Saturday, February 18, 2017

Breaking News: Special Beer Release at Anchorage Brewing Company TODAY

At 2 PM today, Anchorage Brewing Company will be releasing a limited amount of its The Darkest Hour Imperial Stout that has been aged for 1 year in Spanish Brandy barrels. You can buy individual bottles to go or enjoy a glass at the brewery. Delicious Daves will also be at the brewery, serving up his excellent ramen. As they say on TV, supplies are definitely limited, so don't miss out on this special release.

Photo courtesy of Anchorage Brewing Company.

Monday, February 13, 2017

If the Moon Under Water Held a Beer Festival...

We've got a beer festival taking place here on the Peninsula this weekend. The 3rd Annual Frozen River Fest will be held from 4 to 8 PM Saturday, February 18th, in Soldotna Creek Park. I'll have some more info on it below, but it got me thinking about beer festivals.

On February 9, 1946, an essay by the great George Orwell, entitled “The Moon Under Water,” was published in the Evening Standard of London. Orwell is better known today for his classic dystopian novel 1984, but he was also an accomplished essayist, and this particular essay provided a detailed description of his favorite London pub, named The Moon Under Water. Every beer drinker should read this essay, so if for some reason you haven't yet dones so, take five minutes, click on the link above, and read it. Trust me, it's worth the short amount of time it will take. For those of you familiar with the essay, you will recall that the twist at the essay’s end is Orwell's admission that The Moon Under Water doesn’t actually exist; it represents his idealized version of the public house. In the spirit of Orwell, let’s consider the following thought experiment: If The Moon Under Water, the perfect pub, ever held the perfect beer festival, what would it be like?

Orwell's essay from 1946

First and foremost, there would have to be good beers on offer. The ideal festival would offer beers not readily available, either because they come from breweries whose beers aren’t normally distributed in the area where the festival is located, or because the beers are limited releases that are typically only available at the brewery itself, or best of all, beers that were brewed specially for the festival. Given its size and the remoteness of some of its breweries, Alaska makes being able to sample multiple breweries in a single location a powerful attraction.

Second, the festival goers would have to be there for the right reasons, i.e. to enjoy and experience the beer, not just to get drunk. This can be a problem with some of the bigger festivals out there (Yes, I’m looking at you, Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival). Festivals should be cheerful and pleasant events, without a lot of heavily intoxicated individuals wandering around and causing disruptions. One way to address this is through the pricing structure. You can either charge a lot of money and limit the number of attendees (the model used by The Culmination Festival in Anchorage) or you can have a “pay for your drinks as you go” festival (popular in Europe and the model used by the Frozen River Fest in Soldotna). It seems that having to pay for each individual beer (as opposed to being handed a fistful of sample tickets upon entry) encourages people to slow down and enjoy what they are drinking, instead of trying to “drink their money’s worth.”

Third, there should be plenty of good food available. Good beer is enhanced by good food, and vice versa. A festival with vendors offering a variety of tasty and reasonably-priced foods to accompany its beers will always be much more pleasant than one offering either no food or over-priced, tasteless fare.

Fourth, the best festivals have something to offer the non-drinker as well. Whether it’s by offering good live entertainment or games for the kids, the best festivals recognize that not everyone can or wants to consume alcohol. Designated driver tickets are also an excellent idea; allowing non-drinkers to attend for free or at greatly reduced prices makes it that much easier for drinkers to get home safely. And if the festival is doing a good job with priority #2 above, there should be no problem with having children in attendance. The consumption of alcohol is a normal human activity; it shouldn't need to be hidden away behind walls and barriers.

Fifth, the festival should have a great location, ideally outdoors in good weather. While this isn’t always possible, especially here in Alaska, it’s still something worth striving for. There’s a reason that a place for consuming beer is called a “beer garden”; beer just naturally goes down well in a pleasant, outdoor setting. It’s a bonus if there are other breweries/beer attractions nearby. After all, some attendees may be coming from quite some distance, so the more beer activities they can partake in, the better.

So that's my list of the attributes of the perfect beer festival. We've got a lot of good ones here in Alaska, and a couple of them come pretty close to this platonic ideal, but none of them check all the blocks, just as no pub in London actually fulfilled all of Orwell's criteria. Still, we can keep trying to get there.

As I mentioned above, the 3rd Annual Frozen River Fest will be happening this Saturday. As a lead-in to it, there will be two beer dinners in the local area. On Thursday, 2/16, at 6 PM, Kenai River Brewing will be hosting its first ever KRBC Frozen River Fest Dinner. Here's the menu:

click to enlarge

As you can see, tickets will be $70, and I'm told that attendance will be limited to 40 people, so you should call and reserve your seats ASAP. I've got my ticket and am looking forward to it.

