Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival

Well, it's that time of year again. No, not Christmas time, though that is fast upon us. (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you, by the way.)

No, I'm talking about the annual Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival, which takes place in Anchorage each January. This is more or less the premiere beer festival in Alaska and is a fantastic beer experience. Just about every brewery in Alaska is represented, along with many from the West Coast and across the country. Personally, I've had the great good fortune to attend in 2007 and 2008, and I'm looking forward to being there again next month.

This time around, the festival will take place on Friday, January 16th and Saturday, January 17th in the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage. There are three sessions, Friday evening at 5 pm, Saturday afternoon at 2 pm, & Saturday evening at 6 pm. A ticket gets you a program, a commemorative tasting glass, and tickets for 30 beer samples. The tickets for the evening sessions go for $30, while the Saturday afternoon session is $40.

Why $40 for the Saturday afternoon session? Well, that session is billed as the Connoisseur Session. The brewers will be pouring special beers during that session, with the additional $10 going to benefit the Brewers Guild of Alaska. Having been to the Friday evening session in 2007 and the Connoisseur Session in 2008, take it from me that the later is well worth the extra ten bucks. The evening sessions seem to fill up rapidly to the capacity of the Egan, mostly with young adults looking to "drink their $30 worth". Not fun, if you're a serious beer fancier. The Saturday afternoon session is much less crowded and much more relaxed, with time to interact with the brewers. Not to mention the extra beers to sample...

Also, the Captain Cook Hotel and the Copper Whale Inn B&B (both within a couple of blocks of the Egan) will be offering special rates to festival goers. If you're interested in attending, check out the details at the Festival's website at http://www.auroraproductions.net/beer-barley.html. Hope to see you there!

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I had picked up a bottle of Midnight Sun's Venus, one of this year's Planets series. I finally got a round to drinking it the other night, and it is a true monster of a beer, let me tell you! They're calling it a Belgian-style Quadrupel, so stylistically it's similar to a dubbel, except that it weighs in at a kickin' 14.3% ABV! This is really and truly a sipping beer, believe you me! It's also been spiced with star anise and aged in Cabernet Savignon casks, giving it some subtle woody notes. This would be a very likely candidate for cellaring, I think. I can't reccommend this brew too highly, so pick some up if you can.

Finally, this is likely my last post until the New Year, so I'll take this opportunity to thank you all for your kindness in reading my ramblings and pass along my hopes that you all have a Happy (and Beery!) New Year.

Until next time, Cheers!

Monday, December 15, 2008

First Loves...

Twenty years ago, I discovered the world of good beer. Exactly how that came about is a story for another day, but not long after I did, I came across a beer called MacAndrew's Scotch Ale from the Caledonian Brewery. Perhaps due to my very limited experience with quality beer, it made an enormous impression on me. For years I drank MacAndrew's whenever I could find (and afford) it. To this day, Strong Scotch remains my favorite style of beer.

What I didn't realize at the time was that Caledonian had only created the MacAndrew's label for export to the U.S.; back in the U.K., the beer was sold as Edinburgh Strong Ale. I learned the truth from reading Michael Jackson's Beer Companion shortly before moving to London in 1998.

Of course the Scots are not fools; they seldom sent any ESA down to London. Why let those English bastards drink it! No, they saved it for themselves. Still, every trip my wife and I took to Scotland, I was always looking to duck into a Caledonian pub in hopes that they would have a cask of ESA on. I still remember the night at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, after a ten-mile day of hiking, having a delicious dinner and washing it down with pint after pint of this wonderful real ale...

So what's it like as a beer? First, it pours a lovely bronze color. It's remarkably well-balanced, with about 27 IBUs of bitterness from Styrian hops to stand up to the tremendous malt backbone. At 8% ABV, it definitely earns its sobriquet of Strong. It starts off sweet and nutty, then turns spicy, ending with a long, dry, and warming finish. For my money, it's a masterpiece.

There's only one problem: This beer cannot be had for love nor money here in Alaska. Oh, there are wonderful Strong Scotches hereabouts; Frank Kassik's award-winning Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch case in point. But good as it is, it's just not MacAndrew's.

So what's a beer lover to do?

Well, I don't know about you, but as for me, I'm going to brew my own. Yesterday I brewed Howell's Highland Ale 3.0. As the name implies, this is my third attempt to capture a memory. With each iteration I make a few more tweaks to try to get closer to that ideal. I doubt if I'll ever get there; memory is a tricky thing, after all. But until Caledonian starts exporting to Alaska, it will sure be fun to try...

Until next time, Cheers!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and He's Bringing Belgian Beer...

Some folks are difficult to shop for a Christmas time. Not so for a hard-core beer lover like yours truly. Just give me a big bottle or six-pack of a new craft beer to try or a new book on the subject of beer and I'm as happy as the proverbial pig in you-know-what.

So if you're looking for a gift for the beer lover in your life, I'd like to make a suggestion: 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die by Tim Webb & Joris Pattyn, published by the Campaign for Real Ale.

Before my wife and I moved to Alaska to rusticate, I served at the beck and call of dear old Uncle Sam. It was an interesting twenty year career and perhaps the best of it was the three years we spent in London (mid-1998 to mid-2001). Besides all the fantastic British ale I could drink on a daily basis, Belgium was only a few hours away by train and ferry, and my wife and I took advantage of that whenever we could. I had already encountered Belgian ales stateside, but having the chance to drink them in situ opened up a whole new realm of enjoyment.

Diving into Webb & Pattyn's new book, I was reminded of those heady days. While any "list" type book is bound to be somewhat subjective, I think they do a fine job of identifying most of the very best that Belgium has to offer. The book includes information on visiting the breweries (if you are lucky enough to get the chance) and information about who is importing each beer into the U.S. or the UK. The writing is witty, with just the right amount of banter between the two authors. If you or someone you know is at all interested in Belgian beers, I can't think of a better stocking stuffer.

Update: Last post, I mentioned that I had obtained several new beers to try. I've had the chance to taste two of them, so far.

