Friday, July 19, 2013

A Northern Run, Part I

Well, it's been three weeks since the last blog.  In my defense, first it was the July 4th holidays, and then Elaine and I left on a week-long trip to check out the breweries north of the Valley.  It was a working vacation, since we needed to get photos of all of them for Volume II of Beer on the Last Frontier, and a long-overdue return to that part of state.  We hadn't been to Talkeetna or Fairbanks for five years, since early July in 2008.  We also managed to time things so we could attend the 2013 Golden Days Beer Festival at Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling Company in Fox on Saturday, July 13th. 

We left on Thursday, 11 July (Happy Birthday, Dad!), and drove to Anchorage, where we stopped for lunch at the Fire Tap Alehouse south of O'Malley.  I started things off right with a nice King Street IPA, then follwed it up with a big plate of their Penne Pesce; Elaine had the Manicotti Formaggio.  Suitably fortified, we were ready to continue on to Talkeetna.

The first stop in town was at the Denali Brewing Beer Garden downtown, next to the Twister Creek Restaurant, where we met up with Sassan Mossanen, one of the driving forces behind Denali.  While Elaine snapped pictures of the  small brewery crammed into the back area at the beer garden, Sassan and I talked beer and sampled several, including their delicious Kentucky Sour.  It seemed hard to believe that when I was last in town, they hadn't even brewed their first batch, and now they were about to celebrate their 5th anniversary.

Besides their brewery in town, Denali has a large production brewery at mile 2 of the Talkeetna Spur Road (more on that later).  The 10 hectoliter brewhouse, one 20-bbl and two 16-bbl fermenters, and six wooden barrels produce the smaller batch, more unique beers that Denali offers in the Beer Garden and adjacent restaurant.  When we were there, the former had a dozen different beers on offer, while the later had eleven, with only eight beers appearing on both menus.  So that means their were a total of fifteen (!) different brews on offer.  That would have made for quite a tasting, and one I lacked the stamina for after a long day of driving, so I settled for sampling a half dozen or so, before heading off to check in at our B&B.  We did return to Twister Creek for an excellent supper, which gave me the chance to try another beer, their I Squared Imperial IPA

The next morning, after a big breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, we were on the road again heading north, dodging RVs and road construction.  Around 1 pm we finally arrived at 49th State Brewing in Healy, which was another picture of amazing growth.  We had last been there in September of 2011, toward the end of their first season.  At the time they were still brewing with their original 1/2-barrel system and had only one beer of their own on tap.  Now, that system has been relegated to making pilot batches and they are brewing on a 5-barrel system, which explained their ability to now offer about ten of their beers on tap.  Once again Elaine started snapping photos, while Brewer Jay Bullen and I sat down to chat.  We talked about their successful Hibernation experiment, where they brewed 10 different beers last fall, just before shutting down for the winter, and then left those beers to cold-condition during the long, cold, dark months.  They were mostly gone at at this point, except for an Imperial Stout that was still on tap.  I had a small sample of that one, and I thought it was excellent, so I'm sure that experiment will be repeated.  Jay told me he was extremely busy, just trying to brew enough beer to satisfy both the pub in Healy and the Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse a few miles south on the Parks Highway, which is owned by the same people.  Looking ahead, they are already gearing up for their big Augtoberfest on August 2 & 3.  Besides all the great music and food, they will be offering a full suite of German-style brews, including a schwartzbier brewed in collaboration with King Street Brewing of Anchorage.  Eventually, they hope to acquire another 10 to 15 barrel brewhouse just to brew their flagships.  Like just about ever other brewery in the state, they're struggling to meet demand.

After plenty of good beer and a great cheeseburger, Elaine and I pointed my yellow truck north again and made speed to Fairbanks.  We cruised into the Golden City around 5 pm, and dropped in at HooDoo Brewing, our first visit to this less than a year old brewery.  We found what seemed like half of Fairbanks sitting around, both inside and outside, enjoying the glorious sunshine and relaxing on a Friday after work.  Owner Bobby Wilken explanation for the number of people dropping in to have a beer or fill growlers was that HooDoo is selling 99.9% of their beer right there in the brewery and had no plans to package or even sign on with a distributor.  According to Bobby, they are absolutely committed to the Fairbanks market and are happy to avoid the hassles, expense, and demands of packaging or supplying draft accounts.  As long as HooDoo can make a go of it selling their brews from the brewery, that's all they plan to do.

I sampled the five beers that were available: a Kolsch, a Mild, a Bavarian Weiss, their IPA, and a Stout. The brewing system at HooDoo uses a separate lauter tun from the mash tun, allowing them to really replicate the clean, malty flavors of European brews, like the Kolsch.  I really enjoyed it, and it drew high praise from my wife, who spent six years in Germany and really knows her German beers.  I was extremely please to see a mild on offer, as I think this is a sadly under-brewed style in the US.  Their version had all the deep, rich malt flavor of a Northern British Mild, but with the lower ABV (4.1%) that let's you keep drinking it all evening.  The only thing that could make it better would be to serve it on cask, which Bobby says is something they are working toward.  The Bavarian Weiss was spot on for the style, with all the banana, clove, & bubble gum flavors that you get from using a genuine Bavarian yeast.  Their IPA was also excellent, tasting cleaner and better balanced than I would have thought one at 73 IBUs could.  Finally, the Stout was rich and chewy, with some nice sweetness from adding lactose.  All five beers were truly excellent and as long as they keep brewing to this standard, HooDoo brewing should have no problem getting the serious craft beer lovers in Fairbanks to beat a path to their door.

