Friday, September 23, 2011

Further on Up the Road

Okay, I'm over my sickness and ready to talk about beer again.  In fact, since my last blog I had the opportunity to check out not one but two new breweries AND a new beer bar, so I've got lots to report.

My lovely wife Elaine was lucky enough to score a Denali lottery ticket this year, for Monday, September 19th.  For you non-Alaskans out there, most of the 92 mile-long road into Denali National Park is closed to private vehicles most of the time.  However, on the last four days of the season in September, a lottery is held for vehicle passes.  Four hundred passes are awarded each day, and if you are lucky enough to win one, from 6 AM you can drive your car all the way to Kantishna at the end of the road, so long as you're back out again by midnight.  For a professional photographer like my wife, it's a dream come true.  I went along to drive and watch her back with a can of bear spray.

We left on Sunday on the 400 mile drive up to Denali; we wanted to be able to get an early start on Monday.  Passing through Wasilla, we stopped for lunch at The Last Frontier Brewing Company.  The place was pretty empty (not surprising at noon on a Sunday), but it looked great.  Here are a few interior shots:

Checking out the beer menu, I was impressed by the fact that it lead off with three lagers; not a common occurrence in many brewpubs.  Elaine zeroed in on the Black Diamond Dark Lager, a schwarzbier.  This is one of her favorite styles and not easy to find at all.  I went for the Gold Digger Maibock.  The rest of the line-up: 
24 Karat Gold Lager
Heavenly Wheat Ale
Spiced Peach Cream Ale
Prospector Pale Ale
Imperial Topaz Amber Ale
Garnet IPA
Grubstake Stout
Dusty behind the bar delivered our pints and also told me that all their beers (except the Maibock) were currently available in bottles at the brewery.  That made me feel a little better about not being able to try more of them.  We ordered some lunch and then dove into the beers in front of us.

My wife's schwarzbier, as you can see from the photo, looked beautiful in the glass. (Too bad it was a stupid shaker pint!  Oh well...) It had a nice nose, clean and not too roasty.  Tasting it, I was really impressed with how clean the flavors were, good maltiness up front, excellent balance, and falling away to a nice finish.  Elaine pronounced it better than the Duck-Rabbit Brewery's Schwarzbier that she had sampled at the last year's Great American Beer Festival, which was her previous gold standard for the style.  At 4.2% ABV and 30 IBUs, it was so very nice we took two bottles away with us.

Next was my selection, the Gold Digger Maibock.  At 7.5% ABV, this beer was brewed to appropriate bock strength. As you can see from the photo, it was a lovely deep gold in color with a small but persistent head.  It had the big, clean malt aroma that a bock should.  On the palate, it was a classic bock, with big, clean malt flavors predominating, and hops there just for balance, though it did tasty hoppier to me that the listed 26 IBUs. A really wonderful brew, and it made an excellent pair to the sandwich I had for lunch.  Speaking of lunch, both my sandwich and my wife's Fettuccine Alfredo were excellent.

To sum things up, I was greatly impressed with The Last Frontier Brewing Company.  Their beers are outstanding, their food is great, the location in nice, and everyone I spoke to was friendly.  It's too bad that I live 200 miles away; otherwise, I could see myself spending lots of time there. As it is, I know where I'll be stopping anytime my travels take my through Wasilla.

After enjoying our lunch and collecting our bottles of beer to take with us, we headed north up the Parks Highway toward Denali.  Two hundred miles later, after we checked into our hotel, we pushed on to Healy, 10  miles north of the park entrance, in search of 49th State Brewing Company.  I wrote about this brand-new brewpub in my last Redoubt Reporter column, but everything I knew was second-hand, so I was eager to try their wares for myself.

As we walked in, we were immediately impressed with the "Alaskan vibe" of the place:

Since they currently only have a 1/3 barrel brewing system, I wasn't surprised to find only one of their brews on tap, the Summer Stout.  Trying to keep up with demand using what amounts to a jumped-up homebrewing outfit much be a real nightmare!  I understand they are looking at getting at least a five-barrel system in the near future. 

