Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Victory has a Sweet Taste. Kinda like a Good Scotch Ale...

Well, I did it. I'm sure some of you out there had your doubts; Lord knows, I did. But sometimes things just all fall into place.

My lovely wife Elaine and I made it to Denver by lunchtime on Thursday. That was after a full day at work, followed by a three-hour drive to Anchorage, then a 12:30 AM flight out, with a plane change in Portland. So by the time we made it to our hotel in Denver, we were both pretty well fried.

We did need to eat so we stumbled down the 16th St. Mall and chose a place named the Appaloosa Grill. We liked the look of the menu and I could see some Great Divide and New Belgium tap handles in the bar. So we went in and enjoyed a nice lunch, accompanied by a Titan IPA from Great Divide (me) and a Blue Paddle Pilsner from New Belgium (Elaine). Both beers were absolutely excellent, very fresh and delicious. This was my first indication that, unlike my last visit in 1990, the Denver of today is a fantastic beer town.

Then went back to our hotel and crashed for a few hours sleep before meeting up with my wife's nephew, Clay, and his wife Hillary. They drove us to a great neighborhood Italian place for supper, also accompanied by some excellent beer. Elaine was very happy to see they had Stella Artois on tap and I was very happy with my Odell Brewing 5 Barrel Pale Ale. Just another data point that demonstrates what great place for beer Denver has become.

After sleeping in the next day, we finally hit the pavement late in the morning and strolled down 16th St, snapping photos and doing some shopping, on our way to the Lower Downtown neighborhood and the famous Falling Rock Taphouse. It's located all of half a block from the home plate at Coors Field and routinely appears in lists of the top ten beer bars in the US.

Having never been there, Falling Rock was at the top of my list of places to visit. Walking in, you're overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tap handles, both those on service and in racks along the walls. A constantly rotating selection of 75+ beers on tap and 130+ in the bottle makes this place a little slice of heaven for a serious beer geek like yours truly.

When we arrived on Friday, we were fairly early for lunch, perhaps 11:30, so the bar wasn't crowded at all, though it was beginning to fill up as we left about an hour later. We sat in a booth on the bar-side and perused the amazing beer menu. The absolutely huge selection included a selection of Russian River beers, seldom seen anywhere but around Santa Rosa, CA. I visited that brewery back in June, so I knew how fantastic they are and promptly ordered a Damnation Strong Golden Ale, while my wife had a Trumer Pils.They were even planning to tap two 4 gallon torpedoes of Pliny the Younger Triple IPA at 5 PM that day, but our server advised against showing up for that, since based on past experience, the beer would be gone in less than 15 minutes, leaving many disappointed customers.

The food was good, if a little greasy; I had a nice pastrami, with Swiss cheese and onions. Service was great; perhaps because it was slow, our waiter took plenty of time to chat with us. The beer was was absolutely spot on, and the decor and atmosphere were both exceptional. I see why this bar is where "everybody" goes after the Great American Beer Festival sessions breakup at the Colorado Convention Center.

After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon knocking around downtown, until it was time to head to the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the sponsor and host of the Beerdrinker of the Year competition. Each year, on the night before the competition, Wynkoop hosts an informal "meet-and-greet" dinner for the judges and the finalists, along with their respective spouses. It gives everyone a chance to get to know each other, before the formal competition the next day. After dinner, it's traditional for everyone to migrate the two blocks over to Falling Rock for some after-dinner beers.

I'd last been at Wynkoop in 1990, only two years after it had opened. In those days, it was about the only business open down in the somewhat dodgy LoDo neighborhood, full of old, empty warehouses and buildings dating from around 1900. Today, LoDo is full of great bars, restaurants, and theaters, and Wynkoop Brewing Company can take a lot of the credit for its redevelopment.

Since both of the other finalists had competed before, I was definitely the rookie in the field and was grateful for a chance to get to know both them and several of the judges in a low-key setting. Before dinner, I had an Auld Rabbit Ale ( created by last year's BDOTY, Cody Christman, brewed with Br'er Rabbit molasses, and served on cask). It was dark and rich, with the molasses imparting a touch of sweetness and smokiness. It's 6.4% ABV and a lovely, lovely drink. Elaine and I also got to meet Cody and spend a few minutes chatting with him before dinner; he's a great fellow and a real beer connoisseur.

In the course of supper (a great Venison Bourguignonne for me, and a fantastic Mac & Cheese for Elaine), I also got to meet both of my competitors (Phil Farrell & Logan Perkins) and their ladies, as well as a couple of the other judges. I enjoyed a pint of the Wynkoop's B3K Schwarzbier, a German-style black lager, coming in at 5.3% ABV and the winner of a Gold Medal at the 2008 GABF. I followed it up with a pint of their St. Charles ESB, cask-conditioned and dry-hopped; at 4.5% ABV, it's a classic British bitter, an eminently drinkable session beer.

