Monday, June 27, 2011

Things Are Looking Up

The weather's warmer and drier, and Independence Day is right around the corner.  Thing's are looking up!  I've got a fair amount of news to cover this week, so I'm going to dive right into it.

The First Annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival now has its own Facebook page.  That's probably the best place to keep up with new developments for it.  Tickets will be going on sale any day now at the local breweries, and it wouldn't surprise me if they sell out, so don't delay too long in getting yours.  Admission will be $20, which gets you a commemorative sample glass and three 8 oz pours.  Tickets for additional 8 oz pours will be available for $3 each.  The Fest will be held at the old Glacier Pontiac Dealership at 37661 Kenai Spur Hwy in Soldotna from 4 to 10 pm on Saturday, August 13th.  I'll see you there!

Second, Amy Hogue, the wife of Kenai River Brewmaster Doug Hogue was hospitalized over the weekend with appendicitis.  At last word she was doing well and should be out of the hospital soon, but I know we all will keep her in our thoughts and prayers.  Feel better soon, Amy.

Dr. Fermento hard at "work"
Third, the dean of Alaskan beer writers, James "Dr. Fermento" Roberts, paid us a flying visit on Saturday afternoon.  I hooked up with him at St. Elias Brewing Company to have a couple of beers and generally chew the fat on the local beer scene.  Jim was in town for a Peak company picnic up in Nikiski, and was happy to report that after years of his prodding, the organizers finally served Kassik's brews rather than generic macros at the event.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Jim's work, he writes the Alaska beer column for The Celebrator, a national beer newspaper.  He also has a weekly beer column in The Anchorage Press, and a weekly blog on the KTUU website, Last Frontier Beer.  He just got back from attending Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp.  Finally, he writes a semi-weekly PDF blog that he emails out to anyone who signs up (send him an email at to be added to the list).  Oh, and he's the President of the Brewers Guild of Alaska, too.  Knowing how hard it is to keep up with just this blog and a monthly column, I honestly don't know where he finds the time, but somehow he does.  So if you want to stay abreast of the Alaska beer scene, Jim's da man.

While talking things over, we drank goblets of Zach Henry's latest creation, Medusa. This beer was brewed at 10% ABV, then after primary fermentation was complete, it was put into oak barrels that had held white wine, along with fresh apricots, for aging and a secondary fermentation.  The result is indeed a monster of a beer;  it may not turn you to stone, but a couple of these will definitely get you stoned!

In the glass, it's a cloudy honey color with a small white head, as you can see from my amateurish attempt to photograph it.  The aroma was extremely rich and complex, with every aspect of the beer detectable.  I could pick up the apricots, the white wine, the oak, plus the underlying malt and hops of the base ale.  On the palate this beer was quite light for its strength, and had a nice, fairly dry finish. This is a brew that can well be called "dangerously drinkable", as it hides its high alcohol content extremely well.  Another delicious barrel-aged offering from St. Elias.

I stopped at St. Elias on Friday night as well, for a little relaxation at the end of the work week.  I had a pint of the year's version of their Sunfire Saison.  It's very similar to last year's (see my 8/22/2010 review), except that Zach has dialed the alcohol back a bit.  Last year's was 6.4%, while this year's is 6%.  Chatting with Zach, he told me that he wanted folks to be able to have more than one, hence the strength reduction.  Personally, I like the change.  The beer is just as tasty as it was last year, and that much more drinkable.

Up in Anchorage, Midnight Sun has released a new beer, Bangalore Double IPA, on draft and in 22 oz. bottles.  This is the first beer in their 2011 World Tour series.  It uses a mix of various Indian curry spices, and comes in at 9.5% ABV and 85 IBUs.  I haven't gotten a chance to try it yet, but I hope to soon.  Reports are the spices are fairly subtle and the overall effect is nice.