On Saturday, we headed out the Steese Highway to Fox, home of the Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Company and the site of the Golden Days Beer Festival.  When we arrived, there was already a big tent set up in the beer garden, which made me very happy, as it was quite warm and sunny.  Before the fest got started, we followed our by now standard routine of Elaine taking photos of the brewery and restaurant and me talking to the brewer.  I went looking for Head Brewer Levi Hansen.  He wasn't there, but I ran into Assistant Brewer Matt Austin instead.  This turned out to be very fortuitous, as Matt informed me that Levi would be leaving at the end of July and that he would be taking over as Head Brewer.  This was news to me, but it did give me a chance to talk over with Matt his ideas for future brews.  Once Elaine had all her shots done, we adjourned to the bar and I had a Prudhoe Pig Oatmeal Rye Stout to keep myself occupied until the festival proper started.

The festival started at 3 pm and ran until 10 pm.  As usual, Elaine and I were the first ones through the door.  The fest itself was well-organized (thanks to the efforts of Glenn Brady and the rest of the Silver Gulch staff) and not too crowded, at least in the early hours while we were there.  The beer choices were pretty extensive, especially amongst the bottled imports, and there were some great-looking bratwurst and other beer fest foods on offer.  The boys from HooDoo were there in their lederhosen, so I had to pose for a photo with them:

We were there for about two and a half hours, having a marvelous time, but we ducked out to go find some supper as things started to get more crowded.

On the return journey south, we stopped for lunch at Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse just outside of Denali National Park.  They have over fifty taps, with a ton of beers from local breweries.  When we were there, they had beers from 49th State, Sleeping Lady, Midnight Sun, Glacier BrewHouse, Silver Gulch, Alaskan (including a Rough Draft offering), King Street, Denali, Kenai River, Kassik's, Broken Tooth, and Arkose.  That's a pretty extensive line-up!  Plus, they have lots of excellent brews from Outside, both from the Lower 48 and imports.  I ended up drinking a glass of Biere De Miel Farmhouse Ale from Brasserie Dupont, which is one of my favorite breweries in the world.  The food was also excellent, and the portion sizes were huge!  Go here hungry or plan to take food home with you.

After lunch, we rolled south again to Talkeetna.  This time, we stopped at the production brewery at Mile 2 on the Talkeetna Spur Road, to meet with Boe Barnett, another of the principals behind Denali Brewing Company.  I was very impressed by the size of the brewing and canning operation here, with a 30-barrel brewhouse and 570 barrels worth of fermentor capacity either in use or in the process of coming on-line.  The three brand-new 120 barrel conical fermentors are particularly impressive, as was the huge storage space, filled with towering pallets of empty cans.  Later this year, they plan to open a taproom at this facility, with 12 taps pouring beers from noon to 6 pm.  They've only been in the new facility for two years, but they are already short on space and are planning to expand the cold storage room by another 60 extension.  The also have a sweet 1 barrel Blichmann brewing system that any homebrewer would give his eyeteeth for.  They use it (and a cute little conical inside a standard home refrigerator) to brew their test batches.  While Boe and I chatted, we sampled a Beklgian-style Quadruple that was keg-conditioned with brett; look for it to be released in the fall.

This was pretty much the last stop on our northern beer run.  All the developments made it clear to me that once every five years is much to long to wait between visits to the dynamic beer spots in this part of the state.  I'm going to have to visit much more often in the future.

You are probably wondering when I'm going to be giving you reviews of all the great beers I mentioned drinking above.  Well, that will be covered in Part II of this blog, along with other beer news. 

However, I have gotten one piece of beer news that is just too big to delay: King Street Brewing Company has joined the ranks of the breweries in alaska who are now canning their beers!  Here's the press release from Dana Walukiewicz:

"We canned our Blonde last week and will be canning our Pilsner this week.  About every week we hope to can a different beer so that people get an opportunity to take their favorite King Street brew with them on the go.  Last week we released a few cans to La Bodega and this week Brown Jug will have some too.  We also started selling them out of the tap room last Friday.  Our canning runs are pretty small, like 50-100 cases at a time.  So we don't expect them to hang around for long...but we'll try to keep up!"

Here's a photo of the finished product:

Finally, remember that tickets for the Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival on Saturday, August 10th are now on sale at local breweries here on the Peninsula and at La Bodega in Anchorage.  This year's fest will be even bigger and better than last year's, so don't miss it!

Look for Part II, wth more beer news and the beer reviews from the Fairbanks run early next week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

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