The first was Saturn, from Midnight Sun's Planet Series. They are calling it a Belgian-style Fresh Hop IPA, weighing in at 8% ABV and 55 IBUs. Tasting it, I was impressed by how much more delicate the hop flavors and aromas were than those imparted by the standard dried hops used in other beers. The wet Centennial and Cascade hops used pair very well with the flavors arising from the Belgian yeasts. A very interesting and drinkable brew!

The second was The Lost Abbey Brewery's Lost and Found Abbey Ale, from a 750 ml corked bottle. The beer poured a deep, dark red, with a relatively small head. According to the brewery, it comes in at 7.5% ABV, is hopped with German Magnum and Tettang hops, and has pureed raisins added. The raisins are very evident in the fruity notes in the deep, complex taste of the beer. The initial taste was wonderful, though the beer seemed to fade a bit toward the end of the bottle.

Until next time, Cheers!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Like a Kid in a Candy Store...

Yesterday my lovely wife Elaine and I made a shopping run to Anchorage. For anyone who isn't from Alaska, you probably don't quite grasp what that entails. It means we got up at 5:30 and were on the road shortly before 7 am, for a 150 mile/three hour drive over snowy roads with temperatures in the teens. Oh, did I mention that sunrise is about 10 am this time of year?

In Anchorage, we tried to cram as much shopping as we could into the few hours we had, making nine stops around town (plus lunch) in under six hours, all the while dodging the insane people who seem to be so prevalent behind the wheel inside city limits.

And then there's the return journey, leaving Anchorage at about 3:30 pm, with sunset at 4 and arriving back home at 6:30, to unload the car and feed the cats before collapsing on the couch. That's what an Anchorage shopping run in December means.

After hearing that, you're probably wondering why in the world we would be so crazy as to do something like that. I can answer that in one word: MONEY. We estimate shopping in Anchorage saves us 40% over local prices, even after you figure in the gas for a 300 mile round trip. Two added benefits are greatly expanded choices for lunch (Thai, anyone?) AND a fantastic beer selection (at least compared to my local stores). Visiting La Bodega and The Brown Jug Warehouse, I am indeed like the proverbial kid in a candy store. In fact, Elaine says that the only store we visit that I'm not in a hurry to get out of is the liquor store. I'm not sure that's true; after all, we went to Arctic Brewing Supply to buy more homebrew ingredients as well...

So what did I pick up in the candy store? Lots of cool stuff, much of it from Midnight Sun. I picked up a bottle of Saturn, one their Planet Series, billed as a "Belgian-style Fresh Hop IPA" and Venus, another in the series billed as Belgian-style Quadrupel, spiced with star anise and aged in Cabernet Sauvignon casks. I also grabbed a bottle of the 2008 version of their award-winning Arctic Devil Barley Wine and their Obliteration IV, something they're calling a Double Wheat India Pale Ale. Four beers that I am very anxious to try.

Besides these new beers from Midnight Sun, I also picked up two others to try: a 750 ml corked bottle of Lost and Found Ale from The Lost Abbey Brewery and another 750 ml of Avec les bon Voeux, a Christmas ale from Brasserie Dupont, one of my favorite Belgian breweries. I learned about this particular beer by reading an excellent book: 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die by Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn. I won't go into any more detail about the book now, as I plan to cover it in more detail soon. Suffice it to say, it's a great Xmas present for a beer lover.

As I sample all these beers over the next few days, I'll be taking notes and will be reporting my impressions in this blog.

Until then, Cheers!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Giving Thanks

I've never been a huge fan of Thanksgiving the holiday. I mean turkey is all right as a meal and football is OK as a sport, but they're not my favorites. I prefer steak and baseball, frankly. Still, I like the idea of pausing once a year to look back and try to appreciate all the good things that have happened to you.

If Ben Franklin is correct and "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," it stands to reason we should be especially thankful for beer. Indeed, the realization that beer is a divine benediction upon mankind leads to the inevitable question: What Would Jesus Brew? After all, his first miracle was transforming water into beer. Yes, I know the standard text says wine, but I'm referring to the little-known Gospel of Bill. [If you'd like to have your very own WWJB T-shirt, check out http://www.pawcreek.biz/index.html.]

So let's think about what I as a beer drinker have to be thankful for in the last year.

First, I'm thankful that St. Elias Brewery finally opened. I stopped by there last Friday, on my way home from work to give Zach a bottle of my homebrewed Mild to try. While there I tried his brand-new Belgian Blonde, a beautifully clear ale with I'd guess 7 or 8% ABV, a bit reminiscent of Duvel. Also on tap were the Williwaw IPA, Puddle Jumper Pale Ale, Even Keel Kolsch, the Farmer's Friend, an Irish Stout, and the Half Moon White. I'm thankful to have such a good brewpub in my locale, not to mention on my way home.

Second, I'm thankful that the other local brewers, Frank at Kassik's and Doug at Kenai River, keep turning out such exceptional beers. From Doug's Winter Warlock and Single Hop IPAs to Frank's award-winning Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch, I'm truly grateful for the wide array of excellent local brews I have to choose from. I'm especially thankful that the Caribou Kilt goes back on sale again tomorrow. Hint, hint...

Third, I'm thankful to be living in the great state of Alaska, where when it come to beer--like in so many other arenas -- we punch far above our weight. Alaskan, Midnight Sun, Sleeping Lady, Moose's Tooth, Glacier Brewhouse, Silver Gulch, not to mention Homer Brewing Company and the others here on the Kenai already mentioned above-- as Alaskans, we're truly fortunate to have more than our share of world-class breweries to choose from. I'd suggest we thank these folks the best way possible, by buying as much of their brew as we can manage.

Finally, I'm grateful for having family and friends to share my love of beer with and the good health required to be able to enjoy this wonderful beverage. I hope each of you may be equally blessed. So let's raise our glasses together, giving thanks for what's past and in the hope that the future will be even better for us all.

Until next time, Cheers!

