Thursday, January 20, 2011

After Action Report: 2011 Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival

Alaska Beer Week for 2011 is now history, but it was certainly one for the books.  My lovely wife Elaine and I were in Anchorage from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday morning, basking in the tremendous beer geekiness of it all and partaking in much amazing beer.  I'll try to give you a quick recap.

Humpy's Annual Belgian Dinner @ SubZero
After we checked in to a nice B&B downtown (close to most of the venues), I headed over to SubZero Lounge for the Humpy's Annual Belgian Dinner.  There were several other beer dinners happening around town, but I chose this one.  Descriptions of the many rare and amazing beers that Billy Opinsky had shared at last year's dinner had me almost giddy with anticipation and the reality did not disappoint.  After starting us off with a draft Blanche de Chambly from Unibroue, every beer was a bottled rarity from Billy O's private stash.  Here's the list:

Hanssens Oude Gueuze 2003
Cantillion Vigneronne 2004
Anchor Christmas Ale 1998
Gouden Carolus Noel 2003
Duchesse de Burgogne 2000
Thomas Hardy's Ale 1996

Not a beer on the list under six years old, and every one a masterpiece of the brewer's art.  As good as they all were, I must admit that the Thomas Hardy's Ale was truly sublime.  I have no idea how many beers I have tasted in the last twenty years; probably pushing five or six thousand, or perhaps more.  This beer was easily in the top ten and possibly in the top five.  Tasting it alone was worth the $75 admission.

Of course there wasn't just beer.  Chef Tim Farley prepared an excellent course to accompany each of these wonderful brews.  The grilled curry chicken with fresh melon and blood orange coulees that accompanied the Anchor Christmas Ale 1998 and the braised lamb that was paired with the Duchesse de Burgogne 2000 were particularly good.  And the warm banana and Thomas Hardy's compote over vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate and candied walnuts may well have been the best dessert I've ever eaten.  Bottom line:  this dinner was simply amazing.  I can hardly wait until next year's.

Enjoying the Specialty Trade Show
On Thursday afternoon, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Specialty Imports Trade Show at the Captain Cook.  This is a great chance to see what new beers they will be bringing into the Alaska market.  I couldn't begin to sample everything (they have a 20 page catalog and everything in it was on offer), but there were certainly a few standouts.  By the by, in case you don't know, Specialty Imports are the folks who bring such beers as Duvel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and many others to AK.

First were the four offering from Wandering Aengus Ciderworks out of Salem, Oregon.  I am not a huge cider fan, though I did drink quite a bit of cask cider when I lived in London.  Well, these ciders just may convert me.  The first one I tried was their Oaked Dry, 6.8% ABV and aged for 6 months on French oak.  It was wonderfully dry, with plenty of tannins and an oak finish.  Then I tried their Wickson Cider, which use only a single variety of apple, the tiny Wickson Crab.  I liked the floral aroma and the slight citrus finish.  At 8.2% ABV, it should be treated with respect.  Next was their Bloom, which was sweeter than the previous two, with a nice apple aroma and a bright, clean finish.  Finally, I tried Wanderlust, which reminded me the most of the ciders I used to drink in Britain.  Weighing in a about 7%, it had a nice, full body and a slightly spicy finish.  Each cider was unique and each was excellent.  I'm happy that they are now going to be available in Alaska, and I know I'll be taking bottles home.

Next, Gabe Fletcher was there, with information about the beers soon to be released from his brand-new Anchorage Brewing Company.  Gabe was pouring his Anticipation Double IPA, which was technically a Sleeping Lady Brewing Company beer, rather than an ABC brew, since Gabe's license has not yet received all the final approvals.  However, while he was waiting, he brewed Anticipation to familiarize himself with the Sleeping Lady's brewhouse, since that's what he'll be using to brew his Anchorage Brewing Company beers.  Considering it was made for such a practical purpose, Anticipation is a really wonderful beer.  Crisp and clean, packed with American hop aroma and flavor without being unbalanced, most brewers would be happy to call this beer a finished product, but for Gabe Fletcher it is just a practice run, a pencil sketch before he starts painting in oils.