Next, it was time for us all to stroll over to Falling Rock. We fetched up on the couches on the other side of the booths from the bar, and along with more great conversation, I enjoyed an amazing glass of Russian River Supplication. It's a sour brown ale, aged in French oak Pinot Noir casks inoculated with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, & Pediococcus, not to mention sour cherries. At 7% ABV and 27 IBUs, it's wonderfully tart and refreshing. Just the thing for a nightcap, before the walk back to the hotel.

The next day we went to a late breakfast with Clay and Hillary, then I basically spent the next three hours being nervous, with my stomach knotting up, waiting for the competition to start. Once things got going, I actually felt better; the waiting that was the hard part for me. The questions went on for over two hours, and by the time it was over I was wrung out. Some were philosophical ("What three spices would you NEVER use in brewing a beer?") to factual ("Name seven hop varieties that start with the letter C.") to humorous ("Can you see Russia from your local brewpub?"). There was a blind beer tasting and a tasting of a beer I brought with me. We had to pour a hefeweizen for a grade. When the judges came back out and announced my name, I was totally surprised. My friends in the audience told me later that I had been doing real well, but it certainly didn't feel that way when I was up there.

So I want to thank each and every one of you for your support and encouragement. I especially want to thank my lovely wife Elaine, for her love and understanding through the whole thing. I couldn't have done it without you, honey!

After the event was over, all the photos had been snapped, autographs signed, and interviews given, Elaine and I slipped away to a quiet dinner with Clay and Hillary to unwind, then head back to our room for a little sleep before our 4 o'clock wake-up call and 8 AM flight back to Anchorage, via Seattle this time.

So, now that I'm the 2010 Beer Drinker of the Year, what am I going to do with it? Well, I'm going to do my best to use it to keep doing what I've been trying to do for the last several years: promote craft beer on both the Peninsula and in Alaska, and do everything I can to educate folks about craft beer and encourage folks who aren't currently craft beer drinkers to give it a try. This award should make things even more interesting...

So enough about me and my news. What other beer news is there out there?

A new brewery is getting ready to open in Sitka. Baranof Island Brewing Company is being established by Rick and Susan Armstrong, the brewery plans to use pristine water from the nearby rain and glacier fed Blue Lake to brew a variety of beers for both local consumption and eventual distribution. The brewery plans to bottle in 22 ounce bombers, so there’s a chance we’ll see the beer here on the Kenai, or at least in Anchorage. Word is that the brewery is just waiting for the State of Alaska Division of Environmental Health approval before going into production. Thanks to my good buddy Jim Roberts, the redoubtable Dr. Fermento and El Presidente of the Brewers Guild of Alaska, for this info. Jim was just down here to guest lecture in my beer appreciation class on Tuesday night, much to the pleasure of my students.

Since the good doctor was down this way, we met up at St. Elias Brewing yesterday at lunch. Jim was in a hurry to catch his flight, so rather than wasting time eating, we went straight to the beer. In addition to the Moose Juice Barley Wine and the new Winter Wheat, Zach Henry is about to put his Eclipse Specialty Ale on tap. You might have tasted this at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival, but it hasn't been available since. It's actually a blend of Zach's Baltic Porter and his barley wine, which has been allowed to marry for over six months in a whiskey cask. The end result is 9% ABV, 65 IBUs, and has a wonderful rich flavor. I actually like it even more than his straight Moose Juice. Not sure exactly when it will be on tap, but if you stop by St. Elias anytime soon, be sure to ask about it.

St. Elias will also be doing a big St. Patrick's Day event (on March 17, of course), with a bar trivia contest from 6 to 7 PM, and a special on their Mother's Milk Irish Stout for the entire week. $3 pints and $6 growlers; you can't beat that.

OK, that's it for now. Elaine and I will be on the road again next week, this time to meet my daughter Liana in Vegas to celebrate her 30th birthday. So don't expect a blog for a couple of weeks, but when I get back I will hopefully have had some good brews down there to write about.

After all, if it's news about beer, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas...

Until Next Time, Cheers!


Joe said...

Congrats and way to represent Alaska!

Be one who drinks the finest of ales.
Every day without fail.
Even when you have drank enough,
Remember that ale is wonderful stuff.

Cody Christman said...

Great job Bill and congratulations! For most of you readers that probably were not in Denver last Saturday, Bill used a combination of wit, knowledge and passion to grab the title. Well deserved! I hope our paths cross again soon. I'll see you next year for sure.

Cody Christman - 2009 Beerdrinker of the Year

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on BDotY. Have a nice vacation in Vegas.