Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Business of Beer

It's tough times for a lot of folks; the economy has been sputtering for quite some time now. The President is scheduled to come on the tube this Wednesday and present his latest plan to lead us all out of our current Valley of Despair into the bright sunshine of the Promised Land. He will assure us that he knows not only what really went wrong, but also what should be done next.

I haven't heard the speech yet, but I suspect I will remain unconvinced...

So, given the rough last couple of years and the uncertain future before us, how is the beer industry fairing? Well, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article on that very subject last Thursday, 1/21/2010. It discussed in sobering (ha, ha!) terms how the U.S. beer sales volume dropped by 2.2%, the highest rate of decline since the 1950's. The article focused on how the big brewers will need to cut costs and lower prices so they can increase the volume of their sales and make their recent expensive mergers pay off.

However, buried at the very end of the article was this sentence : "The small-batch "craft" beer industry continued to represent an industry bright spot, with the biggest among the craft brewers, Boston Beer Co., showing a 1.7% increase."

Check out the graphic above from that article and you'll see that the only two entities listed who increased their sales volumes were Boston Beer Company (brewers of the Sam Adams line of brews) and Yeungling, America's oldest brewery and one of the few survivors of the regional breweries that dotted America pre-Prohibition. In other words, the only two craft breweries big enough to make the list. Overall, craft breweries' sales are up 8.8%, in a down economy.

All this illustrates a trends which has been going on for several years. A growing number of Americans are no longer satisfied with drinking weak, pale, insipid lagers, served ice cold and promoted with slick ad campaigns that emphasize just about everything except what the beer tastes like. I'm not saying that Anheuser or MillerCoors are about to disappear anytime soon; let's face it, either one of them probably spill more beer in a year than the entire output of every craft brewery in the US combined. What I am saying is that the tastes of a significant portion of the American public are changing, and changing for the better.

Shifting the focus from the national to the local, whenever I chat with any of our local brewers, everyone seems to agree that their business is booming. People will pay a little extra for quality and freshness, things our local breweries, both here on the Peninsula and in various other location across Alaska, offer in spades.

Odds are, if you're reading this blog, you already know what I'm talking about. We may be drinking less, but by God we're drinking better. So give yourself a pat on the back and pour yourself a nice, locally produced craft beer to enjoy while you listen to the State of the Union speech tomorrow night.

Who can say who's helping America more: you buying a good, local craft beer or the guy on TV with his taxes, plans and policies.

My money's on you.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Alaska Beer Week: A Survivor's Tale

Well, I made it. Another Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival is in the record books, along with the very first semi-official Alaska Beer Week. Taken all together, it was one heckuva work-out for my liver, but I think this time around that old saying really was true: "A good time was had by all".

My personal program started on Thursday, with a drive up to Anchorage. This was the earliest I could get off from my day job. Unfortunately, this meant I had to miss some great events, like the 6x6 Dinner at Midnight Sun, Humpy's Belgian Beer Dinner, Kassik's Tasting at the Embassy Suites, etc, etc. Believe me, I heard from my Anchorage beer buddies about just how much great beer and food I missed out on! Next year, I take leave sooner...

I did make it up to Los Anchorage in time for Specialty Import's 3rd Annual Beer Trade Show at the Captain Cook Hotel. It was a great opportunity to meet and converse with lots of the retailers and serving staff from Anchorage and even the Peninsula. Kenai River Brewing Company was there, exposing the Anchorage folks to the wonders of Peninsula brewed beers. Personally, I concentrated my tasting on beers I'd never had the chance to taste before. I had several from the De Proef Brewery, located in Lochristi, Belgium. It's an unusual brewery, in that it's actually a commercial offshoot of one of the university schools of brewing in Ghent. The word proef can mean 'taste' or 'trial' in Dutch and this brewery, in effect, brews taste trials for its customers. So as you'd expect, it has some quite unique and interesting brews to offer.

I sampled their Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale, their Lozen Boer Abt Ale, and their Saison Imperiale. I didn't get around to trying their La Grande Blanche, their Witte Noire, and their Zoetzuur Flemish Ale. I didn't have a chance to take the sort of notes I do in a formal tasting, but I can say that I enjoyed all three, especially the Wild Ale. I'm not sure when or if we'll see any of these brews down here on the Peninsula, but if you see any, I'd recommend giving them a try.

