By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
Well, here we are in the new year. I hope everyone had a nice holiday break — I know I did. But now it’s time to take down the Christmas tree, go back to work and face the long, dark three months of winter we still have in front of us.
Our winter in Alaska cries out for beers in a style that is big and husky enough to get us through the cold and dark. A style that boasts massive flavor and massive alcohol levels to take the chill out of the bones. A style perfectly suited for sipping next to the fire and looking out the window at the aurora borealis.
Our winter in Alaska cries out for a barley wine.
Barley wines are a style of beer dating back to at least the 17th century in England. As the name implies, they are beers brewed with alcohol content comparable to that of wine, usually in the 8 percent to 12 percent range, though there are even stronger examples. Today, you can find traditional English versions, which tend toward a malty sweetness, or their American cousins, which tend to have a more pronounced hop flavor.
Both versions are massive beers, packed with strong flavors and intended for slow enjoyment, perhaps after dinner with a fine cigar or paired with a strong cheese, like an English Stilton. They are the Cadillac of craft beer styles, in that they are expensive to make, both in the amount of ingredients needed and the time required for fermentation and conditioning.
So now that I’ve piqued your interest enough that you want to try a barley wine, which one should you choose? Well, when in doubt, always buy your beer as close to home as possible. Alaskan Brewing Company has just released their 2009 Barley Wine. First brewed in 2003 and first bottled in 2007, this big brew has received many accolades at barley wine competitions around the country.
Another good choice, if you can find it, is Midnight Sun Brewing’s Arctic Devil Barley Wine, which has won more awards than any other barley wine brewed in Alaska (15 and counting). Even closer to home, Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop has brewed a barley wine for the last three years and recently conducted a minitasting at the brewery of these vintages.
As you can see, Alaska breweries have a well-deserved reputation as producers of great barley wines, and they will be celebrating that reputation at the 15th annual Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage. This year it will be held at the Egan Center on Jan. 15 and 16. The Jan. 15 session is from 5 to 10 p.m., and there are two Jan. 16 sessions, 2 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. In 2009 there were 80-plus breweries in attendance, making this Alaska’s premier beer festival. More information is available at http://auroraproductions.net/beer-barley.html.
If you’ve never been to a big beer festival, what can you expect? Well, your $30 entry fee will get you a program, a souvenir tasting glass, an ID band and 30 tasting tickets. Each ticket entitles you to a 1- to 2-ounce sample pour of a beer from any of the breweries listed. Two ounces may not sound like much, but take it from me, you will probably have tickets left over. There also is music and food, but the beer is that star attraction.
I heartily recommend giving the festival a try, especially if you have never been to a beer festival before. It’s a great chance to sample a tremendous variety of beers, some of which are rarely seen in Alaska. If you can’t make it to Anchorage (or, like me, you never pass up a chance to have a beer), there will a beer tasting taking place right here on the Kenai.
A beer tasting and auction fundraiser benefiting the Soldotna Community Playground, a new community-built playground planned at Soldotna Creek Park, will be held at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $40 in advance or $45 at the door.
All three of our local breweries, Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop, Kenai River Brewing Company and St. Elias Brewing Company, are participating and selling tickets. Besides beer from these breweries, there will be finger foods and beer from local home brewers, including yours truly. So I’d encourage each of you to come to the event, taste some excellent local beers and help support the worthy cause of improving one of our local parks.
Regardless of whether you can make it to either (or both!) of these events, I’d suggest you go out and find yourself an interesting barley wine to try. It’s a great cure for the winter blues.
Until next time, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer and teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, starting in January. Drinking on the Kenai appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Redoubt Reporter.
The following will be available at the beer tasting and auction fundraiser for the Soldotna Community Playground organization on Friday.
- Simcoe-Summit-Sub IPA: An American IPA, hopped and dry-hopped exclusively with Simcoe hops. Took second place in the IPA category at the GNB Big Fish Competition in December. 6.3% ABV
- Liana’s Christmas Coffee Stout: Brewed every year as a Christmas gift for my stout-loving daughter, this Imperial Stout boasts big flavors and plenty of hops. Took third place in the Stout category at GNB Big Fish. 8.4% ABV
- Non-Sufficient Funds Porter: A robust porter, with excellent mouthfeel and loads of chocolate malt flavor. 7.9% ABV
- The Heretic: A Belgian Golden Strong Ale, deceptively strong at 9% ABV, brewed with Saaz hops and extensively cold-conditioned.