And what will he be painting?  As a reminder, all of Anchorage Brewing Company's beers will be bottled in 750ml cork & cages bottles.  Each will have undergone triple fermentation, and each will have spent significant time in the wood and been introduced to brettanomyces while in the barrel.  Gabe plans to release six beers in 2011.  Here are their descriptions:

White Out Wit Beer. Released Feb 2011. Made with Sorachi hops and spiced with fresh lemon peel, Indian coriander, and black peppercorns. Aged in French oak Chardonnay barrels. 6% ABV & 20 IBUs.

Bitter Monk Belgian Double IPA. Released Mar 2011. Made with Apollo, Simcoe and Citra hops. Aged in French oak Chardonnay barrels. Dry hopped with Citra.  9% ABV & 100 IBUs.

Love Buzz Belgian Saison. Released May 2011.  Made with Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra hops. Spiced with fresh Alaskan rosehips, fresh orange peel, and black peppercorns.  Dry hopped in the barrel with Citra.  Aged in French oak Cabernet barrels. 8% ABV & 40 IBUs.

The Tide and Its Takers Triple. Released July 2011. Made with Sorachi and Styrian Golding hops. Aged in French oak Chardonnay barrels. 9% ABV & 30 IBUs.

Brettality Belgian Black Bier. Released Sept 2011. Made with Summit and Amarillo hops.  Cabernet Grapes added to the French oak Cabernet barrels. 8.5% ABV & 25 IBUs.

Darkest Hour Belgian Imperial Stout. Released Nov 2011. Made with Summit hops, molasses, dark brown sugar, and Italian black licorice.  Aged in Pinot Noir barrels. 13% ABV & 33 IBUs.

There were plenty of other cool brews at the show, but I don't have space to cover them all.  Suffice it to say, Specialty Imports is doing a great job getting us Alaskans some fantastic beers to drink.

Ken Grossman addressing the Great Northern Brewers
After supper, the action moved over to the Snow Goose, where the Great Northern Brewers were holding their monthly meeting.  This one is always the big one, what with out-of-towners (like me) and beer dignitaries attending.  The highlight of the evening was the presentation by Ken Grossman, the guest of honor for the GABBF.  Ken spoke about the early days of Sierra Nevada and illustrated his talk with a wonderful slide show.  Homebrewers tend to be a pretty noisy bunch, but you could have heard a pin drop during Ken's talk.  After Ken, Tom Dalldorf, the editor of Celebrator Beer News, and the AK version of his Rolling Boil Blues Band started jamming.  It made for quite a night.

I took Friday off from the more formal beer events, but Elaine and I did have an delicious lunch at the Spenard Roadhouse.  Darcy Kniefel and her crew there are doing an excellent job bringing good beer and great food to the Anchorage masses.  I enjoyed a lovely pint of Midnight Sun's CoHoHo Imperial IPA with my Cubano sandwich.  Elaine was driving so she had to pass on drinking, but she loved her Grilled Cheese sandwich.  In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we stopped by again Sunday morning for brunch before leaving Anchorage.  This was smart, as it gave us the chance to try some of the best fried potatoes I've ever had.  Good beer and good food, Spenard Roadhouse has got it all!

The GABBF in full swing on Saturday afternoon
Saturday was the main event, with the Connoisseurs' Session of the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival from 2 to 5 pm.  Once again, I can only scratch the surface of all the delicious and interesting brews I sampled, but let me hit a few highlights:

Happy Hippy Barley Wine from Silver Gulch Brewing in Fox, AK. 10% ABV, 100 IBUs.  Smooth as silk and dangerously drinkable.  Levi assured me that there was no THC in it but I'm not so sure...

Whatever Berliner Weisse from Midnight Sun. 4.6% ABV, 15 IBUs.  An incredibly rare style these days, hard to find even in Europe, and here are the guys from the Sun making one just for us.  A little stronger than a traditional version, but spot-on with the wonderful lactic sourness.  I only hope they keep some for the summer, because I can't imagine a better beer for a hot summer day.

Imperial Chocolate Cherry Stout from Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop.  The name pretty much says it all.  It went on sale this week at the brewery, so if you missed it in Anchorage, get out there and try some!

