Monday, February 22, 2010

Last Minute News

Well, things are getting down to the wire before Elaine and I have to depart for Denver. The Beerdrinker of the Year competition is on Saturday afternoon and should be over about 5 PM Mountain time. I'll try to send out a quick email with the results as soon as I can afterward.

Before I hit the road, I have a few more pieces of news to relate. First the latest in Kenai River Brewing Company's Single Hop IPA series is now on tap. This one is hopped exclusively with East Kent Goldings. I haven't gotten a chance to try it yet, but I love that hop variety, so I'm really looking forward to it. The beer appreciation class that I teach on Tuesdays will be touring Kenai River tomorrow night, so I plan to sample it then.

Second, I dropped into St. Elias Brewing Company on my way home from work last Friday. There has been some major work on the back of the bar, with the installation of a nitrogen-pressurized wine box (a refugee from the now-closed The Crossing restaurant) and four more taps. Two of the new taps will be dedicated to root beer and cream soda, but adding the other two to the previous eight will bring the total available for beers up to ten.

In addition to his usual line-up, Zach Henry currently has his Moose Juice Barley Wine and a new beer, his Winter Wheat Ale, on tap. He poured the Moose Juice at the Great Alaskan Beer & Barely Wine Festival, so some of you may have gotten a chance to taste it there. It's another of his whiskey-barrel-aged specials, having spent time in a Heaven Hill Bourbon cask, coming in at a hefty 9.6% ABV and 93 IBUs. I had a nice 6 0z. goblet of it. It's a good beer to have when you're only having one beer.

The imaginatively-named Winter Wheat Ale is a new seasonal, an unfiltered American-style wheat beer. At 5.4% ABV, it's a bit easier to handle in quantity that the barley wine. The flavor is delicate, with notes of wheat, oats, and apricots. It's a refreshing prelude to the spring that we are all hoping is just around the corner.

That's it for now. I'm looking forward to Denver, especially squeezing in a couple of visits to local bars and breweries before and after the finals. Wish me luck!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Random Rants

The old saying is "Two steps forward, one step back." For the last few months, the progress of craft beer on the Peninsula has felt more like "All Ahead Flank!" (That's submarine speak for "Go Real Fast!"). Still, nothing is ever completely smooth sailing.

Personally, I've been busy trying to get ready for my trip to Denver next week for the finals of Wynkoop Brewing Company's Beerdrinker of the Year. I want to thank those of you who have sent me emails in support and especially the local breweries who have been generous enough to donate some swag for the "Bribe the Judges" portion of the contest. Growing up in Louisiana, I picked up a bit of wisdom at an early age: "Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?" Seriously, I'm going to do my best to win and bring the trophy to Alaska.

Because of final prep for my trip and whatnot, there likely will be no blog next week. If there is, it'll be a short one.

So let's dive right in to this week's news.

First, I found out the hard way last week that the Bear's Den Restaurant in Soldotna no longer has Kenai River Brewing Company's beers on draft. In fact, they have no beers on draft; only Alaskan Brewing Company's beers in bottles. Now I've got nothing against Alaskan; if you've been reading these blogs you know I love their beers. But I hate to see a local establishment stop pouring a local beer, one that's brewed about a mile from their doorstep. Short of going to the brewery, you aren't going to find beer much fresher, and fresh beer is better beer. As a final indignity, the Alaskan Pale Ale I ended up ordering was served with a frosted mason jar to drink it out of. Ugh! If I'd ordered wine, I don't think it would have been served to me in a mason jar! While OK for tea or soda, beer (just like wine), deserves something a little classier than that. Once again, we see that some establishments just can't grasp the concept of treating beer with respect. Oh well...

Later in the week, I got some more bad news: BJ's Bar in Soldotna is going out of business permanently; they've sold their liquor license to Don Jose's Mexican Restaurant, so whatever takes their place, it won't be a bar. This is a real piece of history going away; Soldotna was founded in 1947 (the last town in the US to be founded as the result of homesteading, by the way) and for many of the early years it was just a post office, a gas station, and BJ's. For many years it's been where Hobo Jim, the official state balladeer of Alaska, performed on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer and occasionally during the winter. While it was never going to be Cafe Amsterdam or Humpy's Alaskan Alehouse, BJ's had some real character and was a good local bar. It will be missed.

