Carlton Reid took to the backroads of California on a bicycle to taste America's little-known real ales
Beer, there's no getting around the fact, is fattening. Spend a week quaffing gallons of the stuff and you'll end up looking like Jimmy "Five Bellies" Gardener, Gazza's rotund drinking buddy. But what if you exercise during your personal beer fest? That's the idea behind the Californian bicycling and beer-drinking holiday from Backroads, America's number one active travel company.

You pedal through the day, and guzzle to your heart's content in the evening. But it's the quality of the beer that counts, not the quantity. The Backroads trip takes in micro-breweries rather than the conglomerates responsible for the dull-as- ditch-water beers most people associate with America. Micro-brewed beer is full of flavour, personality and strength. Supping the odd pint or two at the end of a day in the saddle is the perfect way to forget about your ever-so-slightly numb bum.

But to enjoy this tour, you don't need to be a bike freak or a beer geek. Courtney Turner, 26, a manager at Deloitte Touche in Chicago, was on the Backroads trip with her beer-loving father, Steve. He's an enthusiastic cyclist, but she isn't. "There are riders of all abilities here, and there's a back-up van so I feel confident I won't get left too far behind. I'm usually the tail-ender, riding along at my own pace. This suits me fine."

There were two other women on the trip, neither of whom would describe themselves as "cyclists". For Patty Oya, 24, a child development specialist from Las Vegas, this was her sixth Backroads trip and it's not the cycling that's the draw but the locations. She's been all over North America with Backroads and, despite the high price of the trips, sees no reason to switch companies.

"I haven't tried other activity companies because Backroads offers everything I want. There are cheaper vacations but everything is taken care of by the Backroads leaders. It's my annual treat." Patty always holidays with her father and younger brother. Her elder brother was enticed on to this particular trip because of the beer theme. Micro-brewed beer, being natural, wholesome and fresh, is big in California. The whole craft-brewing movement started here. The first American micro-brewery opened in 1977 when an ex-Navy sailor Jack MacAuliffe founded the New Albion brewery at Sonoma, north of San Francisco. His beers weren't perfect but they were full of character and his ideas caught on: there are now more than 300 independent micro-breweries in America.

Unfortunately, MacAuliffe's landmark business lasted only four years. After it went belly-up his brewing equipment was bought by the Mendocino Brewing Company who, in 1981, created California's first "brewpub", situated in Hopland, a one-street town 100 miles north of San Francisco. This is the first pub on the Backroads beer trail and is famous for its Red Tail Ale.

This is an amber tipple which has a long-lasting, complex character created by a blend of pale and caramel-malted barley and is balanced to a dry bitter finish with

whole hops from Washington State. It comes to the table in three-pint pitchers. The brewpub is housed in one of Hopland's oldest structures, a 100-year-old brick building which was once the Hop Vine Saloon. The interior walls are covered with the original turn-of-the-century ornamental stamped tin.

Brit beer-lovers feel at home. As well as a darts board, the Hopland brewpub's beers - five ales, a stout and a seasonal porter - are made with recipes from a 19th-century British brewing manual. You can watch the brewing process through windows in the adjoining brewhouse.

If this makes you thirsty, you can order shot-glasses of the beers for a quick taste. We supped our somewhat larger samples in the garden at a picnic table beneath a canopy of vine leaves and trellised hops. We had yet to cycle a mile.

This was a lunching stopover on the van ride from San Francisco to our starting point in Mendocino. This small town, with its wooden buildings, Victorian spires and creaking weather vanes, is pure New England. It was originally a logging town but has been an up-market artists' haven since the 1950s. The Mendocino Hotel, easily the most characterful in town, has antique fixtures and fittings, plush leather armchairs and roaring open fires. It dates back to 1878.

No fine beers at the hotel, but the town's main bar, a few blocks away, had an excellent selection. It also had a thick, crunchy carpet of discarded pistachio shells. The nuts are free: they make you drink more beer. The hard work started the next morning when we were each fitted to a bike, equipped with drinking-water bottles and given a natty red handlebar bag in which to store energy food, sun cream and a puncture-repair kit. On most organised cycle holidays you're given a map and have to navigate yourself to that night's hotel. But the Backroads method is to give step- by-step directions.

