A Real Alaska Experience

The thinking behind going to the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival during 2008’s Year in Beer was to show how committed we were to our ambitious beer travel project. If we were crazy enough to visit Alaska in mid-winter, we were crazy enough to see the whole year through. But the weather really didn’t cooperate with what we envisioned Alaska in winter was like. The temperatures were pretty moderate, though, and it even rained on our final day. We left Anchorage somewhat disappointed that we didn’t get to experience the ‘real’ Alaska. Careful what you wish for.

It’s hard to get going when the sun rises at 10am. But there was no rush. We had all Friday to kill before the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival started at 5pm. Having missed breakfast, we decided to start the day at Glacier Brewhouse. Checking the temperature before we departed our hotel, it was -2ºF, -14ºF with the wind chill. Walking to the brewpub, it felt like we were walking through post-apocalypse Anchorage because the streets were deserted.

The blue plate special: Rock Cod and a cask IPA (sold separately)

Sufficiently chilled by the 15 minute walk from our hotel, we were happy to find the warmth of Glacier Brewhouse. Already bustling with an early lunch crowd, we took our preferred seats at one of  the high tables in the bar area.

I guess we like Glacier (a lot) because for the second straight trip, we visited Anchorage’s best brewpub every day of the trip. And it’s not only for the great beer. The food, especially their fish dishes, are always excellent. I started my day with their ‘blue plate special’ a tasty piece of rock cod on a bed of mashed potatoes topped with some mango salsa. I accompanied my late breakfast /early lunch with the wonderful IPA on cask. Merideth went with the Pulled Pork Sandwich and a Hefeweizen.

After lunch and  a few rounds at Glacier, we still had several hours before the festival started. We hadn’t been to Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse yet so now seemed like an opportune time. Opening in 1994, Humpy’s was a pioneer in the Alaskan beer scene.  A short block and a half walk from Glacier, Humpy’s is the place downtown to drink the widest range of Alaskan beer, besides the festival.

As we hoped and somewhat expected, a group of our Alaskan friends were already manning one of the large tables at Humpy’s. We joined them for some pre-festival conversation and beers. I started with Moose’s Tooth Fairweather IPA but quickly moved on to Denali Brewing  Chuli Stout, a beer I really enjoyed the previous day at the brewery. Merideth returned to her Alaskan standby, Midnight Sun Kodiak Brown.

In line for the beer festival

The Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival is held at the Egan Convention Center, just around the corner from Humpy’s. The Friday night session was about to start but we didn’t want to leave the warmth of the pub too early. Being wimpy Californians, it was too cold for us to be exposed to the elements for a prolonged period.

With a quarter an hour until the festival started, we decided we could wait no longer. Bundling up, we walked over to the Convention Center. Somewhat surprised and much to our relief, the line was pretty short. A few minutes before 5pm, the doors opened and the chilled beer drinkers, including us, crowded into the lobby.

Early in the Friday session

After acquiring our festival glass. more tokens than we could possibly use and a program, we followed the rest of the early crowd into the ground level hall. From our previous time at the festival, we knew exactly where we needed to be. Merideth and I took a left and walked to the far wall. This was where all the Alaska breweries were located.

We met the strangest people in Alaska

While Merideth headed for one of her favorite Alaska breweries, Silver Gulch, to get a Cold Foot Pilsner, I played a little more hard to get. As I am apt to do, I wandered around until a beer caught my eye. That beer was Morning Wood IPA from Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop. Not just a funny name, Morning Wood was an excellent hoppy brew.

Joined a half hour into the session by some Fairbanks friends who formerly lived on the Monterey Peninsula, we settled in for an evening of sampling Alaskan beer.

Some of the other brews of note we tried at that first session were:

  • DMMDIIPA (Devil Made Me Do It India Pale Ale) – Haines Brewing Co.
  • Broken Birch Best Bitter Ale – Homer Brewing Co.
  • Breakfast Beer (Oatmeal Milk Stout) – Kenai River Brewing Co.
  • Plowshare (wood-aged Belgian Pale Ale) – St. Elias Brewing Co
  • Gingerly – Celestial Meads
Getting crowded on a Friday night

Our one observation about the Friday night session was that it was much busier than we remembered. About 7pm, the Alaska section was wall-to-wall people. It was still quick to get a beer, but it was the typical beer festival problem of people not moving away from the table after getting served. We finally moved our base of operations to the next section over, dashing back over to the Alaskan beer aisle when we wanted another beer.

