Saturday, January 9, 2016

Alaska Beer Week Comes...

We are well into January, so that means it's time to start talking about Alaska Beer Week. Taking place during the week before the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival, this celebration has grown rapidly over the last few years, to the point now that I could easily spend this entire blog just recapitulating all the different events taking place.

Rather than do that ('cause it's kind of boring just to copy thing over), I'm going to refer you to the Alaska Beer Week webpage, where there is an excellent event calendar.  By my latest count, there are over 50 different event entries on it, so its the best option out there to plan your week.  However, I do want to highlight a few of the events.

AK Beer Week Kick-Off Party
Location: Williwaw Social, 609 F Street
Date & Time: 7 PM, Thursday, 14 Jan.
Description: For the first 200 guests, $25 ticket gets you an AKBW goblet, two 8-oz beer other goodies. (After 200, it is everything but the AKBW come early!)

Beer Dinner at Pete's Sushi Spot
Location: Pete's Sushi Spot, 3020 Minnesota Dr.
Date & Time: 6 PM, Sunday, 17 Jan
Description:Enjoy 5 courses of incredible Asian Fusion cuisine paired with Midnight Sun beers at Peter's Sushi Spot. This will be a fresh new option for AK Beer Week Geeks -- sushi and craft beer pairings! 5 courses. $65 per person.

Samuel Smith Tribute
Location: Williwaw Social, 609 F Street
Date & Time: 6 to 9 PM, Tuesday, 19 Jan.

Click to enlarge
Beer Dinner at Humpy's/Sub Zero
Location: Sub Zero Lounge, 612 F Street
Date & Time, 6 PM, Wednesday, 20 Jan
Description: The mother of all AK beer dinners: Humpy's presents its annual beer dinner during AK Beer Week 2016. Details on this beer are coming but KNOW that you will be amazed by the quality and quantity of the courses and pairings presented. Humpy's owner, Billy Opinski, is a very generous host and brings out treats from his infamous cellar along the way. $100 per person. I've attended this one myself several times, and it is always superb.

I'll Have Another Release Party
Location: Cafe Amsterdam, 530 E. Benson
Date & Time: 3 PM, Thursday, 21 Jan

As I said, the events listed above are just a sampling of the fifty plus events taking place during AK Beer Week. Check your schedule and your wallet, and choose wisely!

Before AK Beer Week kicks off, there are some other beer things happening. Tomorrow, Sunday, January 10th, is A Deal With the Devil Day at Anchorage Brewing Company. Besides selling bottles of the limited release of A Deal With the Devil Barley Wine ($50 per bottle, 1/customer, 200 bottles total) there will be live music and food at the brewery, as well as some very cool beers on tap.
Here's the list:
  • 2013 A Deal with the Devil
  • 2014 A Deal with the Devil
  • Mosaic Saison 
  • Bitter Monk Belgian DIPA
  • Maderarina IPA 
  • Debbies Delight Sour Wheat 
  • Darkest Hour Imperial Stout 
  • Anadromous Black Sour 
  • Grassroots Arctic SoirĂ©e 
  • Czech Pilsner

 The brewery opens at noon, so get there early if you hope to score a bottle.

Photo courtesy of Anchorage Brewing Company

King Street Brewing re-released its Coconut Chocolate Porter last Wednesday. This beer was originally released in February of 2013, under the name La Dolce Vita. It's a robust porter, infused with both organic coconut and organic cacao nibs.

Brown Jug is running a contest to give away two tickets to the Saturday afternoon session of this year's Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.  You can enter here.

Click to enlarge
Bleeding Heart Brewery in Palmer has received its federal license to brew. Owners Zack Lanphier and Stefan Marty are now working to jump through all the state and local hoops required to get a license to operate. Hopefully, they will be able to open the doors before summer.

Alaskan Brewing Company has released a new seasonal IPA, which they are calling Hop Turn. It's an attempt to brew an IPA using German malts and hops. It's brewed with Pilsner, Munich, and Vienna malts and Magnum and Sterling hops.

Photo courtesy of Alaskan Brewing
At Kenai River Brewing Company, the Spruce Tip Ale is back on tap.

Photo courtesy of Kenai River

That's it for news, so let's move to beer reviews. I've only got three for this blog.

King Street Brewing's Imperial Pilsner: It poured a clear, slightly reddish-gold color with a nice cream-colored head. The aroma had some biscuity malt notes, as well as noble hops.  Carbonation was good and the beer was nice on the palate. The flavor profile let you know it was a big beer, with plenty of biscuity malt notes. Very much in the style of a German pils, just amped up to 8% ABV. 36 IBUs.

Kenai River Brewing's American Sunken Island IPA: File this one under happy accidents: While brewing a batch of its British-inspired Sunken Island IPA, the brewers at KRBC inadvertently pitched an American yeast. The resulting beer was released as a one-off, but has proved so popular, I wouldn't be surprised to see it make the occasional return engagement. The beer poured a deep, clear ruby color, with a nice, persistent off-white head that left good lacing on the glass. The nose had plenty of good floral notes from the hops. The mouthfeel was light, as the American yeast produced a significantly drier beer, and carbonation was good. The flavor profile is similar to the standard Sunken Island, but much drier, which makes the hop flavors even more pronounced. A great change of pace. 7.9% ABV, 68 IBUs.

St. Elias Brewing's Small Town Brown Ale: While I continue to fail at trying to convince Zach Henry to brew another batch of his Marathon Mild Ale, this session beer isn't that far from one. It poured a semi-translucent reddish-brown with a nice tan head. The aroma promised some hops, but also some balance from malt. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. On the palate, there was a nice balance between the malt and the hops, which greatly enhances the beer's drinkability. At only 4.3 % ABV, this beer is an excellent choice if you are looking to drink more than one.