Of course, I ordered a Summer Stout to go with my order of fish & chips, while Elaine went for their caesar salad.  We both opted for cups of their Baked Blonde Ale & Smoked Gouda Cheese Soup.  When the beer arrived, it was opaque with a small tan head, just as you'd expect from an oatmeal stout.  The aroma was nice and roasty, but with some sweetness.  On the palate it was smooth and creamy, with excellent silkiness from the oats.  There was a nice balance between the sweet and roasty elements, leading me to wonder if perhaps there wasn't some lactose in the recipe.  Over all, it was very good, and I'm looking forward to their being able to expand production.  I'd love to see some of their brews on tap down this way, or perhaps  we might see 49th Street Brewing at the 2nd Annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival?

By the way, the soup was freakin' awesome!  Both Elaine and I ended up wishing we'd ordered a bowl instead of a cup.  Good beer and good food: what more can your ask for after a long day on the road?

We spent the next day driving in Denali, getting some awesome pictures, having a wonderful time, and working up a real appetite.  By the time we got back to the hotel, it was pushing 7 PM, so we thought we'd hit the famous Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse, with their 26 specialty pizzas and 40+ beers on tap.  Unfortunately, it seems everyone else in town had the same idea; when we walked up, the hostess told us it would be a two hour wait!  Since we were already starving, this was a non-starter.  Many other eating places in town were closed for the season, so we ended up at the King Salmon Restaurant at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

My beer expectations being pretty low at this point, I was pleasantly surprised to find Denali Brewing Company's Single Engine Red Ale on the menu.  I was less pleasantly surprised when the waiter returned to tell me that they were out of that beer and to offer me Alaskan's Summer Ale as a substitute.  Given the other choices on their menu (Alaskan Amber, Alaskan White, or Heineken), I was OK with that.  However, when the woman at the table next to me asked the same waiter "What do you have that's like an IPA" and he recommended an Alaskan Summer, I damn near choked.  Alaskan's Summer Ale is a fine beer, but like an IPA?  Yeah, in that they are both brewed with ale yeasts.  Other than that, kolschs and IPAs are about as different as they come.  I'm assuming this waiter was just ignorant and not under orders to push the Summer Ale for some reason, but even that doesn't reflect too highly on the training level of the staff.  Once again, we see that beer gets no respect.

Moral of the story: Make a reservation for dinner at Prospectors Pizzeria.

The next day we were on the road at dawn, rolling south on our way back to the Kenai.  We needed to make a stop at Best Buy, so it seemed as good a chance as any to check out one of the newest additions to the Anchorage beer scene, the Firetap Alehouse & Restaurant at the Tikahtnu Square Shopping Center on North Muldoon Ave.

Since we arrived right at noon, it was of course packed, mostly with service people from nearby Elmendorf-Richardson.  Looking over the beer menu, I was gratified to see that there were 28 craft taps versus 3 taps dedicated to macro-brews.  Amongst the craft choices were beers from Kassik's and Kenai River Breweries here on the Peninsula, plus a nice selection of other breweries here in the state, including among others Alaskan, Midnight Sun, and Silver Gulch.  The even had a house beer, Red Hot Mama Red Ale, brewed for them by Glacier Brewhouse.  Overall the ambiance was much closer to that of a sports bar, as opposed to the more restaurant feel of their original location, but then they are obviously targeting the military demographic of the huge base right next door, so that's to be expected.

Eventually I decided to have a Firestone-Walker Double Barrel Pale Ale, a beer I'd had before and really enjoyed.  I was happy to see that a 10 oz glass (along with 16 & 22 oz) was an option on the menu.  If you want to be able to try a couple of different beers over lunch, or just don't want to drink an whole pint, an 8 or 10 oz. option is nice to have.  Our only complaint was the time it took to get our meals.  It took almost 45 minutes for my wife's Mac & Cheese and my Penne Pesce to emerge from the kitchen.  That being said, when they did arrive they were excellent, particularly my dish, which was chock-full of delicious scallops and shrimp.  Bottom line: this new Firetap is continuing the successful legacy of the original.