A post festival party at Cafe Amsterdam caused another late start on Saturday morning. There were two GABBF sessions on Saturday but we were only attending the afternoon “Connoisseur’s” affair which started at 2pm. This meant we had three less hours to kill than Friday.

If Friday was cold, we learned what REALLY cold was on our walk down the Humpy’s for breakfast. The wind chill was 18 below and I never felt so cold in my life. Merideth had forgotten to blow dry her hair and it was frozen solid after 15 minutes outside.

A beer geek's breakfast

Somewhat surprising, Humpy’s was pretty quiet late morning on Saturday. There was a fair-sized crowd, mostly watching the NFL playoff game. I guess I expected there to be a a large pre-festival crowd getting their game on. Just in case a large group of our friends showed up, we sat at the same big table we occupied the previous day. One friend did eventually join us.

Breakfast was somewhat a dilemma. I really wanted Merideth to get the “Kodiak Arrest” (as seen on Douche v. Food) but it was $125 and a bit too much food for her. I couldn’t really be a help because there was a lot of crab and I don’t like crab. She settled for a simple omelette. I passed on the Reindeer Sausage Frittata and chose a good base meal for another day of beer drinking, the Hangover Skillet, a yummy potato, egg and ham dish. Again, I ordered a pint of Denali Brewing  Chuli Stout.

The line for the Connoisseur session

We weren’t so lucky with beer festival line on Saturday afternoon. Arriving around the same time before the session as the previous evening, we discovered a long line winding around the block. We walked the length of the line hoping to see someone we knew to join them. Not seeing anyone, we queued up at the end of the line. I don’t think Merideth and I have felt that cold is all our lives. If there was a silver lining to all of this, we learned that we weren’t wimpy Californians. The Alaskan’s appeared to be in as much shock as Merideth and me. Much to the delight of all those queued, once the doors opened, the line moved really fast.

Why is this man smiling?

The Saturday Connoisseur session was much more relaxed than the previous night. Since we had tried many of the beers already there wasn’t the rushed  feeling that we needed to try this and try that. But it was the “Connoisseur’s” session which meant that there were some special beers to try.

First up for me was Midnight Sun Whatever, part of their 2010 Pop Ten Series. It was a nicely soured wheat beer though the sourness seemed to come from brett as opposed to lactic fermentation. Merideth started with and enjoyed Pumpkin Up the Volume, a Pumpkin ale from Moose’s Tooth. It was an eclectic mix of special beers that Merideth and I sampled:

  • Celestial Ale – Homer Brewing Co. – A Belgian Spiced Ale
  • Smokin’ Willie 2009 – Moose’s Tooth Brewing Co. –  A Smoked Porter
  • Peat Smoke – Skagway Brewing Co. – A Wee Heavy
  • Island Trails Spruce Tip Wheat Wine – Kodiak Island Brewing Co.
Second place in the barley wine competition went to St Elias

The pleasant surprise of the festival was our introduction to St. Elias Brewing Co. Though they started up in business in 2007, St. Elias did not pour beer at the 2008 festival that we attended. I tried four or five of their wonderful brews including Farmer’s Friend Rye beer, Jabberwocky ESB and Williwaw IPA. Their brewing efforts would be rewarded with second place in the Barley Wine competition.

One last beer at Glacier

We finished up our second trip to Alaska just as we finished our first; at Glacier Brewhouse. I have to admit, this trip was much more trying with actual Alaskan winter weather. I guess we now know what cold really means. But Merideth and I would leave the 49th state a second time feeling that again we visited some place really special. The beer was excellent and the people friendly as ever. We look forward to our next trip to Alaska to see our friends and further explore it’s beer culture… in the summer.

Thanks to Ken, Jim, Tracey, Don, Lisa, Dennis, Joe, Amber, Mitch, & Melissa for being part of a great trip

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