That's it for this week. Be sure to make your reservations/buy your tickets for the AK Beer Week events ASAP; the best ones will definitely sell out rapidly.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

So Long 2015, Hello 2016: A Retrospective and a Look Ahead

Hello, and Happy New Year to you all. I thought I'd take the opportunity, here at the end of one year and the start of another, to depart a bit from my standard format of news and beer reviews for a few meditations on the current state of play in Alaska's craft beer scene, as well as some thoughts on the coming year.

Looking back at 2015, you'd have to say that by any objective measure, it was a great year for craft brewing in Alaska. We had a total of five new breweries open: Resolution Brewing, Odd Man Rush Brewing, Icy Strait Brewing, Gakona Brewing, and Bearpaw River Brewing. That's a huge number, something like a 20% increase in the number of breweries in the state. We also saw some well-established breweries move into new, custom-built locations. Gabe Fletcher moved out of Gary Klopfer's basement into Anchorage Brewing's gorgeous new brewery. Paul Wheeler of Haines Brewing departed his tiny Dalton City location for an improved and expanded new home on Haines' Main Street, one with an actual tap room. Doug Hogue of Kenai River Brewing started construction on a new brewery in Soldotna, which will be much larger than the place he's currently leasing, have an outdoor patio, and is easily visible from the Sterling Highway. Other breweries, like Alaskan and Denali, completed expansions at their current sites. Total beer production is up statewide.

Taken at Denali BC back in September. This new packaging hall is complete now.

2015 wasn't just a good year for production, however. Numerous beers produced on the Last Frontier won national and international awards, including a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver (49 State Brewing's Smoked Marzen). A new annual beer festival, the Frozen River Fest, held outdoors in February at Soldotna Creek Park, began. Beer tourism in Alaska continued to grow, both via locally-based Big Swig Tours and out-of-state companies. The Brewers Guild of Alaska took a huge leap forward by hiring its first paid employee, Executive Director Ryan Makinster. Some politicians like US Senator Lisa Murkowski have even taken notice of the industry's growth and started making some efforts to support it. Even I got into the act, with the first professionally published history of brewing in Alaska, Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Anyway you slice it, 2015 was a great year for craft beer in Alaska, and 2016 shows tremendous promise as well.

Shameless plug of my book

Still, everything isn't necessary beer and skittles for the beer business in Alaska. At the very end of 2015, the news that Denali Visions 3000, the corporate owner of 49th State Brewing, was purchasing the Snow Goose/Sleeping Lady in Anchorage surprised many. In many ways, it can be viewed as a positive development. Sleeping Lady clearly has plenty of excess brewing capacity and floor space (as demonstrated by its ability to serve for several years as the home for Anchorage Brewing Company). 49th State Brewing clearly needed more production and packaging capacity, and locating it in Anchorage, rather than in remote Healy was clearly a smart move, so this deal is the sort of "win-win" that they always teach you to look for in business school. However, it does raise implications for some other long-established breweries in Alaska.

Gone but not forgotten...

Gary Klopfer has stated that he was ready to take a step back from operating his brewery, and had hoped to pass it along to his daughter, but she was not interested, so he had to look elsewhere. This issue of succession planning continues to loom large for long-established craft breweries across the country. In Alaska, the obvious brewery to wonder about is the granddaddy of them all, Alaskan Brewing Company. Alaskan will celebrate its 30th Anniversary in 2016. How much longer will Geoff and Marcy Larson want to handle the daily grind and how will they extricate themselves? I'm sure this is something they are already working on; the rest of us will just have to wait to see what they come up with. We can only hope that whatever they decide, it will preserve the distinctive character of the brewery (and hopefully not involve a certain Brazilian-Belgian corporation which shall not be named). While further down the road, the same question will come up for all the long-established breweries in our state.

Geoff and Marcy Larson

Besides succession questions, the other big issue on the horizon for 2016 is the Legislature's proposed rewrite of Title IV, the section of our state laws which governs alcohol sales, distribution, and production. The current SB 99 that is before the legislature would represent a truly significant change in the licensing structure for the state. A good bill could unleash even more entrepreneurial activity, while a bad one could stifle any further growth in the craft beer business in Alaska. Indeed, many of the recent spate of opening could be interpreted as folks wanting to get their breweries and brewpubs open before any changes are enacted, in order to ensure that they will be grandfathered in, and so avoid being permanently excluded. How will this all play out? I have no idea, but when you're dealing with the Alaska Legislature, it pays to remember the words of the immortal Mark Twain: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."

What are they going to do this session? Who knows...

Still, all is not gloom and doom for the coming year. At a minimum, three more new breweries should open before the start of the summer tourist season: Quake Brewing in Eagle River, Grace Ridge Brewing in Homer, and Cynosure Brewing in Anchorage. Kenai River Brewing's new location should also be open by May. There is serious talk of a brewery in Girdwood, and likely other locations I haven't heard about. Frankly, I've been scratching my head for years, wondering why no one has opened a brewpub in Fairbanks or Juneau; if Seward can support one (albeit seasonally), I can't understand why these much larger towns couldn't. Perhaps 2016 will be the year someone takes the plunge. Best of all, regardless of what new breweries come along, I see no reason we shouldn't be able to look forward to enjoying a plethora of great beers from our existing breweries, even if we have to pay more for them, thanks to Governor Walker's new taxes.

Photo courtesy of Cynosure Brewing

So may we all have a prosperous and happy new year, one filled with lots of friendship and excellent, locally-brewed beer. I hope you have enjoyed this departure from my usual blogging style; it's something I may do again from time to time. However, next week I'll be back with news and reviews, as beer-lovers across the state begin ramping up for Alaska Beer Week and the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.

Until Next Time, Cheers!