Midnight Sun will also be releasing their Sockeye Red IPA in cans beginning early next month, and will be at the Kenai Peninsula Beer Fest in August.  Also, mark your calendars for 11/11/2011: they will be tapping the very last keg of their Good Mojo Sour Brown Ale at the brewery on that date.  I was lucky enough to get a growler of this beer when it was first released and it was/is superb.  If you're a sour beer fan, you shouldn't miss your last shot at this one.

I tasted another new beer over the weekend: Ommegang Brewing's Belgian-style Pale Ale, or BPA for short. This beer is brewed using their Belgian house yeast but two of the three hops used are classic American varieties. Columbus hops are used for bittering, then three additions of Celeia hops for aroma, followed by dry hopping with Cascades.  The resulting beer weighs in at 6.2% ABV and is an interesting hybrid between the two brewing regions.  It poured a beautiful gold in color, with an absolutely tremendous white head.  The aroma clearly showed its mixed heritage, with spicy, peppery, earthy Belgian yeast notes, yet classic Cascade aromas from the dry-hopping.  On the palate, it was similar, with Belgian elements blending with the bitterness and hop flavors from the Northwest hops varieties.  Outstanding carbonation and a nice, light mouthfeel.  A lovely summer beer, I had mine with a BBQ pork sandwich and it complimented it nicely. Another excellent brew from the folks at Ommegang.

Well, that's about it for this week.  The forecast for next week's blog looks a bit iffy; my daughter and her fiance will be in town, so between that, Independence Day, and my 49th birthday, I'm liable to be a bit too busy to get anything out.  So enjoy the respite from my meanderings and drink some good craft beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer Solstice 2011

What's the solstice?
It's Summer Solstice time again here in Alaska.  When you live in a place with such extreme changes in its day-night cycle, the solstices, both winter and summer, are truly something to celebrate.  You have to loose something to truly value it, so daylight is something we never take for granted up here on The Last Frontier.  In December, we celebrate that the days will (finally!) start getting longer, while in June we celebrate that they have gotten as long as they can.

For our breweries here on the Kenai, this time of year means all-out production, trying to keep up with the surging demand from the tourists visiting our fair state.  Still, as busy as everyone is, I have a few snippets of news:

Kenai River's Beer of the Week is Skilak Scottish.  $8 growlers and $2.50 pints.

St. Elias Brewing will be releasing their Sunfire Saison again any day now (see my review of last year's version on 6/22/2010).  This was a wonderful beer and I'm looking forward to trying it again.  Zach reports that he'll be replacing his Pipedream Rauchbier with a brown ale (no name yet).  There will be another cask-conditioned beer tapped on First Thursday, 7 July, at 7 PM. LATE ADDITION: The Sunfire Saison is on tap now, along with Medusa, "a monstrous ale fermented with apricots then aged in Oak White Wine Barrels". ABV is about 10%, so watch your step!

Kassik's reports that their Imperial Spice Honey Wheat is about gone, to be replaced by their Big Nutz Imperial Brown.  They are also thinking of bottling their Otter Creek Amber next, though they will likely change its name.

Anchorage Brewing Company, Gabe Fletcher's new brewery, has released its first beer, Whiteout Wit.  I missed the release party at the Snow Goose in Anchorage on 6/19, but managed to score a couple of bottles at La Bodega the day before.  As a reminder, all of these beers will be barrel-aged and triple-fermented (primary, barrel, & bottle-conditioned).  They'll all be released exclusively in 750 ml corked bottles.