On the local beer news front, in support of Prostate Cancer Awareness, Kassik's Brewery will be donating a portion of all their Morning Wood sales in September to the 3rd Annual Beer for the Boys campaign.  Over at Kenai River Brewing they are fermenting a new Single Hop IPA; this time around they're using Magnum hops.  They also have a new glasses on sale which mimic their Skilak Scottish cans.  They look extremely cool, so stop by and check them out.  I don't think there's much new to report at St. Elias, other than that Zach, his sister Jessie, and assistant brewer John are all currently in Europe, touring breweries in Belgium and Germany, with a plan to finish up at Oktoberfest next weekend.  I wonder what sort of wild ideas for beers they'll bring back with them?

Well, that's about it for now.  It's likely there will be no blog next week, as my daughter will be getting married on Sunday, October 2, and I'll likely be too busy with pre-wedding mania to bang out a blog.  But don't worry, when I get back at it I'll have lots of new beers to review for you.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Local Releases

I've been more than a bit under the weather lately, trying to fight off some sort of sinus infection/head cold, which has seriously impacted my ability to both consume and appreciate the fine flavors of beer.  So I don't have anything in the way a a beer review to give you this week; I wouldn't want to subject any good craft beer to evaluation by my currently much-diminished senses of taste & smell.  However, the local craft brewers have been pretty busy, so I do have some news to relate on that front.

Kassik's Brewery has a new bottled release coming out: Orion's Quest Red Ale is in the bottle and will be released on Sunday, 9/24, so keep any eye out for it at your local fine beer store. They're also getting close to brewing another batch of their excellent Chocolate Cherry Stout.

Lots of cans!
Over at Kenai River Brewing, the Sunken Isle cans finally arrived a week ago, and I'm sure Doug and the boys will soon have them filled with lots of hoppy goodness.  Meantime, they've just put a new beer on tap.  They're already selling PBR (Peninsula Brewers Reserve), so why not some PCP, AKA PepperCorn Porter?  It's made with several varieties of ground pepper, giving it a touch of sweet heat.  I had a small sample last week and really liked it, but I need to stop by and get enough for a full review.

Meanwhile, at St. Elias Brewing Company, they've released two more new brews and one of them also happens to be a porter, though this one is made with coffee, not pepper.  Fair Trade Porter uses a cold steeping process with Kalahdi Brothers coffee to really bring rich, roasty flavors into this 6.2% ABV brew.  I got a small taste of this one back on 9/2 and I was amazed at the amount of coffee flavor it packs.  It went on tap last Sunday.  Then on Tuesday, St. Elias added Moonfire Saison to their tap line.  Here's the blurb from their Facebook page: 

"Traditionally, Belgian Saison was made during the cool months to be consumed during the heat of the summer, when brewing was impossible. Moonfire saison was brewed in the spring, but aged all summer long in white wine barrels. It’s brewed with the addition of brown rice and fermented with a special Belgian yeast strain. This is a complex style with fruity overtones in the aroma and a dry, spicy, tart character with contributions of oak and white wine."

I had a small sample of this beer back in early August, pulled straight off the barrel.  Even un-carbonated and at room temperature, it was delicious.  I'm very much looking forward to getting a pint of the finished product. 

Well, that's about it for this week.  Hopefully by next time around my head will have cleared and I'll have reviews of all these great new beers to pass on to you.  Or you can get out and try them yourself.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

25 Years of Brewing at Alaskan

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell
Twenty-five years is a long time.  It's a quarter-century, which in today's hyper-modern culture means it's ancient history.  Let's see, in 1986 Reagan was still president, there was still a Soviet Union, gold was valued at $350 an ounce, and yours truly had just reported to his first sea assignment.  Today, Reagan's been canonized by the GOP, the USSR is in the dust bin of history, the dollar has been inflated by the Fed to the point that it takes 1900 of them to buy an ounce of gold, and I've been retired from the USN for seven years come October.  Yeah, it's been a quarter century, all right.

However, something else of interest happened in 1986.  Geoff and Macy Larson got the crazy idea to open a craft brewery in Juneau, Alaska.  With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard for us today to grasp just what a leap of faith this was for them.  Alaskan Brewing Company became the 67th brewery in operation in the US when it opened in December, 1986; today, there are more than 1700.  Juneau is really a crazy place to open a brewery, given its relative isolation and lack of road links to Outside.  Fortunately for us all, Geoff and Marcy were Alaskans, and Alaskans seldom make decisions based on whether or not something seems crazy.  Instead, they dug up an old recipe from the Douglas City Brewing Company (1899-1907), rounded up 10 volunteers, and spent 12 hours hand-packaging the first 253 cases of Alaskan Amber for sale in Juneau.  The rest, as they says, is history...

