Thursday, July 9, 2009

Brew News From Up North (And An Anniversary)

My lovely wife Elaine and I are back from our Fourth of July trip to points north of Anchorage and I have much beer news to report.

Our first stop was in Talkeetna, where I was looking forward to tasting some of the brews from the brand-new Denali Brewing Company. Unfortunately, with my usual luck, we arrived there on July 2, which was a day or two too soon. I was told that the brewery had had some production problems and that their first batch would not be released until the weekend. So I was reduced to peeking in the window of the brewhouse, which is not particularly conducive to satisfying your thirst, let me tell you!

As a consolation, I decided to stop in at the West Rib Cafe & Pub to try their Ice Axe Ale, brewed exclusively for them by Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage. Having tried plenty of their other brews and been very impressed by them, I was looking forward to giving this one a go. However, my first indication of trouble was the menu, which bragged about how strong (9.2% ABV) the beer was, stating that patrons were limited to a max of two pints and that Ice Axe Ale was the "Colt .45 Malt Liquor" of Alaskan beers. I don't know about you, but cheap, strong malt liquor is not what comes to my mind when I think of quality craft beers!

When my pint arrived and I tasted it, it made me wince. The flavor was indeed reminiscent of a cheap malt liquor, though in this case the alcohol level was jacked up with honey rather than some cheaper sugar. The beer was very light on the palate, which meant it lacked the backbone needed to support the level of alcohol present, giving it a hot, solvent-like flavor. Centennial hops rounded out the package, but even they were over-powered by the alcohol. I managed to choke down a couple more sips, then paid my bill and left 3/4 of the glass on the table.

I found this beer to be objectionable on two different levels. First, as a beer drinker, I thought the beer itself was deeply flawed, being a perfect example of what happens when you let one element (in this case alcohol) become overly dominate in the flavor profile. I know the brewers at Glacier Brewhouse know how to make better beer than this, so I can only assume that this is a case of the customer (West Rib) demanding a specific product. However, what I found even more objectionable than the quality of the beer was the way it was being marketed. All the emphasis is on how strong the beer was, which to me just encourages all the worst stereotypes of alcohol drinkers in general and beer drinkers in particular. I've railed in this blog in the past about "sin taxes" and the targeting of drinkers by government; Ice Axe Ale and the way it's being sold just plays into the hands of the neo-prohibitionists out there.

And besides, it tastes like crap...

So, after the vast beer disappointment that was Talkeetna, my wife and I headed north the next day. We had a nice drive and some lovely views of Mt. McKinley, but the first beer stop of note was the Overlook Bar & Grill, just north of the entrance to Denali National Park. I had heard good things about this place and it did not disappoint. They have a very extensive tap line and a large bottled beer selection (in the neighborhood of 75-100 beers), including beers from Alaskan's Rough Draft series. Elaine had a nice, fresh Stella Artois (served in a beautiful 0.5L glass) and I had a Sockeye Red IPA from Midnight Sun, which was also excellent. Add in an excellent burger and fries and the Overlook had me feeling much better about venturing north of Anchorage.

After lunch, we continued to roll north towards Fairbanks. At Mile 352, we pulled into Gold Hill Liquors. I had heard very good things about this place from the redoubtable Dr. Fermento, and it lived up to his reports. Amazingly for a store in such an isolated locale, they had a fantastic selection of beers (and meads). Even more amazing, they had things that had sold out in Anchorage last year, like Full Sail's Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Porter and Midnight Sun's The Viking. It was like opening a beer time capsule! My much-abused beer credit card took another severe hit and I walked out with a box full of treasures.

Just before you come to Gold Hill heading north on the Parks Highway, you pass the turnoff to Esther. This former gold rush boom town is now half tourist trap, half funky artists colony. The tourist trap half is closed for renovations this year, so we dropped in to the Golden Eagle Saloon, which is anything but. Definitely a down-scale locals joint, it nevertheless boasted an excellent beer selection. On tap they were offering Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Galcier Brewhouse IPA, Midnight Sun Oosik Amber Ale, Deshutes Black Butte Porter, Spaten Pils, and a mystery beer (for $2 a glass). In a can or bottle, among others were Left Hand Milk Stout, Oskar Blues Old Chub & Dale's Pale Ale, 21st Amendment Brew Free or Die IPA, Deschutes Buzzsaw Brown, and even Lindemans Framboise Lambic. I had a couple of the GB IPAs, while Elaine had a glass of the Pils; both were in excellent shape. During the time we were standing at the bar, we saw several of the dozen or so locals present ordering various beers different, including the lambic. It never fails to amaze me that you can actually find spontaneously-fermented Belgian lambics in the Alaskan bush; what a wonderful world we live in...