Chocolate Nut Crunch Breakfast Beer from Kenai River Brewing Company.  This is Doug's latest tweak of his Breakfast Beer, by adding Madagascar Cacao nibs and roasted pecans.  I'd tasted it uncarbonated from the tank at the brewery and knew it was going to be good, but the finished product is outstanding.  My lovely wife Elaine is not at all into stouts or porters (she's a pilsner gal), but even she loved it.

Kodiak Smoked Scotch Ale from Kodiak Island Brewing Company. 7.3% ABV, 18 IBUs.  OK, we know Bill is crazy for smoky Scotch Ales, but this was really quite nice. 

Peat Smoke Wee Heavy from Skagway Brewing Company.  10.5% ABV, 19 IBUs.  Wow!  This beer completely blew me away!  Strong and with plenty of peat smoke, this beer amazed me with its complexity.  A virtuoso effort from the guys in Skagway.  Well done!

The St. Elias Team accepts their award
And the best for last:  While H&H Highland Ale didn't make any headway in the Winter Beer competition, Zach Henry  and St. Elias Brewing Company took second place in the Barley Wine Tasting with their Moose Juice Barley Wine at 9.6% ABV and 93 IBUs.  Since the first place went to Black Raven Brewing our of Redmond, WA, Zach can claims the title of Best Barley Wine in Alaska!  A job well done by our local brewpub!

Enjoying a brew with Ken Grossman at Cafe A

Tom Dalldorf and I try to learn to share
As much as I enjoyed all the great beer and good food during Alaska Beer Week, I have to say that the absolute best part of the entire experience was the wonderful folks that you get to spend time with.  There's just something fundamentaly good and nice about the folks who brew and drink good beer.  There's an ancient Celtic proverb that says "Good people drink good beer."  I wonder if perhaps we should reverse that, to say "Those who drink good beer are good people."  That's certainly been my experience.  Whether they're icons on the craft brewing world, like Ken Grossman, or movers and shakers of beer journalism like Tom Dalldorf, no one is too busy or too proud to share a beer with you.  It's like we're all members of a huge fraternity, and the only admission required is the love of good beer.

Well, I'm already late on getting this blog finished, so I'm going to go ahead a put it on the street.  Next week I'm planning to write some real reviews of some of the beers I was lucky enough to sample, plus whatever new and interesting comes my way between now and then.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Starting 2011 Off Right

Goodbye 2010, Hello 2011!  Only 1 more year 'til Doomsday, if you believe the Mayans and crappy disaster movies.  January is always the "ultimate beer month" here in Alaska, so let's get rolling.

First, the three local breweries here on the Central Peninsula are having a great event in honor of Alaska Beer Week.  Complete the Peninsula Brewery Tour by visiting all three breweries (Kassik's, Kenai River, & St. Elias) by January 15th and you'll be entered to win a basket of goodies (t-shirts, glassware, & gift certificates).  Pick up an entry postcard at any of the three breweries and get the back signed off when you visit each one.  Just drop off the completed postcard at the last one you visit for your chance to win!

There's a lot more to Alaska Beer Week than just this local contest, though.  Most of the events will be taking place over the next ten days or so up in Anchorage.  For a complete listing of events, check out the Brewers Guild of Alaska Events webpage, but here are some events to be aware during the run up to the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival on 14-15 Jan.

Wednesday, Jan 12:

6:00 PM Spenard Roadhouse presents a beer dinner, featuring beers from Kenai River Brewing Company. Guest speaker is KRBC owner/brewer Doug Hogue. See website for details.

6:00 PM Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop Beer Dinner at Suite 100 Restaurant, 1000 E. Dimond Blvd, $65.00 per person. Please call 341-1000 for reservations.

Thursday, Jan 13:

7:00 PM Great Northern Brewers Club meets at the Snowgoose Restaurant. In conjunction with the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Fest, fest guest Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada Brewing–along with other visiting brewers–will speak to this crowd.

 The GABBF itself has three sessions, Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening at the Egan Center.  As I have written before, the Saturday afternoon session is far and away the best one to attend.  It is THE big beer event held here in Alaska each year, so you need to be there if at all possible.

