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!

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