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Rough Draft Worth Finding

Living in Alaska is not for the faint of heart. Even in the summer, life up here can be challenging, what with the bears and the mosquitoes and the tourists, but the winters are what sets Alaska apart. Even on the Kenai Peninsula where I live -- far south of Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle -- we still get less than six hours of sunlight on the shortest day of the year and routinely have lows of -25F or -35F in the dead of winter. Given these conditions, is it any wonder we love big, strong, brawling beers? We need them just to get by!

Every January we Alaskans celebrate our love for beer at The Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage. On the evening prior to the festival, the Great Northern Homebrewers have their first meeting of the year at the Snow Goose Brewpub in downtown Anchorage. One of the highlights of that meeting is that our local breweries bring some of their more interesting/experimental beers to be sampled. In 2007 & 2008, I had the pleasure to sample Alaskan Brewing Company's Baltic Porter Ale, one of their "Rough Draft" series.

The Rough Drafts are part of Alaskan's innovation process. They brew in small batches, then distribute the kegs in a limited area to get feedback from their customer base. This enables them to perfect a popular beer and avoid the losses associated with brewing too much of an unpopular one. Not to mention it lets them indulge in the sort of experimentation that most brewers love.

Anyway, having tasted their Baltic Porter on draft and been very impressed by it, I was totally jazzed to hear that Alaskan had finally decided to release it in 22 oz. "bomber" bottles. I was even more jazzed when I came across some at my local Fred Meyer's last week. I picked up a bottle and drank it last night after dinner.

It's definitely a sipping beer, coming in at almost 9% ABV. Dark as midnight, smooth and thick on the palate like ice cream, it's brewed with hand-peeled and seeded gourmet Madagascar vanilla beans and over 500 pounds of dark black cherries, then aged on toasted French oak with more vanilla beans added during fermentation. The smooth, deep maltiness is accentuated by raisin and licorice notes as well as chocolate and mild coffee characters. The oak brings hints of bourbon and hot toffee. The higher alcohol content contributes to the warmth of this richly flavorful beer. It's a tremendous beer, good for drinking right away or for laying down in your beer cellar.

It's the sort of beer to drink during an Alaskan winter, playing cards with your wife by the light of an oil lamp, after the electricity has gone out.

Kind of like happened last night...

Until next time, Cheers!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dream Job?

Would you like to work at a microbrewery? If so, Frank & Debara Kassik are looking for some help. Here's a copy of their job posting:

GENERAL LABORER/SERVER: Small microbrewery is seeking full-time/part-time help.

General laborer/server.
Provide assistance around the brewery. Basic cleaning, stacking grains, assistant in vessel cleaning, etc. Provide customer service in prompt and courteous manner. Abide by all state and local liquor laws.

Some experience in customer service.
Like and have a good understanding of microbrew.
Must be at least 21 years of age.
Must obtain a Techniques of Alcohol Management (TAM) Card.
Must obtain a DEC food workers card.
Must be able to stand for long periods and lift 55 lbs.
Must have a cheerful and outgoing personality.
Communicate with owners regarding the needs of customers.

Follow safe and proper procedures in the course of daily work.
Arrive on time and demonstrate effective time management.
Other duties as signed, including tasks which support the essential functions and may be changed or redesigned.
Comply with applicable sanitation, health, and personal hygiene standards.

If interested please apply in person at:

Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop
47160 Spruce Haven Street
Kenai, AK 99611
907-776-4055 Please, phone calls for directions only.

This would be a great opportunity for someone who is looking to "get their foot in the door" and learn the business. If I was twenty years younger, I'd take Frank up on it myself.

Speaking of Kassik's, their Imperial Spice Honey Wheat is back on tap. At 8.9% ABV, this is no summer-time light-weight wheat beer! It's a great sipping beer to enjoy by the fire and help ward off the winter chill.

Speaking of warding off the winter chill, Frank promises that his award-winning Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch will be available again before the end of the month. I'm looking forward to enjoying it with my Thanksgiving turkey...

By the by, I promised to let you know how my latest homebrew turned out. If you remember, I brewed up my interpretation of a Holden's Black Country Mild, a wonderful session ale that I used to drink when I lived in the U.K. I'm happy to report that it seems to have turned out very well, at least to my and my friends' tastes. I've dropped off bottles with some of my local professional brewers and I eagerly await their assessments. I'm brewing again this weekend, making a batch of my Imperial Stout. I make this every year as a Christmas gift for my daughter Liana, who loves stouts.

Until next time, Cheers!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Beer And Food

As a beer lover, I have always been a bit irked by the short shrift that beer-food pairings get, as compared with wine-food ones. Volumes and volumes have been written on how to cook with wine and how to match wine to food, but it's only relatively recently that beer has begun to receive the recognition (as measured in paper and ink) which is its due.

A recent example of this is An Appetite for Ale by Fiona & Will Beckett. The Becketts run a well-regarded gastropub in Britain and their book contains both excellent recipes utilizing beer as an ingredient AND guidance for pairing beers with various dishes and types of food. It's also very nicely illustrated and full of interesting tidbits. All this makes it just the sort of book to help the average person begin to realize the vast flexibility that beer displays, both in and alongside food. I recommend it as an addition to your beer and/or cookbook library.

Speaking of additions to libraries, does your local library subscribe to any beer magazines? If not, perhaps you should suggest to the local librarian that they do so. If he or she is still not interested, perhaps you should consider purchasing a gift subscription on their behalf. Such a subscription would be considered a donation to the library (and is therefore tax deductible) and is a great way to raise the profile of serious beer-drinking in your area. As an example, the library at the community college where I work now has subscriptions with two beer magazines (All About Beer and The Beer Advocate), one of which I purchased as a gift subscription. It's little things like these that help spread the gospel of good beer.

Until next time, cheers!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Relative Comes to Visit

It's a phenomenon that every Alaskan is familiar with: folks coming to visit. Moving to The Great Land is almost guaranteed to reacquaint you with friends and relations you thought long gone. The cousins from Philly who couldn't be bothered to visit when you lived in Cleveland will suddenly find that they can be bothered to fly thousands of miles to Alaska (to stay at your place and have you take them out fishing). Summer isn't just tourist season in Alaska; it's also Visiting Relatives Season.