Anyway, I'd give the Golden Eagle Saloon two thumbs up: one for a fine selection of well-kept beers and another for a very friendly and interesting bunch of folks who hang out there. They'd probably scare the tourists, but they made us fellow Alaskans feel right at home.

Heading north to Fairbanks and then beyond, about 8 miles up the Steese Highway, you come to Fox, Alaska, home to Silver Gulch Brewing Company, the northernmost brewery in Alaska, which also means in the United States. Besides my desire to check out the brewery, I was dropping off my entries for the E.T. Barnette Homebrew Competition (fingers crossed!).

As you can see from the photo above, the brewery's exterior runs to rustic industrial. However, inside is a lovely bar & restaurant (besides the retail store and brewery). Behind the bar are four magnificent glass-fronted refrigerators, proudly displaying their massive (120+) collection of bottled beers for sale. As soon as I saw these coolers, I wanted one. In fact, I wanted all four. I tried to convince my wife that we could rip out the stove and kitchen cabinets to install coolers like them, but she wasn't having any of it. Oh well...

On tap were eleven of the brewery's own brews. In the course of two visits, I tried six of them:

Epicenter Ale is an unfiltered ESB, well-hopped with Willamettes, weighing in at 8.3% ABV, rich & malty with a nice floral nose.

Old Gerk IPA is a bit of a hybrid between American and English style IPAs. Its malt bill is that of a traditional English IPA but the hops are the classic Cascade hops from the Pacific Northwest. It comes in at 6.6% ABV.


Pick Axe Porter is also hopped with Cascades. At 4.5% ABV, it's very drinkable, with a deep brown-red color and a rich, malty flavor. An excellent session beer.

Definitely not a session beer at 14% ABV, Angry Monkey Barleywine has been aged on oak spirals and has great, smooth flavor and an interesting citrusy aroma. By-the-by, the rumor I heard was that it got that name because if you have too many you'll start hurling your feces at folks...

Coldfoot Pilsner is a classic Bohemian-style pilsner, clean and crisp with the noble hop character such a style demands. 5.2% ABV.

Fairbanks Lager is a Vienna-style lager. Munich malt gives it an amber color and a bit of malty sweetness, well-balanced with noble hops. 5.0% ABV.

Other beers on tap that I didn't get to try were Copper Creek Amber, Old 55 Pale Ale, Sourdough Stout, Hefeweizen, and a Spruce Tip Baltic Porter.

I thought all the beers were uniformly excellent. Service was great and the food menu looked very interesting, though we didn't actually have any. My only complaint against the establishment was the bar's lack of a foot rail. When you've spent as much time leaning against a bar as I have, you quickly come to realize how important a foot rail is for ergonomic comfort. But other than that minor quibble, I thought Silver Gulch was great.

Finally, as you might have noticed in the photo, Silver Gulch will be hosting the upcoming "Golden Days Beer Festival" on Saturday, 18 July in their outdoor Beer Garden. Over 100 beers to sample, live music, and Alaskan BBQ. It runs from 3-10 PM and cost $20, so if you'll be in Fairbanks that weekend, you should definitely stop by.

Other beer news: A few weeks ago, I posted about a proposal before the Senate Finance Committee to increase the excise tax on beer. At the same time I made that post, I sent emails to Alaska's senators, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, letting them know what I thought of it. I never heard back from Senator Begich (I can only assume that as a Democrat, he never met a tax he wasn't in favor of), but I received a phone call from one of Senator Murkowski's staffers, who asked me several questions about the subject. Not being on the Finance Committee, I guess the Senator was unaware of what had been proposed. I eventually got a second call from the staffer, who was happy to tell me that the proposal seemed to be dead (at least for now), which is good news for us all.

And last, but not least, this blog marks my one year anniversary of writing this blog. It's actually # 46, so somewhere along the way, y'all have gotten shorted a couple of ones. Sorry about that. I have had a great time and I hope you have all enjoyed it, too. I plan to keep writing it until I run out of things to say about beer, which doesn't look likely anytime soon.

So thanks for reading, and

Until Next Time, Cheers!

P.S. Just got back from having lunch at St. Elias. Zach Henry tells me that when his Marathon Mild is finished (likely in about 10 days, give or take), he'll be bringing back his most excellent Vanilla Porter. So mark your calendars...

1 comment:

coldnorthgamer said...

Congrats on first year of blogging. I'm glad to keep up on your activities up nort'.