Let's talk about happier things. Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop has released their Penny's Maple Porter. A portion of the proceeds from this brew goes to support the Rogues Gallery Kennel, a Kasilof dog-mushing kennel that specializes in taking-in dogs that other kennels have no use for. Penny is the lead dog of their team, so you can see why this beer bears her name. There will be a Meet & Greet event at the brewery on Sunday, February 28th, from 2-5 PM, with sled rides, poster signings, photo ops, and a silent auction. The Kennel will be entering this year's Iditarod, so if you're free on Sunday the 28th, drop by and meet a real, live Iditarod musher.

Whenever you stop by, be sure to try some of the porter. At 8.0% ABV, it's a pretty formidable brew, nearly opaque with a lovely tan head. The use of the maple syrup is nice and subtle, just an underlying hint of sweetness that balances well with the beer's roasted flavors. Very drinkable, it would be a good pairing with a nice roast, or even a leg of lamb. Kassik's next batch of their award-winning Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch Ale will go on sale this Saturday (2/20), and they just finished brewing up another batch of their outstanding Double Wood DIPA, so look for that fairly soon.

Also on Saturday, check out the Second Annual "Are You Smarter Than Our Kids" fundraiser for the Soldotna Boys & Girls Club at 6 PM at the Soldotna Sports Center. Several local leaders have signed up to be intellectually humiliated by some of our smart local youth. There will be appetizers from local restaurants and beer from local breweries for the audience, and it's all for a good cause.

In other local news, Kenai River Brewing Company's Breakfast Beer continues to sell at a rapid pace. As you can see from the photo at right, they were desperate enough to bring in some unskilled labor last Friday to help out with the brewing. The fact that all our local breweries are so busy trying to keep up with demand (and get a little ahead for the crazy days of the summer tourist season) is a very good sign.

St Elias Brewing Company will be having live music at their Third Thirsty Thursday this week. Stop by from 7 to 9 PM to hear 150 Grit.

My wife Elaine and I made one of our up-and-back-in-a-day Anchorage trips on Saturday. Nothing like thirteen hours riding in the car or shopping to really wring you out. However, I did get to stop into La Bodega for a few minutes and grab some interesting brews, like a Rogue XS Imperial Porter, a Buckin' Monk Tripel from Big Sky Brewing, and a Gouden Carolus Classic from Brouwerij Het Anker in Belgium. Haven't opened them yet, but when I do I'll let you know how they are.

On the way out of Anchorage we stopped by Arctic Brewing Supplies for some ingredients for my next homebrew (an American IPA for those of you keeping score at home), then dropped in at Midnight Sun's Loft Bar. It had been a while since my last visit and there were several new brews on that I wanted to try.

I wasn't in the mood to do a real formal tasting, but I did try three beers and here are my quick and dirty impressions. First, I had a sample of both their Second Chance Porter, an American porter with lots of roasty notes and good hoppiness; very well made with excellent drinkability. Then I tasted the Big Fish Porter, a commercial-sized version of the robust porter that won the Best of Show in the Great Northern Brewers' Homebrew Competition back in December. Also good, though I think I preferred the Second Chance.

After those two samples, I bought a glass of what I'd really come for, Midnight Sun's new Mayhem, a Belgian-style Double IPA. I gather that this will be a new year-round beer, available both on draft (currently) and in bottles (as soon as the Feds approve the label). In the glass the beer was lovely; where most of Midnight Sun's previous IPAs (Sockeye Red, CoHoHo, Gluttony) have been deep copper or darker in color, Mayhem is a beautiful deep gold. It had a nice white head, and a great hop aroma. Tasting it, you are immediately smacked by the 100 IBUs of bitterness from loads of American hops. Once your palate gets over the shock, the peppery, spicy elements from the Belgian yeast start to make themselves felt. At 8.2% ABV this beer is much too strong to be a session beer, not to mention there no way your palate could survive a sustained assault from all those IBUs. But if you're a hop head like me, you will absolutely love this beer. I can't wait for it to appear in bottles down here on the Peninsula.

