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!

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