Besides the run up to the GABBF, there's plenty of other news.  As you can see from the picture, Kenai River has taken delivery of their new 20 bbl fermenter, which will be dedicated to producing the Skilak Scottish Ale required for their new canning operation.  They have also approved the final artwork for the cans, which should be manufactured by the end of this week.  On January 11th, they will be releasing a new version of their popular Breakfast Beer; this one is made with chocolate from Madagascar and roasted pecans, hence the name: Chocolate Nut Crunch.  Can't wait to try it!

This Friday, 7 January, is another Firkin Friday at St. Elias Brewing Company.  They're tapping a cask of "Black RyePA" at 6 PM. This is a Black IPA brewed with lots of rye malts and dry hopped with Citra and Crystal hops.  Sounds delicious, so stop by on the way home and get some before it's gone.

Out at Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop, things were continuing to advance at last report: " We are making progress: the new refrigeration will be finished today, warehouse is insulated and sheetrock is about 1/3 of the way, efficiency room is ready to be taped and painted, and wiring for the tasting room is about done thanks to Rick and the boys."

On the bad news front, there was a fire in late December at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy in Belgium, the brewers of the world-renowned Rochefort Trappist Ale.  While the brewery itself was undamaged, over 27,000 liters of beer being stored on the abbey grounds were destroyed.  I'm not sure what this may mean in the way of future shortages, but I intend to stop by Save-U-More in Soldotna and load up on some Rochfort, just in case...

Turning to beer reviews, I sampled 14 new beers over the Holidays.  I don't have time to review them all right now, but here are three that really stood out.

First, I picked up a six pack of Sierra Nevada's 2010 Celebration Ale.  This is a perennial Christmas classic, released ever year in time for the Holidays.  I reviewed last year's edition on 12/2/2009.  Looking over what I wrote then, I wouldn't change a thing.  Celebration Ale is still a classic American Winter Warmer, chock full of Pacific Northwest Hops, yet remarkably drinkable, considering it's 6.8% ABV.  As I said then: if you haven't tried this beer yet, you are really missing out!  Get some before it's gone, as Sierra Nevada reports it's selling out even faster this year than it did last time around.

I also opened a bottle of Sierra Nevada's 30th Anniversary Our Brewers Reserve Oak-Aged Ale.  This is the fourth beer in their 30th Anniversary Series, and while the three previous beers were collaborations with brewing pioneers, this brew is a blend of oak-aged Bigfoot Barley Wine, Celebration Ale, and fresh Pale Ale, then generously dry-hopped and sold in 750ml corked bottles.  The first three brews were exceptional, so I was expecting something pretty special and this beer did not disappoint.

It poured a beautiful deep copper color with a massive off-white head.  The nose was packed with a clean hop aroma, very much like the nose on Celebration, and promised plenty of pineyhoppiness; very complex.  The finish is long and dry, with subtle hints from the wood aging.  The 9.2% ABV is well concealed and the beer is very drinkable for its strength.  This beer is a fitting wrap up to the series, a real showcase for the brewing skill of the folks at Sierra Nevada.  This is another beer that won't be around long, so if you can find it, buy two.  One to drink now, and one to cellar.

Another new beer I tried over the Holidays was a Christmas Bock from Mahr's Brau in Germany, imported by the Shelton Brothers.  Bock is a style of beer seen all to infrequently in the US; since it's a lager, and most craft brewers favor ales, not too many get produced.  This is too bad, as it's a wonderful style, rich and malty, but with the clean flavor profile of a lager yeast.  The Christmas Bock was a little darker and hoppier than is typical for the style, unfiltered and unpasteurized,with 6.0% ABV, a deep golden color and a large white head.  The aroma was of malty sweetness, with no off notes.  On the palate the beer had a nice, medium body, good balance, and an exceptionally clean taste.  This is my first beer from Mahr's, but their reputation as an artisanal brewery in Bamberg proceeds them.  If this beer is any indication, it's a reputation that's richly deserved.  Not much of this beer gets imported into the US, only a few hundred cases, so you may have to search it out.  It's worth the effort.

Well, that's about it for this week.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and drank much good beer.  If you're able to attend the GABBF or any of the events surrounding it and see me, be sure to say hello.

Until Next Time, Cheers!