However, once the snow has chased the last of our visitors back south, a more welcome relation pays us his annual visit. That visitor is Midnight Sun's CoHoHo Imperial IPA. This beer is one of their rotating seasonals, replacing their Meltdown Double IPA and is a more muscular version of their Sockeye Red. Long-time readers will know that I consider Sockeye Red to be my go-to beer, so it should come as no surprise that I also love its bigger, huskier cousin, CoHoHo.

CoHoHo weighs in at a hefty 8.0 ABV and 85 IBUs, as compared to Sockeye Red's 5.7% and 70, respectively. The folks at Midnight Sun achieve the increase in strength by adding fun stuff such as brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, and juniper berries. The same hops are used (Centennial, Cascade, & Simcoe) but at a more generous rate to balance the heftier grain bill. The end result is an exceptional beer, with a wonderful mouth feel and a massive hop bitterness and aroma. This beer is a wonderful drink on a long, snowy evening by the fire. It's a relation that is welcome to stay as long as he wants!

Speaking of distant relations, during my last visit to Anchorage, I picked up a bottle of Brewery Ommegang's Ommegeddon. It's described on the label as "a funkhouse ale brewed with brettanomyces" (right below the mushroom cloud!). This is one of the clearest examples of truth in labelling I've ever seen. Ommegeddon is an 8% golden Belgian style, generously dry-hopped and with plenty of brett-generated "horse blanket" funkiness. I loved it! Working my way through the 750 ml bottle, I knew this beer reminded me of another one I'd had. It took me a few sips before it finally clicked. Ommegeddon is strongly reminiscent of one of the great Trappist ales, Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval's Orval. The color is slightly different, with Orval being a bit more orange and I don't think Ommegeddon has candi sugar added, but otherwise they are very similar. Not bad for a beer brewed in Cooperstown, New York. All in all, it's a weird and wonderful beer. I plan to pick up another couple of bottles when I next get back to Anchorage, assuming there's any left.

Until next time, cheers!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Under the Weather

So where have I been for the last two weeks? Well, the phrase "Under the Weather" seems to pretty much encapsulate what's been going on around here. First, the weather's been kicking up, with several snow days in the last two weeks, with all the hassles that the first snow of the year implies. Second, a nasty cold bug has been making the rounds up here on The Last Frontier. No, it hasn't laid me out (no bug has figured out how to long survive in the ABV level I try to maintain in my bloodstream...), but several of the folks who work for me have been strickened, requiring me to cover for them. I have been laid low several times in the past two weeks with sinus problems, possibly related to the changes in our local weather. Hence, under the weather.

None of which you care about, since it has nothing to do with beer. I did get to spend a couple of days in Anchorage for my work, which did give me a chance to try a few more interesting brews. Sunday, October 5, my lovely wife Elaine and I dined at the Snow Goose Brewpub in downtown Anchorage. I was disappointed to find that they were out of their double IPA, but I settled for their recently reformulated Fish On! IPA to go along with my excellent Fisherman's Cioppino. I was very pleased with the "new and improved" version; the seem to have tweaked the hops a bit, amping up the aroma and smoothing out the bitterness. Extremely drinkable. Then I enjoyed a goblet of their Old Gander Barleywine with an exceptional chocolate mouse cake for dessert. A superb evening.

I had to work at the Egan Center on Monday until 8 PM. My wife and I tried to go the Glacier Brewhouse for dinner and drinks, only to be told it would be a 45 minute wait for a table. I guess it's good that they are so busy, but we were in no mood to wait another hour for something to eat. So we ducked back out into the rain and snow mix to head over to Humpy's. There we were able to walk right in, get a table, and be eating in under 15 minutes. Better luck next time, Glacier!

I drank three beers while at Humpy's, starting with a Raison D'Etre from Dogfish Head. It's one I'd had before from a bottle, but not on draft. It's a deep, mahogany ale brewed with beet sugar, green raisins, and Belgian-style yeast, coming in at 8% ABV and 36 IBUs. Just the thing to take the chill off from a raw and wet Anchorage evening.

Next, I decided to stick with the Belgian theme and have a Brouwerij St. Bernardus Grotten Brown. It's another beer that I'd had before, a Belgian dark ale, weighing in at 6.5% ABV. I tasted this one on draft several months ago at The Crossing Restaurant in Soldotna, and I wanted to compare it to my memory. I found it to be good, but not exceptional, just as I'd remembered it.

Finally, I finished up with a Snow Shoe Bitter from Kodiak Island Brewing Company. I always jump at the chance to try a new Kodiak beer. Kodiak Island is located fairly close to my home on the Kenai Peninsula, but we never get their beers. What they send off island seems to go pretty exclusively to Anchorage. Despite its name, Snow Shoe Bitter is definitely an IPA, aggressively dry-hopped with Amarillos and coming in at about 4.2% ABV. I thought it was outstanding and the best brew I had on this trip. Too bad they can't drop some of it off here when they're shipping to Anchorage...

Well, that's it for now. Next blog I'll pick up with some of the interesting bottled beers I picked up to try. Until then, cheers!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Time to Brew

Well, summer --what we had of it this year-- is over and fall is definitely here. Overnight temperatures are dipping into the low 20s and the birch trees are losing their leaves. That means it's time to start homebrewing again!

My summers are usually too busy and (sometimes) too warm for brewing, so I follow the traditional practice of brewing fall through spring and just drinking homebrew during the summer. So I always look forward to the coming of fall and the resumption of brewing.

One of the best things about being a homebrewer is your ability to produce styles of beer which are generally unavailable commercially in the United States. One of my favorites of these rare styles is the British Mild. Rare even in Britain, it's essentially unknown here.

