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...