Looking ahead for Midnight Sun, they will be re-releasing Brewtality, their Espresso Black Bier this Friday, 2/19. On the next First Firkin Friday, 3/5, they will be tapping a firkin of Mayhem, and the next Good Mojo Day will be 3/21. And the new food at their Loft Bar looks absolutely fabulous.

Well, that's about it for this time around. Look for a short blog next week, if there's one at all, and wish me luck in Denver. I'll try to get the word of the results out ASAP, though if I somehow manage to win, you'll probably be able to hear me yell all the way from Denver.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Absent Friends

Well, I hope you all enjoyed your Super Bowl Weekend as much as I did. Growing up in New Orleans, I never thought I'd live to see the day that the Saints won it all. This may indeed be a sign of the coming Apocalypse. Is it true that the last symbol carved into the famous Mayan calendar is a fleur-de-lys?

Thinking about my salad days in the Crescent City eventually lead me to thinking about other things from my past that are no more. This week I'm also lecturing my beer class on British beer styles, so my thoughts naturally turned to days spent in London pubs, drinking wondrous beers.

My first experience with British cask ale was in November, 1987. I was a young Lieutenant on the USS Silversides (SSN 679), and we pulled into Portsmouth in the south of England after over 10 weeks at sea. A buddy and I managed to wrangle a day's leave, so we hopped a train and headed for London. As soon as we reached London and exited the station, we stopped at the first pub and ordered a pint.

By sheer luck, it was a Young's pub.

If you've spent anytime in London, you know that their are (or were; it's been almost nine years since I last trod its dirty streets) two regional brewers: Young's and Fuller's. They both brewed excellent beers and I drank them both regularly, but Young's was my first and always remained my favorite. When wandering around London or the surrounding countryside and in doubt about where to stop for a "proper pint", one only had to keep an eye out for a sign marked with a ram, the symbol and mascot of Young's; once you saw that, you knew you were OK.

If you've never had cask-conditioned ale, then it will be hard for my words to convey to you just how wonderful it is, fresh and sparkling from the hand pump, bursting with lovely hop aroma and a bracing (but by no means overwhelming) bitterness. If you've never had any, perhaps you will get to experience it in Britain or at one of the increasing number of American brewpubs which are serving their beer on cask. I know that Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage regularly has an one of their ales on hand pump, and there may well be others in the state that I don't know about.

After that first visit in 1987, I returned to London whenever I could, trying out new pubs and breweries, until in 1998 I was stationed there. From 1998 until 2001, I lived and worked in the heart of London, walking from my flat just off Baker St. to my job at 7 N. Audley St. My local pub was The Turner Arms on Crawford St, a free house, where Nigel the landlord kept both Young's and Fuller's on. To this day I have a Young's sign hanging in my bar at home that I traded Nigel for after a long night of drinking. It was a wonderful three years.

As for Young's beers, first they had their regular bitter, which was called, unpretentiously enough, Young's Ordinary. Take it from me, it was anything but. It was wonderfully refreshing and dry, with a nice blend of fruit and hops. Then there was their Special (my usual drink of choice), a little darker in color, a little stronger in alcohol, and a little hoppier. Its bottled version is called Ramrod, after the brewery's ram mascot.

Speaking of bottled versions, Young's London Special Ale is the name given to Young's Export when it's packaged that way. This beer is one of the few true English IPAs to survive from the golden age of the mid-19th century. Bottle-conditioned, hoppy, earthy, and strong at 6.4%, for my tastes it is the finest bottled beer Britain has ever produced, hands down. Even when I lived in London, it could be hard to find; on more than one occasion, I had to have my neighborhood off-license (that's British for liquor store) special order cases for me.