On Friday night, 2/17, The Flats Bistro in Kenai will be reprising its successful beer dinner from last year. If you were lucky enough to attend this one in 2016, you know what a wonderful time it was for everyone there. I acted as master of ceremonies last year, and I've been asked to do so again so I will be introducing each meal course and the beer accompanying it. Here's what you can expect at this dinner:

Hoodoo Brewing's German Kolsch & Kenai River Brewing's Honeymoon Hefe. Those two will be served with a trio of appetizers.

Denali Brewing's Twin Engine Red. Served with beer/cheese soup

Midnight Sun Brewing's Havoc Belgian Double IPA. Served with an IPA-braised cauliflower steak.

Kenai River Brewing's Rauch Bier. Served with beer-braised bratwurst, sauerkraut, and mustard.

Broken Tooth Brewing's Para Bellum Baltic Porter. Served with a cherry Bread pudding.

I don't have any price information yet, but if you are interested in attending, I'd call The Flats at 335-1010 and make a reservation. Last year the event sold out rather quickly.

After the dinners on Thursday and Friday evenings, Saturday will be the main event, from 4 to 8 PM, at Soldotna Creek Park in downtown Soldotna. Admission for non-drinkers is free, and children are welcome, so long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Drinkers will pay $15 for a wristband, a 16 oz. mug, and two drink tokens. Each token gets you an 8 oz. pour, and more tokens are available at $3 each. There will be live music by Todd Grebe and Cold Country and Big Fat Buddha. There will also be games for kids like archery and kick sleds. Plus several food vendors. Last but certainly not least, there will be some fifteen breweries in attendance. If you want to purchase tickets in advance, you can do so on the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce's website.

In other news, Girdwood Brewing has finally received the last of its brewing equipment from Premier Stainless. It's looking good for them to be open to the public by the end of March.

Brett & Rory Marenco look over their latest delivery. Photo courtesy of Girdwood Brewing.

Cooper Landing Brewing Company continues to make progress towards being licensed. You can read about its latest developments in the Turnagain Times.

Photo courtesy of Cooper Landing Brewing

Let's do some beer reviews. With my renewed emphasis on revisiting old favorites lately, I haven't sampled that many new beers, but I do have three to offer you.

St. Elias Brewing's Pre-Prohibition Lager: This latest offering from Zach Henry poured a clear gold with a nice white head that slowly dissipated to a collar. The aroma was clean, malty notes with little to no hops presence. Carbonation was good, and the mouthfeel was light. On the palate, there was again lots of clean malt flavors, with just enough hop bitterness to balance things. A smooth and refreshing beer, much more malt forward than St. Elias Brewing's flagship Czech Pilsner. If malt is your thing, this is the brew for you.

Samuel Smith's Organic Perry: Full disclosure: I received this bottle as a free sample from the importer. I'm not much of a cider expert and even less of a perry one, but I thought I'd take a stab at reviewing this. Perry or pear cider is growing in popularity on the heels of the explosive growth of apple ciders. It poured a light and sparkling gold color, similar to a champagne. The nose had faint but definite notes of pears. The carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. On the palate is was crisp, slightly tart, and very refreshing, with lots of pear flavor. Overall, I say it was most like a fruity white wine. While beer still remains far and away my tipple of choice, the perry made for a tasty change of pace.

HooDoo Brewing's 2017 Tusk Barley Wine: I was able to score a couple of bottles of this at La Bodega in Anchorage. One went straight into the beer cellar, but I decided to sample the other one. First off, the bottles are numbered; the total run size was only 1150. Second, the beer is a blend of three different batches of English-style Barley Wines:

81% 2016 Barley Wine, aged 1 year if Dry Fly Distilling Wheat Whiskey Barrels
12% 2017 Barley Wine, brewed just a few months ago in the fall of 2016
7% 2013 Barley Wine, aged for 4 years in stainless

It poured a translucent honey color with a small, cream-colored head that dissipated quickly to a collar. The aroma of the wheat whiskey was strongly present in the nose. Carbonation was acceptable and the mouthfeel was medium.The flavor profile was of smooth malt notes, plus a significant contribution from the whiskey barrels, moving to a large amount of alcohol warmth on the finish. It will be interesting to see how the flavor profile shifts with time in the cellar; fresh, it's a big and boozy barley wine. 9.2% ABV.

That's it for this time around. Hope to see you at the Frozen River Fest this Saturday.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Search For the Next Big Thing

Lately, I've been giving some thought to what seems to be the growing desire for novelty among a certain segment of craft beer drinkers. In many ways, it seems that the most active craft beer aficionados out there are the ones who are always eagerly looking for the next hot new brewery, the next new beer made with some great experimental hop, exotic ingredient, or wild barrel-aging program. In short, they are always searching for "the next big thing".

