Friday, January 27, 2017

The Search For the Next Big Thing

Lately, I've been giving some thought to what seems to be the growing desire for novelty among a certain segment of craft beer drinkers. In many ways, it seems that the most active craft beer aficionados out there are the ones who are always eagerly looking for the next hot new brewery, the next new beer made with some great experimental hop, exotic ingredient, or wild barrel-aging program. In short, they are always searching for "the next big thing".

First off, it seems to me that this is primarily an American phenomenon. In Europe, the vast majority of beer drinkers don't seem to be driven by this constant urge for the new and different. I've visited cafes in Prague that had a grand total of one beer on offer. Granted, it was the classic Pilsner Urquell, deliciously fresh from the brewery, but how many American pubs could survive serving only one craft beer, no matter how delicious? When I lived in Britain from 1998 to 2001, I frequented many a pub that had only three beers on offer: an ordinary bitter, a best bitter, and a seasonal, all from the same brewery (since they were tied houses). No one seemed to be bothered by being offered the same three beers, day in and day out. Just serve me a well-kept pint of Young's Special, and I'm perfectly happy.

It doesn't get any better than a proper pint of this...

But that's not the American way, it seems. We're always looking for the "new & improved" version. While the macro beers on offer from BudMillerCoors could certainly stand to be improved, the sales of many excellent established craft beers also seem to be suffering these days. Beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale are still fantastic, even if they don't seem as "cutting edge" as the latest hazy IPA, hopped to 100 IBUs with some brand-new hop variety. While I'm still willing to try most any new brew once, lately I've been making a conscious effort to throw some of my limited beer budget toward some "old favorites"; in revisiting beers that I first feel in love with 30 years ago, I feel like I'm reconnecting with what got me interested in craft beer in the first place.

This is still a wonderful beer. When did you last drink it?

While I'm on the subject, let me say a quick word about the new plethora of beer apps, of which Untappd is probably the most popular. I will admit to having it on my phone and using it, but I'm beginning to think that such apps might be detrimental to truly experiencing and enjoying craft beer. If the drinker's focus is on drinking a beer to earn another badge, rather than drinking the beer just to enjoy it, things may be headed in the wrong direction. It reminds me a bit of the "tickers" I saw in Britain. These people strove to taste and "tick off" as many new beers as possible. As hobbies go, I suppose it's no worse than collecting stamps, coins, or butterflies, but it always seemed to me to miss the point of drinking a beer in the first place. These new apps seem to be turning us into a nation of tickers, rather than folks just enjoying beers for their own sake, be they old classics or new creations. So let's put the phones down and just have a beer, shall we?

Stepping down off my soapbox and moving on to some news item, I first have to congratulate Kassik's Brewery on its impressive double gold at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival last weekend. Its 2016 Buffalo Head Barley Wine took First Place in the Barley Wine Competition, while its Statny Statny Barrel Aged Stout took the prize in the Winter Beer Category. Ballast Point's Three Sheets Barley Wine took second, while 49th State Brewing's Outlander Barley Wine took third. So a very impressive showing by Alaska brewers in general and Kassik's in particular. If you weren't at the Festival and would like to sample the winners, there will be an Awards Celebration at Kassik's Brewery in Nikiski tomorrow, Saturday, from 2 to 6 PM. I'd get there early, as there are only 5 gallons of the  Statny Statny Barrel Aged Stout available. Kassik's has also begun releasing its beers in 12 oz. six packs, starting with Morning Wood IPA and Beaver Tail Blonde Ale.

Photo courtesy of Kassik's Brewery
Also in the news was the announcement that Matthew Tomter, the owner of Eagle River Ale House & the Palmer City Ale House, has purchased the former Mat Maid Dairy building from the state to house the Matanuska Brewing Company. Here is the video of the KTVA Channel 11's report on the purchase.

Tomter has ambitious plans. He said: “On day one we’ll be able to produce more beer than anybody, other than Alaskan Brewing Company, is producing right now. Our primary focus with this brewery is going to be 100 percent wholesale. We are going to produce beer, put it in cans and kegs, and send it straight to a distributor.” Currently, the brewery hopes to be open for business in November of this year.

Speaking of opening for business, Girdwood Brewing is expecting to receive its final shipment of brewing equipment soon and expects to be open by the end of March. Initial beers on offer will be IP-AK (the house IPA), Down the Chute (an easy-drinking K├Âlsch), and Hippy Speedball (a coffee stout). 

I stopped in for lunch last week at Kenai River Brewing in Soldotna; the food from its new kitchen continues to be exceptional. I had the French Onion Soup (pictured below) which was perfect for such a cold day, then followed it up with that day's special, a hearty meatloaf sandwich. If you haven't eaten there yet, you are really missing out.