In those days Young's was brewed at their Ram Brewery in the Wandsworth region of London. Located on the River Thames, beer had been brewed at that site since at least 1576. It was the oldest continually operating brewery in Britain. I toured it twice during my stint in London, and it was a magical place. They still delivered casks to near-by pubs via horse-drawn drays, with the horses (along with the brewery's namesake mascot, a ram) stabled at the brewery. The brewery itself was a mix of old and new, with fascinating pieces of industrial archaeology (like a steam engine dating from 1835) scattered about.

Unfortunately for beer lovers everywhere, Young's is a publicly owned company, so at the height of the housing bubble in Britain, the riverfront land it sat on was more valuable than the beer it produced and the history it represented. Sold off for 450 million pounds (about $800 million at the time), the brewery closed on 25 September 2006. It's to be turned into high-rise apartments and another shopping mall. Lord knows there aren't enough of those in the world.

Of course, the final irony is that due to the collapse of the housing bubble, the developers who bought the land are in financial trouble. Near as I can tell from reading news stories at a distance, they haven't even gotten final design approval, much less built anything. No telling if they ever will.

A sad end to the 430 years of brewing at the Ram Brewery.

Young's is still brewed elsewhere, but I doubt it can ever match up to what it once was. And that, my friends, is a real tragedy...

Well, enough about absent friends. Let's talk about what's here now. I saw a new beer at the local Safeway in Soldotna, one of Sam Adams' Seasonals, their new Noble Pils. My wife Elaine loves a good pilsner, so I snagged a six-pack. Poured into a classic pilsner glass, the beer is a pretty deep golden color, with a white head of dense foam. The aroma is appealing, with slight citrus and plenty of clean hop notes. The taste is a bit more complex than that of your typical pils, with each of the five noble hop varieties used (Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt, Saaz, & Hersbrucker) making their presence known. Crisp and clean on the palate, with plenty of carbonation. Very refreshing, just like a good pilsner should be. Not sure why this is their January to March seasonal; I'd think a brew like this would be more appropriate to warmer weather. Despite that, it's an excellent beer; if you're a fan of pilsners (and who isn't?), you should give it a try.

Well that's a wrap for this week. See last week's blog for upcoming beer events. By the way, if you're a fan of Alaskan Brewing's Baltic Porter (I certainly am; see my review on 11/17/2008), I have a bit of bad news. Alaskan only brews this beer once a year, in September, but they currently don't plan to brew it in 2010. It may be back in early 2011, but the folks at Alaskan aren't sure. So you might want to lay in some extra stock to tide you over. It's a great beer to cellar and should age very well.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The March of Time

Time marches on, and the older we get, the louder we hear the clomp of its heavy boots coming up behind us.

This thought was a recurring theme during my recent visit to Anchorage for Alaska Beer Week, since several folks who knew me only through my blog commented that "you don't look much like your profile picture". Given that my old profile picture was taken almost seven years ago and shows me without a beard (or quite so much gray hair), I guess I have to concede the point.

So I have had my lovely wife Elaine take another photo of me, which should make it easier for you folks to recognize me if we happen to meet in a bar or alehouse.

In keeping with the theme of time marching on, I thought I would talk about an old, old favorite of mine, Traquair House Ale. This is an absolutely wonderful Scotch ale from the Traquair House Brewery, which is located in the oldest inhabited house in Scotland (it dates back to 1107). Until only a couple of centuries ago, every large castle or manor house would have had its own brewery on the premises. The one at Traquair House stood idle form sometime in the early 1800s until 1965, when it was discovered by the late Peter Maxwell Stuart, the 20th (!) Laird of Traquair. He restarted the brewery and managed it until his death in 1990. Now it is overseen by his daughter, Catherine Maxwell Stuart. Besides their namesake flagship brew, they also produce Jacobite Ale ( a winter warmer spiced with coriander) and Bear Ale ( Scottish ale at 5%ABV). Traquair House Ale is imported into the US by Merchant du Vin and distributed in Alaska by Specialty Imports. Locally, it's available at the Sav-U-Mor on K-Beach.