Later that evening, I headed over to the Snow Goose for the Great Northern Brewers' January meeting. As usual, the meeting was a lot of fun, despite our being bumped down into the basement and starting an hour late. The local homebrew community in Anchorage forms a big part of the hard core of craft beer fans there and it was great to see so many commercial brewers and their representatives recognize this by attending our meeting. There were brewers there from Full Sail, Lazy Boy, and Ninkasi, just to name a few Outside ones. Jason and Todd Alstrom, the brains behind Beer Advocate (website & magazine) and guests of honor at the Beer & Barley Wine Festival, were there as well and answered numerous questions from the audience.

After a good night's sleep and taking care of some business Friday morning, it was off to the Beer Geek Meet & Greet at the Spenard Roadhouse from 2-4 PM. This turned out to be a great chance to chat informally with several of the the brewers, while sampling some great beers from Alaska. Many thanks to Darcy Kniefel and the rest of the Roadhouse folks for being such great hosts.

I was particularly impressed with Silver Gulch's Osculum Infame, which they are calling a 'Belgian Golden Winter Warmer'. The name is Latin for 'Kiss of Shame' and refers to a witch's supposed ritual greeting to the Devil. For a detailed dissertation on the name's more scatological aspects, I suggest you have a drink with Levi, the new head brewer at Silver Gulch.

The beer itself was excellent, very crisp with interesting notes both from local spruce tips and 30 IBUs worth of noble Saaz hops. The grain bill included both wheat and rye, along with enough barley to bring it in at 10.5% ABV, though you would not guess the brew was that potent when you taste it. A super beer to warm body and soul on those cold winter days in Fairbanks. Just don't drink too much, or you'll be doing the walk of shame...

Friday evening, after the Festival closed down, I had a few drinks with a couple hundred of my closest friends, including some quality time with the Alstrom Brothers (see the photo above). All I can say is that they are two great guys who have done amazing things in support of good beer. Keep up the great work guys, and come back to Alaska soon!

During this shindig I drank some of Alaskan Brewing's Rauchbier, one of their Rough Draft series of experimental brews. I'd tasted and reviewed an earlier version of this, back on 9/21/2009, but it seemed to me that this time around the smokiness had been toned down slightly. Memory is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to beer, but that was my impression, anyway. Being someone who loves smokiness, whether in beer, Scotch Whiskey, or food, I was pretty happy with the first version, but this one is darn tasty, too. I said it before, so I'll say it again: this Rauchbier is ready for widespread release!

Saturday was the main event: the Connoisseurs Session at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival, from 2-5 PM. I met up with my buddy Curt at Humpy's to preload the old stomach with plenty of solid food (and a little beer, of course), then we headed over to the Egan to stand in line, waiting to get in. I'm told all three sessions of the fest sold out, with tickets being scalped on Craig's List for up to $120 a piece.

Once we'd made it inside, we made a beeline for the end of the hall where the Alaskan brewers were located and spent most of the next three hours right there. Strangely enough, it's often easier for me to acquire beers from the lower 48 or even other countries than it is to find some from breweries right here in Alaska. So I decided to focus most of my tasting energy on them. Working through Haines Brewing Company, Kodiak Island Brewing Company, Skagway Brewing Company, Denali Brewing Company, not to mention the special just-released-for-the-festival brews from other Alaskan brewers, pretty much took care of the entire three hour session.

Once again, note taking was sporadic at best, but here are some highlights that I remember:
  • Midnight Sun's Arctic Devil Barley Wine 2008 taking 2nd place in the barley wine competition. This brings its total awards to 16, helping it retain the title of "Alaska's most awarded Barley Wine".
  • Sipping an glass of Kenai River's excellent Wee Heavy while the Pipe and Drum Band marched in. Scotch Ale & bagpipes; it doesn't get any better than that...
  • Hearing that Jim "Dr. Fermento" Roberts had been elected the President of the Brewers Guild of Alaska. I know he'll do great things for craft beer in Alaska.
  • Having an all-around great time
That about wrapped up my Alaska Beer Week; all that was left was the 150 mile drive home through pretty heavy snow Saturday night. It was relatively uneventful; my lovely wife Elaine and I only had to stop to help one stranded motorist.

In wrap-up, I want to say that I think this was easily the best Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival so far, and the beer events preceding it were wonderful, and I think next year there will be even more and they will likely be even better. Mark your calendars now: on January 10-16, 2011, the place to be is Alaska Beer Week in Anchorage, Alaska.

