Monday, June 29, 2009

Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven

If you had to read John Milton's Paradise Lost in school (or like me you just watched a lot of Star Trek TOS), you're probably familiar with the quote which serves as the title to this entry. Satan would rather be #1 in Hell than be #2 in Heaven; now that's Pride, let me tell you!

On June 6, 2006 (6/6/6!), Midnight Sun first released Fallen Angel, their take on the classic Belgian Strong Golden Ale style, of which Moortgat's Duvel is the original (and still defining) example. The amazing popularity of Fallen Angel (and maybe a touch of pride?) led the folks at Midnight Sun to create their acclaimed 7 Deadly Sins series of beers in 2007, which was then followed by the Planets series last year, and now the current Crew Brews series.

All of which started with Fallen Angel.

The Midnight Sun folks always brew up their annual batch of Fallen Angel for a June release; this year, it was released last Friday, June 26th. Since I was in Anchorage over the weekend, I made it a point to stop by on Saturday to pick some up. This year, there's something new added as well: 1.5 L special commemorative bottles, corked and wired, for $33 each. That's not cheap, but you get what you pay for.

So what do you get? Fallen Angel has the lovely pale gold color and effervescent white head that you'd expect from a beer of this style. It's crisp and clean on the palate, with some light fruit notes that remind you that you're drinking an ale, rather than a lager. The 35 IBUs gives just the right amount of bitterness, while the 8% ABV hides deceptively amongst all the flavor. Wonderfully brisk and refreshing, it's a great accompaniment to a good meal, or as an after dinner drink.

Remember, in Heaven there is no beer. That's why we must drink it here!

In other beer news, the bad news is that St. Elias is officially out of their Jack and the Beanstalk Porter (a Baltic porter aged in a Jack Daniels whiskey cask with Tahitian vanilla beans). Zach Henry tells me that even at $19 a growler-fill, it was flying out the door. The good news is that he has lots of other interesting brews planned for barrel-aging. I got to taste some of his brand-new barleywine, on its way out of the fermenter and into a cask, and I think it's really going to be something special. He tells me he is also planning an imperial stout and possibly doing a blended old ale. Watch this space for future updates.

Finally, my wife and I are heading up to Fairbanks for the Fourth of July weekend. I plan on checking out the Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna and Silver Gulch Brewing Company in Fox outside of Fairbanks. So my next blog will likely be a little later next week, but I'll let you all know what I learn about the beer scene north of Anchorage.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You Never Know Who You're Going to Meet Along the Way...

Well, I'm back from the National Homebrewers Conference in California. After the better part of six days in Oakland, it was good to get home and give my liver a bit of a rest!

I won't go into a tremendous amount of detail, since this blog is supposed to be about drinking in Alaska, not California, but I will mention a few things.

I got to visit Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA. We get their beers here in Alaska, and I've found them to be uniformly excellent. They had a very impressive operation, especially their huge fermenters, which were located outside! I've never seen a craft brewery with its fermenters outside before. Of course, that wouldn't work too well here in Alaska...

Then we visited Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa. For me this was a real treat, since their brewmaster, Vinnie Cilurzo, has won numerous awards over the last few years AND we can't get any of his beers in Alaska. When I asked Vinnie when we could expect to start getting Russian River brews here on The Last Frontier, his answer boiled down to "Not in the foreseeable future." That's too bad, as the beers themselves were amazing. There's no point in my giving detailed reviews, since they're not available here (and it would just depress me!), but if your travels take you to the lower 48, my advice is to grab anything you can with Russian River on the label. I predict you will not be disappointed.

The other cool thing about my time at the Conference was that I bumped into some interesting folks along the way. Take the photo above. I sat next to this guy all day long on the tour bus that took us to these breweries. He said his name was Sam and that he was from back east somewhere. Delaware, I think. Nice fellow and seemed to know quite a bit about beer, though he had some trouble handling West Coast IPAs. Too strong for his refined eastern palate, I guess.

Looking ahead, a new beer venue is schedule to open in Anchorage this week. The Fire Tap Alehouse, located on O'Malley & Old Seward in South Anchorage, opens its doors at 4 PM on Thursday, the 25th. Word on the street is that there will be 36 tap-lines, 25 of which will be filled from local Alaskan breweries. Hopefully that number will grow in the future. Their target audience is locals, not the tourist crowd, so stop by and check them out.

Also coming up on Saturday, 27 June, Midnight Sun Brewing Company will be having their official grand opening of their new location. Yes, I know they've been there for several weeks, but this is the official opening. They're also releasing this year's batch of Fallen Angel, their outstanding Belgian Golden Strong Ale. I'll be in Anchorage on Friday & Saturday, an I plan to be there to grab some. Maybe I'll see you there!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

More Breaking Beer News

Just got an email from Zach Henry at St. Elias with news that I don't think can wait two weeks until my return from the National Homebrewers Conference. Here's the skinny:

He has just put a keg of Jack and the Beanstalk Porter on tap. This is a Baltic Porter, made with genuine Tahitian vanilla beans, that's been aged several months in a Jack Daniels bourbon cask.