First off, it seems to me that this is primarily an American phenomenon. In Europe, the vast majority of beer drinkers don't seem to be driven by this constant urge for the new and different. I've visited cafes in Prague that had a grand total of one beer on offer. Granted, it was the classic Pilsner Urquell, deliciously fresh from the brewery, but how many American pubs could survive serving only one craft beer, no matter how delicious? When I lived in Britain from 1998 to 2001, I frequented many a pub that had only three beers on offer: an ordinary bitter, a best bitter, and a seasonal, all from the same brewery (since they were tied houses). No one seemed to be bothered by being offered the same three beers, day in and day out. Just serve me a well-kept pint of Young's Special, and I'm perfectly happy.

It doesn't get any better than a proper pint of this...

But that's not the American way, it seems. We're always looking for the "new & improved" version. While the macro beers on offer from BudMillerCoors could certainly stand to be improved, the sales of many excellent established craft beers also seem to be suffering these days. Beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale are still fantastic, even if they don't seem as "cutting edge" as the latest hazy IPA, hopped to 100 IBUs with some brand-new hop variety. While I'm still willing to try most any new brew once, lately I've been making a conscious effort to throw some of my limited beer budget toward some "old favorites"; in revisiting beers that I first feel in love with 30 years ago, I feel like I'm reconnecting with what got me interested in craft beer in the first place.

This is still a wonderful beer. When did you last drink it?

While I'm on the subject, let me say a quick word about the new plethora of beer apps, of which Untappd is probably the most popular. I will admit to having it on my phone and using it, but I'm beginning to think that such apps might be detrimental to truly experiencing and enjoying craft beer. If the drinker's focus is on drinking a beer to earn another badge, rather than drinking the beer just to enjoy it, things may be headed in the wrong direction. It reminds me a bit of the "tickers" I saw in Britain. These people strove to taste and "tick off" as many new beers as possible. As hobbies go, I suppose it's no worse than collecting stamps, coins, or butterflies, but it always seemed to me to miss the point of drinking a beer in the first place. These new apps seem to be turning us into a nation of tickers, rather than folks just enjoying beers for their own sake, be they old classics or new creations. So let's put the phones down and just have a beer, shall we?

Stepping down off my soapbox and moving on to some news item, I first have to congratulate Kassik's Brewery on its impressive double gold at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival last weekend. Its 2016 Buffalo Head Barley Wine took First Place in the Barley Wine Competition, while its Statny Statny Barrel Aged Stout took the prize in the Winter Beer Category. Ballast Point's Three Sheets Barley Wine took second, while 49th State Brewing's Outlander Barley Wine took third. So a very impressive showing by Alaska brewers in general and Kassik's in particular. If you weren't at the Festival and would like to sample the winners, there will be an Awards Celebration at Kassik's Brewery in Nikiski tomorrow, Saturday, from 2 to 6 PM. I'd get there early, as there are only 5 gallons of the  Statny Statny Barrel Aged Stout available. Kassik's has also begun releasing its beers in 12 oz. six packs, starting with Morning Wood IPA and Beaver Tail Blonde Ale.

Photo courtesy of Kassik's Brewery
Also in the news was the announcement that Matthew Tomter, the owner of Eagle River Ale House & the Palmer City Ale House, has purchased the former Mat Maid Dairy building from the state to house the Matanuska Brewing Company. Here is the video of the KTVA Channel 11's report on the purchase.


Tomter has ambitious plans. He said: “On day one we’ll be able to produce more beer than anybody, other than Alaskan Brewing Company, is producing right now. Our primary focus with this brewery is going to be 100 percent wholesale. We are going to produce beer, put it in cans and kegs, and send it straight to a distributor.” Currently, the brewery hopes to be open for business in November of this year.

Speaking of opening for business, Girdwood Brewing is expecting to receive its final shipment of brewing equipment soon and expects to be open by the end of March. Initial beers on offer will be IP-AK (the house IPA), Down the Chute (an easy-drinking Kölsch), and Hippy Speedball (a coffee stout). 

I stopped in for lunch last week at Kenai River Brewing in Soldotna; the food from its new kitchen continues to be exceptional. I had the French Onion Soup (pictured below) which was perfect for such a cold day, then followed it up with that day's special, a hearty meatloaf sandwich. If you haven't eaten there yet, you are really missing out.

Finally, we are only three weeks away from the Frozen River Fest here in Soldotna, so it's time to start making your plans. In advance of the Fest this year there will be not one but two beer dinners. The Flats Bistro will be again be holding its dinner on Friday night before the Fest; check out my 2/26/2016 blog if you'd like to see just how fantastic last year's dinner was. In addition to The Flats' dinner on Friday, Kenai River Brewing will be hosting a dinner at the brewery on Thursday night. This is something Doug Hogue has wanted to be able to do for several years, so I fully expect it will be exceptional. Here's the poster for the Fest itself; keep an eye on its Facebook page for more details about the dinners.