Looking ahead to upcoming events:
  • Live music from 7-9 PM every Thursday at St. Elias Brewing Company. This week it's the band 150 Grit. Zach Henry also trotted out a couple of interesting brews at the Festival; I'll be reviewing them soon.
  • February 10th, at Embassy Suites on Benson in Anchorage, Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop will be having another tasting from 5-8 PM, which will include their brand new Maple Porter, as well as their award-winning Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch.
  • Monday, January 25th, Firetap Alehouse in Anchorage will be hosting a beer dinner, featuring Midnight Sun beers
  • Speaking of Midnight Sun, the kitchen at their Loft Bar is now open, and the menu is posted on their website. I can't wait to try a couple of their sandwiches; they sound fantastic!
  • KUDO 1080 in Anchorage will be starting a new weekly radio program about beer, "Beer 101", featuring the justly famous Dr. Fermento, every Thursday, from 2 to 3 PM. Look for it online at http://www.kudo1080.com. I plan to call in and annoy the good doctor with questions every chance I get...
  • Last, but not least, my beer appreciation class, CED A157 The Art & History of Brewing, starts Tuesday, 1/26/2010. If you live in the central Peninsula and are interesting in learning more about beer, here's your chance. Class meets every Tuesday night from 5:30 to 6:45, and there are still a few seats left. Call 262-0300 fro more information.
Well, that's about it for now. A rather long blog, but then it was a very busy week. Hope you all are reading this with a good brew in your hand.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Good Beers at Good Prices.

Well, if you didn't make it to the Beer Tasting Event last Friday, you missed a great time. The event sold out, with about 175 folks attending. Many great beers were poured, from Midnight Sun, Moose's Tooth, Kassik's, Kenai River, St. Elias, plus a bunch of great bottled beers donated by Specialty Imports. Charlotte's provided the food and it was exceptional. I received plenty of very nice compliments on my homebrew. I'm not sure how many thousands of dollars were raised for the playground, but I know it was a lot. All-in-all, it was a great evening.

We've got another great event coming up this weekend in Anchorage, and my lovely wife Elaine will be heading up to the big town on Thursday to take part in the festivities. I've seen a draft of the program for the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival, so you can believe me when I tell you that they will be pouring some absolutely fabulous beers. If you can possible make it to one of the sessions, you really need to.

As I was pouring my beers Friday night, I was able to snag a couple of samples from the booth next to mine, where they were pouring some bottled beers from Unibroue Brewery in Quebec. If you've spent any time in a big beer store, you've probably seen their beers, usually bottled in 750ml corked bottles, with lovely labels that typically depict scenes and events from Canadian history. They've been brewing traditional, bottle-conditioned, Belgian-style ales since 1992 and doing a wonderful job at it. They also seem to be very reasonably priced. Locally, I see them at Three Bears Warehouse in Kenai, for about $8 each (sometimes less!), which isn't a bad price. Picking up one or two of them when you're going over to some one's house makes a great alternative to the ubiquitous bottle of wine.

Anyway, during the fest I sampled a couple of old favorites, starting with Maudite. Its name means "The Damned", and refers to an old legend of some lumberjacks who sold their souls to the Devil in exchange for being home for Christmas. The Devil held up his end of the bargain by making their canoe fly across the night sky, hence the picture above. Stylistically, it's a strong ale (8% ABV), reddish in color, with a nice, rocky head and an aroma that suggests spices and floral hops. On the palate, there are spicy notes from the Belgian yeast used, along with wine-like notes and crisp hop bitterness; it's quite complex. It's a wonderful beer that I've enjoyed both in bottle and on draft for over a decade, and it remains a consistently excellent choice, either by itself or paired with food.

Next, I had some Trois Pistoles, which is much darker and, at 9% ABV, slightly stronger than Maudite. It's a dusky black color with a thick, tan head. Very rich, like a fine port, it has flavors of roasted malt, maybe some chocolate, and dark fruits, like figs and raisins. It's similar to a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, the style sometimes called a "quadruple". Typical examples would be Chimay Blue or Rochefort 10. Just like Maudite, it's a superb beer and a great value for the price.

I limited myself to those two samples (I had to drive myself home after the event), but there are many other great Unibroue beers out there for you to try.

Speaking of great Canadian beers, I opened another beer from my East Coast care package over the weekend. It was from Dieu Du Ceiel! Microbrewery & Brewpub; my French is more than a little rusty, but I think the brewery is near Quebec and the brewpub is in Montreal. The particular beer was named the Equinoxe du Printemps, or Spring Equinox, and is a Scotch Ale to which maple syrup has been added. As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I love a good Scotch Ale, and this one was as good as any I've ever had. The sweetness of the maple syrup blended well with the maltiness of this style, though the 9.5% alcohol means this is definitely a beer to sip. According to their website, it's brewed every January, then aged for two months, before being released on the spring equinox, March 21st. Hopefully I'll be able to snag some more this year, because it was really fantastic.

