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New beergeek.TV Episode – Return to Alaska

Back at the Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival

“Return to Alaska” is the latest episode of One Pint at a Time.

Ever since our first visit to Anchorage three years ago, we’ve talked about returning. Despite all those conversations centering on a summer visit, the lure of Alaska in January to relive our first Year in Beer trip was too strong to resist.

Braving frigid temperatures, we immersed ourselves again in the welcoming Alaskan beer community. We revisited our favorite Anchorage beer spots and also ventured into the frozen tundra for the first time. Thanks to our Alaskan friends for making it another great time!

So enjoy our return to Alaska…

For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.

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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Exploring Beer Beyond Anchorage

On our first visit to Alaska three years ago, we never made it outside of Anchorage. In fact, we barely made it outside of downtown. Wanting to expand our Alaskan experience, we decided to make a day trip outside of Anchorage to visit some breweries.

On the road to Talkeetna

Thursday dawned bright, sunny and clear, ideal weather for our little journey. We picked up a rental car a few blocks from our hotel and we were soon on main highway heading north. I have to admit, the first hour out of  Anchorage was not the prettiest. Certainly not the pristine Alaska we expected. However, once we cleared Wasilla and its environs, the landscape opened into beautiful vistas of frozen tundra, lakes and rivers with majestic-sized mountains in the background.

Our destination in Talkeetna

A little over two hours after leaving Anchorage, we pulled into the tiny town of Talkeetna. Turning left onto Main St, the town was a handful of buildings and two dogs. We later learned that Talkeetna, the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure, was larger with some of the town nestled along the river. We enjoyed our romanticized notion of Alaska. All we needed was a moose or bear walking down the street. Twister Creek Restaurant, home of Denali Brewing, was located on the right past just the two dogs.

Like veteran Alaskans, we scurried from the car into the restaurant. As could be expected, it was pretty quiet with only two tables being occupied. The bartender greeted us warmly. Grabbing our usual seats at the bar, we settled in for some lunch and beers.

The taster set at Denali Brewing

There were nine beers on tap, including the brewpub standard Red Ale, IPA and Stout. All were very nice. However, it was the creative seasonal and specialty brews that made the two hour drive worthwhile. Cleopatra’s Kiss was a 5.7% ABV Belgian-style Pale Ale dry hopped with lavender. It was almost a really tasty beer. My main issue with it was that it’s probably hard to do ‘subtle’ when brewing with that herb. It somewhat overwhelmed its base beer. Hibernale, a  8.6% ABV Belgian-style Trippel was a wonderful example of the style with a spiciness that made both of us smile.

However, for both Merideth and I, the star was Mohini’s Amrita, a 6.2% ABV Brown Ale spiced with curry spices. Even though I don’t like curry, I found the spices to be the perfect accompaniment for the brew. Cinnamon and clove were the dominant flavors that we picked up.

We really enjoyed our time in Talkeetna. The staff was very friendly and we were even treated to some local color. Sunset was a few short hours away, though, and I wanted to get back to Anchorage before dark.

On the way back to Anchorage, we stopped in Wasilla for my big moment, brewery number 600. Last Frontier Brewing was located in a small strip mall along the main highway that goes through town. With their pub still a few weeks from opening, there was no signage indicating where we needed to go. Leaving the car in a howling frigid wind, we wandered around the building trying to find a brewery. Merideth finally spotted some fermenters through a window and we slipped into the nearest door.

Ray Hodge, Last Frontier brewer and a legend in the Alaskan beer community took a few minutes out of his day to let us sample the beers that will be poured next door. We began with two beers that should go over well during the long Alaskan summer days, a really nice Helles and a fruity American-style Wheat. Four more solid beers followed, a Schwarzbier, an English-style IPA, a Scotch Ale and finally a nice dry Stout. Knowing that Ray had work do, we thanked him for his time and climbed back into our rental car.

Freezing in front of brewery #600

My celebration in reaching 600 breweries was very subdued. We didn’t do any filming and only took one picture. We wanted to reach 600 breweries together on our European trip. That didn’t pan out. We hoped that we would both reach 600 on the Alaskan trip. But it was becoming clear that we wouldn’t find that third brewery that Merideth needed. I was disappointed about that and didn’t feel like celebrating such an important milestone without her celebrating, too.

Well worth the small struggle to find it

We had one more stop before we got back downtown. Since we arrived in Alaska, we’d heard from our friends that we had to check out the new Midnight Sun brewery. The brewery’s first location was pretty memorable. Great beer, frigid temperatures (inside) and a taxidermist for a neighbor made for a brewery visit that we talked about for months. What could top that?

I think someone familiar with the city would have no trouble finding their new location in a snowy South Anchorage industrial park. But in the darkening Alaskan afternoon, we struggled to follow my phone directions a couple times. Luckily, before we had a chance to get snippy with each other, we found it.

The view from Midnight Sun's loft (complete with a UFO)

Walking in the main entrance, there was a bar right in front of us. But signs directed us up to the “Loft,” accessed via a stair case to our right. We reached the top of the stairs and immediately understood one reason we HAD to visit. The whole side of the the “Loft” was a panorama window of the nearby mountain range. For a Thursday afternoon, it was somewhat busy, but in the large space, there were plenty of available tables. We situated ourselves at one in the back with a view of all the action.