Click to enlarge

Enough news. Let's do some beer reviews. I have three new brews to offer you this time round.

Cascade Lakes Brewing's Salted Caramel Porter: This brewery is located in Redmond, Oregon. The beer poured dark with ruby highlights and a big, cream-colored head. The aroma was of caramel and roasted malt. Carbonation was good, but I thought it was a bit thin on the palate. The flavor profile was of caramel, coffee, & cocoa; good but falling off rapidly, so that there was little finish. Not a bad beer, but one that needs more "bottom" as the Brits would say. 5.8% ABV, 37 IBUs.

Ninkasi Brewing's Noir Milk Stout: I've always been partial to this style, to the point of always keeping my home-brewed version on hand for my wife to cook with. Ninkasi's version pours dark with semi-translucent ruby highlights and a nice mocha-colored head. The nose is mainly sweet notes from the malt and lactose. The carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light to medium. The flavor profile was a mix of the sweet malt notes and the coffee flavors, in a very smooth blend. Overall, a delicious beer and a worthy take on the style. 7% ABV, 60 IBUs.

Alaskan Brewing's Husky IPA: This is Alaskan's latest seasonal release and its entry into the popular "tropical IPA" field, as it's hopped with the popular Mosaic variety. It poured a clear gold with a nice white head. The aroma had lots of tropical fruit notes from the Mosaic hops. The carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. There was good up-front bitterness, then plenty of hop flavor and aroma. Overall, a nicely balanced, highly drinkable IPA; definitely not a palate-wrecker. 7% ABV, 58 IBUs.

That's about it for this blog. Remember, get out there and try some old favorites; don't always be chasing the next big thing...

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, January 9, 2017

2017: Through a Crystal Ball, Darkly...

Hello, and welcome to 2017 everyone. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Years, but now it's time to buckle down and face the next twelve months. This seems to be the time when folks make lots of predictions for the upcoming year, so I thought I'd take a stab at a few.

First up, the Alaska State Legislature. The circus will be opening in Juneau soon, and there are a couple of alcohol/beer related issues before it. First, look for our tax-hungry governor to try again to cram through his plan to double the tax on alcohol. I don't know how much chance this has this year; last year it didn't go anywhere. That's good when you remember that Alaska already has the second highest alcohol excise taxes in the country, so doubling them is absurd. Many in Juneau will be scrambling to come up with new taxes to feed the insatiable maw of the state government so I wouldn't be surprised to see them try to put lipstick on this pig again.

The other big issue before the legislature which might impact beer is the re-write of the state's alcohol licensing laws. This has been in the works for years, and was introduced last session, but didn't really go anywhere, due to the session spending all its time spinning its wheels over the budget. Will it go anywhere this session? Beats me, but it definitely bears watching. If done right, this could be a real boon to current and future craft breweries in Alaska; if done wrong, it could pretty much keep any new breweries from being able to open in a lot of places. I'm going to do my best to stay on top of this one, and I'll sound the trumpet if we need to mobilize folks to testify for or against.

Moving from the world of beer politics to just beer, we should see several more new breweries open this year. Girdwood Brewing plans to be open for business before the snow goes, and Cooper Landing Brewing hopes to be selling beer this summer. Add to that the perennially "just about to open" Quake Brewing, and you've got three new 2017 breweries already, plus more possible, like Devil's Club Brewing in Juneau. We could easily see another 10% growth in the number of breweries in Alaska this year.

Speaking of new breweries opening, I finally made it to Cynosure Brewing just before Christmas. Owner/Brewer Clarke Pelz is taking a different tack from most other breweries by forgoing the IPA cash cow. Instead, he focusing on Belgian-style ales and classic lagers. When I stopped in on December 23rd, he had six beers on tap, three from each category.

Tap room of Cynosure Brewing

Clarke Pelz of Cynosure Brewing

L to R: Schwarzbier, Hoppy Lager, Dubbel, & Wit

L to R: Oktoberfest & Saison

Tap list at Cynosure on 12/23/2016
I tried samples of all six and found them uniformly excellent. My favorite was the saison, with the schwarzbier a close second. The tap room at Cynosure is nice and comfortable; sofas and padded chairs give it a very relaxed and homey feel, the perfect place to stop for a drink and few minutes of relaxation before braving the horror that is Anchorage rush hour traffic. If you haven't stopped in, make it a point to do so immediately; I regret that it took me three months for my first visit.