In celebration of their first 25 years, Alaskan chose to brew the appropriately-named Perseverance Ale, the latest addition to their Pilot Series of limited-edition specialty beers.  The beer is stylistically a Russian Imperial Stout, with the added local ingredients of birch syrup from the Alaska Birch Syrup Company and fireweed honey from Alaskan Bee Apiaries, plus some of the alder-smoked malt that is used in their medal-winning Smoked Porter.  All of these are great choices to highlight the "Alaskan-ness" of the brew.  Besides these local ingredients, there are also brown sugar and malted oats in the recipe. So what's it taste like?

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell
Perseverance Ale pours totally opaque, with a small tan head that dissipates to a collar.  The aroma has a hint of smoke, plus plenty of sweet notes battling it out with roasted flavors.  On the palate the story is much the same, with 50 IBUs of bitterness to balance the big malt bill and the syrup and honey additions.  The beer is deep, rich, and complex; the finish is long, with some sweetness making itself felt, then a touch of alcohol heat from the 9% ABV at the very end.  It will be interesting to cellar the beer for a year or more, to see if these sweet flavors dry out over time. All-in-all a potent and delicious Russian Imperial Stout, slightly sweeter than typical examples produced by other breweries.  Congratulations to Geoff and Marcy and the rest of the folks at Alaskan; I look forward to seeing what you guys come up with in the next 25 years.

Perseverance Ale wasn't the only syrup-laced brew I tried over the Labor Day Weekend.  I also cracked a bottle of Life and Limb 2, a collaboration between Dogfish Head Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing.  Supposedly the "life" part comes from the fact that it's bottle-conditioned by live yeast, while the "limb" references the addition of both birch and maple syrups. The beer poured a dark, slightly-translucent chestnut with a big, cream-colored head. The nose was plenty of big, clean sweetness, and the carbonation was excellent, giving it an effervescent mouthfeel.  The sweet notes continued on the tongue, with flavors of brown sugar and molasses, as well as some heat from the 10.2% alcohol.  Life and Limb 2 finished long but by no means dry; this is a beer for those who like their brews on the sweet side.  This is another brew that I'd be interested in cellaring, just to see what the yeast would do to the flavor profile over a year or two.

Moving on to another member of the Beers-With-Unusual-Ingredients-Club, I had a bottle of Midnight Sun's Aukland Wit Bier.  This is the latest entry in their World Tour series and is brewed with kiwi fruit.  It poured a crystal-clear gold with a nice white head.  The aroma was classic wit, light and refreshing, with hints of lemon and citrus.  The beer had wonderful carbonation, with a great, light feel on the tongue.  The flavors from the aroma continued in the taste, making for a very refreshing brew. All-in-all, this was a very tasty wit, but there was one thing missing: the kiwi.  I know I haven't got the most refined palate out there, but usually when something's printed on the label, I can find it in the beer.  Not this time.  Aukland's a delicious wit bier, but if you can pick up the kiwi, you've got a better taster then mine.

I and several of my colleagues dropped into St. Elias Brewing after work on Friday, both to unwind after a busy week and get some growlers filled for the long weekend.  There was another new beer on the menu, a Munich Red Ale.  Zach wasn't around for me to ask, but my impression of the brew is that it's another of what I like to call his "fauxmaltiness, both in the aroma and on the palate, with perhaps a touch of roastiness.  Very nice, and a great accompaniment to food.  In fact, I was told that the day before some tourists from Munich had been in to St. Elias and this beer was their drink of choice, so that's a pretty good endorsement!

As for our other local breweries, I don't have much news, other than that folks are trying to catch up after a busy summer.  The cans for Sunken Isle IPA are enroute from the manufacturer, so hopefully we'll have a second choice of cans from Kenai River soon.

Finally, some upcoming Anchorage beer events to keep in mind: Thursday evening Merchant du Vin is hosting a beer dinner at Ruby's Cafe and this Saturday is Bodega-Fest at Kincaid Park. See my previous blog for more details, but if you'll be in anchorage on either date, these are events not to miss.

Until Next Time, Cheers!