Thursday, September 13, 2012

Special Report: Kodiak Island Brewing Company

I've been an Alaskan for over eight years now.  For at least six of those, my wife Elaine and I have periodically exchanged the phrase: "We really need to visit Kodiak sometime."  Last weekend, after a bit of a nudge from owner/brewer Ben Millstein, we took the proverbial bull by its proverbial horns, and flew to Kodiak for a few days.

The B&B Bar in Kodiak, the oldest bar in Alaska
First off, let me say that Kodiak is a very beautiful place.  Elaine and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit there.  The weather was perfect on Sunday, without a cloud in the sky, and we took full advantage of it to explore.  Folks were very friendly, and seemed very proud of their community.  Ben actually went to the trouble to meet us at the airport, which was a totally unexpected level of hospitality.  He also gave us some great recommendations on things to do and places to eat.  His suggestion of the Old Powerhouse Restaurant was particularly good; I had some of the best sushi I've had this side of Japan there!

However, this is a beer blog, not a travel one, so let's talk about Kodiak Island Brewing Company.  The brewery has just completed (more or less) a move to a new, much expanded location, going from 2400 to 9000 square feet. I saw their original site, and the new taproom is bigger than their entire previous location.  They are now at 117 Lower Mill Bay Road, right in the heart of town (next to the McDonalds).  As part of the move, they added three new tanks, a new 30-barrel fermenter and two new 30-barrel conditioning tanks.  All together, the new tankage should allow about a 30% increase in production.  Also as part of the move, the size of their tap room tripled.

The new, much larger tap room

As you can see from the picture, the new tap room layout is open and airy, favoring long, communal bars over tables and chairs.  There is a lot or re-purposed material, from ship's masts used as pillars to old fishing gear used as decorations.  Open from noon to 7 PM, seven days a week, their tap room is clearly one of the social hubs of the community.

In fact, I'd have to say that Kodiak Island Brewing Company is probably the most deeply community-embedded craft brewery that I have ever visited.  Other craft breweries are vital parts of their respective communities, especially here in Alaska, but I've seen none so fully and completely entwined with ever aspect of daily life.  Ben Millstein makes no bones about his goal: he wants to make good beer for the people on Kodiak, and he could really care less about sending his wares off island.  You'll find his beers on tap in most bars and restaurants, and he is the second largest purchaser of Quoin's party pigs in the country, so he's obviously doing what he wants to do very well.  But don't expect to see his brews anywhere off island, barring the Great Alaska Beer & Barely Wine Festival and the odd keg at Humpy's or Cafe Amsterdam.

Which is too bad, because Ben and his head brewer Mike Trussell are brewing some damn fine beer.  They only had six beers on tap while I was there, as they are still trying to build up inventory after being shutdown for the big move, but the new bar has taps for nine.  I had five of the six while I was there; I never got around to their Hefeweizen.  Here are some thumbnail reviews:

Sarah Pale Blonde Ale: Named after a certain former governor of this fair state, this beer is touted as "All body, no head." A 5% ABV coastal lager or steam beer, it pours a dark gold with little head.  The aroma was primarily of malt, as was the flavor profile.  Well made, but like its namesake, it really wasn't my cup of tea...

North Pacific Ale: More or less in the style of a Scottish ale, this 4.5% ABV brew poured a dark caramel color with a small tan head.  The nose was of malt & caramel, with the tiniest hint of roast.  Excellent mouthfeel, good carbonation, very malt forward, with a nice, clean taste.  Extremely drinkable, an excellent session beer.

Liquid Sunshine: One of their flagship brews, this is a classic California Common or Steam beer.  It was a deep golden color in the glass, with a very nice white head that left excellent lacing on the glass.  Great carbonation, and clean, crisp hoppiness, falling off to a nice finish.  Extremely drinkable at 5% ABV, it was easy to see why this beer was such a big seller.

Devil's Club Strong Ale: This beer was created by Mike Trussell; rumor has it he wanted to convey what it feels like to be hit in the face with Devil's Club. (For those of you non-Alaskans out there, Devil's Club, scientific name Opolpanax horridus, is a plant covered in very nasty, tiny brittle spines.  I stumbled into some on a hike a few years ago and it took weeks to get all the nasty little spines out of my hand. )  It's a brew that reminded me a bit of Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard Ale, being strong (8%) and very hoppy.  It poured a very dark honey color with a small head.  The aroma was full of Simcoe hop aroma, and on the tongue there was great balance between the massive malt backbone and the ton of hop bitterness and flavor.  A great brew, but definitely not one you could have more than one of!

Bering Sea Scotch Ale: OK, yes, I saved my favorite for last.  Everyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that Scotch Ale is probably my favorite style of beer, especially when it's done right.  And Kodiak Island does it right.  It poured a dark, semi-translucent ruby, with a nice off-white head.  The smoked malt used made it presence known with authority in the nose.  There was excellent body to the beer, a real sturdy malt forward flavor profile, plus the nice smoke flavors, all dropping off to an excellent finish.  A really great smoked Scotch Ale; if it was available locally I'd be running through a growler per week.

Waiting for another pint at the serving bar
So what's the takeaway from my visit to Kodiak Island Brewing Company?  I really wish I hadn't waited eight years to visit. Kodiak is a lovely place, full of friendly folks, and blessed with a great craft brewery.  Like some of the best things in this world, you won't find their products for sale at Safeway or Fred Meyer; no, you actually have to go there to experience them.  But there's nothing wrong with that, is there?

Back next week with my regular blog.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

1 comment:

Kodiak Daily Mirror said...

Glad you enjoyed your trip here!