Alaska Beer Week starts this Friday, January 13th, and runs through Sunday, January 22nd. In past years, I'd have pointed you toward the events calendar of the AK Beer Week website. However, this year that calendar isn't being done, due to a lack of a sponsor. (If you're looking to sponsor something which will have super visibility with beer lovers in and around Anchorage, I'd suggest looking into this for 2018.) So you're going to have to check with your favorite brewery/restaurant/beer bar to see what they might be doing during AK Beer Week. I'm doing my best to share or post about any events I learn of on my Beer on the Last Frontier Facebook page, so you can also check there to see if you missed anything. I've already seen tons of great events that will be happening next week.

Let's move on to beer reviews. Since it's been over three weeks since my last blog and the holidays are a great time to drink, I've got seven new beer reviews for you.

Anchorage Brewing's Loveand the Death of Damnation IPA: It poured a cloudy hazy orange-gold color, with a nice white head that left good lace. The aroma was full of bright, citrusy American hops. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. The initial bitter attack was good but not overwhelming, followed by lots of American hop flavor and aroma. A fine entry into the popular "hazy" sub-style of IPAs. 6.5% ABV, 60 IBUs.

Black Raven Brewing's Grandfather Raven Imperial Stout: This Washington-based brewery continues to produce highly interesting beers and we seem to be getting more and more of them here in Alaska, which is a good thing. It poured opaque with a huge tan head. The nose had notes of chocolate and coffee, classic RIS elements. Carbonation was excellent, and the mouthfeel was medium. On the palate, it was smooth, with chocolate, dark caramel, and coffee elements blending together into a delicious whole, before falling away to a long, slow finish. An outstanding brew. 9.5% ABV.

Bearpaw River Brewing's Anniversary Ale: I missed the celebration on 12/17, but I was lucky enough to get two bottles of this beer, the first one that Bearpaw River has bottled. One bottle went into my cellar, and the other was opened on New Year's Eve. It poured opaque with a nice mocha-colored head. The aroma was of chocolate and roasted malt. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was medium to heavy. On the palate the classic RIS flavor components of coffee and chocolate were there in abundance, making a very rich melange. The alcohol made it presence known with a slight warmth on the long, lingering finish. And excellent beer to drink now, and one I'm curious to see evolve in the cellar. Congratulations again to Bearpaw River Brewing on its first anniversary; please keep making beers like this one! 10% ABV.

Anchor Brewing's 2016 Christmas Ale: This year's version of "Our Special Ale" from Anchor, the beer poured a deep, semi-translucent ruby with a nice, cream-colored head. The aroma was of malts and spices. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light to medium. The flavor profile was nice, smooth, rich malt notes, with the spices becoming more pronounced on the finish. Another fine entry into this classic old ale/winter warmer series of beers. 6.5% ABV.

Deschutes Brewing's The Abyss Aged in Cognac Barrels (2015): I pulled this beauty out of my cellar on New Year's Day; it had a "best after" date of 12/18/2016. It poured opaque with a tan head. The nose was a pleasing blend of cognac and coffee notes. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was medium to heavy. There were strong notes of chocolate, coffee, molasses, plus well-incorporated cognac notes. The finish was long and warming. This beer demonstrates that aging in used cognac barrels suits big imperial stouts and barley wines very well; I'm disappointed that I was only able to score one bottle. 12% ABV.

Oskar Blues Brewing's Barrel-aged Ten Fiddy Imperial Stout: The holidays are the perfect time for big beers, so let's keep those barrel-aged imperial stouts rolling. This is a bourbon-barrel-aged version of Oskar Blues' classic beer, packaged in a 16 oz. tall boy can. It poured opaque with a big tan head. The aroma had both roasted notes from the stout and bourbon and oak notes from the barrel. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was heavy and chewy. The bourbon came on strong up front, then the chocolate and coffee notes from the stout stepped in. The finish was long, with some alcohol warmth. Excellent job of adding another element to an already classic beer. 12.9% ABV, 98 IBUs.

Boulevard Brewing's & Firestone-Walker Brewing's Collaboration #6: A blend of several beers from each of the two collaborators, the beer poured a deep, semi-translucent ruby color, with a nice, cream-colored head. The nose had notes of tart cherry and bourbon. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was medium to heavy. The flavor profile was rich and complex, with the various beers contributing elements ranging from tart cherries to oak. A very nice and enjoyable brew. 12.5% ABV.

Well, that's about it for this time. Be sure to attend as many Alaska Beer Week events as you can; it's the best time of the year to experience our fantastic local beers.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Brewpub on Every Corner?

We're getting close to the end of 2016, which means it's time for a lot of "Best of" articles and end-of-the-year stats to start showing up. The Brewers Association has published its "Year in Review" graphic. Sorry about the long vertical size, but that's how the BA likes to do it:

click to enlarge

So there's clearly a lot of good things happening. However, if you stay on top of beer news, as I at least try to, you've also heard rumblings of distant thunder which might -- note, I say might --presage some sort of industry shake-out, a la the 1990s. Personally, I don't think demand for craft beer is going anywhere but up, but that doesn't mean that the industry can continue to grow at the break-neck pace we've seen in recent years. So all this got me thinking: what would the end state look like, if we extrapolate out from today?