Jack and the Beanstalk, get it?

I know I plan to, before heading south for a week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

This Time It's the Feds Trying to Screw Us...

Well, they're back at it again, friends. There's a proposal before the Senate Finance Committee, as part of health care reform (huh?) to triple the excise tax for 4.5% ABV beer and impose even higher excise tax rates on higher ABV beers.

Originally, the proposal was to tax soft drinks, since these supposedly contribute to poor public health. But then the politicos realized that lots of Americans drink soft drinks and might not like to pay extra for them, even if they are causing problems like diabetes, so they reverted to their old standby of trying to squeeze more money out of folks who drink alcohol. I guess cigarette tax increases have hit the point of diminishing returns...

If this proposal becomes reality, there is no question that many small brewery businesses will suffer, some will close and we as consumers will face higher prices and diminished choice in the marketplace. If you care about having good beers to enjoy and the continued success of America's craft breweries, I'd suggest you visit this special Support Your Local Brewery webpage: and let your Senators know what you think of their latest shenanigans.

On a more positive note, I've got a couple more tidbits of news to relate.

First, I got a chance to speak with Doug Houge of Kenai River Brewing and he confirmed that their Belgian Summer Experiment is indeed exactly the same recipe as their Resurrection Summer Ale, with just the addition of a Belgian yeast. He even started the fermentation with their house English Ale yeast; he simply added the second yeast after fermentation had been underway for a few days. He also told me that they plan to brew their Raspberry Razz again this summer (which made my wife very happy; she loves that stuff). The Summer Experiment is still only $5 a growler; get it while you can.

Second, on Saturday evening Elaine and I stopped by St. Elias for a nightcap. Chatting with Zach Henry over a glass of his Hefeweizen, he mentioned that he currently had several beers aging "in the wood". That's when I realized that the last couple of times I'd been into the brewhouse, I hadn't walked far enough back! Zach took me inside and back around to see his new "wall of wood": a dozen whiskey casks from Heaven Hill Distilleries in a large barrel rack. Add in the Jack Daniels cask he already had and you get 13 casks for aging beers. I'm looking forward eagerly to the first release of these barrel-aged brews.

Also this weekend, I had a bottle of the latest of Midnight Sun's Crew Brew series, their Fahrwasser Pilsner. Coming it at 5.2% ABV and 28 IBUs, it had a wonderful crisp, clean, and refreshing taste, just what you'd expect from a pilsner. It's light enough to make a great summer beer, perfect for drinking poolside, after mowing the lawn, or during a round of golf.

Finally, next week I'll be attending the National Homebrewers Conference in Oakland, so there won't be any blog for you to read. Normal blog activity will resume in two week, hopefully with photos and many interesting stories from my adventures in California.

Until Then, Cheers!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bonus Breaking News Blog!

Howdy, folks. Got some news that I thought I should pass along right away, rather than waiting for next week's regular blog.

I stopped by Kenai River Brewing Company last night to grab a liter of brew to have at dinner. In addition to their usual summer line-up, there was something unusual on offer: Summer Belgian Experiment. None of the brewers were there to get the real specifics, but based on what the ladies behind the counter and my own sense of taste told me, I think this is Kenai River's Resurrection Summer Ale but brewed with a Belgian yeast. The yeast's character was unmistakable, very earthy & peppery, so this beer is only for folks who like Belgian ales (as I do).

Here's the best part: the beer is for sale in 64 oz growlers only, but the cost is just $5 per growler! I didn't have a growler with me last night, but you can bet I loaded up my truck with them this morning and I'll be stopping on the way home to take advantage of this great deal.

Once again, this ale has a strong Belgian character, so if you're not into that, you probably won't like it, even at $5 a growler.

I also stopped by St. Elias Brewing Company for lunch yesterday. Alongside my steak & cheese sandwich, I had a pint of their brand-new Marathon Mild. As I've written before, this is one of my favorite styles of beer, which I have been politicking our local brewers to make, since I believe it would be a good alternative to the standard "summer ale" everyone seems to brew. Marathon Mild comes in at 3.9% ABV, so it definitely qualifies as a session beer, designed to be consumed in quantity (a drinking marathon?) without rapidly intoxicating the drinker. It was wonderfully dark, with plenty of malt flavor, just balanced with enough bittering hops. It was on a par with the milds I used to get in London, though not cask-conditioned, of course. I'm still working on Zach Henry to give that a try...

There was also a brand-new Hefeweizen on tap at St. Elias, which I didn't get to try, since I had to go back to work.