Finally, we are only three weeks away from the Frozen River Fest here in Soldotna, so it's time to start making your plans. In advance of the Fest this year there will be not one but two beer dinners. The Flats Bistro will be again be holding its dinner on Friday night before the Fest; check out my 2/26/2016 blog if you'd like to see just how fantastic last year's dinner was. In addition to The Flats' dinner on Friday, Kenai River Brewing will be hosting a dinner at the brewery on Thursday night. This is something Doug Hogue has wanted to be able to do for several years, so I fully expect it will be exceptional. Here's the poster for the Fest itself; keep an eye on its Facebook page for more details about the dinners.

Click to enlarge

Enough news. Let's do some beer reviews. I have three new brews to offer you this time round.

Cascade Lakes Brewing's Salted Caramel Porter: This brewery is located in Redmond, Oregon. The beer poured dark with ruby highlights and a big, cream-colored head. The aroma was of caramel and roasted malt. Carbonation was good, but I thought it was a bit thin on the palate. The flavor profile was of caramel, coffee, & cocoa; good but falling off rapidly, so that there was little finish. Not a bad beer, but one that needs more "bottom" as the Brits would say. 5.8% ABV, 37 IBUs.

Ninkasi Brewing's Noir Milk Stout: I've always been partial to this style, to the point of always keeping my home-brewed version on hand for my wife to cook with. Ninkasi's version pours dark with semi-translucent ruby highlights and a nice mocha-colored head. The nose is mainly sweet notes from the malt and lactose. The carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light to medium. The flavor profile was a mix of the sweet malt notes and the coffee flavors, in a very smooth blend. Overall, a delicious beer and a worthy take on the style. 7% ABV, 60 IBUs.

Alaskan Brewing's Husky IPA: This is Alaskan's latest seasonal release and its entry into the popular "tropical IPA" field, as it's hopped with the popular Mosaic variety. It poured a clear gold with a nice white head. The aroma had lots of tropical fruit notes from the Mosaic hops. The carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. There was good up-front bitterness, then plenty of hop flavor and aroma. Overall, a nicely balanced, highly drinkable IPA; definitely not a palate-wrecker. 7% ABV, 58 IBUs.

That's about it for this blog. Remember, get out there and try some old favorites; don't always be chasing the next big thing...

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, January 9, 2017

2017: Through a Crystal Ball, Darkly...

Hello, and welcome to 2017 everyone. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Years, but now it's time to buckle down and face the next twelve months. This seems to be the time when folks make lots of predictions for the upcoming year, so I thought I'd take a stab at a few.

First up, the Alaska State Legislature. The circus will be opening in Juneau soon, and there are a couple of alcohol/beer related issues before it. First, look for our tax-hungry governor to try again to cram through his plan to double the tax on alcohol. I don't know how much chance this has this year; last year it didn't go anywhere. That's good when you remember that Alaska already has the second highest alcohol excise taxes in the country, so doubling them is absurd. Many in Juneau will be scrambling to come up with new taxes to feed the insatiable maw of the state government so I wouldn't be surprised to see them try to put lipstick on this pig again.

The other big issue before the legislature which might impact beer is the re-write of the state's alcohol licensing laws. This has been in the works for years, and was introduced last session, but didn't really go anywhere, due to the session spending all its time spinning its wheels over the budget. Will it go anywhere this session? Beats me, but it definitely bears watching. If done right, this could be a real boon to current and future craft breweries in Alaska; if done wrong, it could pretty much keep any new breweries from being able to open in a lot of places. I'm going to do my best to stay on top of this one, and I'll sound the trumpet if we need to mobilize folks to testify for or against.

Moving from the world of beer politics to just beer, we should see several more new breweries open this year. Girdwood Brewing plans to be open for business before the snow goes, and Cooper Landing Brewing hopes to be selling beer this summer. Add to that the perennially "just about to open" Quake Brewing, and you've got three new 2017 breweries already, plus more possible, like Devil's Club Brewing in Juneau. We could easily see another 10% growth in the number of breweries in Alaska this year.

Speaking of new breweries opening, I finally made it to Cynosure Brewing just before Christmas. Owner/Brewer Clarke Pelz is taking a different tack from most other breweries by forgoing the IPA cash cow. Instead, he focusing on Belgian-style ales and classic lagers. When I stopped in on December 23rd, he had six beers on tap, three from each category.

Tap room of Cynosure Brewing

Clarke Pelz of Cynosure Brewing

L to R: Schwarzbier, Hoppy Lager, Dubbel, & Wit

L to R: Oktoberfest & Saison

Tap list at Cynosure on 12/23/2016
I tried samples of all six and found them uniformly excellent. My favorite was the saison, with the schwarzbier a close second. The tap room at Cynosure is nice and comfortable; sofas and padded chairs give it a very relaxed and homey feel, the perfect place to stop for a drink and few minutes of relaxation before braving the horror that is Anchorage rush hour traffic. If you haven't stopped in, make it a point to do so immediately; I regret that it took me three months for my first visit.