Mild is a light-flavored, malt-accented beer that is
readily suited to drinking in quantity. Refreshing, yet flavorful, it origins are somewhat obscure, but by the end of the 19th century it had evolved into a refreshing drink for the workers in Britain's massive industrial base. Relatively low in alcohol (3.1-3.8% ABV), it is definitely a session beer, meant to be consumed in quantity over time without making the drinker overly intoxicated. In Britain, Milds are typically served as cask ales and bottled versions at the traditional low alcohol levels do not travel well, hence their lack of exposure here across the pond. My particular version is an attempt to recreate Holden's Black Country Mild, an excellent example of this style from the West Midlands region of Britain, clocking in at about 3.7% ABV. I brewed on Sunday and intend to rack to a secondary this weekend and bottle on 12 October. The brew should be ready to drink by Halloween. I'll let you know how it turns out.

The sad fact about the Mild style of ale is that it has become very rare, even in Britain. Incredibly popular early in the 20th century, it gradually lost market share to other styles, partially due to the perception that is was a blue collar (or as our Brit cousins would say, a "cloth cap") beverage. This is unfortunate, especially given the growing concerns about drinking and driving. A beer style that is full of flavor and character while being fairly low in alcohol would seem to be a great option. I've tried to convince a couple of my local breweries to take a chance on it, dropping off bottles of my attempts as examples, so far without success. I'll try again with this batch. I'd love to see this style undergo a revival here in the States, as so many others have.

Until then, I'll just keep brewing my own. Cheers!

P.S. Don't forget the release of the Winter Warlock at Kenai River Brewing today! Grab your growlers and pick some up.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Visit to Cafe A

Now don't get me wrong. I absolutely love living on the Kenai Peninsula. I've got a nice home on six wooded acres in Sterling where I can't even see any of my neighbors. I work at a college in Soldotna, sitting in the middle of over 300 acres, right on the Kenai River, all of 12 miles from my house. My drive home every day takes me past two liquor stores, a microbrewery and a brewpub. Who could ask for anything more?

Still, when business or pleasure take me up to the Big City, aka Anchorage, I like to take advantage of some of the amenities you just can't expect to find in a small town in Alaska. Things like a really good sushi bar, a specialty beer store, or-- case in point-- a specialty beer bar like Cafe Amsterdam.

Cafe Amsterdam is one of places in Anchorage where you can be assured of having unique and interesting beers served with the care and respect which is their due. Obviously the lion share of the credit should go to Ken, the owner, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his outstanding waitstaff, led by Will Miller, winner of the Best Bartender in Alaska, from the 2007 Northwest Brewing News Reader Survey. These folks know their beer and they're passionate about serving it properly.

Anyway, I had to be in Anchorage for my job first thing Saturday morning, so my wife and I rolled in to Cafe A just before 5 o'clock on Friday afternoon, looking to have a beer or three prior to dining on sushi. The restaurant portion of the cafe hadn't opened for dinner yet, but the bar was lively. We pulled up a couple of stools (thanks again to the gents who moved down one seat so we could be together) and looked over the offerings. Elaine immediately locked in on the Pilsner Urquell on draft; every since we visited Prague, she's always on the look-out for a nice, fresh pilsner. There were plenty of other interesting choices on tap: Chimay Cinq Cents, Grotten Brown, Spaten Octoberfest, Sierra Nevada Celebration, Kodiak Island Wing Nut, Magner's Irish Cider, Unibroue Ephemere Apple, Unibroue Chambly, Unibroue Noire, Kenai River Summer Ale, Paulner Octoberfest, Deschutes Dissident, Pike Brewing XXXXX Stout and Left Hand JuJu Ginger. At least those are the ones I remember; I guess I'll have to start carrying a notepad...

While all of the above are cool and interesting, the beer the caught my eye was Midnight Sun's Viking, which was being served by the glass (along with that brewery's Pluto and Hans Drinker's Triple). The Viking is a special beer, brewed in memory of Dave Yanoshek, a long-time member of the Great Norther Brewers Homebrew Club. I'd figured that I wouldn't get a chance to try it before it was all gone, so I jumped at the opportunity. It's a Belgian-style dark ale, strong (12% abv) with on 23 IBUs (using Simcoe & Amarillo hops) and spiced with star anise. Dark raisins were also added to the brew. How did it taste? Let's just say that when this masterpiece hit my palate, I seriously considered driving across town to the brewery to try to buy some. It's a truly wonderful beer and a fine tribute to a great fellow. God speed, Dave.

After finishing my glass of the Viking, I decided to give Deshutes The Dissident a try. It's an Oud Bruin, a Flanders-style sour brown ale, in the mold of Liefman's Goudenband. Brewed with cherries and with some of it aged for 18 months in used pinot and cabernet wine casks. The sour tang from the wild brett yeast gives the beer a nice balance and a wonderful tartness. It's 11% in alcohol, but still dangerously drinkable. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I started thinking about which beer to have next, but my lovely wife Elaine reminded me that we had decided to eat rather than drink our dinner, so we needed to get going. So I had to call it at just those two. Perhaps it's good thing that Cafe Amsterdam is 150 miles and three hours drive away. If it wasn't, I'm afraid I'd be in there every night, and neither my wallet nor my waistline can afford that!

So until next time, cheers!

Monday, September 15, 2008

"So what would you like me to bring you back?"

It's a question that's typically asked whenever an Alaskan travels to the Lower 48 (or "Outside" as we Alaskans call it). We live a good life up here on The Last Frontier, but some things just cannot be had, not for love nor money. Before the coming of On-line shopping, the only way to get certain things was to have some one buy them and then bring them back in their luggage or the trunk of their car. Even with the Internet, the shipping charges to get some things sent here are often prohibitive. I mean, who want to pay five bucks for a widget and twenty bucks shipping? Oh, and it's against state law to sell alcohol through the mail, so you can forget joining the Beer-of-the-Month Club...

Anyway, my lovely wife Elaine just made a two-week trip Outside, to visit her relations in Maine. Prior to her departure, she asked me the standard question and I gave her my standard answer: "Some good beer." After making a list of potential choices and answering a couple of questions on a call made from her cell while standing in a package store in Maine, I received my plunder when she returned last Friday.

