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!