Click to enlarge.
Whiteout Wit poured a lovely light gold in color, absolutely crystal clear, and with a massive white head.  This beer is perfect in an over-sized tulip glass (AKA a Duvel-style one), to give room for this huge head.  Most wits are slightly cloudy, due to the wheat in the mash, but not this one.  The aroma was very enticing: Spiciness, both from the yeast used and the actual addition of spices (coriander and peppercorns), and lemon-citrus notes, both from the use of lemon peel and Sorachi Ace hops.  When I tasted it, the first thought that came to mind was "effervescence"; the beer is beautifully carbonated and wonderfully light on the palate.  The flavor notes from the lemon and the spices blend beautifully with the woody notes from aging in French Oak Chardonnay barrels and the touch of tart funkiness from the secondary fermentation with brettanomyces.  The brett notes are extremely well-balanced and totally integrated into the overall flavor profile, really becoming apparent only on the long finish.  In summary, this beer is another masterpiece from Gabe Fletcher.  I don't think I've ever had a beer that would be a better choice for a warm, summer's day, or as an aperitif before a fine dinner, or as an accompaniment to a nice salad.  Run, don't walk to buy this beer.  At less than $9 a bottle, it's ridiculously reasonable, and if you're in to beer trading, this stuff will be worth its weight in gold (or at least in beers from the East Coast).  Once again, I have to tip my hat to Gabe.  Well played, sir, well played.  I can't wait to taste the next beer that emerges from his creative genius.

So long, old friend!
While I was in Anchorage I took the opportunity to snap up all the Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter that I could afford.  I love this beer (see my review on 7/31/2008), but Flying Dog has joined the long list of breweries (Dogfish Head, Great Divide, Avery, Left Hand Brewing, etc) that have decided to pull out of the Alaska market.  I realize we're a small market and pretty far away, but it's sad that we'll be losing access to even more great beers.  Guess we'll just have to drink even more of the wonderful beers that are brewed by Alaskans for Alaskans.

While it's unfortunate that Flying Dog is pulling out, I'm happy to report that other breweries are starting to filter into Alaska.  Case in point, Boulevard Brewing Company from Kansas City.  I've written about their outstanding brews, usually when I was able to taste them on my travels or I picked up a bottle and brought it back to Alaska.  However, we're now starting to see their beers put in an appearance in the stores up here.  I'm still waiting to see some of their Tank 7 Farmhouse Saison (reviewed on 9/27/2010) or their Dark Truth Imperial Stout (3/9/2011) but many of their other brews are available in Anchorage, especially The Sixth Glass (8/2/2010).  This is a really exceptional quadrupel and I'm very happy that Alaskans now have access to it.

I did pick up another beer in Anchorage: Brasserie D'Achouffe's McChouffe Belgian Brown Ale.  I decided to give this a try after tasting their collaboration Ommegang last month, GnomegangMcChouffe is ostensibly their take on a Scotch Ale, which is probably my favorite style of beer, so...

It poured a dark, translucent ruby-brown, with a nice off-white head.  The aroma had the spicy, earthy notes that scream "Belgian yeast" to me, plus some caramel sweetness.  On the tongue it delivered a medium mouthfeel, with good carbonation.  Malt was in the foreground, as you'd expect from the style, but it was backed up with some spiciness from the yeast.  The finish was nice, but not terribly long, and I did not pick up any of the smokiness that I (though not everyone) like in this style.  All-in-all, a good beer, but not one I'd go out of my way to have again.  I'll have to try some of their other brews again and write formal reviews, as I remember them as being more impressive.

Well, that's about it for now.  As we all know, summer in Alaska is always much too short a season.  So let's get outside and enjoy it (with a beer in hand) while it lasts.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Sky is Crying

Kassik's 5th Anniversary Party
There's a wonderful blues song by the late, great Elmore James by that title.  It's first line is: "The sky is cryin'.  Can't you see the tears roll down the street?"  Well, for the last week here on the Kenai, the answer to that question has too often been "Yes".  In other words, we've gotten quite a bit of rain, and we're getting more of it today.  I'm hoping for a better day tomorrow, when my lovely wife Elaine will be manning her tent at the Soldotna Wednesday market.  But we bought a propane heater on Saturday, just in case...