I got to try some Shipyard Brewery Export Ale and some Kennebec Brewery India Pale Ale, but the pick of the litter was definitely the Allagash Brewery White. This award-winning beer is their interpretation of a classic Belgian Wit beer. At about 5% ABV, it's a very drinkable and refreshing brew, and one I would likely have never had a chance to try otherwise.

So when you or your loved ones travel -- whether from Alaska to the Outside or vice versa-- don't miss the opportunity to taste new and different beers. Experiencing a great brew for the first time is one of the finest pleasures in life.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Experimentation is Fun!

One of the coolest things about brewing your own beer is the freedom to experiment. Freed from the constraints of having to please anyone but yourself, freed from the tyranny of trying to make a buck selling the end product, the homebrewer can try out any weird, wonderful idea that strikes them. Some will be flops, of course, but every once in a while lightening strikes and you come up with a fantastic beer.

This same spirit of freedom and experimentation exists in many of the microbreweries around our country. (Not surprising, given that many of our microbrewers started out brewing at home...) While they may lack the total freedom enjoyed by homebrewers, many craft brewers can afford to take chances which would horrify a large or even a regional brewer. Case in point: Kenai River Brewing's Single Hop Series.

This micro has been brewing outstanding beers since 2006, but just brewing wonderful beers wasn't enough for these guys. Doug, the brewer at KRB, conceived an interesting experiment: how could you come to grips with the exact impact using one variety of hops has on a beer versus using another strain? Doug decided that he would brew a series of IPAs, each exactly identical in ingredients and brewing procedure except for the variety of hops used. In the course of 2007, Doug brewed 6 batches using Amarillo, Summit, Simco, Columbus, Centennial, & Cascade hops in succession, followed by a batch using all six varieties together. As each brew went on tap during the course of the year, KRB saved a keg. Finally, in February of this year, the brewery held a tasting with all seven brews on tap at once. Personally, I found it incredibly instructive to be able to taste identical beers side by side, knowing that any difference between them was solely from a different choice in the variety of hops used. I think it's made me a better brewer and a more enlightened beer drinker. And shouldn't that be something we all strive for?

So to Doug and the rest of the team at Kenai River Brewing, I say: Well done and keep it up! So far this year we've had Single-Hop IPAs using Phoenix and Ahtanum hops, with more coming down the pike.

Man's eternal search for {beer} knowledge continues...

P.S. On 1 October, Doug will be putting his Winter Warlock on tap. This is an English-style Strong Ale that has been aging at the brewery since it was brewed last fall. I was lucky enough to get to taste it last March. Given how absolutely superb it was then, I shudder to think how good it must be now. I for one will be heading to KRB on 1 October, growler in hand. I'd suggest you do the same, as this brew is bound to go fast.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Death to the Shaker Pint!

Everywhere you go, you find them. They seem to multiply like wire coat hangers in your closet. Walk into almost any bar or pub serving craft beer and odds are that the beer you order will be served to you in one of them. They are the ubiquitous glasses known in the trade as "shaker pints".

They are also an abomination.

You're thinking "That's pretty strong language, Bill. Aren't you you perhaps getting a bit carried away?" No, not in the slightest. Allow me to explain.

Point One: These glasses were never intended for serving. They are called shaker pints because they were originally designed to use as half of the shaker in which a cocktail is prepared. When James Bond has his vodka martini "shaken, not stirred", it is poured from a shaker pint glass into the actual serving glass before being placed in front of him. Also, because these glasses were never intended for serving, most of them are not even true pints! If you want to have some fun at a bar you don't mind being chucked out of, take a graduated glass measuring cup in with you. When you're served your "pint", pour what you've received into it. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that the maximum amount of beer you'll have is 14 oz or 87.5% of an American pint or a mere 70% of the 20 oz. imperial pint enjoyed by our Brit cousins.

Point Two: These glasses are so common, most bars use them for everything from fountain sodas to mixed drinks. This makes it nigh impossible for them to actually be clean enough to properly serve craft beers. Using a glass that is not "beer clean" means that the drinker will not be able to actually experience the beer as the brewer intended. Rather, they will also get to taste the residue left by whatever was in it previously and/or the traces of the detergent used to wash it. Getting glasses beer clean is a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that having a big stack of glasses behind the bar and using them for anything that's ordered is not the way to go about it.

Point Three (the most damning of all): Even if you have an oversize shaker that actually holds what you've paid for and you've somehow managed to get one that's beer clean, this style of glass does absolutely nothing for the beer being served in it! The beer's head dissipates too quickly in a pint glass, due to a combination of its shape and wide mouth. The shape doesn't capture the aroma of the beer, but rather helps it dissipate. To quote Brooklyn Brewery VP and brew master Garrett Oliver: "I think a shaker pint is probably about the worst glass out there. It's pretty much a jam jar."

So now that we know why shaker pints are an abomination against good beer, why do so many (read: almost all) bars and pubs use them? Money, of course. Shaker pints are cheap, sturdy, and easily stackable (allowing for better storage behind the bar). Many bars receive them free, as promotional items. If you've ever had your local microbrewed IPA slapped down in front of you in a Bud Light pint glass, you're probably drinking out of such a freebie. And finally, if the bar is underserving by 12.5% (thanks to using under-sized shakers) the beer saved and sold later goes straight to their bottom line. So you can see why so many bar owner out there just love those old shaker pints...

So now you know the truth about shaker pints. Go forth and spread the word! Compliment those bar owners who are wise enough to serve their craft beers in something else. And ask those who aren't about what they're doing with those other 2 oz. of beer you've paid for...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Coming of the Anniversary Beer

Anniversaries are usually a source of fear for mankind. That is because forgetting said anniversaries typically gets mankind into very hot water with womankind. So it comes as no surprise that the word "Anniversary" should evoke a visceral stab of dread deep in the bowels of your average beer drinking male. Until recently, that is.