Over three A4 photocopied pages, every last kilometre of the route is described. Landmarks, suggested stopping points, turns, hills, all are listed. The route directions are stored in a see-through panel on the handlebar bag. But it's difficult to concentrate on route-finding when the views along the way are so distracting. The micro-breweries trip wends its way back to San Francisco via the Silverado Trail (once travelled and made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson), taking in spectacular stretches of the jagged Pacific coastline.

There are also cool descents through sequoia forests where a freewheeling bicycle is the best way to experience the sappy smells and eerie silence of the ancient giant redwoods. Much of this beer trip also takes you through wine country, along the famous vine-clad Alexander, Sonoma and Napa valleys.

The chief town of the Napa valley is Calistoga, with its hot springs and gushing 30ft geyser. The town has been known as the Hot Springs of the West ever since property speculator Sam Brannan came north from San Francisco in 1852 and decided that this was the spot to build a health spa to rival Saratoga Springs of New York State. While trying to say he would make this the "Saratoga of California", Sam drunkenly said he would make this the "Calistoga of Sarifornia"! The name stuck.

A mud bath, herbal bodywrap, or massage at one of the 13 spas in town is just the tonic for saddle-weary travellers of today. You luxuriate in the fluffy white robes as your aching limbs are oiled, rubbed, and stretched. Once revitalised, that evening's imbibing was at the Calistoga Inn, home of the Napa Valley Brewing Company. Its Beat the Heat wheat beer made you blase about the fact that the following day's ride was going to be the longest of the trip.

Yountville to Marin County is a hot and sweaty 76 miles. Unlike all of the other days, when you showered and changed before hitting the booze, the ride to the Marin Brewing Company at Larkspur Landing ended with liquid refreshment. We rode straight up to the bar and ordered Mt Tam Ale, the bar's thirst-quenching pale ale, named after the nearby elevation, Mt Tamalpais (on whose slopes mountain biking was invented in the 1970s). Also on the menu were Blueberry Ale, Albion Amber Ale, Marin Weiss Wheat Beer, Marin Doppel Weizen Wheat Ale, Point Reyes Porter, and San Quentin Breakout Stout. All were brewed on the premises.

American micro-brews are fresh and tasty. The last beer of the trip - after the ceremonial pedal over San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge - was a fresh pilsner brewed by Jay Mission, brew-meister at Gordon Biersch, a brewpub and classy restaurant by the waterfront. He told us the clean, frosty brew we were downing had been filtered just two hours previously. Beat that, Budweiser.

Gordon Biersch is on the corner where Harrison Street ends at the Embarcadero Center, San Francisco's high-class shopping mall, and is in the shadow of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Some people may prefer the Bay's scenery from the Fort Mason area, but Gordon Biersch's view of the Bay, bridge and Treasure Island is my favourite because of the icy brews with which to toast the vista.

Unlike the brewpubs we had visited over the previous six days, which concentrate on a high turnover of quick-finishing ales, Gordon Biersch specialises in lager. Co-owner Dan Gordon was the first American graduate in 30 years from the prestigious five-year brewing science programme at the Weihenstephan Technical University of Munich. Gordon's preferences are clear from the eclectic range of German-style lagers on offer, from a Marzen with a caramel finish to a malty Mai Bock with a kick like a mule. Even though these are premium beers, with price tags to match, you're not bothered because there's something quite special about this Backroads trip: the beer flows for as long as you want it to, and it's free. Cheers.

BEER AND BICYCLES

GETTING THERE

American Airlines (tel: 0845 844 1234) offers return fares to San Francisco from pounds 235 (plus pounds 51 tax) in April.

GET CYCLING

A Backroads six-day beer-tasting and cycling holiday, staying in inns and small hotels, costs $1,495 (pounds 934), excluding return flights but including accommodation, gourmet dining, van shuttles during the trip, skilled leaders, and gratuities at inns and restaurants. A support van sweeps the route several times a day, providing lifts and assistance to riders when necessary. A cheaper camping option is available.

Backroads offers more than 150 different active holidays - cycling, walking, hiking and multisport - in more than 85 destinations around the world. Contact Backroads at 801 Cedar Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1800, USA (tel: 00 1 510 5271555; fax: 00 1 510 5271444).

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