Click to enlarge.
The dreary weather didn't put a damper on the 5th Anniversary Party at Kassik's Brewery on Saturday.  Elaine and I managed to stop by around 1 PM and things were in full swing.  The Couzins were playing some great tunes, lots off good beer was being poured, and Carroll Martin of Diamond M Ranch was dishing up some delicious BBQ.  All-in-all, it was a grand affair.  Additionally, the labels for their Caribou Kilt Wee Heavy Scotch Ale came in, so bottles are now on sale at the brewery and will be going out today to their distributor, which means they will be on local shelves very soon.  More good news:  Kassik's Dolly Varden Nut Brown Ale is also being released in bottles today.

Last Thursday evening, St. Elias Brewing Company continued their First Thursday tradition of tapping a cask-conditioned beer.  I'd missed the last two tappings and darn near missed this one, thanks to construction delays on the Sterling Highway.  When I walked into the place, Zach Henry was just setting the cask up on the bar and getting it ready to tap.  I walked over to get a picture, at which point Zach announced that I would be the guest tapper that evening.  Despite all the time I've spent hanging around in bars, this was a first for me.  Here are a few of photos (courtesy of Brandi Kerley), so you can see how it went:

Safety brief from Mr. Henry before conducting the evolution.

Lining up the mallet with the spigot.

Looks like we have penetration.

All done.  Someone hand me a glass.

It was a lot of fun, and I recommend you give it a try if the chance ever presents itself.  But what about the beer?  It was a Puddle Jumper Pale Ale, dry  hopped with 4 ounces of East Kent Goldings.  It had the same wonderful, creamy carbonation that's the hallmark of cask-conditioning.  Very nice.

St. Elias has another new beer on tap: Lucid, a Belgian Pale Ale that was barrel-aged for over a year.  It poured a cloudy honey color, with a small, fast-dissipating head.  The aroma was of hops and some woody notes.  It was nice and light on the palate, with good hop bitterness, then with a nice woody tang on the finish.  This beer wasn't aged in a "wet" bourbon cask, so you should expect no whiskey; it's just wood.  At 5.7% ABV, it's much more sessionable than the usual barrel-aged offerings from St. Elias.

On the debit side of the ledger, the much beloved Tin Hat has finally gone; my friend Curt and I got a couple of goblets on Friday, and were sitting at the bar as the keg blew.  It will be missed.

Over at Kenai River Brewing, the march towards their second canned offering continues.  They've just brewed a triple batch of their Sunken Isle IPA, and I can't wait to grab a six-pack of that next month to take out on the river.  This week's beer special is Arctic XPA, at $8 a growler or $2.50 a glass.

Besides the Lucid reviewed above, I didn't get to try any new brews this week, as I was too busy drinking old favorites.  Among them, I had a nice bottle of Anchor Brewing's Porter; it's a beer I've been drinking for about 25 years, and it's still amazing.  Last month it was on draft at The Back Door Bar in Kenai.  I don't know if it still is, but if so, it's worth the trip.  If not, you can find it at Save-U-More or Country Liquors.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Cross your fingers for some better weather; we need some sunshine!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Summer Time?

It's the 1st of June and it's raining here on the Kenai; I really hope this isn't indicative of how this summer is going to go.  Sunny and dry is what we're looking for, not rainy and cool.

Our local breweries continue to make progress.  Kassik's Brewery now has their award-winning Caribou Kilt Wee Heavy Scotch Ale on tap.  They've also got a bunch bottled, but they are still waiting on the labels to come in.  Hopefully they'll be heading out the door early next week to Anchorage and other points around the state.  Kassik's also has their 5th Anniversary Party this Saturday from noon to 5 pm.  There will be beer, food, and live music, with all proceeds going to benefit the Food Bank, so cross your fingers for good weather and stop by if you can.  I'll see you there.

Thanks to continued expansion, Doug Hogue at Kenai River Brewing has taken an official leave of absence from his "regular" job as a teacher to become a full-time brewer.  Now their brewhouse can be operated two shifts a day, rather than one, which should help out with production.  There's another 20 bbl tank on the way, which will be dedicated to producing Sunken Isle IPA for canning, following up the big success of Skilak Scottish in cans.  Best estimate now is for the canned IPA to be available in July.  The only fly in the ointment is that because they're so busy meeting demand, Doug and the boys haven't had a chance to brew any more of their one-off beers, like a new Single Hop IPA. They do have their new Hoppin' Salmon Wheat (review below), and they're running a special all week on their Pillars Pale Ale, $8 growlers and $2.50 pints.