My first thought is that there's still plenty of room to grow at the bottom, using Ben Millstein of Kodiak Island Brewing's "brewery as bakery" model. He reminds us that there was a time, before the rise of the supermarket, when every small neighborhood had its own local bakery, which baked bread daily. In some places this is still the case: when I lived in London, I could buy fresh baguettes baked daily a half block from my flat. So for a brewery, the idea is that you focus exclusively on your local market, building up local loyalty with fresh, delicious beers brewed to suit the local taste. Ben doesn't send his beers off The Rock; he's totally focused on his local market. This is also the idea behind the modern American brewpub, which started out as a restaurant which also happened to brew its own beer. At least theoretically, there's no reason you couldn't have such a brewery/brewpub anywhere you have a restaurant today. Obviously, in states like Alaska where the government limits the entry into the industry by restricting the number of licenses issued, this can't happen. But that's an artificial limitation, not an economic one.

Ben Millstein, Kodiak Island Brewing

More realistic economic hurdles are things like the availability of brewing equipment and the shortage of properly-trained brewers. Plus the fact that some restaurant owners simply won't want to deal with the extra work. After all, most restaurants out there could bake their own bread, if they really wanted to, yet the majority would rather buy it ready-made.

So, perhaps a brewpub on every corner isn't realistic, but a brewery or brewpub in every town should certainly be achievable. A hundred years ago, that's how it was in the Alaska Territory and across the rest of the country, at least in those portions which hadn't already voted themselves dry. Freshness and buying local are arguments which seem to be gaining new momentum, especially here in Alaska, and many of our breweries have already taken advantage of that and are poised to continue to do so.

My second thought is that while there's still plenty of room at the bottom, the middle is starting to get awfully crowded. The wholesale beer market is getting more competitive every day, with more breweries competing for the same limited shelf space. Ten years ago, breweries like Kassik's and Kenai River could open, start selling their beer locally,  and then start distributing kegs around the state with relative ease. There weren't that many breweries in the state to compete with for taps and shelf space, so breaking into big, new markets like Anchorage and Fairbanks was relatively easy. Today, there are many more breweries, and it seems like every other day another one of them announces it has signed on with a distributor or begun bottling or canning its beers. You can still be a successful enterprise in your own back yard of Kodiak, Homer, Haines, or Hoonah, but playing with the (relatively) big dogs on a state-wide level is only going to get tougher. And that goes double or triple if you want to send your beers Outside. Even long-established brewers like Sierra Nevada Brewing and the Boston Beer Company are seeing some flagship brand sales decline, as beer drinkers keeping searching for the next big thing.

My third thought is that nothing good is happening at the top of the market. Yes, AB-InBev has swallowed SAB Miller, which puts it in a dominant position in the world beer market. However, I think this has actually weakened its American position. As a huge international corporate behemoth, it's ill-equipped to fight on the new battlefields of craft beer, innovation and local connections. Plus, its sheer size had finally forced the regulators to start paying real attention to its activities. It increasing reminds me of a huge dinosaur, seemingly totally dominant, but completely unable to deal with the meteor streaking toward it. It will likely continue to make billions selling beer to the developing world, but it sales in the US are headed nowhere but down.

So what's the end game? Damned if I know. However, when I look back at where things stood forty years ago when I first took an interest if craft beer and compare it to today, I'm very optimistic. Whatever happens in the craft beer market, we are never going back to the bad old days when there were only a handful of craft brewers in the US.  And that's a good thing.

Now a couple of news items before some beer reviews.

As I mentioned two blogs back, Bearpaw River Brewing will be celebrating its one year anniversary tomorrow, December 17. The Birthday Bash will take place from 4 to 8 pm at the brewery. Here's what they have to say about it:

"We will be releasing our first bottled beer, a Russian Imperial Stout, which we have aptly named "Anniversary Ale." 10% ABV. 80 IBUs. We plan to brew this beer every year at this time to celebrate our birthday, and the holidays!

 Oh My Goodness Sammies & Pies will be parked out front serving up toasty gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to keep everyone well fed.

Wild Scoops will be on site with handcrafted Alaska ice cream made with our Mat Maid Milk Stout. We can't wait to try this with a glass of Milk Stout, or even the Imperial Stout!

We will have all 10 taps flowing with fresh local beer. We hope you can join us to celebrate a year of brewing craft beer in the Mat-Su!