Now, it's possible for that self-same word to evoke feelings of joyous anticipation, IF it is applied to a beer. For a long time, craft brewers celebrated the anniversary of their founding by giving themselves a quick pat on the back and then getting right back to their desperate struggle to survive. But these days, with the growth and health of the craft brewing movement, such occasions can be celebrated more extravagantly, with the release of an anniversary beer. For me, the proliferation of such beers is another sign that craft brewing has come of age and I welcome them as such. Not to mention that some (though not all) are truly kick-ass beers...

Case in point, Stone Brewing's 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout. Stone burst on to the seen a dozen years ago with its iconic Arrogant Bastard and has been a consistent producer of cutting edge beers ever since. I have to admit that I think in recent years they've been rushing their Arrogant Bastard out the door a little too soon, but that's my personal opinion. I still love their IPA, their Ruination Ale, their Double Bastard, their Imperial Russian Stout, their Old Guardian Barleywine, and so on, and so on. The bottom line is that Stone's got plenty to celebrate, so let's talk about the beer.

I tasted the brew in a 21 oz. goblet poured from a 22 oz. bomber purchased in Anchorage, though I've also seen it in the local Safeway, which indicates its got a pretty wide distribution. Weighing in at a hefty 9.2% ABV, it's definitely a sipping beer. It pours a deep black color with a dense tan head. The roasted notes dominate the aroma, but the cocoa flavor comes through strongly on the palate, with a long, lingering finish. The oatmeal gives it a silky mouthfeel that compliments the thickness of the beer very well. All-in-all, a wonderful celebration of Stone Brewing's 12th birthday.

So keep your eyes out for these anniversary beers. Not every one of them is a home run, but every one is usually an example of a craft brewer swinging for the fences...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Support Your Local Brewpub!

We all know that the heightened anticipation that comes from waiting for a long-expected event can add greatly to the pleasure when that event finally occurs. Just observe a child waiting impatiently for Christmas.

For the good people living in and around Soldotna, Christmas finally came in May of this year, with the opening of our very own brewpub, St. Elias Brewing Company. Its owner-operator-brewer, Zach Henry, and his family had been building their beautiful building for a couple of years. It was a long time a-coming, but anyone who has had the pleasure of eating and/or drinking there knows it was well worth the wait. It's a lovely building, decorated in an eclectic style, with a bar, tables and booths.

On the brewing side of the house, Zach is running a nice 7 bbl system and typically has five or six of his brews on tap. During my most recent visit, these included a dry stout, a pale ale, a kolsch, a hefeweizen, a rye beer, and a vanilla porter. You can drink them there or load up a growler to take home, though on occasion Zach has been so overwhelmed by demand that he's had to stop selling growlers of certain brews, just to keep enough on hand for the patrons dining at the brewpub. They also do a sampler, so you can try each of the brews to choose your favorite.

For food, the focus is on rustic pizzas with gourmet toppings, sandwiches, soups, and salads, all uniformly excellent. I'm particularly partial to the Brewhouse, which is topped with Italian sausage, bacon, pepperoni, caramelized onions, and marinated mushrooms. They'll make them to order and you can get them to go as well.

Places like St Elias are true bright spots in the craft beer movement. Craft beers, made fresh and locally, served alongside outstanding food in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Anyone who likes beer and uniquely local places to drink it should support their local brewpubs.

Until next time, cheers!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Beer List

We've all got our pet peeves; the little things that really drive us up the wall. One of mine is sitting down in a nice restaurant and asking to see their beer list, only to be told "Oh, we have everything!"

"Really? There are over 1400 breweries in the US alone, so a conservative estimate would be there are at least 7000+ beers brewed in the US! Not to mention all the cool imports out there. And you've got everything. That's impressive. OK, I'll have a 1988 Thomas Hardy Ale."

At this point the poor server usually realizes they are dealing with a beer geek and my wife sighs as she is again reminded that she was foolish enough to marry a smart-alec beer snob. The server then admits that by "everything" he or she really means "Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Light, Coors, Coors Light, etc.", i.e. the same run-of-the-mill macro-brews that everyone else has. If I'm really lucky, they might have one local brew of some sort on tap or in a bottle. It will probably be served way too cold and may be so old that it does not taste anything like it should, but that's the way it goes, right? Can't expect to get what you're paying good money for, i.e. a quality craft beer.

What bothers me is that no self-respecting restaurant would ever respond to a request for its wine list by saying "we have everything". Nor would they think serving just a run-of-the-mill house white sufficient to satisfy the tastes of all their customers and pair with all their dishes. But they think nothing of treating beer in such a cavalier fashion.

So what's a beer lover to do?

I think the only thing which will cause this situation to change is feedback from customers. If you love beer and don't wish to see it mistreated, speak up! Let the server and/or the manager know if you're not happy with the beer choice or service. If your complaints are ignored, go spend your money someplace else. Conversely, if you find good beer properly served, let the folks doing it know how much you appreciate it. Positive feedback is just as important as negative feedback.

Let's put our money where our mouths are and teach people to Respect Beer!

Friday, August 8, 2008

This Weekend's To-Do List

It's been a bit of a busy week here on The Last Frontier, as you might have surmised from the lack of blog activity. A conference in Anchorage on Monday and Tuesday was followed by the inevitable mad-house Wednesday trying to catch-up after being out of the office. Thursday was spent climbing up and down ladders doing home repair chores. So now it's Friday and I need to get on my horse and blog!

However, sometimes procrastination works to our advantage. Today is 8 August, the day Frank & Debara at Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop release their next batch of Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch Ale. This beer is in the style know as "Scotch" or "Strong Scotch", and should not not be confused with "Scottish" style ales, which are similar but not nearly so strong. Caribou Kilt weighs in at a hefty 8.5% ABV and is an outstanding example of the style, as evidenced by its winning a Bronze Medal at the 2008 World Beer Cup in San Diego. Personally, Strong Scotch is one of my absolute favorite beer styles, and has been for twenty years. {Edited to remove a joke which I'm told some local residents found offensive. If you were one of them, my apologies.}

On a more serious note, the fact that the Kenai Peninsula can boast an award-winning brewery illustrates one of the great things about craft beer. It's totally possible for a small operation to brew beer that not only as good as, but even much better than the best that the biggest brewers out there can produce. And remember, the best beer is typically the freshest beer. So get out there and try your local brews.

