path connects many natural and cultural highlights of the Northshore, but a 12-mile stretch between Mandeville and Covington is especially rewarding for craft beer drinkers, boasting a wide variety of local brew in a small area and a linear means of sampling it on bicycle.
Today the Trace connects Covington, Abita Springs, Mandeville, Fontainebleau State Park, Lacombe and Slidell, all of it flat, well-paved and accessible to cyclists of varying abilities. Saint Tammany Parish government estimates almost 300,000 people used the trail last year.
Less common is its use for beer tourism. The beer-bike adventure on the Trace is a full sensory experience—cyclists whirl through a green hallway of pine forests and changing blooms on their way to tasting beers of ranging colors and aromatics, from thick milky porters to crisp, golden ambers and pilsners.
As of this past winter, Louisiana was home to 11 distributing breweries—more are developing—and three of them are serendipitously located along the Trace within an hour’s bike ride of each other. In addition to Chafunkta Brewing Company, Abita Brewing Company and Covington Brewhouse, the Trace grants easy access to additional beer destinations like the Abita Brew Pub, Old Rail Brewing Company and off-trail beer bars like The Chimes Covington and The Barley Oak.
There are several trailheads for bike riders to access the Trace. Perhaps the best jump-off is at the Mandeville Trailhead, where there is parking, a large playground for kids, bike rentals and Old Rail Brewing Company.
Old Rail is not a manufacturing brewery but a brewpub, or a restaurant that brews its own beer for on-site consumption only. Its brewmaster, Matt Horney, left Terrapin Beer Company in Georgia for Old Rail “to brew on a more independent level.” Horney, a tall and lanky craftsman with a long, full beard, works visibly behind the brewery’s glass walls near the bar. The beer menu changes often with several collaborations and seasonal one-offs alongside steady favorites like the Cow Catcher Milk Stout, a sweet chocolaty ale that pairs well with rich desserts such as double chocolate bread pudding topped with raspberry coulis. Horney bikes to work along the trail and coordinates with Chef Brett Monteleone on the menu, which includes snacks like pork rillete and house-made pimiento cheese, as well as heavier items like the Old Rail Burger featuring two pork and beef patties and malt mayo, and Buffalo Mac-n-Cheese.
From Old Rail you can head east towards the parks or north about five miles for more beer. The trail is multiuse. People walk, jog, rollerblade, ride horses, skateboard and cycle it. Its flat asphalt surface allows casual riders to pedal comfortably and professional riders to train on it, although a 20 mile per hour speed limit is law. It is well-signed and mileage distances are marked at each vehicular crossing, where cyclists are required to stop. Cars are alerted to intersections but do not have stop signs, so the responsibility of personal safety remains with bicyclists. The trail is nevertheless peaceful.
Between Mandeville and Abita Springs is the Trace’s first established segment, now 20 years old. This section is especially pastoral compared to the transpontine noise of New Orleans; there is the occasional hum of lawnmowers, but for most stretches the predominant sound is birdsong and the whirring of bicycle spokes cutting air. The sylvan trail is lined with loblollies and slash pines, and in the right season you can forage for black raspberries. Color changes throughout the year and sometimes the pink blooms of mimosas form floral corridors across the trail, providing a scenic ride that is gratifying even without promise of beer.
It’s on this stretch that riders can drink arguably the best local beer on the Trace at Chafunkta Brewing Company, just a small turn off Marion Lane in an industrial complex that’s almost equidistant—about five miles to each—from Old Rail and Abita Brewing.
Husband-and-wife team Josh and Jamie Erickson started brewing Chafunkta beer commercially in 2013 in the 1,500-square-foot warehouse using a 1.5 barrel homebrew system he bought from Parish Brewing Company. The brewery is the size of a large living room, which makes tours feel more personal and casual, as if Josh Erickson had made the beer just for you. He brews Kingfish Ale, a light cream ale, for wider production at Lazy Magnolia’s Mississippi Brewery, but his best beers are brewed in small-batch, like the Voo Ka Ray India Pale Ale and Old 504, a coffee-infused vanilla porter, for which Jamie Erickson splits vanilla beans by hand. The black porter is as rich in smell as it is in taste.
The Ericksons open the brewery for tours on Friday evenings at 6 but say they are willing to lead tours on Saturday with advance notice, so cyclists can visit all the breweries in the weekend with proper planning.
Four miles farther is a long-time institution of Louisiana craft beer: the Abita Brew Pub. It sits in a postcard scene, nestled under a live oak tree quilted in lush vines and squared in by a white picket fence. Abita Brewing opened its brewery there in 1986 but moved in 1994 to increase production. The brewpub has since been affiliated with Abita Brewing, but operates independently. It does not brew its own beer, but has 11 Abita taps, a guest tap and a cask tap on draft.
The extensive menu represents typical Louisiana cooking with some international influences and beer cuisine, like fried crawfish cakes covered with Abita Turbodog remoulade and crab claws simmered in Abita Amber and barbecue sauce. The brewpub reflects the small-town charm of its environment and one can easily imagine how Pullman train cars used to rumble through while also appreciating the serenity of a quieter trail now. It also makes a great place to refresh and rest while waiting for an afternoon tour of Abita Brewing, 1.5 miles further on the Trace and across Abita River.
The trail does not have direct access to Abita’s brewery, so the safest route is to turn right on Josephine Street and then another right on LA-36 and ride or walk a few hundred feet.
The brewery and tour are near-opposite the scale of Chafunkta’s operations. According to President David Blossman, Abita uses 100-barrel and 200-barrel brewhouses, in addition to smaller equipment, to produce about 170,000 barrels of beer, or more than 5 million gallons each year. The tour allows you to pour your own beer in the taproom, which features almost all Abita beers and special batches when available. The tour changes quickly when the guide leads you from the cozy taproom, with its long mahogany bar, into a massive factory operation where towering stainless steel tanks reach towards the ceiling like shiny pillars of an industrial temple.
The altar is the 100-barrel brewhouse, where the guide briefly explains the brewing process, then returns you to the taproom to drink until the hour is up. Cyclists should also sample the spring water from the fountain.
From there, bicyclists can choose to push ahead another 2.7 miles, across a couple trafficked roads and over the Bogue Falaya River on a pedestrian bridge built over an old railroad trestle that shoots you into Historic Downtown Covington, passing Brooks’ Bicycles (which organizes quarterly beer bike rides), the world’s largest statue of Ronald Reagan, and finishing at Covington Brewhouse between the old rail depot and water tower.
Covington Brewhouse, formerly Heiner Brau brewery, has no taproom and tours are limited to 10:30 and 11:30 on Saturday mornings in the rustic former hardware store. President David Arbo’s past as a high school physics teacher shines through as he simplifies the science of brewing during tours.
The Tammany Trace offers something most beer tours cannot: a physical means of accessing the Northshore’s natural beauty, food and crafted culture in a pint glass, all along a single path.