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!


Jay said...

I had a question about the Alaskan Brewing Co. Smoked Porter... If you don't order it right in November when it comes out, are you out of luck? I'm on the east coast & tried to order some online last year & the place wanted me to buy an entire case. I understand this beer has a great reputation, but I'd still like to buy a bottle or 2 & try it first before I order a lot. A few days ago I placed another order online & I was told that it's "out of stock". It seems like unless you're buying a lot, nobody is interested in talking to ya. My question is, is there maybe some kind of distributor out west who doesn't advertise online that I might be able to purchase from? The way technology is these days, it seems like there's gotta be a way to get some of that beer over to this side of the states. Thanks for the great article I enjoyed reading it!

I'm Bill Howell. said...


I'm not sure where your suppliers are getting their beer from. Up here, Smoked Porter is pretty much on the shelves year-round, with the next year's batch hitting the shelves at Thanksgiving. If you send me an email direct to inwh "at" uaa.alaska.edu, I can put you in touch with my contact at the brewery, who can probably help you find a better supplier.

Glad you enjoyed the post.