Next time maybe we'll talk about some of the brews I brought home from Anchorage. Until then, Cheers!

Friday, August 1, 2008

When in Doubt...

So let's continue the discussion from my last post on the subject of picking a beer to drink. Personally, I think every serious beer drinker needs to have a "go-to" beer. What's a "go-to" beer? It's a little like the go-to guy at work. You know, the one who can be counted on to get the job done, even when you're not quite sure what the job is. It's a steady, reliable choice, one you can depend on, day in and day out.

It's not to be confused with your "favorite" beer. I think it was Miyamoto Mushashi, the greatest of all the Samurai, who said: "A true master has no favorite weapon." Or to put it another way, when I'm asked what my favorite beer is, I usually say: "The one I'm drinking right now." Beer is too broad a subject, too massive an undertaking, to be constrained within the bounds of a single "favorite". I'll leave that to the congenital Bud drinkers out there.

Still, it's good have a "go-to" beer. It lets your non-beer drinking wife know what to pick up for you at the store, in the absence of more specific guidance. It lets your friends know what beer they can stock for a party which won't result in you giving them a lecture on the evils of macro-brewed swill. Such a beer should be widely available in your area, reasonably priced, locally produced, and come in bottles. (Stuff from your local micro or brewpub is great, but unless it's located right next door, bottled beer is damned convenient as compared to going out for a growler refill. Especially during an Alaskan winter...)

So what's my "go-to" beer? Midnight Sun's Sockeye Red IPA. Brewed not too far away, I can almost always count of finding nice, fresh draft kegs or bottles of it here in my little corner of The Last Frontier. With an ABV of 5.7%, it's not too strong to enjoy a couple of with dinner. It's got the big, hoppy bite you'd expect from a West Coast India Pale Ale, which can be too rough for some folks, who may be used to the more refined British or East Coast-style IPAs. You know who you are...

So now that you know what my "go-to" beer is, I should never have to suffer through a bottle of MGD when I come over to your house, right? Remember, friends don't let friends drink crappy beer!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Decisions, Decisions...

Sometimes we suffer from an over-abundance of choice. As much as I hate that stupid A-B commercial --You know, the one where the loser stands in front of a huge cooler of beers, unable to decide which one to pick, until the helpful A-B shill convinces him to make a daring choice and pick the same insipid beer as the half the beer drinkers in America. Yeah, that one. -- I do occasionally have to pause for a moment when I'm trying to decide which beer to pluck from my cooler to accompany a relaxing evening spent with my lovely wife Elaine.

Often, it's a no-brainer. I'm in the mood for a nice, hoppy IPA or I've got a new beer that I'm eager to try. But on other nights, there's nothing "new" in the beer fridge and I'm in an ambivalent mood. That was the way I felt last night. And when you're not in the mood for a particular beer style, you can do a lot worse than opting for a good, robust porter. So I popped open a Flying Dog Brewery Gonzo Imperial Porter and poured it out into a 22 oz. goblet glass.

It's not a beer for the faint of heart. With 7.8% ABV, 22 degrees Plato, the impressive 85 IBUs from tons of Warrior, Northern Brewer, & Cascade hops just manages to balance the huge maltiness of it. This beer takes mouthfeel to a whole new level, while still maintaining an excellent balance. It has the kind of heartiness we're looking for up here on The Last Frontier.

My only complaint about Gonzo Imperial Porter is that I can only get it in "the Big City", AKA Anchorage, three hours away by road from Homeport (my place). That means careful rationing between trips, to make sure I don't run out.

Still, perhaps it's just as well. If I could buy it locally, I'd drink that much more of it. And who knows what sort of trouble that might lead to...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Meet the New Panty Peeler

So if you're a fan of Midnight Sun brews (and what craft beer drinker on The Last Frontier isn't?), you might have noticed a change in the label of their excellent Belgian-style Tripel. Formerly known as Epluche-culotte (French for Panty Peeler), Midnight Sun has decided that an English name would be more appropriate. Easier for the tourists to pronounce, anyway.

Of more interest than the name change, the brewery has also tweaked the recipe slightly, returning (I'm told) to an older version. Given that I loved Epluche-culotte, I was more than a little concerned about the change. However, now that I've had a chance to taste the latest version, my worries have been assuaged. The differences are there, but they are subtle. I'd say a slightly greater emphasis on the spicy notes (from the increased orange peel & coriander) and a slight reduction in hop bitterness. Nothing that would make me stop drinking one of my favorite beers. As for which is better, I haven't decided. I need to have a couple of friends over and go through a couple of 22 0z bombers side by side. Perhaps this weekend...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And So It Begins...

Well, hello there, whoever you are. I'm going to give this blogging thing a try. And if I'm going to be doing a lot of writing, I'm going to write about something I like: BEER!

And not just any beer, but good craft beer. Craft beer that's available to me, living on The Last Frontier, here in Alaska. It's actually amazing how much great beer is available here in Alaska. For example, I live on the Kenai Peninsula, which is the size of New Jersey, but only has 50,000 folks living on it. But these folks have 3 microbreweries and a brewpub to enjoy. That's a craft brewery for every 12, 500 people. Do the math on your state or city and I'll guarantee we've got you beat! If the rest of the USA had the same ratio, there would be about 28,000 micros and brewpubs in the US. (The actual number is about 1500).

So proportionately we're in great shape, but that's not all. We've also got lots of award-winning breweries up here. Alaskan Brewing Company, Midnight Sun Brewing Company, Moose's Tooth Brewpub, Kassik's Kenai Brewstop, and more. In my next post, I'm going to talk about some of the brews that I'm drinking up here.

Until then, cheers!