 Cheers, Jack, James, Jed & Jake"

Yesterday, they announced what will be on all those taps:

Anniversary Ale - Russian Imperial Stout
 Frontiersman IPA
 Sluice Box Belgian
 Mat Maid Milk Stout
 Bearpaw River Lager
 Duck Hunt IPA
 Old Speckled Spruce Hen ESB
 Jalapeño Lager
 Mat Maid Milk Stout on Nitro
 Humdinger IPA
 Long Johns Harvest Ale
 Zip Kombucha

Sounds like a fabulous time. I wish I could make it to Wasilla for it, and if you can, you should.

Second piece of news. I spoke to Brett Marenco of Girdwood Brewing Company, looking for an update on when it might be open. While all the fermenters and brite tanks have been installed, they are still waiting for their brew kettle and mash tun to be delivered from Premiere Stainless. Due to production delays, Premeire doesn't expect to have them finished before early next year, meaning they won't arrive in Gridwood until mid- to late- January at the earliest. Brett tells me that Girdwood Brewing as received all its required approvals and is just waiting for this equipment to arrive and be installed before it can start brewing. So we can hope to see beer start flowing in February or March, assuming no more delays in production and delivery. With any luck at all, folks will still be skiing in Girdwood when the brewery opens.

Tanks in place. Photo courtesy of Girdwood Brewing

Finally, you may have heard that Kenai River Brewing was having some trouble with its kitchen. Technical problems have been solved, more or less, and the kitchen is open from noon to 7:45 pm Wednesday thru Sunday. The tap room is open 11 to 8 pm, seven days a week. Here are photos of the regular menu and a recent daily special:

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click to enlarge

Okay, let's move on to beer reviews. I have three more this time round:

Midnight Sun Brewing's Buzzwinkle Sour Wheat Ale: Brewed with locally grown crab apples, this beer poured a crystal clear gold with a nice white head. The aroma was laced with lightly tart notes. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. On the palate there were clean tart flavors, with notes of crab apples. Very light and refreshing. 4.5% ABV, 20 IBUs.

49 State Brewing's 907 Frontier-style Lager: Not sure what makes it frontier-style, but it poured a clear amber color with a nice off-white head. The nose was nothing but clean malt notes. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. The flavor profile emphasized the malt, but with enough hop bitterness for balance. Very drinkable. 5.3% ABV. Check out the stylish label.

Boulevard Brewing's Tell-Tale Tart Sour Ale: This beer poured a clear reddish-gold with a small, off-white head that dissipated to a collar. The aroma had notes of light and tart citrus. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. The flavor profile was only slightly tart, and all the flavors seemed light. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but nothing very impressive either. Okay, but routine. 6.2% ABV, 10 IBUs.

That's it for this blog. Not sure if I'll get another out before 2017, what with all the holiday events and such. So I'll take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope 2017 is filled with peace and good beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Happy Anniversary & Christmas Shopping

Hello again! First off, I want to send each and every one of you best wishes on this most auspicious of occasions, the 83rd anniversary of Repeal. On December 5, 1933, at 3:31 pm local time, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, officially ending Prohibition, the so-called Noble Experiment. Personally, I've always been fascinated by the whole story of how Americans came to embark on the collective madness that Prohibition represented, as well as how we finally came to our senses. If you'd like to learn more about this, I heartily recommend Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, which is an excellent book on the subject. If visual media is more your style,  Ken Burns: Prohibition is an excellent documentary adaptation of Okrent's work.

Either one is an great choice as a way to learn more about this important but largely forgotten era in America's history. The reason I say that it's largely forgotten is that I see people continuing to make the same arguments in favor of drug and alcohol laws as were used by the folks who pushed for Prohibition a century ago. When will we learn that you cannot legislate morality, especially if you want to live in a free country?

I wrote last week that this blog would be all about Christmas ideas for beer lovers, so you can consider the book and DVD above to be my first suggestions. My suggestions will be made with the craft beer drinker rather than the brewer in mind. I'm not going to make any suggestions regarding books or equipment that are specifically for homebrewers; there is a ton of great new homebrewing gear out there, with more new gadget and things being created every day, but unless you know the details of a homebrewer's set-up and level of expertise, it's hard to make good suggestions. If you're shopping for a homebrewer, your best bet is to just ask them; they probably have a wish list as long as their arm. Homebrewing is like golf or guns in that respect: it's a hobby that you can pretty much spend unlimited amounts of money on...

So, let's talk about gifts for the average craft beer lover. I always like to start with books, because I'm a bit of a bibliophile. Here are five, published this year, that I think are worth you while:

The Pub: A Cultural Institution - from Country Inns to Craft Beer Bars and Corner Locals: This is a coffee-table-style hardback, bursting with gorgeous pictures of historic British pubs and sparkling text from Pete Brown, one of the foremost in our current crop of beer writers. Having lived in Britain for three years and spent many a pleasant hour in its public houses, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It would make a great gift for anyone who's been or is planning to go to Britain.