Enjoying a glass of Pride

We’ve had many of the Midnight Sun brews, especially now that they distribute in the San Francisco Bay Area. But I was very happy to see Pride, a 6.5% bretted Belgian-style Pale Ale. Part of Midnight Sun’s ‘seven deadly sins’ series, Pride was one of the beers I tried three years ago that made me fall in love with the Anchorage beer scene. The new brew I got to try was Mayhem, a 100 IBU, 8.2% ABV Belgian-style Double IPA. I liked this monster so much I bought two bottles to bring home. Merideth went with her Midnight Sun standards, Kodiak Nut Brown Ale and Panty Peeler, a Belgian-style Trippel.

After a somewhat long day on the road, it was nice to finally relax at Midnight Sun sipping our beers and enjoying some snacks. We talked about our day outside of Anchorage. We decided we definitely needed to return in the future (read summer time) to further explore this amazing beer state.

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Back in Alaska

Ever since our first visit to Anchorage three years ago during the inaugural month of the Year in Beer, we vowed we would make it back someday. Our first visit kicked off our most ambitious beer travel project ever and Anchorage turned out to be the perfect place to do it. The beer scene was so welcoming and friendly for two people unsure of what lay ahead in the upcoming year. We made some great friendships, which left us feeling sentimental about the city.

It was a pretty easy trip to the chilly far north on Wednesday, despite the bumpy landing. The only worry was whether my checked bag would appear in Anchorage. I was wearing shorts and if my bag didn’t arrive, it was going to be one cold trip. Merideth’s bag came out pretty quickly and I fretted as I watched bag after bag pop down onto the conveyor. I finally saw the familiar shape and color of my bag and with a sigh of relief, we were off.

We needed a beer after a long day of travel

First stop wasn’t our hotel, but Cafe Amsterdam, a beer bar owned by our friend Ken Pajak. Late afternoon, it was already dark when our taxi turned into the strip mall where it’s located. Stopping at the entrance, we quickly piled out of the van and into the warmth of Cafe Amsterdam. We stacked our luggage in the corner and sat down to contemplate a much needed beer.

While Merideth began with Silver Gulch’s Coldfoot Pilsner, first up for me was Midnight Sun Sockeye Red IPA. On the go since early morning, it was quite relaxing to be sitting on a bar stool in our favorite Anchorage beer bar drinking great Alaskan beer.

After several rounds, catching up with Ken, and some yummy Rösti, we decided we should move on. I was still in shorts and we still needed to get downtown. Luckily, Gabe Fletcher, formerly of Midnight Sun, now with his own Anchorage Brewing Company, was hanging out at Cafe Amsterdam as well. He needed to go downtown and offered to give us a ride and also show us around his new venture.

Merideth amongst the barrels at Anchorage Brewing Company

I hoped to visit Anchorage Brewing Company on the trip because it was the third brewery that Merideth needed to reach 600. But as we talked to Gabe, we realized that Anchorage Brewing doesn’t fit our criteria to be on The List. Located below Sleeping Lady Brewery, Gabe brews on their kit then pipes the beer down to his barrel room for aging. At this point, we have decided this type of cooperative brewing arrangement doesn’t count for our List. Admittedly, this may become a problem for The List because it is an arrangement that is becoming more and more common.

List criteria aside, though, the barrel room was quite impressive. Stacked three high and in neat rows, a hundred or so barrels sat in the basement space working their magic on the beery contents. Most impressive was that all the beer in the barrels was already sold. We look forward to trying some of the brews in the near future.

Apricot XXX, a delicious triple with apricots

We eventually managed to check into our hotel. I put on some pants and we  headed out in the frigid evening for a quiet evening in town. Our beer destination of choice in downtown Anchorage is Glacier Brewhouse. Walking into the bustling brewpub, it was just how I remembered it, even down to the wood smoke from the fireplace. We also recognized JT, the bartender who first told us about Alaskan living.

We located a couple of seats on the back glass wall overlooking the brewery. Like my first visit three years ago, I started with their cask offering, this time the IPA. Merideth began with their Export Lager. After a Double IPA,  I ordered the first candidate for beer of the trip, Apricot XXX. A 10%ABV “Holiday Triple”, Apricot XXX was a beer that both Merideth and I said ‘wow.’ Sweet with a  healthy apricot kick, the smoothness approached dangerous levels.

It was turning out to be the quiet evening we envisioned. We chatted with people around us while sipping our excellent beers and munching on some appetizers.

The downfall...

But then, I looked at the menu too closely and saw it was the Brewhouse Big Wood Fest. That meant we could order a sampler of five ‘giants’ from their cellar. All between 9% and 10% ABV, there were three years of their award-winning Big Woody Barleywine plus an Imperial Stout and a Eisbock. Of the five, Merideth liked the Imperial Stout aged 30 months in a Czech virgin oak barrel. I gravitated towards the 2009 Big Woody aged 18 months in American oak. It was the smoothest of the five.

The problem arose when our waiter told us that he thought it was terrible when people didn’t completely finish such rare and special samplers. We took this not as a challenge, but rather more as a sacred duty to finish all five. Unfortunately, after Merideth had her baby sips, the ‘sacred duty’ then fell to me. I finished all five but would feel it the next morning.

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