But what does it taste like? Well, it pours with moderate carbonation, producing a tan head that dissipates fairly quickly, but leaves a nice lacing on the glass. Its color is a very dark ruby or reddish-gold, and on the palate it is velvety smooth, very rich. You can taste a hint of the 7.2% ABV on the tongue, as well as the slightest suggestion of peat smoke. The finish is dry, enticing you to take another sip. Absolutely true to the style, one of the classic Strong Scotch ales in the world today.

Moving from a long-time favorite to something brand new, while I was in Anchorage I picked up a four-pack of Monk's Blood, a new beer from 21 Amendment Brewery, located in San Francisco. Previously, Alaska has seen their Brew Free or Die IPA and their Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Ale. This brewery has already made a big impression around these parts since they are producing good craft beer in cans. Given the number of folks in Alaska who love to spend time in the great outdoors, being able to enjoy good craft beer without the hassle of bottles is a big plus. Along with Oskar Blues Brewery and our own Sleeping Lady Brewery in Anchorage, 21st Amendment has been leading the can charge. I had the chance to visit their brewery/restaurant when I was in San Francisco last June; it's well worth a stop if you find yourself in the City by the Bay.

Monk's Blood is a Belgian-style dark ale, brewed with dark candi sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and dried dark figs; it's aged on oak chips to add in some woody flavors as well. I'd say it's roughly in the style of a dubbel, though its 8.3% ABV pushes it toward being a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, like the Chimay Grande Reserve or Rochefort 10. It pours a deep, rich brown, with a rocky tan head. The aroma speaks of the spices and the figs, perhaps with a touch of alcohol. On the tongue, it is gratifyingly complex, with the dark figs very evident. Perhaps a little too evident, as they make the beer seem a bit too sweet. The Amarillo hops give it a few citrusy notes, something you don't really expect for this style, but not unpleasant. It finishes slightly thin, but it is still delicious and very drinkable.

21 Amendment's website states that Monk's Blood is the first installment in their Insurrection Series, "a limited edition, once-in-a-while, four-pack release of a very special beer that rises up in revolt against common notions of what canned beer can be". I'll cry "Amen to that, brother", and I look forward to the next installment.

Some upcoming local beer events:

  • Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop will be having a beer tasting at the Embassy Suites in Anchorage next Thursday, 10 Feb, from 5-8 PM. Stop by and try their Maple Porter and Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch. They will also be giving away a Kassik's jacket.
  • Thirsty Thursday at St Elias Brewing Company, with live guitar and vocal folk music by Mike Morgan from 7 to 9 PM
  • Midnight Sun will be tapping the first keg of this year's Fur RondyBrew, an Irish Red Ale, at the Spenard Roadhouse on Wednesday, 3 Feb, at 5 PM. The Roadhouse is even offering a dinner special to pair with the new beer.
  • This Friday, Feb 5, is First Firkin Friday at Midnight Sun's Loft Bar. They'll be tapping a firkin of their Triple IPA Gluttony, dry hopped with Amarillos, at 5 PM. I made one of these events in December; they're a great time.
Finally, a couple of personal notes:

First, yours truly will be on KUDO 1080's Beer 101 Radio Program this Thursday, 4 February. The program runs from 2 to 3 PM, and I should be on for the last half hour. Tune it in or listen on-line at I'll be talking about the Peninsula beer scene and whatever else anyone who calls in wants to talk about.

Second, I just learned this week that I have been chosen as one of the three finalists for the Beerdrinker of the Year Competition, held by the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. I'll be flying down there at the end of the month for the final round of the competition, held on February 27th. The other two finalists (Phil Farrell & Logan Perkins) were both finalists in previous years and will certainly represent very stiff competition, but I'm going to go down there and do my best to represent Alaska and Alaskan beer drinkers with honor. If any of you might happen to be in Denver on the 27th, the competition is open to the public. I could use all the support I can get, as one of my competitors is a home-town boy who's bound to have lots of vocal supporters cheering him on.

Until Next Time, Cheers!