My next two choices are both first-person accounts. The Fermented Man: A Year on the Front Lines of a Food Revolution by Derek Dellinger is not focused so much on beer as on fermentation in general. The author decided to try to live for a year by consuming only fermented foods and beverages, which obviously includes many things besides beer, though beer did make up a substantial part of his diet.He's also the brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Company in Connecticut. The book asks questions about the role of fermented foods in maintaining our overall health, and supports the notion that we should be including more of them in our daily diet.

The second personal account is My Beer Year: Adventures with Hop Farmers, Craft Brewers, Chefs, Beer Sommeliers, and Fanatical Drinkers as a Beer Master in Training by Lucy Burningham. It recounts her year-long quest to become a Certified Cicerone. If you are unfamiliar with the Cicerone program, it is the equivalent of becoming a certified wine sommelier. The book's tone is light but interesting, as the author works to educate herself and her sense of taste in the art of enjoying and evaluating beer in order to pass the rigorous examination to become a certified beer expert.

You can't have a Christmas Beer Book list without having at least one book about beer and food on it. A decade ago that wouldn't have been the case, as such book were few and far between. However, in recent years, writers have begun to recognize that beer and food have a natural affinity that is at least as good and perhaps even better than that of beer and wine, and the number of books being published on the subject has increased accordingly. The best on on that subject that I have read so far this year is Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros by Julia Herz & Gwen Conley. As the sub-title implies, these two ladies are professionals in this business; Herz works for the Brewers Association and Conley is a biologist by training who has worked for several breweries and currently teaches at the University of California. The hardback takes a comprehensive look at the sources of flavors in beer, how they are perceived by our sense of taste, and how to create pleasing pairings with food. For my money, it's the best single book on this subject currently available.

For my final book recommendation, I've save the best for last. The Beer Geek Handbook: Living a Life Ruled by Beer by Patrick Dawson was my favorite new beer book of the year. I was already an admirer of Dawson's writing from reading his excellent Vintage Beer: A Taster's Guide to Brews That Improve over Time, published back in 2012. This time round, he's written a breezy, funny book full of cool facts and trenchant observations about craft beer and the people who love it. Ever craft beer lover should read this book; it'll make you a better beer geek, I promise!

Moving on from books, there's glassware, one of the "go to" gifts for beer lovers. However, before you decide to go this route, you might want to make sure this is something the recipient truly needs! If they're like me, they're probably hip deep in glassware, much of which never gets used, but just gathers dust. However, if they do need glassware, check out the Buffalo Beer Mug Company. The sell nice 16 oz. Belgian-style glasses, and they do some interesting etchings on them.

When it comes growlers, much the same rules apply as with glassware. It's best to make sure the recipient actually needs/wants another insulated and/or logo'd growler before you spend good money on one as a gift. However, if you want to really go overboard, you can always lay out $139 for the Rolls Royce of growlers, the uKeg 64 Pressurized Growler for Craft Beer - Stainless Steel from Growler Werks. It has all the bells and whistles: insulated, automatic CO2 regulator, external sight glass, customizable tap, you name it. It costs a pretty penny, but it's the top of the line for growlers on the market today.

If that's a little too rich for your blood, but the person you're shopping for gets to Anchorage or Girdwood often, you might consider giving them a cermaic growler from La Bodega. They're $59, but are lovely to look at at get you a 10% discount on growlers fills at the various La Bodega locations for life!

A good choice for stocking stuffers is food made with beer. There are plenty of choices out there, but one that I personally like is Beer Kissed. They make delicious cookies, caramel popcorn, and caramel sauces; the Scotch Porter Caramel Sauce looks especially yummy!

Often, the best gift choice for a craft beer lover is often just more good beer. If you're not a craft beer lover yourself, find a good beer store and ask for some suggestions from the staff. The folks at Country Liquors in Kenai or La Bodega in Anchorage can give you great ideas, especially if you can tell them something about the kind of beers the person you're shopping for likes to drink. Part of being a craft beer lover is enjoying trying new breweries and new styles, so gifts of beer are always welcome.

Finally, if you're looking for a gift for yourself or someone else, consider the gift of knowledge. I'll be teaching my beer class, CED A157 The Art & History of Brewing, again during the spring semester at Kenai Peninsula College. We meet once a week, on Tuesdays from 5:30 to 6:45 pm, with the first class on January. We cover lots of topics and taste beer in every class. If you've always wanted to learn more about craft beer, here's your chance.

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On that self-serving note, I'll close my Christmas Gift Blog. Enjoy the 83rd Anniversary of Repeal and keep warm in these cold, dark days of December.

Until Next Time, Cheers!