Alaska Beer Week starts this Friday, January 13th, and runs through Sunday, January 22nd. In past years, I'd have pointed you toward the events calendar of the AK Beer Week website. However, this year that calendar isn't being done, due to a lack of a sponsor. (If you're looking to sponsor something which will have super visibility with beer lovers in and around Anchorage, I'd suggest looking into this for 2018.) So you're going to have to check with your favorite brewery/restaurant/beer bar to see what they might be doing during AK Beer Week. I'm doing my best to share or post about any events I learn of on my Beer on the Last Frontier Facebook page, so you can also check there to see if you missed anything. I've already seen tons of great events that will be happening next week.

Let's move on to beer reviews. Since it's been over three weeks since my last blog and the holidays are a great time to drink, I've got seven new beer reviews for you.

Anchorage Brewing's Loveand the Death of Damnation IPA: It poured a cloudy hazy orange-gold color, with a nice white head that left good lace. The aroma was full of bright, citrusy American hops. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. The initial bitter attack was good but not overwhelming, followed by lots of American hop flavor and aroma. A fine entry into the popular "hazy" sub-style of IPAs. 6.5% ABV, 60 IBUs.

Black Raven Brewing's Grandfather Raven Imperial Stout: This Washington-based brewery continues to produce highly interesting beers and we seem to be getting more and more of them here in Alaska, which is a good thing. It poured opaque with a huge tan head. The nose had notes of chocolate and coffee, classic RIS elements. Carbonation was excellent, and the mouthfeel was medium. On the palate, it was smooth, with chocolate, dark caramel, and coffee elements blending together into a delicious whole, before falling away to a long, slow finish. An outstanding brew. 9.5% ABV.

Bearpaw River Brewing's Anniversary Ale: I missed the celebration on 12/17, but I was lucky enough to get two bottles of this beer, the first one that Bearpaw River has bottled. One bottle went into my cellar, and the other was opened on New Year's Eve. It poured opaque with a nice mocha-colored head. The aroma was of chocolate and roasted malt. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was medium to heavy. On the palate the classic RIS flavor components of coffee and chocolate were there in abundance, making a very rich melange. The alcohol made it presence known with a slight warmth on the long, lingering finish. And excellent beer to drink now, and one I'm curious to see evolve in the cellar. Congratulations again to Bearpaw River Brewing on its first anniversary; please keep making beers like this one! 10% ABV.

Anchor Brewing's 2016 Christmas Ale: This year's version of "Our Special Ale" from Anchor, the beer poured a deep, semi-translucent ruby with a nice, cream-colored head. The aroma was of malts and spices. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light to medium. The flavor profile was nice, smooth, rich malt notes, with the spices becoming more pronounced on the finish. Another fine entry into this classic old ale/winter warmer series of beers. 6.5% ABV.

Deschutes Brewing's The Abyss Aged in Cognac Barrels (2015): I pulled this beauty out of my cellar on New Year's Day; it had a "best after" date of 12/18/2016. It poured opaque with a tan head. The nose was a pleasing blend of cognac and coffee notes. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was medium to heavy. There were strong notes of chocolate, coffee, molasses, plus well-incorporated cognac notes. The finish was long and warming. This beer demonstrates that aging in used cognac barrels suits big imperial stouts and barley wines very well; I'm disappointed that I was only able to score one bottle. 12% ABV.

Oskar Blues Brewing's Barrel-aged Ten Fiddy Imperial Stout: The holidays are the perfect time for big beers, so let's keep those barrel-aged imperial stouts rolling. This is a bourbon-barrel-aged version of Oskar Blues' classic beer, packaged in a 16 oz. tall boy can. It poured opaque with a big tan head. The aroma had both roasted notes from the stout and bourbon and oak notes from the barrel. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was heavy and chewy. The bourbon came on strong up front, then the chocolate and coffee notes from the stout stepped in. The finish was long, with some alcohol warmth. Excellent job of adding another element to an already classic beer. 12.9% ABV, 98 IBUs.

Boulevard Brewing's & Firestone-Walker Brewing's Collaboration #6: A blend of several beers from each of the two collaborators, the beer poured a deep, semi-translucent ruby color, with a nice, cream-colored head. The nose had notes of tart cherry and bourbon. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was medium to heavy. The flavor profile was rich and complex, with the various beers contributing elements ranging from tart cherries to oak. A very nice and enjoyable brew. 12.5% ABV.

Well, that's about it for this time. Be sure to attend as many Alaska Beer Week events as you can; it's the best time of the year to experience our fantastic local beers.

Until Next Time, Cheers!