That's the quick and dirty for now. I'll have a the regular full blog next week.

Until Then, Cheers!

Monday, June 1, 2009

We Waited A Century and a Half for This???

I'm usually a pretty easy-going guy, but the one thing that always gets my knickers in a twist is when someone creates false expectations. When I pick something off a menu, be it a meal or a particular beer, only to have the server come back and tell me "Oh, we're out of that", it really irks me. Why? Because I've been anticipating having something (something I really want or I wouldn't have ordered it), only to have it snatched away. In short, a false expectation has been created.

I experienced this a few weeks ago at Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse up in Anchorage. My lovely wife Elaine and I walked in on a Monday evening to have dinner. The beer menu listed a cask-conditioned version of Deschutes' Mirror Pond Pale Ale. Having lived in London, I'm a sucker for any sort of cask-conditioned ale, so I ordered a pint, only to have the server come back to tell me that they were out. Disappointing, but then I know how rare cask-conditioned beers are, so I could accept that they had probably run out earlier that evening and moved on to something else.

As luck would have it, we happened to return to Humpy's for dinner again the very next night. There was a brand-new beer menu, with that day's date, which again listed the cask-conditioned Mirror Pond. "Great," I thought. "They must have put another cask of it on; after all, it's a new menu as of today." Au contraire; they were still out. Whoever produced their daily beer menu hadn't bothered to update anything except the date at the top. Which begs the question: why bother to have a daily beer menu at all, if you're not going to update it on a daily basis?

The bottom line is that Humpy's had created a false expectation, which is another way to say that they lied: they created the expectation that their daily beer menu would be updated on a daily basis, when actually they couldn't be bothered to do so.

Lest anyone think the title of this blog should be "Why I Hate Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse", let me quickly add that I actually love Humpy's. I just want to see them become even better. After all, loving someone or something doesn't mean being blind to their faults. Just ask any wife about her husband...

The danger of false expectations was hammered home to me again last week when I met up with my good buddy James "Dr. Fermento" Roberts at Cafe Amsterdam for a few beers Wednesday evening. In particular, we wanted to taste Guinness' 250th Anniversary Stout. Guinness is a global beer icon, with several different versions sold in different regions of the world, including big versions like the Caribbean's Foreign Extra Stout (coming in at 7.5% ABV, as compared to 4.2% of the Guinness Draught that most folks are familiar with in the US). In celebration of two and a half centuries of brewing, it's only natural to expect that such an ancient and accomplished brewery would produce something amazing in the way of an anniversary beer.

Natural, but totally wrong.

Tasting both the draft (regular carbonation, not nitro) and bottled versions, I was amazed at how "little" there was to them. To my taste, they had even less body than regular Guinness Draught. Not to mention they were totally lacking in the roasted notes usually associated with a Irish Dry Stout. Dr. Fermento postulated that the brewery might have been trying to harken back to its porter roots, from the days prior to that new-fangled thing called "Stout Porter" being dreamed up. That's a charitable explanation. Being less charitable and more cynical, I suspect this is just another step in "dumbing down" the flavor profile. Large brewing concerns seem to inevitably end up captured by their Marketing Departments, who prefer the blandest product that can be produced, so as not to put off any potential consumers. Then spend millions on ad campaigns to convince folks to buy it, regardless of what it tastes like and voila! You can be the next Miller Lite. That whirring sound you hear is Arthur Guinness spinning in his Dublin grave...

Desperate for a beer that tasted like it was made by a brewer instead of a committee, I ordered up a glass of Dupont's Moinette Brune. Produced by one of the last true farmhouse breweries in Belgium, this great beer is everything the proceeding was not. At 8.5% ABV, the strong dark ale is bursting with interesting flavors, with notes of dark fruit competing with the peppery notes from the yeast. A wonderful glass that restored my faith in the brewer's art.

For my final beer I decided to go for something closer to home, from Haines Brewing Company. Of course in Alaska, "close" is a relative term. Haines is over 900 road miles away from my home, so I don't often get a chance to sample anything from that brewery. I had a glass of their Spruce Tip Brown, in spite of the fact that I'm not usually a fan of beers made with spruce tips. Such beers tend to be a little too "piney" for my tastes, but this one turned out to be an exception. Possibly because the spruce tips used were frozen and aged for a year, the resulting beer seemed to have good balance, without the pine/resin face-slap. The malt and hop flavors were all present, with an emphasis on the malty sweetness. I suspect this one might get a bit cloying if you set out drink more than one, but I think it's probably the best representative of this particular style that I've ever had. Hopefully my travels will bring me to Haines some day, so I can check out the source.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

P.S. Zach Henry tells me that his new Marathon Mild Ale is on tap. So stop by St. Elias and have one. Or maybe two or three...