Well, that's it for this week. Assuming my liver survives the weekend in Anchorage, I should have some more great beers to right about next week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sign of the Times

Well, Happy New Year and all that. 2010 is here; let's all hope it's a damn sight better than 2009 (though the smart money ain't betting that way...)

I had a long-held wish come true over the holidays: I finally got a custom sign for my home brewpub.

Pubs have a long and fascinating history, dating back many centuries. They have been the subject of more than one serious scholarly study; check out The Enduring Appeal of the Local by The Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, UK for one such. Their location, their architecture, their floor plans -- all encapsulate an amazing amount of history. Their names are no different.

Have you ever wondered why so many pubs have names that evoke a visual image? The Rose & Crown? The Fox & Hounds? The Beehive? The Carpenter Arms? It's because when pubs first came into existence, the vast majority of their patrons were illiterate. So pubs became identified by the pictures on the signs hanging outside. Even as more folks learned to read, the tradition of colorful, visually vibrant pub signs continued. In my mind, no self-respecting pub could get by without a colorful sign.

As for the name, The Gentleman's Ease, while riding a bus during a visit to Ireland in 1995, I saw a pub in Cork by that name. Oddly enough, I don't recall it as even having a pub sign and I never went inside it, but the name stuck in my head. Eventually, I dreamed up the image of a man in an easy chair and earlier this year I found a local artist who was willing to work up a design and then paint a sign for me. I had to wait about 6 months for the entire project to be completed, but as you can see in the picture above, it was worth the wait.

We're moving into to the beer festival season here in Alaska. This Friday, 1/8/2010, we will be having a Beer Tasting and Auction Fundraiser at the Challenger Center in Kenai. See my last blog for the details, but I'll be there pouring 4 of my homebrews, along side our local breweries.

Next week, there will be several beer events up in Anchorage, culminating in the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival at the Egan Center on 15 & 16 January. Some things to take advantage of in the lead-up include:
  • the opening of the kitchen at Midnight Sun's Loft Bar. They will be having at 6x6 Dinner on Tuesday, 12 January at 5:30 PM. Six different beers paired with 6 different courses. Then on Wednesday, the bar hours shift to 11 AM to 8 PM and the kitchen will open to the public
  • Humpy's Alaskan Alehouse will be hosting a Belgian Beer Dinner on Wednesday, Jan 13th at 6 PM
  • Glacier Brewhouse, along with it sister restaurant Orso, will also be hosting a Beer/Wine Dinner on Wednesday, at 7 PM. The theme will be the Grape vs. Grain Throwdown. Chef Rob at Orso will be preparing a 4 course dinner that will be paired with Brewhouse beers selected by Brewer Kevin Burton, and with wines selected Sommelier Chad Culley. Find out what pairs better with the courses, beer or wine!
  • Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop will be hosting a beer tasting at the Embassy Suites on Benson (just east from Cafe Amsterdam) from 5 to 8 PM, also on January 13th.
  • Great Northern Brewers Homebrew Club will be having their January meeting at the Snow Goose Brewpub on Thursday, January 14th, at 7 PM.
  • There will be a Beer Geek Meet & Greet for participants in the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival at the Spenard Roadhouse from 2 to 5 PM on Friday, 15 January
These events (and hopefully additional ones in coming years) should help make the week leading up to the festival into a true "Alaska Beer Week", something to encourage beer lovers to make the trek all the way to Anchorage in January. Several other beer venues have already done something similar; now it's Alaska's turn!

Speaking of turns, it was my turn to get a package from the East Coast, in response to a package of big Midnight Sun brews I sent there in early December. Included in what my contact sent me were a couple of brews from Smuttynose Brewing Company's Big Beer series. I got a Baltic Porter and an Imperial Stout, a couple of my favorite styles. They were both excellent brews, with lots of great roasted flavors and great mouthfeel.

Checking out their website, it looks like they brew about eleven of these "big" beers annually, so if you're lucky enough to live somewhere on the East Coast and can get your hands on them, I'd heartily recommend it.

Well, that's it for this week. Keep an eye out for my monthly column in this week's Redoubt Reporter and I'll try to get a blog in next week before departing for Anchorage next Thursday. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather this year!

Until Next Time, Cheers!