Biking Louisiana's Beer Belt

St. Tammany Parish, La. –

Of all the great reasons to hop on a bicycle, one that becomes immediately apparent while pedaling along the Tammany Trace on the Northshore is a real sense of entitlement to calories.

The trace is a one-time rail line that's been turned into a recreation trail, and today it's a haven for bicyclers, joggers and skaters that stretches 28 miles from Covington to Slidell. But I had a different, much less ambitious goal on a recent trip. I was out to explore what I'm now calling the Louisiana Beer Belt, a short route of a mere three miles that takes in two historic towns and two local breweries, all easily accessible by bicycle. And since I was expending pedal power to get around, I was intent on sampling as many food options as possible along the way.

The Tammany Trace is dotted with interesting places to eat, especially casual places where cyclists in moisture-shedding clothing won't likely offend the house dress code. My ride on this May morning began at the Covington Trailhead, one of a series of rest centers built from former rail depots along the bike route. This one also hosts the Wednesday edition of the Covington Farmers Market, while the Saturday market is held two blocks from the trailhead outside Covington City Hall. At this market I had my pick of farm produce and freshly prepared dishes from a dozen or so local vendors.

But directly across from the trailhead was my first target on the Louisiana Beer Belt: Heiner Brau, a tiny, Bavarian-style brewery opened in the heart of downtown Covington a few years back by German-born brewer Henryk Orlik. Open for tours and tastings on Saturday mornings only, this Heiner Brau visit was a great warm up for the day ahead.

Now, touring the Louisiana Beer Belt does not entail epic journeys. It takes only about 20 minutes or so to bike from Covington to Abita Springs. But after pedaling the distance on a hot day my interior lunch bell did start ringing again when Abita Springs materialized ahead. The Tammany Trace runs straight through the center of this historic hamlet, with its Victorian homes and gentle, postcard-worthy, small town feel. Food options abound within steps of the bike path, including boiled crawfish from a seafood market, a farm stand for fresh fruit and a small grocery frying take-out chicken.

But Abita Springs' claim to fame is the local artesian waters, which fed bathing pavilions early in the last century and today fuels the suds for the second notch in the Louisiana Beer Belt, Abita Brewing Co. From humble beginnings, the company has grown tremendously and now makes beer at a modern facility about a mile from downtown. After take the tour of the brewery's tasting room and plant floor, however, I paid a visit on Abita's much smaller original homebase, which is now run as a tavern right on the Tammany Trace. Here, seated in a beer garden shaded with umbrellas and oaks, I watched other cyclists zoom down the trace while refreshing myself with a snack and a pint of civilization's most popular energy drink.

Some cyclists would soldier on another nine miles to Old Mandeville or complete the entire 28-mile trace. Not me. I just embarked for the return ride to Covington, intent to kindle appetite enough for one final bite back at the end of this bicycle tour of the Louisiana Beer Belt.

The Trace:
For maps and more information about the Tammany Trace, click here.

The Farmers Market
The Covington Farmers Market is held each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and each Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in downtown Covington.

The Breweries:
Heiner Brau
226 East Lockwood St., Covington, 985-893-2884
Free tours given Saturday mornings only.

Abita Brewing Co.
21084 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs, 985-893-3143
Free tours given Wednesday through Saturday. Also see the Abita Brew Pub in downtown Abita Springs.