At St. Elias Brewing, tomorrow is another First Thursday.  I haven't heard any details, but there should be  the tapping of another cask-conditioned beer at 7 PM.  I've missed the last couple for various reasons, so I'm really hoping to be able to stop by. Late Addition: The cask beer will by Puddle Jumper Pale Ale, dry-hopped with East Kent Goldings.  Mother's Milk Irish Stout is back on tap, along with Lucid, a 100% barrel-aged Belgian Pale Ale.

Looking further afield, Midnight Sun Brewing up in Anchorage just celebrated their 16th anniversary.  They too are expanding, picking up warehouse space around the corner to house their barrels for wood-aging.   it shouldn't be much longer before we see the first of their canned beers, Sockeye Red IPA and Kodiak Brown, show up on local shelves.

Meanwhile, down in Juneau, Alaskan is re-releasing their Raspberry Wheat Beer (reviewed 6/22/2010), the summer entry to their Pilot Series.  This mean their Imperial IPA won't be on the shelves much longer, so if you want to try it, you'd better grab it now.

Turning to beer reviews, thanks to the generosity of folks coming up here to visit, I got to try beers from two different Michigan breweries that don't distribute to Alaska.  The first beer was an Oberon Ale from Bell's BreweryBell's is a very highly regarded brewery located in Kalamzoo, Michigan, and has a pretty limited distribution.  Oberon Ale is their summer beer, in the American Wheat style, and comes in at 5.8% ABV.  It poured a cloudy gold with a nice, white head.  The aroma was bright, with mild citrus notes.  The carbonation was excellent, with a nice smooth mouthfeel.  Hops are restrained, just there for balance, making for a refreshing and thirst-quenching brew. An outstanding summer beer, perfect when you're looking to cool off.

I was even more excited to try the other beer, a Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale from Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  As a huge fan of the Strong Scotch or Wee Heavy style, I couldn't help but hear tales of this excellent example of that style, but this was my first ever chance to actually taste it myself.  It poured a deep ruby-brown in color, with a big cream-colored head.  The aroma was rich with sweet malt, caramel, and hints of peat smoke.  On the palate the beer was equally big and complex, tons of sweet malt, but also a significant hop presence (50 IBUs) and just enough smoky peat.  The finish is long and complex, with a touch of alcohol heat from the 8.5% ABV.  This is an absolutely outstanding Strong Scotch and I am so happy that I finally got to taste it.  My only regret is that I can't get anymore of it or any of the other great beers Founders Brewing Company makes.  Well, maybe someday...

Finally, let's talk about Kenai River Brewing's new Hoppin' Salmon Wheat.  This is another American Wheat Ale in style, but as you can guess from the name, it's for folks who like hops.  However, it's actually not a very bitter beer; instead, the focus is on hop flavor and aroma.  It pours a cloudy honey color, with a big off-white head.  The nose is heavy with the citrus/grapefruit notes that scream American hops.  It's very light on the tongue, with plenty of good carbonation and a tremendous amount of hop flavor, but, as I said above, not a ton of bitterness.  The relatively low level of hop bitterness greatly improves the "sessionablity" of this beer, i.e. you can drink plenty of it without wrecking your palate.  I finished a liter of it by myself in the course of watching the Mariners beat the Yankees, and found the last glass just as easy-drinking as the first, which would not have been the case with a 60 or 70 IBU IPA.  This is the summer beer for you hopheads out there; light and refreshing, but loaded with hop flavor and aroma. Very nice.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Let's all hope for some better weather in the coming days, so we can get out in the sun and work up a thrist for some good, local craft beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!